Getting Started


I’ve long been an advocate of planning a novel rather than pants-seat writing one. The reason is simple: It’s too easy to get off course and wander into unnecessary and even ridiculous things when one sits down and starts typing. It’s also pretty easy to put things in the wrong places and to miss important things which have to go into a strong story. There’s no “muddle in the middle” when you put everything where it should go.

When I wrote my first full novel back in the early, early 1990s, I had no plan. I knew what I wanted the book to be about, sort of, but I didn’t know much else. I had no clue how to craft a story, how to structure one, what needed to happen when, and I lacked a lot of basic skills to make a workable, publishable novel. I tried to infuse my love of horror with my faith and found it very difficult. I had a bad idea about how things worked in my faith and that translated into a really, really stupid novel. It turned out I knew more about the antagonist than the protagonistic forces in the book, and those lacks came shining through.

Thankfully, I’ve lost that book to bad media, poor circumstances and time. But in 2004, I set out to write another one. Again, I sat at a keyboard and decided I’d write a book. I had no idea what the story would be about, really, but I wanted it to mirror some of the stuff my loving wife and I’d been through during 2003 and 2004. Trouble is, that didn’t come through very well and the book took a sharp turn right in the middle. A new antagonistic force — a term I didn’t even know then — and a change in what the book was about left me with a really bad outing again. And a huge doorstop at more than 140K words, too. (How I came up with that number is a weird story in itself. Remind me to tell it to you someday. But not today.)

So around August 2007, I had an idea. I knew from my past failures dialog was one of my weaknesses. My dialog sounded forced, formal, and lifeless. It had no vibrancy or vitality. (The rest of my prose sucked too, but I didn’t know that at the time.) The idea I had involved a writing exercise to develop my dialog skills. Could I, without too many speaker tags, write a piece in which the voices of the characters themselves would distinguish the speakers?

That idea became the third novel I’d ever written. It’s the one I’m currently considering for either a major rework, or a rewrite. And I can’t seem to get started with it.

Between the first one I wrote and this one, I’d tried dozens of times. I tried outlining. I outlined to death. But I never got past the outlining stage. When this one came out, I hadn’t done any planning at all, and certainly no outlining. I didn’t let myself as it went along, either. Toward the end — the last six or seven chapters, maybe — I allowed myself to provide bullet points as to what I wanted to cover, but I didn’t do much else.

The reason I didn’t do with this thing when I wrote it the first time, in 2007, is because it wasn’t supposed to be a book; it was conceived as an exercise of roughly 1K-1200 words per installment, with three installments to introduce a situation and characters. I kept going because my wife really liked it, and before I knew it I’d ground out another pants-seat written work, this one weighing in at about 94K words. I decided, after much encouragement and positive feedback, to try it again. Only this time, I determined, I’d plan, I’d outline, I’d bullet-point myself right down a story path, and doggone it, this one would be even BETTER.

I got stuck about a third of the way through the book. It languishes still.

Now, when I learned about story structure sometime in 2009, I almost fell out of my chair. This was the answer for me! It was a combination of pants-seat writing AND planning! I didn’t have to outline! I didn’t have to bullet-point! All I had to do was have a map, a guide to show me the way, and I’d be able to pants-seat write between the lines from one milestone to the next. What could be better than that?!

Probably nothing, really. But I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to salvage this as it is or start all over. Probably, as I write this, the best idea is to start over and salvage pieces from the first try. Why try to catch lightning in a bottle twice? But once that decision is made, how will I proceed? Will the planning of the book consume me until I don’t do anything more? Or will it do what it’s done almost every OTHER time I’ve tried this and stifle the writing to the point where nothing is done?

And that’s where I’m sitting right now. I have nothing positive to say about writing by the seat of one’s pants except that those who do so (me among them) have a tendency to put fingers to keys and begin pounding. In the end, that is how books are made. Planning never accomplished much; execution of plans, however, accomplish all.

I’ve never advocated doing something a particular way because someone else has. I don’t buy into the “mimic millionaires to become a millionaire” mentality, at all. Copying someone can be a fine way to learn something, no two ways about it. But I’d rather see someone produce results than blindly do things because a hero of theirs did it so. I love Stephen King’s books (most of them anyway), but I can’t write the way he does. I can’t. I’m not King. I can’t write the way anyone else does, but I have a way I write which I need to work through and get results.

Except, I don’t.

When I did it by pantsing, I got things done. When I try to plan it, I get stuck or never get started.

Now, I’ve got this system. I know it well enough to teach it to other people. I know it well enough to figure out how I’m supposed to execute it. I know it well enough to be able to preach it. But I can’t make myself sit down and practice what I preach. How embarrassing!

One thing about pants-seat writing is, you have to start typing. Those who do it this way may only have one scene, or one line of a scene, in their heads, but they sit down and they write. And I’m at the point now where I don’t feel I’m qualified to call myself anything other than a procrastinator.

(By the way, if you’re curious, I even wrote my non-fiction books by pantsing. I just sat down without anything other than a table of contents and a vague idea what I had to do, and started writing.)

Geniuses like Bradbury and King and many, many others sit down to write and don’t stop until they’re finished. King says he “unearths” a story the way an archeologist unearths an artifact. But I know for me, sitting down and writing that way won’t work. It hasn’t happened yet; there is always drift and uselessness and so much detritus strewn about the story that, when I cut it to the bone, there’s not enough of a skeleton to salvage the work. Months of writing, for nothing. So I’m caught between not being able to move, and not being able to stay on track.

Unfortunately, writing this down didn’t help as much as I hoped it would. Still, I need some sort of way to stay on track, and I’m not interested in drafting and redrafting repeatedly to get the book done. And I can’t work in the online serial method I used in 2007, either. That leaves a lot of problems to clean up later, and let’s face it, the one thing I don’t need right now is more work.

So, what’s a concrete absolutist like me to do?

Sound off if you have an idea.

-JDT-

Copyright 2011 DarcKnyt, all rights reserved

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4 thoughts on “Getting Started

  1. Fortunately, I’ve maintained a copy of your first novel after all these years.

    Yes folks, I have a photocopy of a manuscript of DarcKnyt’s first novel, Zombie Lust at Sea. A riveting tale of a busty woman who finds love and lust amongst zombie pirates. It’s a great bodice ripper.

    Nice! I’ma write that now! Sex sells, and ZOMBIE sex sells to weirdos with nothing better to do with their money ’cause they can’t get dates and don’t go out. Awesome idea!

  2. *shrug* Sorry Darc, I have absolutely no guidance for you on this one. I haven’t even tried my hand at a short story in at least 15 years. I hope you find your solution soon!

    Thanks, Spark. I think the solution came in the form of a new software set I love. πŸ™‚

  3. Write a basic outline, pick the coolest sounding scene you have in mind, then writeordie.com.

    Do as I say, not as I do…

    Ha! When’s your new chapter coming again? πŸ˜‰ You’re a lot farther down the road than I am. I can take lessons from a guy like that.

  4. English teachers always make it sound so seriously structured. Sometimes the best things come from thin air.

    Best of luck in your writing though, I look forward to another read πŸ™‚

    Let me know if you’d like more, sweets. I forgot to add you to the chapter two distribution I think. I’ve got three ready and four is nearly there.

    Staying on track with something is difficult with all things. Saying “I am going to take my pills/exercise for an hour/do yoga/go for a walk or jog/cook at home/floss my teeth every day” is easy to say. Committing to doing it is a whole other beast. Perhaps making it become a routine would help? Devoting 30 minutes to an hour each night just to writing? Do it on your lunch even, or get a recorder, and make notes on your drive to/from work, and maybe dedicate a night or two or three a week to something such as Wednesday Write Nights to review your audio notes, and work from there?

    That’s actually a really, really good idea. I need to be more diligent and dedicated, that’s for sure. So here’s hoping my job backs way off and I can actually get stuff done from home.

    Ask around at work to see if anyone else is interested in writing, and perhaps one day a week at lunch, you guys could sit down and write together, each working on your own projects, but there for one another if you need a sounding board?

    Hm. There is one person but she and I don’t have the same lunch time. Interesting thought though.

    Or find a writer buddy you could schedule a date night with, so to speak. Like Weight Watchers, once a week, you meet up for a “weigh in” on how you’ve been doing, and check each others progress. You don’t need to read each others work, but at least touch base with “this is what I worked on this week, and these are my goals for next week”, and you guys can help keep one another on track.

    Weight Watchers, LOL! Awesome. I might post something at the library to see if there are any takers next month. I don’t know though. I have a hard time getting myself motivated (especially in the cold, harsh winter) to leave my family after being apart from them all day, every day. But the accountability thing sounds really great.

    Or bribe the kids to keep you on track with obsessive banter. I’m sure that could be a game they could figure out *themselves* to pester you until you go dedicate some time to writing and moving your stories forward. Or it could be a family write night, once a week, the whole family sits down and writes, for a half hour or something, and then you guys can talk/share what you worked one.

    My kids would love to be part of it like that. πŸ™‚

    I don’t know. Rambling.

    But good rambling. πŸ™‚

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