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.
Copyright 2011 DarcKnyt, all rights reserved