Pantser Problems

I'm more of a pantser than a plotter (thanks, Authoress), meaning I write as I go -- no multi-page outlines setting forth the entire novel where I just have to connect the dots. Outlines are like those friends with whom I love to hang out, but if they don't shoot me an eMail asking me to have lunch, it'll be three years before I see them again.

For each story concept, the big picture is up in my noggin, floating between my ears. If you were to look at my outline at any given time, you'd find perhaps the next three to six chapters laid out, each with only four or five bullet points describing what I expect to happen. Because I'm a pantser, not all those points will wind up in their designated chapters. My imagination, my muse, my whatever-you-call-it takes the book where it needs to go -- the journey. While pantsing my way through a novel (I now have a vision of a dog dragging itself across the carpet by its butt for some reason), the two things I keep in mind journey-wise include developing my characters the way I want, and getting those crucial plot points to occur, even if they don't happen when I'd planned.

I've often wondered what suffers because of my seat-of-the-pants writing style. The most obvious weakness for me has always been weak setting in the first draft. The focus is still all about characters doing and saying stuff so that the following occurs (in no particular order):

a) the plot moves
b) we know who they are
c) we know what they want
d) we know why they can't always obtain their hearts' desires.

Do I care if you can see and touch the scenery? Do I care if you know what the location smells like? Do I care if you know what color jacket somebody's wearing? I'll be honest. Not right away. I should, of course, but in the first draft I am so busy trying to get the nuts and bolts of the story into words before they fly out of my brain forever. I'm better than I used to be, mind you. As I've become more experienced and developed my writing muscles, setting comes more naturally and winds up in the first draft.

So what else suffers? If the plot is sufficiently complex, character development may suffer. I may be so busy trying to make the plot hang together, I forgot that the overall story arc requires a certain number of deeply developed characters. If you don't know the cast very well or care a whole lot about them, that they're in danger or that they overcome obstacles just won't resonate with you.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I might spend so much time with my characters that the plot does not, in fact, hang together. I can't just have the characters evolve throughout the book for no coherent reason. People don't change without some impetus. Events must occur to kick inertia in the pants. And those events - those crucial plot points - have to make sense. Conversely, events can occur because of the character as opposed to the character changing because of those events. In the end, it all needs to fit.

As a fantasy writer, world building is important. I do not pen richly detailed high fantasy, so I've no need to invent languages and complex societies. However, even in contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, magical realism -- all the genres that take place in the familiar world, there's a degree of world building required to get the reader grounded in the time and place, and above all, the RULES. I'm going to follow up with another post on "retroactive world building", but another weakness of being a pantser is that the elements of world building suffer. World building requires a high degree of planning and attention to detail. Depending on when the story takes place, you may need to introduce the world as the story unfolds, through back story or a combination of both.

More to come.


Kate Larkindale said...

Yay for pantsing! I admire you for even knowing what happens a few chapters ahead. I don't write in sequence so then end up having to try and make all these little fragments fit together. And I don't write in chapters either.

SO for NaNo this year, I'm challenging myself to write in sequence and with chapters to see if that makes a difference to the finished first draft.

Jay said...

Kate - I'm seriously impressed that you can write like that and produce a novel that's as cohesive as it is. I've also read about other novelists who write this way - some well known, well respected writers, so you are in good company.