Some people have a very clear path in mind when it comes to writing. They’re super-organised: plotting it all in advance, figuring out the twists and turns of action and emotion. It sounds great in principle, but my brain doesn’t work that way. I’m more of a surfer, catching the wave of inspiration as it sweeps over me, riding it as long as I can. I write instinctively, hopping from crest to crest until I’ve found my footing, letting scenes build in height and weight beneath me. Eventually, I tumble down the side, shrieking with exhilaration as the words spill out.
When you go with the flow it’s inevitable you’ll get caught up in a few eddies of irrelevancy: digging into motivation too deeply perhaps, getting overly involved in world-building, letting the dialogue run riot. There’s magic to be found when you write by the seat of your pants – sliding through all kinds of plot possibilities, character wrinkles and revelations about your world – but the narrative journey can become untethered, losing direction and momentum, and whilst the whimsical drift of (ad-)adventure may tickle the author as you discover your tale, that aimless wandering will only frustrate the readers.
How can we handle this? What can we do to rein our writing in while retaining the imaginative freedom this psychological surfing grants?
It’s a two-step process. The key with pantsing is to treat it very much like a series of sketches. Step 1 is to fill up the page with possibility, experimenting freely without the pressure of perfection. It’s following your nose to see what happens next. Step 2 is to critique what’s there – fully and honestly, regardless of any pain it causes. This is where sensitive and eloquent beta readers (and/or editorial critiques) are so valuable – offering honest perspectives on what’s actually there on the page. It’s what I think of as the *Proof House, hammering at each element to see how well it works; ascertaining what areas need to be expanded upon, rethought, pitched differently; and once the weaknesses are identified, having the gumption to throw out the spoil.
This took me decades to get my head around, by the way. The younger me was appalled at the thought of redrafting essays and such like at school – let alone binning whole sections of text. I wanted to get it right first time, but that left me creatively constipated. Word processors were my downfall, letting me fiddle far too easily. I spent so much time and effort trying to avoid the ‘extra work’ of redrafting I became enslaved to the ‘perfected’ pieces left on the page. And to cap it all, it was a false economy. I was effectively redrafting as I went along anyway, sentence by sentence—worse, I was so focused on what led me to the here and now **I couldn’t raise my head to see my destination.
The best tip I ever got for writing first drafts was to set the machine aside, grab a notebook and write it all out long-hand. This was particularly useful when it came to the novel. The restrictions of space on the page coupled with the scrappy semi-coherence of handwriting, felt actually liberating to me. Scribbling out text and tightly jotting notes in the margins reinforced the sketch-like quality, granting permission to move on, knowing I’d fix things in the next pass. It was all about building narrative momentum and making it to the end, and yes, you do have to get there. You can’t really appreciate what needs reworking until you see the shape of the whole. Funnily enough, the less pristine your draft is, the easier it is to maintain the mental flexibility you’ll need for Step 2.
Well, as I’ve said before, writing acts like clay over time. When you stop kneading at the language, the characters and the plot, it starts to solidify. Treat it as sacred, inert, untouchable, and the thought of any substantial change begins to threaten the whole – shattering your hard work. But why should this be? Didn’t you create it quite freely, skipping across the waves in that fanciful, pants-iful fashion? When I began editing other people’s work, the biggest shock came from realising how fundamentally personal this solidification process is. It’s an illusion; the sunk-cost fallacy at play, with a bit of ego and exhaustion thrown in for good measure. Feedback is essential, but never more so than when you’ve lost the plot. Seek it out, consider it deeply, and don’t be afraid to let go. The story is yours to tell, and it always was. But make it a good one.
Editing others has taught me that good story-telling is more than fulsome descriptions. It’s putting yourself in the head of your reader as much as (if not more than) your characters, considering the journey that they will take as they turn each page and live it vicariously. It’s understanding how to use language to create effect, whether that be lulling or thrilling, embracing or upsetting. It’s finding the essence of your tale, starting it at the right place, pulling your readers into the world and the characters—but always developing your arcs. And cutting the rest, fearlessly.
If I had a different brain, I’d have written this post about Plotting instead, extolling its virtues and wondering at those brave loons who just make things up as they go along.
If you are a determined plotter, figuring it all out in advance, feel free to share your perspective in the Comments section below. Do you feel like you save time by plotting it all out in advance, or do you get just as side-tracked by those waves of inspiration as you write? Where in the process do you put in the hardest graft? Do you worry that plotting makes the story feel too mechanical, or do you find it easy to bury the wires? I will be fascinated to hear your story.
* These days Proof Houses test firearms, but the term always makes me think of the fantasy book of the same name (by KJ Parker) in which the main character works at a proof house, testing armour.
** Confession: I’m speaking here as though I’ve learned my lesson, but you wouldn’t believe how much time I took with this blog post, revising and revising as I went, inching my way painfully forward. I know what I should do, but it isn’t always easy to break bad habits.
*** A costly process when dealing with physical books of course, but simplicity itself for those of you creating digital editions and/or print-on-demand services.
If you are interested in other tips around writing, I wrote a piece about Perspective last month. More will be forthcoming. Keep your eye out on the 3rd week of each month.
If there are aspects of the writing craft you would like me to discuss, please send me a message via social media or post a comment in the box below. I’ll be happy to pull my thoughts together for you in a future post.
If your eyes are tired and you just want to kick back for half an hour or so, allow me to entertain you with a Performed Reading, free of charge.