Catching The Right Life Preserver: Some Sloppy Writing Advice For Pantsers

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

So I just wrote 20,000 words that I had to throw away.  Those words were the start of the third act of the novel I’m working on – and I woke up as if from a dream to realize that the villain for the third act was wrong, the ending didn’t answer any of the questions I’d raised in the first third, and my most interesting characters had disappeared from view.
So I literally had to erase the final third of my book and start afresh, asking: All right, given all that’s happened up until now, how should it end?
This is the way of the pantser.  You don’t have an end goal in mind, or at least not a clear one; you just write, sentence after sentence, and let the story surprise you.  Except sometimes the surprise is “Oh, this isn’t working.”  As a result, pantsers spend a lot of time throwing away dead ends.  I have one infamous story that I’ve written 23,000 words for, and the finalized story was 4,000 words.
There’s a lot of advice on plotting, but not that much advice on pantsing, because pantsing is like trying to find your personal dowsing rod.  There are signs that you’re going down the wrong path, but it’s like dating the wrong girl in that it’s all terribly obvious in retrospect that this would never work out, but you were in love at the time.  And I think part of the successful pantser process involves three critical things:
1)  Learning to spot the difference between when you’re just writing words because it’s a thing you can write, and when you’re honestly excited because it’s the thing you should be writing.
2)  Realizing when you’ve gone astray, and being honest enough to do the necessary amputation.
3)  Once you’ve done the painful cutting, figuring out which areas of the first half of the story you can mine to determine how the last half should end.
But that’s all really personal.  For example, I’m slowly learning my personal Danger Signs of Poor Pantsing, which include:
1)  All my ideas for what could happen next, which usually flow like champagne, dry up.
2)  I’m spending my time devising ideas for why a character wouldn’t simply do X, when X is the thing that would make sense and derail my intended story.
3)  I’m very concerned about sticking to the original idea that got me interested in this story – “This is like Boardwalk Empire, but with magicians!” – and waste time writing a pastiche of other people’s ideas when it’s time for my ideas to start flowing.
4)  I don’t like my characters very much.  This is usually because they’re doing things that I feel they should do, instead of the things they secretly are mad to do.
For me, the biggest danger of pantsing is that I do what I feel I should do, instead of what I want to do.  Which sounds very silly, but it’s kind of like getting an invite to a very exclusive, fancy costume ball.  And the day of it comes, and all you want to do is dance in your apartment in your socks.  And maybe that dancing would be more joyous, but you’ve already bought the costume, and how many grand balls do you have a chance to go to, and so rather than doing the thing that would satisfy you, you instead do the thing that you believe you ought to do because, well it’s there.
So many of my 20,000-word castoffs were, well, just there.  They were an idea I could write about, and so, like a person flailing for a life preserver, I grabbed at it and wrote.  And it wasn’t until much later that I realized, drowning as I was, I needed to be snobby and wait for the right life preserver.
That’s the trick, though.  It’s not that you’re not writing; you are.  But you’re not paying attention to that little tickle in the back of your head that asks, “Is this really the most awesome thing that could happen?” because SHUT UP I’M GETTING CLOSER TO THE END, BRAIN.  And then you get to the end and you read it all with a dispassionate eye and sadly mutter, “…oh.”
That’s when you have the hard work of going back to the last good point and asking all the questions you need to in order to re-pants.  What questions did you ask in the first part of the story that are, as yet, unanswered?  Each character has a lesson about life he or she needs to learn over the course of the tale – what is that lesson, and have you brought them closer to learning it?  What random elements and/or themes in the first part of the story can be brought up again in the end, for closure?
All of that is very hard work; it is knitting, because you have all of these threads you’ve unwittingly knotted together in the first part of the tale, and now you have to tie them all together into something that looks like an attractive scarf.  Sometimes you even go back to the beginning and add more threads, now that you’ve discovered what the story is actually about.
(It sounds terribly stupid, but in the book I’m writing?  I didn’t know who my lead character was until I wrote a scene 50,000 words in where I went, Oh, that’s really who he’s about.  And then I had to go back through every scene he was in – which is to say, all of them – to rewrite them with a subtly new person in the lead, reacting in subtly different ways.)
That’s pantsing.  And I wish I had better advice to give, but really it’s about listening to your own inner voice.  Some days you get desperate for ideas, and you’re so happy to have met anyone to dance with that you don’t notice the mustard stains on his lapel, his clumsy feet, his lack of rhythm.  You’re just happy to be dancing again.  And it takes some personal experience to realize that no, you can’t just dance with anyone, you must stay vigilant and decline graciously and watch the incoming dancers until you find that right person.
Or else you’ll be in the middle of a very elaborate and physically straining dance when you realize: this is crap.  And it’s so awkward to walk away then.  Yet it’s your only choice. 

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