Writers like to class themselves as either pantsers or plotters. If you don’t know what these mean, I’ll let you fantasize in your filthy little minds for a bit until I explain further in the second paragraph. Ready? Then here it is.
Plotters are the ones who, as you might guess, plot out a book before they write it, in lesser or greater detail. Maybe scene by scene, maybe chapter by chapter. But when they start to write, the structure is in place.
Pantsers, on the other hand, like to fly by the seat of their pants, meaning they’ll dive into a book with a few ideas, a fuzzy picture of the end, a general feel of where they want to go, and then just write their way into the unknown.
I always thought I was a pantser. The five books I’ve written up to now were all done that way.
The five books I’ve written up to now also did not find an agent or publisher. Hmm.
I started on my current book two years ago. I got halfway, realised a few things were wrong, went back and rewrote quite a bit, they ploughed on until I reached the end in February. 140k. A long draft.
I started draft two in April, and worked my way through it with a growing sense of unease. Something was wrong. But hey, I’d correct that in future drafts, I thought. Closer to the end, I had to backtrack a few chapters to re-do some parts, and I kept on going, as the bad feeling grew, until last week when the whole damn thing came crashing down around me.
I couldn’t deny it any longer — the book had deep problems. The plot was patched together, new ideas welded on as and when I thought of them. There were too many characters and their motivations were weak. The protagonist wasn’t being active and was often just floating along with the plot. There were too many clever ideas drifting around, many with vague and forced connections to the plot. I wasn’t sure what my protagonist wanted. I’d placed many interesting scenes into flashbacks instead of into the current timeline of the story. In short, I’d basically lost sight of how I wanted my book to be.
It was a really tough few days, and I was quite depressed for a few of them. But in the end I picked myself up and sat myself down and put on my firm voice. “Right,” I said. “Listen. The book is fucked. That is clear. So let’s rebuild it.”
I rebuilt it in the following way. I cut a few sheets of A4 paper into playing-card sized pieces. On them I wrote bad things with the story, good things with the story, and any and all fun ideas and scenes I had in my head. I arranged the papers around me on the floor and proceeded to stare at their blank faces while I tapped a pen against my forehead.
I started with the main character’s motivation. What did he want? What would he be burning for throughout the story, the thing I’d keep on dangling before him, letting him get close to it, before I pulled it away again?
The thing was obvious. So obvious I’d missed it before. I wrote it down, and it got me filling in the rest of those papers. And by damn it worked. In a few hours work I’d eliminated several characters and plot points, streamlined the story, heightened the tension, brought back a fun character I’d for some reason thrown out in the first draft, arranged the world of the story to be less complex and allow for more drama, and returned the spirit of the book to how I’d envisioned it at the start.
Once all those paper bits were ready, I shuffled and arranged them into chapters, noting briefly what needed to happen in each one. I’m almost done with that now, and wow, what a difference. It’s a damn sight easier to correct a plot problem when it’s a few sentences on a page them when it’s two chapters in a completed draft.
I expect to be done with the outlining in a day or two and then — deep breath — I’ll start back into the new draft. A draft that will be fun to write as I know more or less where I’m going in every scene and why. A draft that will unavoidably add six months to the production time of this novel, but which will also result in a way better book.
In my experience, this is how revelations occur in writing. You hit a massive problem, you get depressed, you feel useless and terrible, and then you try something crazy and suddenly it’s fun again. Reaching that point is a great and terrifying thing. Because it shows you know your own writing, and it shows you can feel when things are wrong and need major surgery. You’ve learned, basically, how not to lie to yourself. That feeling is gold. When you get it, cherish it. And then go and smash something to pieces.
I’m now sure it works best for me to write a sprawling and creative first draft, full of ideas and mad shit, then deconstruct it into a proper outlined plot for the second draft. And in the future, that’s exactly what I’ll be doing.
With pants or, hopefully, without.