On Being a Pantser

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I expressed excitement in my last post over having time to plan for NaNoWriMo, but that planning will not include outlining, deeply developing characters, or anything of that nature. While no approach–being a “Planner” or a “Pantser”–is the “right” approach and every writer is different, I don’t have to ponder long to know I’m a Pantser.

I know I’m a Pantser because I am a Pantser when it comes to writing short stories.  Most of the time when I begin, I have a character and possibly a situation, and mayyyybe a vague idea of what direction the story might take (and generally, I end up being wrong about the direction), but that’s pretty much it.  Sometimes, I start with nothing at all. One of the best feelings in the world is when I’m finished writing, I feel as if I’ve woken up from a really interesting dream, or feel as if I’ve just been reading really good book. I love the slow realization that I wrote that story–it didn’t even seem as if I were writing, but rather reading and watching the events unfold. For me, the un-known element plays a large part of the fun of writing. That’s the playtime element that makes me want to keep writing, the fun, the reason for getting up early in the morning.

If I plan out my stories ahead of time too much–if I flesh out my characters too much, if I know what will happen each step of the way–then my mind balks at this and suddenly the task of writing ceases to be play and becomes more like writing a dissertation, a research article, or a narrative for a program review. All writing is not fun, in other words, but the writing I do early in the morning for personal fulfillment and enjoyment ought to be.

I started writing originally as a very small child. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but not too long after mastering the basic skills of reading and writing, it occurred to me that I, too, could write and that meant I could make up my own stories and write them down. I could write things that didn’t exist in the world yet. And for me, most of those things are settled so deep in my unconscious that planning them out too much robs them of their magic.

This is what happened to me with the last novel I tried to write.  I got a pretty solid idea based on these people and this experience and it held a lot of promise, but because I wrote it for a novel-writing class, it met its ultimate demise because we had to outline a bit more than I like to do.  We didn’t outline too much (the professor was good–very flexible on allowing us to choose our process), but the small part we did outline was too much for me. Also, the fact that I wrote the chapters as class assignments literally made the novel work and not as much fun as it otherwise would be (I got an A in the class and great comments on the chapters, though). We moved shortly after writing those chapters, then, and the rest of my life launched forward, leaving that novel in its wake.

I don’t want to write that novel now. I have already invented stories about those characters (although I’ve never written one of them down) and as far as what those characters meant to me, I have now answered all the questions I had about them and the themes surrounding that would-be novel, all by merely thinking about them often enough.  I have no desire to tell that tale any longer. Would that novel have been completed if I’d done it for NaNoWriMo, with no rules except putting fingers to the keyboard?  Maybe.  Would it have been written if I weren’t worried about getting an A in a class?  Maybe. But who knows.

This is not to say I don’t plan.  I have the POV choice made, a main character (not fleshed out, but in existence), a couple of other characters, and the general idea of the structure. In short, I did the same amount of planning that I do for a short story.  I think a lot of my planning takes place in my unconscious, though, and to bring it too soon to the conscious frames the ideas too much, solidifies them too much, limits them too much.  It’s better to keep them in the amniotic fluid as long as possible, in the dreamworld as much as possible, until I’m ready to open the tap on my keyboard.  This probably means I need to edit far more than I would if I were a planner, but maybe not. No problem. I can edit.

Rather, my planning involves figuring out how to write 50,000 words in a month.  How many do I need to write each day, then? What if I have to take a day off? (I refactor the numbers). How early will I have to get up? Will family mind if I write in the evening while we’re sitting outside? What will I do when my brother and his family visit? (I refactor the numbers). What’s my game plan here?

I do that kind of planning.  Just not the planning when it comes to the fun, the magic, the story.

November is NaNoWriMo!

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Get ready, fellow writers, for the literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it, where writers of all types attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in a mere month.  I have heard of it for years, but every year, it never quite makes it onto my mental radar until the second week in November, or more likely, as I’m contemplating when to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. By then, that ship has sailed until the next year when I again don’t think about it until it’s too late.

But not THIS year, my friends! No, this year, NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) made it on my radar with almost three weeks to mentally prepare. Go me. I’ll need that three weeks for sure since I am not a novelist. YET.

I write short stories. I relate to short.  Little bites. Condensed pieces of what could be a piece of a novel, a single character or two, a couple of places….I can do short stories. That’s not to say I don’t have novel ideas in me. I do. I have ideas bopping all around my mind, but I shove them aside because I’m not a novelist (see the circular reasoning there? The “fixed mindset”?).  I take parts of them and make them into short stories–little pieces of them, little manageable nibbles.

But not in November.  This November, I’m going to start with the biggest idea that’s been knocking around inside my mind for a year or so and go to town on it. I’m going to write and write a bunch of crap that will be a 50,000 word horrible novel because it’s NaNoWriMo and I think it’ll be good, if only pschologically.  After all, if a person can write 50,000 words in one month, then they can probably write 25,000 the next, if they wanted to. After all, we don’t know our limits if we don’t push ourselves. And it’s not like I can’t do it, I tell myself. I’ve written and defended a quantitative dissertation.  I’ve gone grocery shopping by myself with five children ages five and under (pro-tip: it takes two carts and bribery).  I’m pretty sure I can do this.

I’ll keep you updated.

Missing Spoons

Every few years, I open the silverware drawer and find only knives, two forks, and one spoon.

“Where are all the spoons?” I ask.

Everyone shrugs and offers their opinions. They got left outside. They got thrown away. Someone took them to work or school for lunch and they never made it home. Lots of theories.

The forks are likewise absent.

Eventually, I break down and order them in bulk and once again, the silverware drawer is overflowing.

But the spoons and forks are still out there in the world. In the trash, or under the dirt in the backyard.

The Lump of Clay

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Yesterday, I read a draft of a short story that I recently retrieved from its “rising” place. I marked out time to “read and make comments” to it, got myself a cup of coffee, and sat back to read.

Oh, boy, was it rough. It read not unlike the above clay face in the photo above (which my eldest son brought home from elementary school and has inhabited my bookshelves ever since).

I took a sip of coffee and slashed through the first two pages. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I wrote notes to myself in the margins on what changes needed to be made.

Then I read on. Okay, well, I liked that….let’s bring out that element more….I kind of liked those eyebrows. The eyebrows work.

Revising is like this at first.  No matter what you are revising, you start with the big stuff first before you get down into the weeds. Whole scenes. Characters. POV. We aren’t at the sentence level yet. Not even close.

Because so far, what I’ve got written is clunky, molded as if created from clay with small hands lacking dexterity.

My job in the revision process is to hone, to shape, to redo the eyebrows and give depth to the eyes.

For me, that takes time.

 

Letting Your Writing Rest and Rise

I hate to read anything that I’ve had published. Why? Well, as soon as I get over the general excitement of another one in the books and hot off the press, I settle down to read the final published project and cringe. Why didn’t I change that scene? Why did I use so much passive voice? What was I thinking? How did no one not notice the stance shift going on on the third page? Holy crap!

After doing this recently, I decided to try out the “double-rise” method of editing, a term which I just made up today (after not being able to find a good picture of a marinade and decided to use one of my photos of no-knead bread from a few months ago—and yes, the bread was as delicious as it looks! But I digress) and which I’m trying out right now with my latest project:

To begin with, the first goal as I’ve said in other posts, is just to get the first draft written. This is an area where I certainly struggle the most, so it’s worth saying again: Just get it down and get it written—even if you have to write the damn thing in pencil.

But then what? My advice (and the advice of many others who are better writers than I) is to set the piece aside for long enough to get some emotional and psychological distance from the piece. For me, that’s about six to eight weeks—long enough to nearly forget the piece entirely. When this happens, I then drag it out from the bag or the drawer—wherever I stowed it—and read it again, this time with a critical eye. I read it out loud and mark up anything that doesn’t work. Believe me, after two months’ time, the major faults of that story will shine like oil on a pimply nose.

Make the changes you see—rewrite all you need to, add and delete scenes—and after all that, you may feel up to sharing the piece with some people in your writer’s group, if you have one (and you really should have one). After all, you don’t want to share something too rough—you want them to focus their critical energy in the most efficient way possible.

But here’s the second-rise part….after you make some more of those changes, put it back in a “drawer” for another few weeks. Give it some more time and some more distance before making the “final” edits and beginning the process of sending it out. I am hoping that by allowing it to have a second rest—a second “rise”— that I can have even more distance, which will help me edit myself even more successfully.

This is what I’m going to try with the next batch of projects I have. I’ll let you know how it goes.