Category Archives: Write better (tips and techniques)

The Passionate Cry of a Delusional Pantser

Let me be clear on something before launching into this: I’m not anti-pantsing or anti-pansters.

It’s not how I develop stories, nor is it something I recommend. But it is something I absolutely understand – with the exception of today’s little rant – and I’m clear on how it can work, when it works.

That’s the problem, you see. Many passionate pantsers aren’t really clear on how it needs to work.  And they are the ones who are already composing a Comment here with a knee-jerk emotion… and thus, might just miss the point.

So please read the headline as intended.

I’m not saying pansters are delusional. Today I’m writing about one of the things some passionate pantsers say that is delusional. I’m certain story planners say delusional things, too – I’m probably among them – but look before you leap to a judgmental conclusion.

I have (looked, that is), and this is what I see.

Today I’m dissing one of the arguments – a single strand of rationale – that some pansters put forth as reasoning behind their pantsing preference. It’s like a kid saying he doesn’t like string beans because they are green.

They say that. And it’s ridiculous every time they do.

That single strand of pantsing rationale – not the other reasons that defend it – is exactly like that. Ridiculous. Which I’ll explain clearly in a moment.

I could – perhaps should – write a book about How To Pants Your Book Successfully.

Pansting is no different than any form or degree of story planning, relative to the criteria and elemental requisites for a story that is functionally and thematically sound. The bar is the same, and it is high with either process.

Too many writers pants for the wrong reasons. The more seasoned a writer is, the more likely they are to incorporate some form of story planning – if nothing else, then some alignment with the principles of story structure – into their process. Even if it all unfolds out of their head, without an outline.

That’s pantsing, too. The kind that works. Pantsing without a seasoned grounding in the principles of craft is the only option available to the new writer, or the stubborn resistant writer who denies the principles (and man, they’re everywhere out there), because in that case there is nothing to plan. It’s like trying to draw a house without ever really knowing how a house is built… you’ve simply been in a few houses in your life, so now you’re trying to build one without a blueprint.

Because hey, it’s fun to do it that way!

Pantsing is a process.

Nothing more. It’s not more artful or more mysterious than any other approach. It is neither qualitatively superior nor inferior.

It is, however, fraught with risk, in the same way that a pilot operating without a flight plan is inherently more risky than a pilot being guided by a regional air traffic controller from a flight plan filed in context to approaching weather, proximity to traffic and the length of the runway at the destination.

Both can land safely. The one without the flight plan – and here’s the important part, the part you should not miss – if bringing years of experience and training and understanding to the job, can probably weather an emergency (unexpected fog, low fuel, sudden wind sheer, an alien attack) as well as the pilot flying from a plan.  Because they do know how to fly an airplane.

So, within this analogy, here’s what doesn’t happen: the pilot without a plan rationalizes that choice because it’s more fun. Or worse, say, “I just can’t read any of that flight plan stuff, my mind fogs.”

Thing is, this isn’t flying for fun. It’s professional flying. Just as we are talking about professional writing, writing to sell in a competitive market.

Here’s what doesn’t make it into the famous author interviews:

The iconic successful author who proudly waves the pantser flag – Stephen King and Diana Galbadon, as examples – has the expected structural paradigm and aesthetic bones of a story firmly implanted in their head, as an instinct. They don’t need a written plan any more than LeBron James needs a buzzer-beater play written out for him.

They know.

So if you’re Stephen King or Diana Galbadon or LeBron James, go ahead and wing it. Make it up as you go along. Have fun. But don’t fool yourself, you’ll be doing the exact same work as the other successful author – if, in fact, you are a panster writing from a keen awareness and story instinct; this is where the pantsing proposition crumbles under scrutiny – who is writing from an outline created in context to principles she or he understands to be inviolate and universal.

The same understanding, by the way, as that of their successful pansting peers.

It is the unschooled, less instinctual pantser that really can’t get away with claims of “I just can’t do it any other way,” or, “Planning takes all the fun out of it.”

Those are the battle cries of the naïve.

You’re writing a book to sell, right? So the “fun” part falls way down the list of priorities.

And the “I just can’t do it part” is a preference, not a principle.

The genius in the white coat who put the stent in your heart probably didn’t like mucking around the room temperature innards of a poor homeless guy when she/he was in Human Anatomy Lab 101, either, but here she/he is, saving lives and driving a German car.

Because the very thing that you, as a pantser, claim you just can’t do, is in fact the essential elemental composition of the very story you are trying to create.

If you just can’t create a story in outline form, then you just can’t create one in a draft, either. Both will require continued evolution, and if your story sense is weak, it will be extensive in either case.

A true story, not an analogy.

I know a guy, a great guy, who has the eating preferences of a 12-year old. We had them over for dinner not long ago, and served up some terrific homemade, freshly mixed guacamole as an appetizer. My guest wouldn’t touch it. Here’s the exchange when I asked why.

“I don’t eat that stuff.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“You don’t like guacamole?”

He looked at with me a go F-yourself expression. I grinned back.

“No. I don’t,” he said.

“When was the last time you tried it?”

The look again. A cornered perp. No response.

“Do you like avocados?”

“Hell no.” His expression reminded me a little girl who had just stepped in her dog’s doody outside the backdoor.

“When was the last time you tried it?” I asked, stuffing an overloaded chip into my mouth.

He shook his head, the forehead of which was getting quite red.

“You’ve never tried it, have you.”

“Hell no.”

“You’ve never tasted an avocado, either, right?”

He shook his head. He was grinning at this point, realizing he was going down.

“So how do you know you don’t like it?”

No response.

“Go on, take a bite. Everybody likes guacamole. It’s delicious.”

He flashed me the palm of his hand when I moved a loaded chip his way.

My wife intervened. “Let him go,” she said.

“Sure. But you’re missing out on something really wonderful.”

“I don’t eat anything green,” was his final comment before my wife dug her fingernails into my shoulder.

Here’s my point for writers: My friend wasn’t trying to become a professional in the food business. He’s just being ludicrous because, other than embarrassment he pretends to not notice, there are no consequences to it.

But for you, the writer, the consequences can be significant.

Another True Story, Leading to Today’s Primary Point

Here is something I just read on another writing website, a pantsing rationale from an established writer that is repeated all the time, propagating like a sort of Zika virus of illogical crazy:

I’d say I’m a recovering pantser. Up until very recently, my mantra/excuse was, “If I figure out the plot ahead of time, I’ll have told myself the story and I’ll be bored and won’t want to write it.”

Yep. Because now that I know the story, I’m bored.

It’s not the process, folks. It’s the story.

Notice she said recovering pantser. And that she positioned her rationale as an excuse.

We’ll get back to her in a minute. But for now, know that…

The gold resides in those caveats.

For too many newer writers, that flip doesn’t register in their pantser brain. They cling to “I just can’t outline or plan,” and even, “It takes all the fun out of it.” I hear that battle cry constantly. It’s one of the reasons I don’t hang out on writing forums, because too many blustery novices put forth this nonsense within some faux context of artistic righteousness.

Which is ludicrous.

Other than the obvious, here’s why:

If you’re bored with a story plan, then how can you possibly be anything other than bored with a story you drafted organically, with no plan guiding you? Both are the expression of the exact same thing – a story unfolding from your instinct, from your inherent ability to sequence a story arc.

I’ll tell you how: because you evolved the story as you wrote it. It was better than it might have been at the outline stage. But that doesn’t legitimize the process, it simply states the writer was incapable of conjuring the best story at the outline stage.

That’s not something to brag about, that’s something to work on.

Planning or drafting are two different ways toward the same essential goal: the discovery of your best story.

Notice how this might translate to real life:

You work with an architect to draw a plan for, and a rendering of, your dream house. As you sit there, you grow bored. The house itself bores you. So instead, you back up a truck full of shovels and concrete and wood, and you build the house itself straight out of your head.

But you’ve never built a professional-level house before.

You’ll be too exhausted and frustrated to be bored. And, unless you have the talent and training of a professional, your house will look like something from a cartoon. A professional would never build a house without a blueprint, like you just did. Because it doesn’t work that way.

You’re not an artist in that case, you’re a beginner who doesn’t yet wield the requisite knowledge and skills. And the only way to find those things is by engaging at the principle-based story-bones level – as in, a story plan leading to an outline.

If you do that planning as a draft, then call it what it is: a story plan attempt, formatted as a draft.

Story is story. If you outline the bones of it and you’re bored by it, then the story isn’t good enough. Don’t blame the story… blame yourself. You have more work to do, and yeah, it may not be fun.

The same writer, sitting down to write the story that bored them as an outline, will experience one of two outcomes: the exact same story will manifest on the page (because it’s still you, doing this with the same level of story instinct), and you’ll be bored with it, too, for the same reason. Or, as you build, your instincts tell you to do something different, something better… and when you do that, you’re coming closer to a more functional story.

So have I just rationalized pantsing from the blank page forward? Yes… if and only if you have a story sense that is developed to the extent that you actually can recognize the moment and nature of something that isn’t working.

Which means, you could have recognized it at the outline level, as well. But didn’t.

Welcome to a paradoxical loop that leads to only one conclusion: no matter what your process, you need to evolve your story sensibilities and awareness of the principles of craft to a higher level, before you can render it to the page.

Then, write your story any damn way you choose. And you’ll choose some form of story planning when you get there, even if it remains in your head.

If you had that evolved level of story sense going for you, you would not be bored by the story at the outline level.

Because your story sensibility drives that, as well. In that case, your story would excite you, not bore you. And the draft you write from it would be the path toward elevating it, not just discovering it.

So when you hear a new writer claiming that outlining and planning takes the fun out of things, that it bores them, what you’re hearing is that the writer isn’t capable of conjuring up a story that works.

And as they draft, that same less-then-optimal story sense will realize a story that also doesn’t work, but they’ll be too immersed the forest of words and the fun of writing sentences and scenes to notice. They won’t even realize they are lost… precisely because their story sense can’t sniff out a lost dog of a story.

Ask any agent or editor. All day long they are reading stories that don’t work, precisely for this reason.

The interviewed writer above, the one who confessed that story planning bored her, went on to say this:

What I’ve learned—the hard way—is that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in pondering plot and character before getting into the writing. And there’s much, much more to it than saying this needs to happen, then this, etc. The first inkling of each story nearly always comes to me as a vivid image—usually of a protagonist or a setting. But that’s not a heck of a lot to hang a novel on, and thus the plot often reveals itself with an agonizing slowness that undermines my production goals. I’ll get into this later, but for a long time I bought into the notion that the story was a sacred object, and if I manipulated it, it would become over determined and wouldn’t work.

She learned it the hard way.

Because the belief that planning a story will result in boredom is ludicrous. 

It is the story itself that is boring, not the process.

If you’re a pantser, listen to how you rationalize your choice of process. Other less-then-enlightened pantsers won’t hear it, but the people that count – agents, editors, other writers with some seasoning under their belts – will hear any omission of logic, and they’ll silently feel bad for you.

Or they will reject your pitch.

Process doesn’t matter, once you get to a certain point. A point where your story sense already knows how a story is built from a foundation of universal principles of dramatic theory, structure and thematic power through characterization.

****

A little Storyfix news: the September issue of Writers Digest Magazine has an article I wrote; actually, it is an excerpt from my latest writing book. “Revive Your Story with Dramatic Tension” appears on page 58.

Also, Story Engineering was named as one of the “nine essential books for writers,” on Jon Morrow’s site, Smart Blogger, which has 500,000 subscribers. There’s also some interesting new 5-star reviews for the book on Amazon, if you’re interested in understanding why the book is among those nine.

 

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Addressing the Unanswerable Questions About Writing A Novel

Wherein we address the Craft-to-Art Gap

(Apologies for my absence. I should have filled the gap with guest posts from my wonderful Storyfix partners, but I fumbled that as I focused on a new non-fiction project, which I am excited to share with you in a couple of weeks.

As for today’s post… I return with a bit of a rant. Forgive the blood coming out of my forehead on this one.)

 

I am quietly observant of several online forums composed of novelists-in-waiting, a few of them on LinkedIn, which publishes a list of “20 Essential Groups for New writers.” One of which is the focus of today’s post.

I could pick any of them to make my point today, because they are all basically the same.

This is where you get new writers telling other new writers what they should know.

What they should and should not do. Often with an authoritative context. Too often.

Like the guy who proudly announced, “I don’t plan my stories. That doesn’t work. It robs the entire process of creativity.”

Okay folks, now we know.

A few days ago a new writer posted a generalized plea for help – a very common context on these sites – that went something like this: “I’m writing my first novel, and I need to know how to start and what to write, and how to get it published.”

I know… right?

There were well over two dozen responses, from fellow new writers who seemed to know these answers. Here’s one of them:

Just start writing until you finish. Don’t stop to correct anything. Then go back and fix what needs fixing.

Over half of the comments echoed this.

Because this is what new writers believe. And say to each other.

Ah, the secret of the writing process, at last.

To which I quietly ask… how will this guy know what needs fixing, other than those typos?

Truth is, there is a time in the process for this crash-and-burn drafting, but it is definitely not the way to begin.

Here’s another perfectly normal question:

I have a captivating story and concept in my mind and have started working on writing chapters for the same, however, since I am a first time fiction author, could any of the experienced authors here share your thoughts on the things to consider while writing a fiction novel and also some enlightenment on approaching publishers at the end of this?

He’s writing a fiction novel.

This is all you need to know about the level of discourse on these forums.

As for my response – which I didn’t post; I never post on these things, I would spend half my day addressing 101-level issues — I would start with this: never, ever, as long as you breathing, refer to your book as a “fiction novel.” That’s like saying pasta spaghetti. Or winged airplane. Or singing vocalist. Yeah, there is something informally referred to as a non-fiction novel, but that’s the only time you need to lead with a qualifier.

Don’t sound like a rookie that is on Day 1 of the journey. Even if you are one.

The longest response among the 29 offered from the membership was about 75 words.

I have written 200,000 words on the subject over three #1 (Amazon niche) bestselling craft books, and over 1000 blog posts, many of which boil down addressing this and similar questions. What’s-the-meaning-of-life type questions.  Because that’s what it takes to cover the scope of that arena.

My friends Art Holcomb and James Scott Bell and Randy Ingermanson and C.S. Lakin and K.M. Weiland and Jennifer Blanchard and many others have done the same.

And yet, to some extent this question remains unanswerable.

Many of those 29 responses were on point, including the one that suggested it was way too soon to be worrying about how you plan to publish. Which is counter to what someone else said in recommending the the self-publishing route.

Because of course, you can throw anything you want out there on that basis, the purest of utter crap if you desire, and good things will surely happen.

To which I say… the bar for success is no lower in self-published venues that it is at Random House. The very few monster self-published home runs that emerge – like The Martian – are every bit as good as what the Big 5 publishers put out, so that becomes the comparative standard.

I stay off the forums because I usually end up in a pissing match. Some new writers don’t want to hear anything that smacks of mentoring. Because this is high art, damn it, and suffering isn’t optional and there are no rules.

Watch the comments section here. They’ll show up, I promise.

The Craft-to-Art Gap

I’ve noticed something connected to this conversation among the reviews of my three writing books.  Aside from the people that simply don’t like my writing – and there is a grouchy network of them, they attack me as if I’ve insulted their daughter on prom night – there are writers who claim I leave out the how.

I wrote an entire book on the howStory Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant. It is cover-to-cover about the how… and yet, some readers missed it.

Because it’s complicated.

Because you have to be able to wrap your head around it.

One guy assaulted me for using “big words.” Yeah, like premise and resolution and set-up and first plot point. Monster, M.I.T kind of words.

They miss it, because it isn’t math. It is story sense. Story sense is the sum of all the craft you can eat at the workshop buffet, digested on your terms.

Nelson Demille can tell you why his books are bestsellers. So can I: Because he taps into a patriotic context, and delivers a hero that is both witty, clever and courageous with high-stakes drama.

Michael Connelly can tell you why he’s the absolute king of the police procedural. Because we don’t just like Harry Bosch, we admire him, we want to be him. Connelly puts him into highly dangerous, empathetic situations, often connected to big real life issues, with emotionally-resonant stakes.

Another big word there: emotionally-resonant.

Oh, that’s it. So how do I DO that?

But how do you make it witty?

What does clever mean and how do I DO it?

What do you mean by context? You use that word over and over, I had to put the book down. You suck.

I tell people, here and in my books, to strive for a conceptually-driven premise. Along with that comes a clear differentiation between concept and premise.

More big words and crazy confusing ideas. Concept and premise are different? How can that be?

People ask me how to find a conceptually-driven-premise. Rather than studying the criteria for that, and the examples of that — which is precisely how you get there — they want the gold ring UPS’d to them.

You get to decide what is conceptual. You are stuck with… you. If you skip over the criteria and examples, that’s on you, too.

Or this 1-star review pearl: Larry is very confident that his system works where others fail, except that he really doesn’t know how to use the word physics. Hint: It’s not the plural of physic.

Maybe, after looking up the word physics (because it’s in the title of the book), he would understand that, despite the fact that I never once, not even with a typo, used the word “physic,” and that it is applied as a metaphoric reference to story forces.

A massive leap, that. Real Mensa stuff.

The bottom line is right there, in that sentence: understand.

Our entire journey through craft and the assault toward the summit along the learning curve, is simply to do that. To understand.

Because when you do understand, when you get that story sense is something that exceeds the sum of the craft parts that will lead you to it… only then will you be able to summon the inexplicable, unteachable and totally unique story sensibility that those famous authors command, and yet, cannot convey or explain any better than us lowly writing teachers who struggle to bring the word to the writing community…

… including the guy that doesn’t understand the word physics as he rails against me using it…

… including the guy who tells other writers to just sit down and write…

… including the guy who said in his review that I promise definitions but never deliver them… to which I responded that the definitions appear in little black boxes in the book, with the bolded word “Definition of…” in the subheader, and then I give the specific page numbers of those eleven key definitions… all of which was deleted by Amazon, which doesn’t want authors challenging clueless reviewers even when the response is merely the correction of faulty information.

Because the writer couldn’t wrap his head around it. Because this is supposed to be easy, to be fun. It’s just beginning, middle and end, right? What’s up with all those big words and principles and models?

James N. Frey said it best, right here on Storyfix a few years ago (click HERE to read that stellar post):

Writing is easy.  Just sit down and bleed from the forehead until you get something that works.

Thing is, too many writers don’t understand what bleed means in that context. Because it is an analogy, and analogies require a leap of logic and interpretation that is above many.

Or what works means, because other than the criteria for what works – which is precisely what the Story Fix book is all about – nobody can tell you how to get there.

Story sense isn’t a gift, it is a muscle.

Analogy alert… put on your sound-retardant headphones and think.

Sure, some are born with stronger muscles than others, but anyone can increase their muscular size and strength to some degree. Through hard work. Though the application of proven principles.

But even then, you need to know what the work is, what those principles are, and what it all means.

And in writing, that ends up being a minority subculture within the masses who are online talking about it.

I can point you toward the craft.

Many writing teachers can do that. Pick your teacher, pick your approach, pick your story modeling.

But you absolutely cannot cherry pick the principles and criteria that apply. They are universal. They are complex yet learnable.

Once learned, you and your resultant story sense are on your own. And thus we have explained why those who write critically and commercially successful fiction are defined as a low single-digit percentage of the “just write” crowd.

But like that donkey that you can lead to water but you can’t make drink… nobody can make you get it.

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