Confessions of a Pantser, or What I Failed To Learn in Grad School

A guest post by Eric Neyer

When I was in my late 20s I spent two years working toward an MFA in Creative Writing degree at a small university in the western U.S. From the standpoint of expanding my creative perspective and developing relationships with fellow writers, those were the most productive and incredibly satisfying years of my life. I would never trade the experience for a different one.

And yet now, fifteen years later, neither I nor any other writer in my graduating class has a novel or story collection in mass publication.

Why no commercial successes, one might wonder? I can only speak for myself, but I don’t believe it is a lack of talent inherent in my classmates, nor any shortcomings of the teachers. The instructors were, as a rule, thoughtful, generous and insightful, and nine out of ten students in the program could craft a more poetically beautiful sentence than most best-selling authors. The issue lay elsewhere.

My final thesis was a collection of short stories, but it was clear to all of us fiction writers that novels were the only commercially viable medium for an aspiring fiction writer.
Once I graduated I was faced with a choice: pursue the academic route as a teacher or seek work in a professional field. I had some ideas for writing a novel, but since I needed to repay student loans and cover the rent, I landed a job as a technical writer. In my free time I struggled with sustaining a regular fiction writing habit, but I never got past the brainstorming and first couple chapters with any of my novel ideas.

I couldn’t exactly pinpoint the source of my frustration. I thought that I didn’t have the proper work ethic, or that I didn’t have the “storytelling gene.” My stories had generally garnered more positive than negative criticism in workshops, but to me there was always something vital missing. Over the years I’d published a few pieces without pay in tiny journals and obscure online venues. I did submit stories to The New Yorker and several other prestigious outlets, knowing that the work was below their standards.

Then, last year, I resolved to try once again to appease my still-simmering desires by signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I thought that a deadline and some emotional support from other participants might provide a semblance of the motivation that had driven me in graduate school. I did not meet the 50,000-word quota by the end of November, for various reasons, but something even better happened. I discovered Larry Brooks’ website, through his daily posting of NaNoWriMo tips, and ultimately his book, Story Engineering. Immediately I knew what had been absent from the entirety of my work as a fiction writer.

And lo, thy name be Structure.

As an ex-composition instructor, I was aware of the importance of organization to effective writing. But as an artistically inclined writer, I had a prejudice against too much conscious plotting–“plots are for semi-literate hacks,” would probably fairly summarize my feelings. As with many humans, when faced with a discrepancy between intellectual knowledge and emotions, I let my irrational impulses win out. And in the cozy womb of a graduate writing program, that attitude was amply rewarded. In the real world of attracting readers and selling books, though, I realized…not so much.

As I was reading Larry’s blog posts last November and then his book, I became convinced that my stereotype about plotting was ridiculous and self-limiting. If I had gone to my first MFA workshop and the teacher had told me, “You should put the first plot point at the 20-25% mark of your story,” I would’ve marched straight to the admissions office and demanded a refund. I didn’t think, and still don’t, that graduate-level teachers should strive for that kind of proscription. And yet, how many years of yearning might have been avoided had I been open to the simple exercises of developing a compelling concept and defining specific points of action in a story?

Perhaps this analogy will better illustrate my point. In my creative writing program I learned a great deal about the theories of writing, but I felt there was little focus on the mechanics of constructing a story. (Workshop critiquers comments on structure tended to be arbitrary and conflicting.) And just as you might not want a theoretical physicist to work on your car’s transmission, MFA graduates are often ill-equipped to write stories for a general readership.
I am still essentially an unpublished wannabe, so why put any stock in my opinion? Consider this example. What is Shakespeare best known for, outside of his plays? That’s right, his sonnets. What could be more limiting in structure than requiring 14 lines of 10 syllables each and a repetitive rhyming pattern?

Rather than limiting his creativity, however, it allowed the originality of his voice to flourish. And imposing a strict structure on your storytelling can do the same. Write a literary novel, use a surreal or stream-of-consciousness style, throw in the most lush and alluring language you can skillfully wield, but write using a proven structure and see whether your art improves.

All of this is not to presume that Larry’s suggested practices will put your writing process on auto-pilot. Writing well remains hard work. And perhaps my previous failings have more to do with analytical laziness and aesthetic arrogance than any systemic flaw in my education.

It doesn’t matter, though, because I truly feel that I’ve discovered the secret to my future success as a writer. Whether I am able to apply these lessons is up to me, but I will never again have the feeling that I don’t know what my work is missing, that I must set out willy-nilly and wait for inspiration to strike. Thanks to Larry, my writing career is fully in my own hands, and I couldn’t possibly be more thrilled.

Eric Neyer is a freelance technical and Web content writer in Denver, Colorado. He continues working toward a career as a full-time fiction writer and novelist. Read samples of his work at ericneyer.com.

*****

Workshop, anyone?

What are you doing on November 10th?  One day… maybe the day that your writing dream gets real.

It’s called “STORY 404 — Advanced Story Development and Execution for Serious Writers.”

That’s you, right?  Thought so.  Come join me.  Click HERE for more.

16 Comments

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16 Responses to Confessions of a Pantser, or What I Failed To Learn in Grad School

  1. Karin Gillespie

    Great post, Eric. I’m a commercial writer published with S&S, and I recently finished an MFA program.. I was surprised that plot wasn’t addressed at all, and was considered a dirty word by everyone in the program. I learned a great deal but found the lack of attention to structure troubling.

    I ended up writing my critical paper on the use of screenwriting techniques to plot novels and found that the most enduring literary novels have a lot in common structurally. Anyway, in addition to Larry’s excellent book, I would recommend that you also read Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, Anatomy of a Story by John Truby and the Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler.
    They all assisted me when I made the change from writing organically to being more conscious of plot points.

  2. Hi Eric,

    You say, “Nine out of ten students in the program could craft a more poetically beautiful sentence than most best-selling authors” – Yes, but beautiful sentences do not automatically make a beautiful – or even interesting – story. And neither does perfect structure by itself. As Larry points out in Story Engineering, a strong story requires a balance of the six competencies.

    In the interests of helping a fellow writer, I read your excerpts on your site. Although you did craft some beautiful sentences, I felt disassociated from your characters. Nothing hooked me and drew me in.

    I would like to recommend you read Rachel Ballon’s blog entry at Writers Store:
    Ballon says, at http://www.writersstore.com/the-emotional-and-psychological-world-of-you-and-your-characters/

    “No matter how perfectly structured your writing, if you can’t move your readers or viewers to laugh, cry, scream or tremble, you won’t have succeeded in creating characters worth caring about and your story won’t work.”

    I don’t point to her as a mentor – I think Larry is quite capable of that – but that particular sentence portrays a thought we should never forget – if our reader isn’t emotionally involved (from the very beginning), our story won’t get read.

    I hope this helps you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us.

  3. I’m a confessed pantser as well. But. I always have my notes open from one of Larry’s story structure classes I attended. He’s got a lot of helpful advice.

  4. Eva

    Eric, I am also a graduate of a creative writing program at a large university (B.A. only, though). After I graduated, I still wasn’t sure how to go about writing a novel. I had ideas, lots and lots of plots and characters. It’s only now, 25 years post graduation, that it’s starting to make some sense. I wish I’d known then what I think I’m grasping now.

    Given the amount of money people now spend to attend a university, writing programs shouldn’t be so afraid to let students know that outlining, planning, etc aren’t dirty words. I’m never going to be a blow by blow outliner but I at least get where things need to go (more or less).

    Wishing you much success.

  5. Eric, congrats on the epiphany. I’m starting to grasp it myself, especially since I come from a poems background (free-form of course). I hope if you get your novel sold, you’ll come back and add to your story.

  6. Norm Huard

    Hi Eric,

    Welcome the real world at the U of Life for writers.

    Ditto Nann’s honest comments. I admire your courage for putting your efforts out there.

    If Larry’s your mentor, you are in good hands, especially if you have read Story Engineering and get it. It has taken me three reads to get a handle on it. SE has been my go-to reference. Now I have a second go-to reference book that I think will help you. As I read it I kept making connections to SE. I think it has become the perfect complement to SE. It’s Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story.

    “Imagine knowing what the brain craves from every tale it encounters; what fuels the success of any great story; and what keeps us transfixed or we walk away. Wired for Story reveals these cognitive secrets—and it’s a game-changer for anyone who has ever set pen to paper.”

    http://www.wiredforstory.com/wired-for-story/

    I don’t know if Larry has read it yet. I bet once he does, he’ll want her to guest post on his blog.

    Keep at it Eric. You still have the dream. You’ll turn out to be your best teacher, and learner for life at the U of Life.

    Best wishes for success with your writing,

    Norm

  7. A breath of fresh air, Eric. And you thanking Larry is what the rest of us readers do, so thank you for that.

    Once I signed up for classes from an Iowa Writer’s Workshop grad. She was also an EST grad, Erhard Seminar Training. She said est was more important to her writing development than Iowa.

    Iowa is still around, but est?

    Then she said, “Every morning before I started in on my serious writing projects I did warm-ups about the people in my neighborhood portrayed as animal characters. My serious work was rejected and my warm-ups became my first published book.”

    My guess was her ‘light’ writing was done with Larry’s points in mind and her serious work was MFA quality. You never know what might hit, but I think Larry knows a strike when he sees it.

  8. Christine Rose Miller

    Hey! I was reading through your website and loved the design and content. Is there any way I could help contribute?

    Thanks,
    Christine

  9. Eric,
    It is amazing what we put ourselves through to learn isn’t it? I hope you will appreciate what you are able to do with sentences. My guess is that ability will serve you well when it comes time for a living way to tell your story.

    Let’s face it, who reads long enough for the structure to matter if the first paragraph is loaded with cliches and the sentences resonate with the equivalent sound of a corporate spreed sheet? I’ll bet you money Larry would tell us that the character associated with such sentences are usually DOA.

    For me, structure is to story what golf clubs are to the game of golf. As I see it, you’re simply going to pick up the use of a couple more essential clubs necessary to successfully play the game. Pros take the trouble to master them all.

  10. eric, thanks for the article, interesting piece

    also, finally got to read your linked to excerpt, and thought it was pretty good

    personally, i felt there was a lot of emotion and intrigue in the scene

    the stream of consciousness at the end was just a tiny bit confusing, but fit the moment

    best wishes to you 😉

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  12. This year will my third doing NaNo and I can’t wait. In my opinion, NaNo is a great way to kick start your writing, having a deadline and the support/encouragement of so many other people. My first book is coming out at the end of the year/early next year and while overwhelmed by it all, I’m thrilled.

  13. Thanks to Eric for sharing his experience. My BA in English is some decades old but I share the problem of floundering a few chapters into my novels. Subsequent courses and workshops never quite solved the problem until I attended one of Larry’s sessions at a Willamette Writers Conference

    I want to back up Norm in suggesting Lisa Cron’s “Wired for Story.” I bought her book at the WWC based on the subtitle alone — then I made sure I attended her workshop. Cron’s book provides the explanation why “The Writer’s Journey” and “Story Engineering” work for story telling.

    I also find Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method of story development (“Writing Ficiton for Dummies” with Peter Economy) melds well with Larry’s teachings.

    I’m not publishable yet — but getting closer.

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