Or not. Sometimes a little junk food is just the ticket.
When I began this journey as a writing teacher and now a blogger, and finally as the author of what has been for the last three weeks the #1 bestselling fiction writing book on Amazon.com (if you’ll pardon the plug), I had more than a few things to learn.
About the craft, and about myself.
I certainly knew that there were a variety of ways to approach the writing of a story. And while I still think its nuts, I realize that some writers still cling to their old Olivetti or even a manual typewriter.
Whatever… that’s more about process than product, anyway. Which is precisely what I finally came to realize.
In my initial advocacy for pre-draft story planning, I met with immediate and vocal resistance. Enthusiastic vitriol. Almost death-threat-like in nature. Blind rage. Abuse. Dismissal. Belittlement.
It felt like I was back in high school, but that’s another backstory.
Another blogger recently told me that it appears I’ve softened my stance on the process known as pantsing, or seat-of-the-pants story development.
Maybe. The truth is, I’ve evolved it, and the result has quieted the hostile masses while giving me a new focus… one that isn’t going to get me lynched by an angry mob of Olivetti-pounding pantsers at the next writing conference..
My experience as a target inspired a new view.
I now advocate a kinder, gentler endorsement of story planning, with an empathetic hug of encouragement to those who claim they just can’t do it.
I no longer believe that pantsing can’t work. It certainly can. But there’s an asterisk next to both categories, the meaning of which is the empowering thing that every writer needs to understand.
It isn’t how you write. It’s what you know about storytelling.
For those who claim that story planning just doesn’t work, that it robs the process of spontaneity and fun, to you I say… you couldn’t be more wrong. At least as a bottom-line absolute that applies to all. Any more than some jerk writing teacher claiming that pantsing just doesn’t work… that couldn’t be more wrong, either.
But here’s the deal. The difference is less about the end product than it is about intention.
Planners plan because they know what a story must have in it (generically, as structural milestones and qualitative, mission-driven criteria)… where those things must appear… and how they must work qualitatively.
It’s like taking a flight from your city to, say, Johannesburg. Which, by the way, usually involves a flight plan to ensure you don’t end up refueling in, say, Afghanistan. Sure you’re going to have to change planes along the way. And sure you can wait until you get to London to decide which flight to take next.
Crazy? Not if you’re in it for the adventure.
But does that really make sense in a pursuit that is more about outcome than process, which is the case with a trip to Johannesburg (and, by the way, with writing for publication)? Or… are you good enough to fly your own airplane and chart your course as you go?
Planning a story versus pantsing a story is no different.
For the latter to work, you either need to be an ace pilot who owns a metaphoric literary jet (your talent), or have a lot of room on your credit card for fuel and about a month to get there.
A huge majority of pantsers write that way because they don’t know better. Or enough. They’ve either never tried story planning (because it’s freaking hard), or they don’t know what to plan.
And for those who believe they do know how a story works and they still prefer this process… well, you’re the reason I re-examined my position on this issue.
But you are few and far between. Writers like Stephen King, the Grand Pubah of proud pantsers, own a fleet of literary jets, and they’re all full of creative fuel.
Imparting that empowering knowledge to both planners and pantsers is at the heart of everything I believe and write about.
The more you know, the more likely you’ll be to plan at least some of your story.
You’ve heard me say this before: both planning and pantsing are drastically different forms of the very same process: the search for story. You cannot write an optimally effective story until you’ve discovered and explored your narrative options (I’m sticking to that one), but I’ve come to realize there are two extremes (and many in-between approaches) to getting there.
Planners conduct that search by breaking the requisite parts of a story into their component parts – which requires a command of that knowledge in the first place – and strive to discover and explore them in context to each other at a high architectural level.
Like a pre-party planning meeting before a convention. Like a sketch of the completed structure before breaking ground. Like a business plan written before a penny has been invested.
Once it all flows and fits, only then do they write a draft.
Somewhere out there is a writer saying, yeah, but this isn’t a business, this is writing. If you’re intending to publish, and if this is you, then you’re wrong about that. Writing is art only to the extent that it compells a reader. And it won’t ever reach a reader until is complies with the expectations of the publishing industry.
And those expectations are, in fact, defined by those darn rules and principles that won’t go away. Only when they are in place do things transition toward the qualitative.
Pantsers use a draft as a search tool, often without even having an awareness of how their story will resolve. Along the way they plug in ideas and allow them to propel them forward into the story until – theory has it – an ending appears. Or worse, just write what the muse tells them to write. Trouble is, that muse may be under-informed.
If they know those pesky rules and principles (the rather inflexible yet tinkerable tenets of effective storytelling, or what I call The Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing), this absolutely can work. But it will take longer, and the great risk is always to settle for that impulsive creative choice rather than vet the creative options.
Many famous writers (who certainly do know those rules and principles like the back of their own book covers, and use multiple drafts to try out different creative options) do it this way.
Famous or not, any writer who succeeds with this approach is fated to writing multiple drafts, because a mid-course or unseeded shift in a story’s through-line (a better idea surfaces) results in a draft that isn’t optimized. That just doesn’t work as well as it should.
Just like getting to London and finding out there are no direct flights to Johannesburg after all.
It has been through the use of analogies that I was able to wrap my head around the difference between my former approach (condemning pantsing as crazy, which I did) and my current belief that it is the underlying awareness, depth of knowledge and skill of application relative to the aforementioned rules and principles (especially story structure and its inherent component parts) that is – rather than process – the elusive and empowering variable that determines success.
To Each Her Own – We All Get to Choose
Just this week I heard from a Storyfix reader who passionately and eloquently related her frustrating story planning journey (bless her for trying) and a resultant default return to the comfort and ecstasy of her pantsing ways.
I have no idea if this woman even knows what the major story milestones are and where to put them. Or why. Or if she understands the differences in each of the three dimensions of characterization.
I hope she does. And if not, I hope she understands that those rules and principles aren’t just for planners, they are for any writer seeking to write an effective story, and that she’ll school herself.
If she doesn’t, then the choice to pants is unfortunate. Not crazy, just under-informed or just plain stubborn. Like a golfer who seeks to turn pro but refuses to take lessons (“hey, if I want to tee off with a putter, who are you to tell me otherwise?).
Because until she learns these things, the chances of stumbling upon, or instinctually nailing, the requisite architecture for a successful story are slim.
Like, winning the lottery kind of slim.
My response to her was written from my current, more empathetic understanding of this issue. You can read the blog, her comment and my response HERE if you’d like.
The One Single Thing That Licenses Rule-Free Writing
There is an exception to all the above. One that this series of analogies seeks to hammer home.
If you are writing with the intention of publishing your work, either traditionally or through some form of the emerging self-publishing marketplace, then you are absolutely bound to the criteria specified in the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling. No way around it.
You can’t make up your own art form. You can’t bend the rules into oblivion.
Because, in effect, you are seeking to turn pro at your craft.
And in any professional endeavor there are boundaries, parameters, expectations and processes that not only define the game or work itself, but exist precisely because they work. When practiced and perfected, they result in professional-level performance.
But… if you are writing only for yourself and perhaps some friends, for the pure pleasure of it and nothing beyond… if you are intentionally seeking to write experimental stories that do not adhere to this set of rules and principles and expectations… well… have fun with that.
That’s the only valid rationale for not writing in context to what makes a story work.
Every successful story ever published is a case study in the truth of this reality. Because every professional story demonstrates those rules and principles.
Stephen King pantses his stories. Are you the next Stephen King? Do you know what he knows about dramatic theory and story architecture? Do you have his learning curve, his resume?
If you are an uninformed or defiant pantser who really doesn’t know what a first plot point or a character arc is, that’s the question you must ask yourself.
Because here’s another truth: the more you know about those things, the more likely you’ll be to put at least some pre-draft planning into your process.
Like, for instance, your ending.
I promised you an analogy. Here it is.
A story is like a meal. A feast. A buffet of the senses and emotions.
Or not. Some stories are like a snack. And we all like a good snack.
Either way, for the food to work – to be palatable, to be healthy or at least non-toxic, to be compelling – certain rules and principles apply. At least if you intend to please your guests.
If you’re a food photographer or a sadist, then never mind.
This is especially true if you intend to turn professional, to become a chef who gets paid to put food in front of people. (Remember, that’s the analogous case when you write for publication, there’s no way around it.)
And so the preparation of the food begins.
Is there a recipe? Perhaps. If there’s not, then there’s certainly an expectation in play. A sandwich is a sandwich, no matter what you put on it. Open face, dry or loaded, seasoned or plain, bakery quality or Wonderbread, vegan or deadly juicy, bologna or imported fine aged meat flown in by private jet from South Africa.
A sandwich is a sandwich. Certain principles define that.
You have all the latitude in the world to make the sandwich something of your own creation, to add whatever you wish, to assemble it however you wish. Wearing oven mitts or standing in the kitchen naked. Grilled or microwaved. Organic or scrounged from neighborhood garbage bins.
The options are unlimited. But the rules and principles… are not.
It doesn’t have to be clean or healthy or pretty or something your mother would like. It just needs to adhere to the principles of what a sandwich is and isn’t.
A shingle from your roof served between two discarded wing-tip heels… that may look like a sandwich, but it’s not. There are rules and principles about these things, and your choices, however creative and unique to you (think mustard on peanut butter), need to conform.
You can pants the sandwich using leftovers from your fridge or from something you’ve just slaughtered out back. Make it all up in the moment.
As long as you understand what a sandwich is and isn’t.
Or you can lift it from Martha Stewart’s latest sandwich bestseller written from her study while wearing a police-issue ankle collar.
It’s all your call. As long as the bread doesn’t make the consumer want to use it as a hockey puck or the smell of the meat causes the neighbors to call 9-1-1.
This principle holds true for schooled chefs and your kindergartener.
You need raw materials, and you need to know how to use them. You can gather the materials before you begin, or you can make a trip to the store each time you decide on a new ingredient (the name of that store, by the way, is Next Draft Foods).
The more you’ve done this, the less you need to depend on a cookbook.
Because you know the rules and the principles and the expectations. And you’ve tempered what you know with your creativity and a seasoned awareness of what works and what doesn’t, even when both are technically inside those boundaries.
So… bon appetite. May your guests gorge on your storytelling genius… and may you not get sued for imparting Ebola to the folks who sit at your table.
My new book, “Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing,” has just been published by Writers Digest Books. The rules and fundamentals are there, waiting for you in six easy-to-understand buckets of illumination.