So I’m a pantser – a seat-of-the-pants writer who makes up the plot as he goes along. I figure if I already know the end of the story, there goes the joy of discovering it and, really, for me, much the point of writing it. Some among you are like me in that respect. Others among you are like me in this other respect: I hate outlining like a cat hates baths. The thought of sitting down and actually plotting things out…yeesh. In a very real and tangible sense, I would rather bathe a cat.
So here’s the consequence of that. I write these incredibly fast, very ragged, awfully ugly first drafts. I put a lot of ideas into play that I know will probably not pan out. I let loose ends live. I basically write anything I can think of, whether I can neatly tie it into the story or not. Unraveling the story problems, according to this model, can always come later.
Trouble is: Later always comes.
So there I am, stuck with a fast, ragged, ugly first draft, with loose ends sticking out all over, no clear sense of what I’m driving at thematically and – you can be sure of this – an ending that 100 percent does not work. My endings never work on the first draft because I simply don’t have enough information yet to write them well. So I write them very badly, then review what I’ve written and inevitably say this: “Okay, well, now I know what not to write.”
Then I go to work. My next pass through the material will be an attempt to harmonize the largest story problems and whip the plot into some kind of shape. This is always the point where I regret being a pantser because writers who do rigorous and vigorous outlining already know that the story works before they even go to draft.
Or so I imagine – but I don’t imagine I’m right. Look, I can only know my own writing process, but I suspect that even robust outliners get their stories out into draft form only to discover – whoops – the plot doesn’t work. So they do what I do: tear it apart, rebuild it, rationalize it, try to make it better. Ha! Score one for the pantsers; outlining doesn’t necessarily give one a structural head start.
Not that this is a race, but still, when I’ve lived with a novel through months after months and drafts after drafts, I’m racing to the finish line. I want to get the book done so that I can get on to the next one, which (according to my messed-up mythos) won’t have any of the plot logic problems or story problems that this one does.
How many drafts do I do? God, I can’t even count. It’s hard to determine what, exactly, constitutes a draft. I do know that with each draft my focus becomes more fine. Where early on I was still trying to solve global problems (stories, characters and subplots that just don’t work), in later drafts I’m down on the local level: polishing sentences; contemplating word choices; making sure I haven’t overused the phrase, “mayonnaise motherfucker” (I’ve been known to). Through all these drafts, my feeling is usually the same: Okay, now I know what I don’t want.
I have two metaphorical models that help me through this endless thicket of revisions. One is the sculpture model. I imaging that the raw material of my novel is like a block of stone that I just have to keep chipping away at until the sculpture within is revealed. The other model is what I call “squeezing out the stupid.” I look at every word, every phrase, every paragraph, every page, and I ask myself, “What is stupid about this?” Then I make the stupid parts go away. When I can go through a manuscript and not find any (or anyway much) stupidity, that’s when I know I’m about done.
Does it sound pejorative to call my own work stupid? I mean it in the nicest possible way. [pullquote]Does it sound pejorative to call my own work stupid? I mean it in the nicest possible way.[/pullquote] I feel like “squeezing out the stupid” is a natural part of the pantser’s process – or anyway of this one’s – because my method injects so much that’s stupid in the first place.
- “The stupid” is anything that doesn’t belong.
- “The stupid” is prose that’s overly florid or just plain self-indulgent.
- “The stupid” is dialogue that doesn’t ring true.
- “The stupid” is plot strands or subplots that didn’t work out.
- “The stupid” is writing that’s clichéd, derivative or otherwise lazy.
- “The stupid” is, obviously, flawed grammar or punctuation, typos, formatting issues, all that chuffa.
As you can see, there’s quite a lot of stupid in a (this) pantser’s early drafts. That’s why it took me just three months to write my last first draft, but nine months to beat the beast into shape. There was just that much stupid to be squeezed.
When I was done, my manuscript had shrunk by some 40 percent, and thereby arrived at the right length. Do I regret all the hours I spent writing all those words I subsequently changed or cut or nuked to smithereens? Yes and no. I don’t imagine that mine is a particularly efficient writing process (whose is?) but then again, I don’t set efficiency as a goal. Sure it’s a little heartbreaking to chuck out 5,000 hard-wrought words, but if they’re the wrong words, what are you gonna do? Out they go. I’d rather have a good book that was hard to write than a bad book that wasn’t. Plus, no matter how easy or hard the work is, there’s always something to learn about my process – something I can take away and apply next time. This time, for example, I learned that next time I really should try outlining.
I won’t do it, of course, but it’s nice to think I could.
Et vous? How do you squeeze out the stupid? How do you know when you’re done? How do you find the true grit to go back through the manuscript one last time (and then one time after that)? Also, where do you stand on the whole pantser-versus-outliner thing? Am I a free spirit chasing my muse or just out to lunch?