This column is 11 days late. It should have gone up almost two weeks ago, on my normal date: the second Thursday of the month. But by that Tuesday, although I’d spent days on it and written thousands of words, nothing worked. I went in circles, I dove down rabbit holes, everything I wrote was confusing. I know because my brilliant coach Jennie Nash not only told me so, but pointed out why. And she was always right.
Panicked, I reached out to Therese, who gave me a reprieve, kindly arranging for someone to switch days with me, allowing me more time to write.
I’ve spent the past week writing failed draft after failed draft. Right now it’s Friday afternoon, and I’ve still got nothing.
Because – and it’s painful to admit this — I’ve been writing a column that would’ve been a lie.
And, apparently, I can’t do that – not, however, for lack of trying. I feel like a character in a story – fearful of owning what I honestly believe, feeling incredibly vulnerable. On the surface I want to seem calm, implacable, together. Inside, I’ve been a raging mess.
So here goes: I was going to write a column that softened my stance on the notion of pantsing and plotting. The column I wrote last month about the dangers of pantsing and plotting upset some people and I was trying to back-peddle because the last thing I ever want to do is alienate any writer. Or make them feel disrespected. Or unheard. Plus, I wanted you all to like me.
And I know that the common wisdom out there is that pantsing and plotting work – meaning, they’re methods that will help you to eventually write a story that will engage the reader. But my whole career has taught me the exact opposite of that. I believe that pantsing and plotting lead writers – especially fledgling, unpublished writers — in the wrong direction, ultimately locking them out of the story they want to write.
I believe that is at the root of why most self-published books sell fewer than 150 copies, and why surveys reveal that agents reject over 96 percent of the submissions they receive. In my experience the number is much higher — for instance, the FAQ page at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management puts it at 99%.
Yes, of course, there are some writers who can sit down and pound out 85,000 words and no matter what method they use, they will end up telling an engaging story. But in my 30 plus years of experience working with writers – in publishing, as an agent and a story analyst and a story coach — they are the elite members of the 1%. The rest of us are the 99% who are trying to make it into that top 1%, and it doesn’t work like that for us. If it did, we’d already be best selling authors.
But what those 30 odd years also taught me is that what gives those elite writers the edge isn’t “talent” per se – some ineffable magic something that somehow spins their words into gold — but a natural sense of the overarching layers that merge to create the “virtual reality” that makes stories compelling. And I have also seen that this “natural” ability isn’t something a writer has and never loses. It can go missing, and when it does, chances are those terrific natural writers don’t really know what, exactly, has gone wrong – because they’ve never had to deconstruct what “going right” actually consists of: that is, what is actually hooking readers. Which is why even Pulitzer Prize winning novels can have long dull patches (I deeply love The Goldfinch, but all that relentless description of the furniture in Hobie’s shop, and 200 pages in Las Vegas — okay, ’nuff said).
What we all need – even that 1% — is a way to envision the layers of a story that does not focus first on the formulaic structure of an external plot (plotters), and does not rely on the luck of finding everything as you go (pantsers).
What I’m talking about is not a formula at all, it’s a way to tap into the story you want to tell, by digging into the specific layers that make up the story. It’s based on what we’re wired to come to story for: inside intel on the real reason why someone does the things they do. And not what they do in general, but what they do under pressure, when hard, unavoidable decisions are being made.
Story is about the internal cost of an unavoidable external change. That external change – the plot – is designed to force the internal change. And so the first layer of story is always: what internal change, why does the protagonist need to make it?
Make no mistake: when you’re lost in a story this internal struggle is what you’re responding to – and this is what the 1% have, for the most part, captured.
But here’s the thing: that first layer — the most seminal layer — comes from one place and one place only: the protagonist’s story-specific past. You can’t get there if you start by creating an external plot, and you can’t get there by pantsing forward from page one. It simply doesn’t work, because you are writing towards the solution of a multi-layered problem that doesn’t yet exist — because you haven’t yet created it. And so your chances of success are very, very slim.
The most heartbreaking thing I learned from decades of working with writers is that almost always, the failure they were experiencing wasn’t because of some talent deficit – but because the process they’d been encouraged to use assumed that they already had the innate (read: tacit) understanding of the myriad interconnected layers that merge to create a riveting novel.
That’s why I spent ten years developing another way to come at writing a novel – one based on what really hooks readers, beginning in the very first sentence. And since then I’ve watched this method unlock stories and free writers, because writing a novel that will engage the reader really is a learnable skill.
But there is no way around the fact that we do this largely by doing things that pantsing and plotting don’t require. To wit:
- We make sure that we know what we’re trying to say about human nature, what the story’s point is, before we do anything else. The story itself is our exploration of how to make that point, and what we really believe.
- We start by digging for meaning in the protagonist’s past, asking why they are who they are, why they have the problem they have, and why they have not yet faced it.
- We answer these backstory whys in scene form so that we’re not just being theoretical, abstract, general; we are being concrete, specific and revelatory. The story is always in the specifics. And the good news is, specifics beget specifics – that’s where the power of this method lies.
- We make sure we know what the protagonist’s ultimate “aha” moment will be – so that we can craft a story that, beginning on page one, forces her to earn it.
- We make sure that everything that happens in the plot forces the protagonist to make the internal change they’ve needed to make since long before the plot kicked in.
- We dig into the protagonist’s story specific past throughout, so we always understand why they want what they want, why they’re doing what they’re doing, why they believe what they believe. Because like us out here in the real world, they have an overarching agenda that’s been in force since long before page one, and it drives their action from the first page to the last.
- We do the same thing for secondary characters.
- We don’t let anything happen if we don’t know why it’s happened. We don’t let anyone do anything if we don’t know why they did it.
As you can see, this is very different from pantsing and very different from plotting – but there is no reason on earth why one’s writing process has to be a binary choice: you’re either a pantser or a plotter. The problem is, that’s pretty much what we’ve been led to believe, and once you self select as one or the other, it becomes part of your self-identity. Your method becomes a kind of North star. It’s what you look to to guide you as you write forward. It’s what you hang onto when the going gets tough.
So if someone like me comes along and says, “Look out!” it feels personal. And so your reaction is likely to be, “I’m fine, thanks, go away, I don’t need your help.”
But here’s the thing: having watched so many writers walk over a cliff chasing that North star, I’ve realized that there’s no way I can stop screaming, “Look out!” But I’m not screaming at you. It’s the process itself that’s flawed.
To be clear: Giving up the familiar binary choice doesn’t mean that you won’t be creating a plot, only that you’ll first create the protagonist’s internal problem the plot is there to solve.
It doesn’t mean there won’t be times when you’ll sit down and write to see what comes out, only that when you do that, it will be within a specific context, and answering a specific question. Because creativity needs context; it turns out that the prospect of endless possibility isn’t freeing, it’s paralyzing.
All of this is why I can’t back down from what I honestly believe: that pantsing and plotting rarely work unless you’re a natural, the 1%, in which case at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what your process is because you will succeed anyway.
So if you’re part of that 1%, and are already very successful, carry on! But if you have the sneaking suspicion that your novel isn’t as engaging as you’d like it to be; if you’re writing and writing and not feeling like you’re making any progress; if you feel like there is something you’re just not getting, I invite you to try this other way.
And if you still think that I’m a misguided idiot, that’s fine too. We’re all better off owning what we believe, out loud — after all, that’s what we’re doing as writers with every word we put to paper. And we can still be friends, because we’re on the same side, fighting for the same thing: we’re Team Story. So even if we disagree on this, here’s hoping we can have a coffee sometime soon and bond over the unparalleled power of story – regardless how the hell it gets onto the page.
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!