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There Are No Wasted Words: Power to the Pantsers

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courtesy Flickr’s -missmonypenny-

Please welcome WU community member and author Carol Newman Cronin [2] to Writer Unboxed today! A bit about Carol:

Carol Newman Cronin is an award-winning author, editor, and Olympian. She is represented by April Eberhardt, and her fourth novel, Ferry to Cooperation Island,  [3]will be published in the spring of 2020. Carol also writes and edits shorter content for clients, mostly in the marine industry, and publishes a weekly blog called Where Books Meet Boats [4].

Learn more about Carol on her website [2], and by following her on Facebook, [5] BookBub [6], and Goodreads [7].

There Are No Wasted Words: Power to the Pantsers

A few mornings ago, I sat down to write the next scene in my WIP. Ferry captain Courtney is taking a few days off to nurse a sprained ankle, and she’s discovered a packet of old letters written by her boyfriend’s mother. Ankle elevated, I was expecting her to steam open another letter in search of a family secret. Instead, cabin fever sends her hobbling down to the harbor, where (eight hundred words later) she helps save a fishing boat from a rocky shore! (Yeah I know, way more exciting than couch-bound letter reading.)

Here’s the catch: I don’t yet know whether that fishing boat is a fantastic new plot point or a completely unrelated distraction, because it appeared out of nowhere.

Welcome to my pantser brain.

With three books out in the world and a fourth publishing in 2020, I know that I write “by the seat of my pants.” (Last week’s surprise was that sprained ankle.) When I begin a new novel, all I have to work with is a cast of characters I’m curious about and a setting where I want to spend more time. Working scene by scene, I follow my imaginary friends into their unknown future, laughing (and occasionally crying) at what we “discover” each morning. It’s almost always fun, and it’s never, ever, dull.

But Scrivener’s statistics for the last project pointed out the inefficiency of such a free-for-all approach: the first draft of 130,000 words took years to write, and it was another twelve months before I could pare that hot mess down to its final, agent-worthy, 94K. 36,000 words, and all those mornings, “wasted” on the way to The End!

So a few months ago, when I started this sequel, I heeded the siren call of outlining. I was determined to reduce—or even eliminate—all those “wasted” words and hours by laying out the story before I wrote a single scene. After all, I’d read plenty of blogs here on WU (and elsewhere) about the advantages of plotting. And my characters were already old friends; how hard could it be to figure out where they were headed next, and write a summarizing sentence instead of an entire scene? So much more efficient! the blog-sirens whispered. How could you possibly write anything without first knowing where you’re going?

How indeed. I toggled over to Scrivener’s corkboard, created a new index card (color-coded by point of view), and started to type.

Fellow pantsers can predict what happened next: “Typing” never bloomed into “writing” because my imaginary friends went silent. Why would they share their innermost thoughts with someone crass enough to reduce pivotal life events down to one measly sentence? It’s complicated! they insisted. To really understand us, you’ll have to live through it all, moment to moment—just like real life.

Just because I already knew what they each liked for breakfast didn’t mean I could predict what would happen by lunchtime, I realized. Plotting out their story before I started writing was as pointless as trying to predict the future for my friends in real life.

Flunking outlining was, I admit, no surprise. Halfway through the previous book’s first draft, inspired by a random post about efficient crafting, I’d filled that virtual corkboard with color-coded notecards. But as soon as I went back to scene-writing, my characters wandered off-script—and many of their most surprising wanderings eventually proved pivotal to the story. Others taught me something about my characters. Courtney’s sprained ankle forced her to sit still long enough to find those letters; that half-mile limp to the harbor proved she’s even tougher than I thought. And so on. Which meant that the only words “wasted” were the ones I typed on all those carefully color-coded index cards.

Scene-writing is the playground where I listen in, like a parent eavesdropping on a child chatting with friends. My characters are free to dart around unpredictably, while I transcribe their moves and make sure they don’t stray outside the fence. Together we’ll eventually figure out what happens next; meanwhile, the only safe prediction is that it will take more words and more mornings than I think it should.

As it turned out, even the words on those index cards weren’t completely wasted. Once I finished that bloated first draft, the chapter summaries I’d written helped me weed out the 36,000 words that weren’t, in hindsight, propelling the story forward. Outlining does work—but for this pantser, it is a complete waste of time until I can see The End.

So tomorrow morning, when the blog-sirens of plotting call out to me again, I’m going to cover my ears and keep slogging away, scene by surprising scene. I encourage all my fellow pantsers to do the same, because listening in on our characters’ innermost thoughts is way more fun than just typing out wasted words.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to figure out who’s on that damned fishing boat.

Plotter or pantser, have you ever tried to incorporate the “other” approach into your own writing? What did you take from the experience? Did it change the way you approach writing? The floor is yours.