Wednesday, September 1, 2010

My Pants Are On Fire

There is a story in you. And it will have to come out.

I used to have a cartoon on the fridge with a doctor giving a patient an xray and seeing a book inside him. Those words were under it.

If only it were that simple.

With me the process goes something like this: First there is the story, all inchoate and HUGE inside me. This is the time when it pushes to be written. I’ll have these fascinating characters – it always starts with characters to me – and they JUST have to be written.

Usually at this stage I know the main problem of the novel. I might also have – or not – a general idea of what the novel wishes to SAY. This is not always clear for novels. It always is crystal clear for short stories “This is a story about bereavement” for ex. Or “this is a story about how the stronger/more male culture takes the women.” Or, one of my favorites “You never know your kids.” Of course, the tech, etc. then serve that purpose. But that’s shorts. Novels, I get the character, their problem and a feel. Sometimes I’m halfway through the novel before I go “oh, duh. It’s about ... x.” And then I set about making that stronger.

And there you’re running into hints of what drives me insane. It’s the “Sometimes.” The initial push is usually the same – the feel of these characters and what they want and can’t have. But then we get down to brass tacks.

For years, I wrote outlines and followed them slavishly. Those of you who study my work, the three published according to this model are Ill Met By Moonlight; All Night Awake; Any Man so Daring. With Plain Jane, I wrote it all in one very quick run-through. It was in my head, then on the page. Fortunately, it was an unusual work. Being history “fictionalized”, the plot was not a big problem. I could have “Start with Jane as a child.” and “Put in a Cinderella structure.” Once that was done, I was fine. (No Will But His was MUCH harder, because there’s less that’s “fixed” on Kathryn Howard.)

By the time I hit Draw One in the Dark – running – I was dissatisfied with the way that the first three books read. Part of it, I realized, was that by writing the whole plot in advance – including subplots – I essentially locked myself in to an artificial structure before I PROPERLY inspected the terrain. It was sort of like the battle plans of WWI, before the generals saw what the weapons did.

No, I’m not insane. Well, not technically. I know the novel comes from inside my head. But those of you who’ve written books know, the perception of the character changes, the idea of who the villain is, and why he’s the villain. My villains tend to be A LOT more cardboard on the outline, until I come in contact with them and see them breathe and CRAVE. Some become much more horrifying – Nigel’s brother in Heart of Light who, I swear, wasn’t even a villain in the outline – and some become non-villains (Tom’s father in DOITD.)

Anyway, to counter what I thought was a hasty locking-in of events, I started plotting ONLY ten chapters ahead. This is how DOITD was written, and it gave me a chance to improve on my timing.

I wrote Heart of Light and Soul of Fire and the Musketeer Mysteries by THIS method. And then I hit a wall with Heart and Soul and Gentleman Takes A chance, which insisted on a) coming out at the same time b) not letting me plot the closure. I’m not sure how it worked with h &S but I think it worked very well with GTAC.

And then... I became a pantser. Which for someone like me, who has an absolute need of control, is sort of the equivalent of becoming a Martian. All of a sudden, I can write all the outlines I want – and do – the books WILL NOT follow them.

This is a huge problem. Weirdly, it doesn’t seem to make books harder to write, but it makes them incredibly more frustrating. I’ll get three fourths into the book and realize I have the wrong end of the stick. Sometimes, as in this case, I realize that the book I have essentially written (though some chapters are “something goes here”) needs to be completely recast and sharpened because the message is not only different from what I thought, the ... quality of the regime in question is different and my main character’s history is COMPLETELY different.

It’s also a problem because while it gives me flexibility in HOW to tell the story, it makes it impossible to put a story down once I’ve started it. Which robs me of flexibility in my career. I promised my agent I’d set the spec space opera aside and do the mystery and space opera that ARE contracted, but ALL I managed to do – already being halfway through novel – was block myself on everything. And now my only choice is to write the revision through, very quickly, so I can move on.

The main problem, though, is how stressful this method is. I will write till I stop/till I know it’s “off tune” and then I spend a week, a month (or in the case of Sword and Blood – which is still out there) three years trying to get the problem to manifest itself and the novel to gel. As we speak, for the first time in my life, I’m trying index cards. (Pray for me.)

I really am NOT at heart a pantser. And this still doesn’t feel like pantsying. I’m not meandering over the landscape, enjoying myself. It’s more that I have this very rough map, but it’s soooo wrong, I find myself taking all sorts of detours, and trying to find other maps.

So HOW do you do it? What part of the story does present to you first? And when it does, how do you coax the rest out? And more importantly, how does one cure Middle-Age-Onset Pantseyreyism?


MataPam said...

I'm a pantser. It doesn't seem to work, otherwise.

I almost always start with the Characters. Being devoid of ideas about two weeks ago, I poked around my cross dimensional fantasy series. I took a look through my cast of minor characters to see what they were up to, when I wasn't looking. Discovered three sisters taking up smuggling.

So that leads to a contemplation of characters from those other dimensions. Ah! Yes, so-and-so must have been promoted into a spot where he's going to be investigating this troublesome smuggling, he'll need some younger (male) investigators to encounter the sisters, since he's now a respectable married man with twins.

All of which makes the story problem obvious. The authorities find and close the smugglers' interdimensional Gate, and they're trapped on the wrong side. Now they'll have to smuggle themselves home through the official network of well guarded and regulated Gates.

At this point, having found a problem to set up and then work through, I feel all satisfied and happy. I really like this point in writing. The main uncertainties are gone, and all this potential mayhem lies ahead.

Right now, I have a vague framework on paper, too skimpy to call an outline. It's about a page long, then I've got lists of characters, cut and pasted to the bottom, so they're handy. I poked a few extra characters that might come into it, wrote several scenes. Obviously I'm leaving room for romances, chases, fights, impersonation and so on, but I won't pin those down, they'll either happen, or not, in the first draft. Then when I go back to fix the problems, I'll probably insist on a minimum of one each.

Right now, I need to come up with a Bad Guy. I mean, the smugglers aren't _really_ bad, and the authorities are just a bunch of eager young men who want to impress the boss. So I need someone nasty to throw under the bus. Probably the smugglers' middleman, who discovered he could turn the smuggler's medicines into addictive drugs and... Excuse me, I've got to go write this down.

MataPam said...

Oh, and Sarah, I don't think there is a cure. At some point, one's left brain figures out the Art of the Story, and takes over from the stogy, plotting right brain.

Oh, the right brain still gets to plot things out, and make things make sense. But it just can't be allowed to interfere with the inspired half.

Having learned how to take control, the left brain isn't going to release this wonderful avenue of expression easily. At best, one can achieve a stalemate, AKA writers block.


I don't actually know if this is a left-right or a conscious-subconscious matter. It leads back to Roweena's brain activity studies and creativity. I think you have to recognize that your brain works _this_ way and not try to force it to work in an ordinary fashion. We all go through learning processes, and the end result is usually being able to do whatever better and more easily. It's just that in this case, we didn't recognize the training, and are shocked by the results.

carlos de la parra said...

I think that a good solution to getting stuck is to find different moments before you got there an try a detour from them.
One of these detours might lead to the right path.

Megan Haskell said...

I'm working on my first novel right now, and have found that I've used a lot of different techniques during the course of writing it.

I started out as a pantser. I had a couple of characters and a few high level plot points that I knew I needed to hit. When I was about 25% finished with the first draft, I started to get lost in my timetable, so I built out a calendar of events (literally). That seemed to help a lot, but I quickly realized that some of my events didn't really make sense for the story. They were totally unnecessary. I ended up revising and re-revising my calendar until it was practically useless. After that I tried notecards. Again, it helped for a few scenes and got me to the last third of the story, but I hardly look at them anymore. Now I'm wrapping up the first draft and I'm back to being a pantser, not really having a plan in place for what my characters are going to do between now and my envisioned end.

I suppose I'll eventually find a single method that works for me, but for now I'm just hoping to get the complete story down on paper. Maybe the next one will be a little easier. *crossing-fingers* :-)

Anonymous said...

I've only got experience with short stories, but I'm a little bit pantser and a little bit outliner. I outline the major scenes in my head as to how they happen. This gives me room to take plot liberties when writing if I find cool ideas hiding out in the dark spots of my brain.

I wouldn't be able to keep track this way with book length, but I can with shorts.


T.M. Lunsford said...

I have a general outline of what major events need to happen and what they need to achieve, but I also embrace the pantser in me when a new idea strikes me as necessary. Of course, all of this is contingent on my brain allowing me to work, which it hasn't done since my change in location.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


This process of guessing and poking at it is way beyond scary. Perhaps my subconscious is working at it, but you have to understand, artistic and creative I might be -- I'll admit it under torture, at least -- but mostly I think of myself as a craftswoman and craftswomen work at their trade, they don't wait for the angel of inspiration to whisper in their ear.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Possibly. I've been "craving" reading a lot of strange things, mostly history. I think the beast wants to be fed, and maybe it will jog something loose. At least, pace Heinlein's bio, I'm not laying down on the sofa and moaning. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


My first novel was plotted, but when I finished it, I realized I'd written three times more novel than needed to be there. I might have pared too far, at that -- at the time I wanted "cut to the bone" and "artistic elegance"... instead od allowing the readers to enjoy themselves. I have said I was a fool, right?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

well, in short stories, too, I used to be a rigid plotter. Somewhere I still have my short story worksheet. The thing is, those shorts SOLD. However the first short I sold -- Thirst -- was pantsed. And in the last three years, I've found I can't plot at all. I know what the short wants to SAY. I often start with a sentence/image. And then... the story just goes.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Taylor -- chanege in location... I've found I need some things to work. My office still looks like a corner of a library, even though a lot of the research is now electronic. My desk must be wood. AND I've carried the same set of drawings -- ripped from a book of Boris Valejo's work when we were 23 and broke and framed in increasingly nicer frames -- with me through the last twenty + years and... seven offices. I tried only once to go for a completely different look -- white walls, glass and metal desks and bookcases. And found my mind froze up. I'm an atavism, I think. I need my cave to work.

Chris L said...

I write both. I've sold a few stories and written a book (2nd draft). I tend to start with ideas, and if I get enough of them to work cohesively, the next thing is to go a-hunt'n for the right kind of characters to explore them.

I don't like to leave too many aspects of a good idea untouched, even if some of the more unpalatable facets are only referred to in passing. I try to make this play into my characters personality traits.

But there has to be humour. Writing serious characters for any length of time drives me crazybored. Sometimes I'll have to write a few gags that I know will come out later, just to keep myself amused.

I'm certainly no plotter, but I do build scenes in my head in advance. These will change based on ideas as they present themselves, but everything revolves around bringing the central idea to fruition.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Not a pantser. I love my outlines. I love my structure for outlines. I love planning my roadmap.

There is, I think, something of a myth that if you outline, there's nothing to discover in the writing. I've always made new discoveries-- characters that stepped up to bigger levels than I planned, subplots that needed more attention. There's plenty of surprises left.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris L

That is almost the opposite of what I do. Heck, if I have the wrong name for a character, I can't write. Draw One in the Dark was held up for a week, as I knew "Kris" was the wrong name for the girl, but "Kyrie" hadn't occurred to me. Fortunately I got a birth announcement for a friend's daughter (Hi, Alyson) named Kyrie Grace. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


See, that's how I used to write. I LIKE writing that way. Why isn't my mind cooperating? (wha, wha, wha)