Monday, August 22, 2011

Hello Pansters, You Are All Mad Aren't You?

So I am working on a new novel right now, and I've allowed myself to be led astray by the methods of Davin Malasarn, who writes without an outline. This is my sixth novel. Way back in 1990 I started my first novel (which I like to call The Precious Unpublishable Mess) and spent a few years writing the first half of the story, working without an outline. One night I sat down and wrote out a detailed outline of the second half of the story and finished the book up within a few months. Huh, I said. Things went a lot more quickly with an outline than without one. After that, I wrote four more novels.

Each of those four books was planned in advance, at least in broad strokes: I knew what the big conflicts were, I knew how the stories ended, I knew who all the main characters were and how they related to the conflicts. As I wrote the first drafts, I was able to see how my subconscious was feeding me images that tied into the central conflicts/themes of the book and I was able to craft large-scale symbolic systems that tie the whole story together. Most importantly, I knew what the hell I was doing with each scene I wrote. I could see how what I was building all worked toward the vision I had of the novel.

Now, of course, I've got none of that. I'm sort of hurling words at the page and seeing what shapes they form, like some sort of Rorschach test or something. Really, it's entirely maddening. I have a bunch of characters and I see how they all fit together, sort of, but I don't really know what they'll do. I have two main storylines, but I don't know what the stories are. No, don't even ask how that's possible. The storylines might intersect at some point or they might not. I'll know if/when I get there.

Certain images are occurring to me so I write them down but I don't know if they matter to the themes or story because I don't know the themes or story. I just keep writing forward into the breach with no idea at all what's waiting for me in that breach, and I'll put down 1,000 words and then see that they don't actually follow what I've got but then I see that if I slip an additional 1,000 words between the extant prose and the new passages, it'll all fit together and there's a sense of forward motion but to what? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know.

It sets my teeth on edge. There are people who write like this all the time, who would rather write like this than know where they're going. I find myself getting upset and while I've managed to keep pressing on at the usual rate (the biggest surprise to me has been that I don't write more slowly without an outline than with one), I feel dizzy often when I consider the story, because it's like squinting to look at something that's invisible. Maddening, it is. Insanity.

You pansters, I say, are certainly making life hard on yourselves.

And yet, I am conducting this experiment because I believe in my heart of hearts that there are valuable lessons to be learned about writing with this method. I'm traveling through an unknown landscape with no map, no compass and no idea who or what or where I'll see along the way. I could argue that there's a sort of purity to this method, that I won't be hampered by any preconceived notions about the structure of a story. Certainly I'm not writing to the three-act paradigm right now. I can make a long list of what I'm not doing; what's harder is saying what I am. I have no idea. It makes me tense. Yet it's interesting, and that's enough. Also, the writing is really good. Some of my most gorgeous bits ever. So while there's a madness to this method, I keep at it.


  1. I admire your willingness to try something new. While I've got on detours in the middle of drafts, I could never start writing if I didn't know where I was going. I wouldn't know what steps to take, since I wouldn't have a direction.

  2. Dominique: In my last book, I went on a dozen or so detours. I had the plot worked out pretty much, but in my outline I had these bits marked "the maid's story" or "the war hero's story" or "the judge's story" and I had no idea what they were, and I'd just make them up when I got to them, so on the one hand I had a tightly-plotted mystery story going, while on the other hand I had big stretches of the book where I was flying blind. The "flying blind" spots turned out to be more interesting to write than the tightly-plotted bits, so I'm writing a whole book by flying blind. I don't claim to be enjoying it, but it's an interesting experience.

  3. I cannot write fiction WITH an outline. For true pantsers, THAT would be "making life hard on yourselves." And to be honest, I kind of resent your implication that it's the "wrong" way to write and that we're crazy.

    That's like saying someone who prefers to solve problems using math over art is "mad." It's like saying someone who prefers a structured I,A,i,a outline to a brain map is "mad." It's like saying a person who learns better auditorily over visually is "mad."

    It's a common way to think in today's society: that someone who thinks differently than you is crazy. Why can't our brains just work differently? Why do you have to place demeaning labels like this?

  4. Aria: Wow, dial it back a notch, why don't you? I never said it was "wrong." I said it confuses me. And a comment by me about me is not a comment about you. I wan't talking about you at all. You know what helps me with writing, though? A fucking sense of fucking humor.

  5. I'm a pantser. I'm working on my second novel and I've never written an outline in my life. I love to pants away and suddenly I know what is supposed to happen. I think to myself "Oh, hey, that's what's supposed to happen." It's a great feeling. It may be the main reason I write at all. I'll have to think about that.

    The problem with this method is that, for me, it creates an enormous need for revision. There are always the stray ideas that need to be plucked, generally lots and lots of them, by the time the story has pantsed itself into being.

    Great post, by the way.

  6. Cynthia: Yeah, I can see that not only will I be constantly revising while writing the first draft, I'll probably have a lot of work to do after that, weeding and pruning and reinforcing. I will say that I think I'm having ideas for the story I wouldn't have had if I was writing to an outline, and I think I'm having to think a lot in ways other than I usually do about the story. It's lot of work.

  7. Scott, I can't say for sure if this is good for you or not. But I'm getting a kick out of you trying it. Is that mean of me? I've tried to work from outlines if that makes you feel any better. Of course, I never spent too much time on my outlines, so it wasn't as much of a sacrifice for me. Fun times, Scott! Keep writing!

  8. Domey: I fully believe that operating outside of our artistic comfort zone expands our understanding of/ability with our art. So I think it'll be a good experience, and I think it'll permanently change the way I work for the better. I don't know what those changes will be, but figuring out the method is less important than writing a good book, isn't it?

    But I begin to see how you're able to build the plotlines of your stories. I think. I have an inkling, maybe. This project is--in a funny way--me pretending to be you.

  9. I laughed when I read the title of this post on Google Reader. I knew it was yours Scott. I still love that you're trying your hand at this way of writing, even if it simply an experiment.

    I remember you beat me up on my blog a couple of years ago when I suggested writing without an outline could be a better method, for some writers (like me)!

  10. Charlie: A couple of years ago I thought I Had It All Figured Out As A Writer. What a blowhard I was. Today I'm saying that I still have a lot to learn, even from people who write in ways that are radically different from mine. Look: personal growth! Who'd of thunk it?

  11. "I have a bunch of characters and I see how they all fit together, sort of, but I don't really know what they'll do."

    This sentiment is exactly why I'm a pantster :) I love the not knowing. When I put everything in linear fashion, write an outline and try to stick to it, I still get stuck on the "what ifs" of exploring a character and the world they belong in, but I feel I can't change the original intent BECAUSE ITS WRITTEN DOWN already.

    I know, I know; weird.

    For me, I write towards an end. I have a character, and a desperate or completed destination, and I write to find out how he/she got to that point.

    It's awesome that you're exploring your writing techniques Scott. I think it keeps a writer fresh to try new things sometimes. Doesn't mean you have to stick with it in the long run; but as you say, its a learning journey. Who knows what type of story may be achieved.

    Enjoy the change for as long as you can stand it :)


  12. I'm a chunky pants writer. Not only am I a panster, I can't write linearly. I jump around all over the place. I’ve had novels that I’ve had to do a significant amount of rewriting but others where I haven’t. It’s all good.

    As someone else mentioned I usually start with the characters and it is in writing them that I find the plot. I can’t write from an outline, though I sometimes have an idea where the story will end up.

  13. Donna: Even when I have an outline, I let myself change or even rewrite the outline as I go along. The last third of the book is usually a lot different than I first imagine it will be. But that not knowing? It's really unsettling to me.

    S.P.: I have a feeling I might jump around a lot while writing the middle of this book. This might be a book that I assemble out of bits and pieces late in the day. I really have no idea.

    One thing I might think is that writing without an outline, if you don't fall back on cliches of storytelling, forces you to be creative in a different way than writing with an outline does. I'm not quite sure what I mean by that.

    The utter weirdness of the big empty lying always just beyond the last word I've so far written does wig me out. Possibly I'm writing this book this way just so that not having an outline won't be scary in the future.

    Although to be honest, I'm trying to figure out how Malasarn gets such surprising turns of events in his stories. I think it's partly just him and I can't reproduce that, but I think it's partly that he makes things up as he goes along and doesn't rely on any basic framework. We'll see.

  14. The disadvantage is it takes longer. The advantage is it takes you in new directions and brings forth discoveries I would not have made.

    Besides, I'm a messy thinker anyway and organising creativity beforehand just doesn't sit well with me. Odd, given how much I organise non-creative things.

    There could be a psychology paper in that.

  15. I typically write against some form of outline, but I have written a book in increments by the seat of my pants. I think pantsing leads to delayed outlining, i.e. you end up doing it in the editing and revision stage rather than prior to the first draft.

    At some time it becomes necessary to sort everything out. When I write by the seat of my pants, I'm more likely to have continuity errors. Most of the time they are minor and easily fixed, but once I did write myself into a corner, and that sucks because you have to back-track and either scrap thousands of words (and dozens of hours) or try to use duck tape and patch it all together (which is not recommended, because you can't get that shit off your monitor, ever).

  16. Yes... yes, we are all a bit mad.

    But still, there's nothing like the thrill of not knowing, the constant daily discovery, the roller-coaster of unexpected glee and the sudden sorrow.

    It's the only thing that keeps me writing.

    I tried an outline once. The story definitely had other ideas. I've never used one since!

    Good luck to you in your experiment. It sounds like fun!

  17. Enjoyed this post a lot, Scott.

    I'm going in the reverse direction, wrote my current WIP without much of an outline, but I plan to make a detailed outline for the next one. Find this (the change in method) very interesting.

    Good luck

  18. I swing both ways.
    Plotting certainly helps, but then I've had to throw half of a plotted novel out.
    I've pantsed and written brilliantly.
    I think it partly comes down to the story. The longer the story, the more plotting helps. Not so much on shorter works.
    But I've also pantsed and failed to finish because I've written myself into a corner.
    What I'm saying is that both can lead to success or failure.
    So just do what feels right for the piece you're working on.

  19. Muhahahaha! Finally Scott has succumbed to the insanity that is being a pantster. And yes, we are a little insane. But what I enjoy about the process (if you can call it that) are the little bits of electricity I feel when I write something off-the-wall that still fits in with the general direction I'm going (even if it's an abrupt change in direction). Congratulations Scott. You're drinking the koolaid and I'm proud of you for attempting the scary trip. Just for the record, I feel the same frustration if I try to plot things out. But I have tried it nonetheless and it did help my writing, so hopefully this experience will aid you similarly.

  20. Martin: I will be interested to see how long this novel takes. Especially since I don't have a clue what happens in the second half of it. But I will say that I seem to be writing at the same rate as I do with an outline.

    Rick: I basically agree, that at some point you do have to outline, even if you don't call it an outline. But I'm willing to be proved wrong about that.

    Luckily for me, I write on paper so duct tape on the monitor won't be an issue.

    S.M.: Yes, the thrill of discovery, I get that now. It's almost like I'm reading the book instead of writing it, wondering what will happen next. Which is cool, but weird. At some point, I think, I have to take complete control over my materials and ideas, right?

    Mayowa: I'd be interested in how detailed your outline will be, and how useful all that detail turns out to be. My written outlines are getting less detailed, though perhaps I'm just keeping more of it in my head instead of writing it down?

    Andrew: "what feels right for the piece you're working on" doesn't really apply for me at that level. I set hard challenges for myself with each new book that have nothing to do with making it easier or more comfortable to write. So there is no "feels right;" there's only what I'm doing, if you know what I mean.

    Eric: "the little bits of electricity I feel when I write something off-the-wall that still fits in with the general direction I'm going" Yeah, I get that. Some surprising things have come out of my pen and it's exciting. I'm trying to use everything I write, too, to make it all fit in even if I'm not sure how it's supposed to work with the story. I'm bending the story around whatever materials come out of my head. Which is totally ass-backwards. But maybe this will be more honest writing in some weird way. We'll see. What's on the page is all familiar but at the same time not.


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