There is a wonderful scene in This Is Spinal Tap, the ‘mockumentary’ about the world’s loudest heavy metal band, where they end up performing ‘free form jazz’ at a zoo. The improvised song is, of course, horrible – and deliberately so.
Music usually needs structure. Experienced musicians can improvise – they know what’s needed to create structure on the fly. Or they’ll be working inside a known structure (let’s say, 12-bar blues) which, by nature, gives form.
The same is true, too, of writing. To me, ‘seat of the pants’ writing – ‘pantsing’ – as it is called, has huge advantages, because it lets the mind wander creatively. It has a freshness of expression you can’t get any other way – and which can also be lost, if you’re not careful, by repeated revisions.
But it also carries huge pitfalls. Aimlessness is the big one – ‘pantsing’ without knowing where the story, character, argument or whatever is going. To me, that risks sliding into the abyss of ‘writing as personal entertainment’, if we’re not careful – people writing as a pastime because it’s more fun than watching TV or playing Sim City.
The thing is, material produced this way is NOT likely to be usable in a published book. Why? Because a book – any book, but especially a novel – must have certain structural elements before it is publishable. And a novel written by pure ‘pantsing’ – free-form writing and seeing what happens – almost certainly will not have that necessary structure.
So how do published writers do it? Many do – and did – write by apparent ‘pantsing’. Look at Isaac Asimov, for instance, who wrote his novels essentially full-formed in Draft 1.
What they were actually doing was pretty much the musicians’ method – the structure is actually there, they’re simply improvising around it, without leaving the tried-and-true form.
Asimov himself said so in as many words – he always knew the end point – where everything was going. Otherwise, he explained, you got lost. And if you read Asimov’s stuff, it’s structurally all spot on. In other words, he pretty much had the plan of his book in mind all along, and stuck to it.
My take is that ‘pantsing’ is an essential part of writing – any writing – but it doesn’t reduce the need for proper structure. The answer is a balance. Create the macro-sized structure – in effect, the framework. Know where you are going, in general. Then ‘pants’ the specifics. That, too, will get more structurally formed – on the fly – as your experience grows.
What’s your take on pantsing?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013
Next week: ‘write it now’ – the world of macro writing structure; more sixty second writing tips, funny science geekery, and more.