Essential writing skills: how ‘pantsing’ can lead you adrift. Beware.

I posted a while back on the way to approach novel-writing as a blend of both planning and seat-of-the-pants free-flow.  You plan the skeleton of the story ahead of time, then ‘pants’ your way through the details.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...
Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

The trick throughout is to stick to that plan. Or, if it does seem to be failing on the back of too many new and good ideas, the trick is to recognise WHEN it’s in trouble, stop, and re-cast it accordingly. If you don’t, you lose the benefit of the plan and end up with your pantsing in a tangle.

OK, that was an awful image, but you get what I mean.

I can’t stress that point enough. If you ‘pants’ your way off into the creative blue yonder, I guarantee you’ll end up writing your characters into a position where they have to do something uncharacteristic – or where something unlikely happens. For instance, they’re on one side of the continent but the volcano into which they have to drop the magic dingus is on the other, and they have only five minutes to get there. Or you get to the point where they have to do something that the internal consistency of the setting prevents.

There’s no faster way to break the suspension of disbelief than to have to create a sudden deus ex machina to get your characters out of that sort of tangle.

The best way to avoid this sort of problem is not to get into it in the first place, because it WILL involve re-writing. Danger signs include too much time pantsing and not enough checking back against the structure and characters. But if you do end up tangled – what then?

There is, alas, only one answer. Re-writing the first draft. The only question is the scale of the re-work. If you find yourself, for instance, having to introduce an unlikely device to get your characters out of trouble, you may be able to get around it by re-working a much earlier part of the story where the device is first introduced. That way it becomes part of the plot and doesn’t look like an add-on.

But quite often the only actual answer is to scrap significant tracts of the material and start again. Which is fine – all writing is good writing, to the extent that everything adds to experience. But if you’re up against a deadline, either for a publisher or to meet the word-count of NaNoWriMo, having to re-write risks disaster. And if you’re writing to earn an income, time is money – meaning that the re-write time, effectively, reduces your rate of return.

That’s why it’s better not to go adrift in the first place, and keep an eye on that plan while you’re ‘pantsing’.

Copyright ©Matthew Wright 2014

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2 thoughts on “Essential writing skills: how ‘pantsing’ can lead you adrift. Beware.

  1. Ahhhhhh. Breathe. Ahhhhhh!!!!! This is me, and I am feeling pretty good about my Nano count right now, so this of course gives me a complete attack of paranoia! Breathe/ whimper / repeat

    1. Don’t panic! (Good bit of advice I read in a guide somewhere…). If you’re feeling good about progress that means you’re on the right track! The book hasn’t stalled. I have some techniques for the next steps once Nano is over – push ahead to the end of Nano & get ready for the next phase!

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