I’ve always said I’m a pantser, and that I believe writing under pressure is a great way to beat self-doubt. And I still am, and I still do, mostly.
But what happened a couple of weeks ago spurred me to reconsider my position about the best way to write a novel.
Quite simply, I started, willingly enough, one of the most ordinary tasks a writer has to carry out. Namely I went through the first draft of a novel I had finished some weeks before.
To put it mildly, it was a hell of a mess. In that first draft I really put in everything I thought of, so much so that at times I found myself laughing maniacally at passages whose incoherence screamed at my sensibility as a reader.
To make a long story short, when I finished reading the first draft, I realized I had poured into it ideas enough for three novels, but I had paid little to no attention at all at the way all those ideas had to fit together to form a unique working unity.
First drafts’ Rule
Now, first drafts are always pretty shitty, we all know that. Indeed, few authors, if any, manage to write first drafts at an acceptable standard. Usually they are pretty experienced writers. And even in their case there’s no guarantee.
A book can come to them perfectly formed, like a gift. Then, the book after that could instead require dozens of rewrites.
In fact, while correlating positively, quality and effort do not do so on a book-by-book basis.
This means the more you work, the better you become. But this also means that the book on which you worked harder could nonetheless end up being the less successful, commercially speaking.
All this is fair enough. And I knew about it, no surprises there.
Yet, this time, reading through my first draft I couldn’t dismiss a nagging feeling. Namely, the certainty that if I had spend some time writing even just a two-page plot of the novel, and had thought a bit more about the characters, before I began to put pen to paper, I would have come up with a much tighter first draft. Not at all a masterpiece, mind you. But, at least, I would have managed to put my eyes on the story I had first envisioned.
Instead, this time I must go mining. And mining can be dangerous. Galleries are dark and narrow and tortuous. I can use torchlights and drills and power tools of all sorts. I can try to connect distant shafts, and reinforce walls and roofs. But the truth is that mines can collapse.
Thank god, I believe this is a job that can still be done. But, irrespective of how many more drafts I’m going to need to come up with a clean and honest novel, this experience made me reconsider the pantser/plotter dichotomy.
In fact, it isn’t important that we choose, once for all, whether to be a pantser or a plotter, but that we renew our choice for every new story we start writing.
As I said before, some stories come to us like gifts. Pretty much prepackaged. In that case the decision is pretty straightforward. We feel the story sing into our head. We feel it urging us to write it now, as it is.
Other stories though, are a damn pain in the ass. We have the feeling of the story, we see the shadow of what looks like a castle, but we can see no real castle. Only shifting shapes that maybe by the time we figure everything out have agglutinated into something completely different from a castle.
In these cases, if we took a moment to really consider how to proceed, maybe even using a bit of plotting, we might end up with fewer headaches and a bunch more of completed stories under the belt.
In particular, when ideas are real hazy it could be more useful to alternate between bursts of pantsing and plotting. Especially at the beginning. And repeat the process till the pieces really begin to fall into place.
Plotting… isn’t it evil?
For some hardcore pantsers, plotting might look like betraying creativity, but I think otherwise. To start with you can plot at many different levels of details. Having a four page outline of your story with all the chapters listed, and each with its own goal, isn’t the same as plotting a conversation.
Besides, having a loose plan for my story can help me structuring and writing it in a more efficient way. Because if halfway through the execution of my plan I come up with a new and entertaining idea, nothing prevents me from following it for a while. To see where it leads.
If it pays off, I can work out a new plan. If not, I can go back to my original plan. After all, having a plan is not the same thing as knowing how your protagonist called his Teddy bear when he was a five-year-old.
A plan is like following a road. The Teddy bear thing is like stopping by the side of the road to examine every single damn blade of grass.