Friday, June 25, 2010

Writing by the Numbers - 2

One topic I see a lot of on author blogs and in the various online groups that feature authors, is the use of outlines versus 'pantsing', i.e., winging it, playing it by ear, throwing stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks...well, let's stick with pantsing.

I am a pantser. Just thought I'd make that clear.

Back when I first started writing the book that eventually became Unbinding the Stone, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had a dream (really, the whole thing started with a dream I had one night) and a first line that popped into my head, but nothing else. Okay, something else, years of reading other people's fantasy novels, and of course, my wonderful high school English classes.

So when I sat down to write that first draft I put down that first line and thought, "Now what do I do?" I thought about it for a day or so, and decided I really didn't like descriptive prose. I didn't read it in the books I read, and I would be damned before I'd write it. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a need for description of some kind in a book. My solution to this dilemma was simple and obvious: pay attention to what the character perceives, rather than what he sees. We all see things that we don't perceive, simply because we've seen it a million times before. What we perceive is usually the stuff that matters to us at that time, for whatever reason.

The connection to pantsing in all of this obvious, I'm sure. I was pantsing squared. That's why this post is called Writing by the Numbers - 2. In the first Writing by the Numbers I wrote about writing for me, for number 1, so to speak. Maybe I should stop before I get to 3, not sure what'll happen there.

Back to squared pantsing. Not only was I making it up as I went along, I was making up how to make it up, as I went along. It didn't stop with description, you see, it became everything I wrote. What words the guy used, how did he speak, how did the non-human creatures speak and act, how did gods act, all with an eye to making them readable to a mere human like myself. (Which is crap, really, since I was writing them, they obviously had to be readable to me. The problem was making them still sound plausibly like gods and non-humans.) Needless to say it all worked. Eventually. That first book did need some extensive revision, mainly because the computer it was on crashed and I had no backup, but also because the first version sucked, big-time.

The second book, A Warrior Made, was similar but very different, since I never do the same thing twice. The good thing was, I had some idea of what the main character was like. The bad thing was, it was 20 years later, he had grown and changed a lot in the meantime, and I added 6 other main characters.

My latest novel, St. Martin's Moon, which starts with a werewolf attack on a lunar colony, was even more pantsed than them. Not only did I not know what was going to happen next, I didn't have a plot, or even a genre for the book. It was originally supposed to be a horror/mystery but I don't really do much with setting (a requirement for horror) or plot (necessary for a good mystery). Unfortunately I found out too late, and here I was with these really cool characters walking around and doing stuff. The only connection to all these things was the hero, since everything that happened was because he was there. But he wasn't doing them. When I finally figured out what the book was about, some 2 weeks after I finished it, the amazing thing was that it all worked!

The only way I can write is if I have something that I've already written, to work with. Outlines are not possible for me. I have to have the story written up to that point so I have something to extend. Unbinding the Stone itself started from a philosophical notion I heard about in class, that I used a fantasy context to develop and build on. So I have to say, pantsing is a great thing. For me it's the only thing. But really, I would recommend not pantsing about your pantsing.

Wait a minute, I just had a great idea for that third post--!


Kelley said...

Great post. You made a good point about descriptions and how a character perceives things. It's all about knowing your characters and how they think.

Your books sound good. I like the titles. That's what always grabs me first when looking for a book.

Author Guy said...

Thank you, Kelley. The characters have always been the heart of my stories, as well as all the stories I think are truly great.

I'll add Titles to the list of things to blog about in the future. The title for Stone came to me very late in the game, after an image in the book that I wrote about late. A Warrior Made was more deliberate, since Tarkas was anything but a Warrior Born.

Wendy Sparrow said...

YES! Exactly! That's how I write and I love that it usually works out in the end... like magic. I even leave myself clues that I later manage to work in. I have no explanation for why pantsing about pantsing works, but it really does for some of us.