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To Pants or Not To Pants?

My critique partner calls it “organic writing.” Experts have coined it “pantsing,” as in, writing by the seat of your pants. Many writers (and I was once one of these) believe that sitting down with only an idea and letting the creative juices flow is the best way to write a quality novel.

Some have succeeded – Stephen King, anyone?

But since the vast majority of us are not King, is pantsing really the way to go? When I began my first book (a way too many pages romance novel that will probably never be edited for an attempt to publish) I simply had the idea of these two cool characters meeting and one being reticent to having a relationship. My lead guy was a paramedic (hot), and she was an English major turned editor, but what she really wanted to do was write her own books. Original, I know. Anyway, the story was full of juicy unresolved sexual tension until about chapter 15 or so, when the two characters finally got together. Then I realized I needed more of a plot. So I came up with the sexy paramedic deciding to be a firefighter and going through that process. As some of you may know, it doesn’t work that way in most cities. They are either one in the same or firefighter trained first. So I had to fly by my proverbial pants and make up some rules. Then add more conflict, and more, and more. The story got out of control, and while I do believe there are a lot of good scenes, it’s far too long and contrived.

Why? Because I was a pantster. Now, in my defense, I also hadn’t written seriously for years and didn’t realize I wanted to write a book when I started dabbling. But I also didn’t have the sense or the tools to step back and make a plan.

With my current WIP, I thought I had a plan. I had an outline of important scenes and some key plot points. I knew a little about my characters. Good to go, right? After all, no matter how much we plan our characters ahead of time, we really don’t get into their heads until we start writing. My approach was better, but not great. I spent two or three months writing and re-writing the first act of the book because the farther I went into the second, more plot points kept popping up that I should have addressed earlier on.

Then came the story board and index cards. Big help. I was forced to sit down and think scene by scene. Finally I could see the entire plot unfold in front of me, and it was much easier to see what worked and what was just plain asinine. Juices began flowing, and I made a lot of headway. In fact, I’m nearing the midpoint of the book, which is very exciting.

Of course there’s a caveat. I’ve been reading up on writing (The Breakout Novel, Make A Scene, On Writing – all great tools) and was actively applying the new techniques I’d learned. My writing improved. And then I made an innocent comment on the wonderful Kristin Lamb’s blog on a post about antagonists (I’m very proud of mine – he’s creepy as hell but also has a strong moral code, or so he thinks) and was informed that my book’s opening, a hook which drops the reader into the middle of a hostage situation, was a big mistake. Melodrama, Kristin said. A writer who doesn’t understand narrative structure.

Say huh?

I know what narrative structure is! Three acts of a book, all that stuff. Right. Clearly, I’m still a novice despite more than a year of radically improving writing. Kristin advised me to pick up a copy of Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, and I urge any beginning writer (or anyone pro stuck in a rut with agents/publishers) to read it ASAP.

With Kristin and Larry’s help, I finally understood that a hook isn’t some jam-packed action scene. If a reader doesn’t care about the character in turmoil BEFORE the crap hits the fan, your plot suffers and you end up with melodrama. I honestly never thought of it that way! Don’t laugh, I’m still learning.

So the big question? Did I have to start on yet another extensive rewrite of my first act? Am I even farther behind than I was?

No. I added an additional seven pages; one with my antagonist getting his creep on, and the other six with my heroine showing the reader who she is as well as setting up the idea that something just isn’t quite right in her world.

Those seven pages are a goldmine, because they drastically helped the flow of act one and help me answer questions about the second act.

I’ve learned a major lesson: some can fly by the seat of their pants. I cannot. Of course there are ah-ha’s and inspirations along the way – that’s the beauty of writing – but without a strong plan and a decent story structure to follow, most of us will be doomed to either writing 987 drafts, giving up, or having an agent toss us aside without a second glance.

Don’t be a hardhead stuck in your ways. Those with established readers and contracts might afford to do so (although I would question any midlist author who can’t understand why their novels don’t breakout) but us little people can’t. We need to hit the ball out of the park to stand any kind of chance of getting noticed, and the only way to do that is to continuously learn what works.

Story structure works. Brooks is right – it’s in every book out there, whether the writer realizes it or not. Setup, inciting incident, first plot point, midpoint, second plot point … these all need to be planned in advance. If you know when and where these key events happen, the rest of your story will fall into place much quicker.

Brooks says a lot more; his core competencies model of writing is the most clear-cut ‘how-to’ book I’ve ever read. It not only understand how to structure a story, but why it needs to be that way. Read it. Twice. Love it.

But remember, the story is yours to tell, and you must do so the best way you can. You don’t have to follow Brooks’ model to the exact page count, but by using it as a guideline, you’ll be a more efficient writer.

Good luck!

2 comments on… “To Pants or Not To Pants?”

  1. Thank you! Developing the characters is really important of course, but I'm learning if you don't know key plot elements before you begin writing, you're in for a lot of headaches:)

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