When most people sit down to write a book or a story they have some idea of how it’s going to go. They outline, plot, do many other things that can make writing much easier. I am not one of those people. I am what we call a pantser. Pantsers go into a story with just a general idea of the story. I write mystery and I usually only know the crime and how it is committed. I don’t even know who did it until the end!
Instead of plotting ahead of time, I let my characters control what happens. They show me who the suspects are, when things happen, why they fight, and ultimately who did each crime. While I know this method is not for everyone, it is what works for me. I feel that the story is more organic, more real, this way. Sometimes, when you plot things out ahead of time, things can feel forced. A character may do something that is unnatural for them because the outline says they have to. A big plot point may be revealed to early or too late. With pantsing everything happens when the character needs it to happen. Since the characters themselves are controlling things nothing feels out of place.
There are, of course, problems with this method. One of those is length. Sometimes my characters finish the story well before it is long enough to be considered a novel, other times they take too long. They also occasionally do things you don’t want them to do. For example, in my latest work-in-progress I had intended my main character and her boyfriend to break up. They had their fight, but somehow the boyfriend refused to get mad at her. While I do think that this was the right thing for the characters in the end, it was very frustrating in the moment.
Overall I know that pantsing is the right method for me. I love the surprise involved, for me as well as the reader. It is harder, though not impossible, for the reader to figure out the killer if I don’t know myself! I also enjoy the freedom that pantsing gives. There is nothing, save for finding the killer, which HAS to happen in any story I write. While there is certainly struggle, I know that this is the method for me. Maybe it is for you as well.
Here are the top seven writing habits repeatedly mentioned by big time writers including Bryce Courtney, Stephen King, Maya Angelou, Neil Gaiman, and Agatha Christie.
- Be consistent. Some authors write at a given time, some only on given days, but all of them make writing important and consistent.
- Never justify. If you want purple grass and seven moons, go for it. If your characters are exceptionally goody-goody, or sociopathic, then that is what makes the story yours.
- Let it go. At some point, put the story, poem, song, play, out into the world. Give it wings. If it crashes and burns, follow point four below.
- Never stop writing. If the first one flops, write the second, and the third and the seven thousandth. You actually never know when someone (see final point below) will read something you’ve written and it really does make it big.
- Balance your weakness. If you can’t make a deadline, write well. If you are submitting crap, turn it in on time. Write drunk, edit sober. Once you have figured out your personal crazy, make sure it isn’t so dysfunctional that you become your own worst enemy.
- Be flexible. If you can’t find a publisher, find another way. If you are getting a backache writing at your desk, write somewhere, anywhere, else. If you hate computers, figure out voice recognition. Work arounds keep life interesting, and productive.
- It’s who you know. Meet people, be friendly. You never know who will make the call that you’ve been waiting for.
You are sitting in front of the laptop ready to write the story that has been circling in your head for years. It’s plotted. The characters are well defined with qualities readers will love and hate. But your fingers freeze. How do you start?
It’s something every writer struggles with. The first sentence contains the most important words you’ll write in the story. The sentence has to captivate the reader and pique their interest to read on.
One of my favorite books does it well. The first sentence in ‘Paradise’, by Toni Morrison catapults you into the story without any preamble. “They shoot the white girl first.” What a great sentence.
Much has been written about first sentences and I’ve read a lot of them before writing this blog entry. State a principle, a fact laced with importance, or introduce an internal voice. Most authorities discourage writing about fluff like the weather. But in '1984' by George Orwell, the first half of his first sentence is something you would read off of weatherchannel.com. ‘It was a bright cold day in April..." However, it’s the second half of the sentence that is riveting. "...and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ A clock striking thirteen. Right away the reader knows something is off.
So when writing your first sentence, take the time and think. Does it draw the reader in and make them wonder what's going to happen next.
There are many steps to writing. There’s the idea, then the outlining, the actual writing, the editing, and then finding a market to send the story to. Being able to choose between projects at different parts of the writing process gives me a level of freedom. If I’m not in the mood to write I can edit. If I have a new idea in mind then I’ll outline. If I’m socializing my mind will quietly be fleshing out the next idea. But this freedom sometimes gives me a problem; my projects get stuck.
I have two short stories that have been in the middle of the editing for months now. I’ll think I’m done editing and send them to another beta reader, who has new suggestions and great points that need to be addressed. How do I know when the editing is done? I mean beta readers are always going to have comments to make, and not everyone is going to like every piece. When is the right time to find the market and send the piece out into the world?
I think it’s a question that plagues every writer. One answer is to have a submission deadline; even if the editing is not done the piece has to go out of the door to get considered. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to start this publishing company, if deadlines help me unstuck editing projects then it’ll probably help other writers too.
Are there other answers? Honestly I haven’t found another way that works for me. As
I read more I become a better writer, and as I edit old pieces again, and again, and again, I keep seeing new and different ways to make the piece better. Until I force the deadline, or stop seeing ways to make the piece better, it’ll always stay in the editing process for far too long.