Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: the Unhelpful First Step

Bird The first bit of advice for the aspiring pantser is the least useful of all. You have to begin it.

You have to have some dim idea of what the work is going to be like, and you have to slam it down onto the page any way you can. Because the fact is, nobody ever writes the final draft. We all write the first draft, and then rewrite. So get the thing down, however vestigial, dim and dumb-ass it seems to be. You need beat to it into shape but you can’t beat it until it’s there.

Please! Back up. How do you do that? Well, I trust and hope you have a notion, right? Something you can embody in a few words, hopefully a first sentence. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Once upon a time. It is a truth universally acknowledged that … what? Grab the end of that sentence and pull. You don’t need to know the entire arc of a trilogy. All you need is this sentence, even just this half of the sentence. Add the words to get a complete one, and then start on the next.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a land war in Asia is unwise. Okay, here we go. When I began this post I did not have that sentence, but now I do. The minute you have that kickoff sentence, you can start making demands of it. I need characters, to embody and enact this sentence. Characters need a plot, something that, ideally, does involve a war and probably in Asia too. Get those characters on stage, talking, thinking, and doing. They are going to have problems, and they may as well start having them right now, on page one. If in the first sentence we concede that a land war in Asia is unwise, I think that there is going to be one, so that the reader can see the unwisdom of it. How would that happen, when everybody knows it’s a dumb idea? Lemme see. Hypnosis. Mind control. Religious compulsion. Voter fraud. Oh, I know. Aliens, wouldn’t that be fun? Perhaps the earth is something like Worlds of Warcraft, where an overarching game master decrees something or another so that there can be a good game. Who are these players?

You see what’s happening here? A dimbulb idea slithers out of the primordial ooze into the light and lies there palpitating. And immediately it has to start meeting the demands of Story. All those rules of fiction that are at your fingertips, than run in your blood, rise up and insist upon being fulfilled. You force the thing to evolve, to develop legs and stand up. Talk to me, little idea. Fly!

No, I am not going to write this novel about the gaming aliens secretly ruling Earth. (I suspect somebody already has.) That’s the other key rule — not all ideas are worth developing. You’ve seen those market listings ISO stories for theme anthologies, Alternate Beatles or extinction stories or dinosaur tales? The pro writers know that the first idea that floats up for a story for that market should be ignored. A dozen other people have already written about John Lennon surviving his assassination. It’s the fifth idea or the tenth, the one that hasn’t already been done, that should be written up and submitted.

E. L. Doctorow famously said that writing a novel is like driving at night in the fog. “Your can only see as far as your headlights. But you can make the whole trip that way.” To perceive the next ten feet of asphalt is perfectly sufficient. By the time you zoom to the end of that ten feet, the next ten feet will be there.

But you need more than a dingbat idea, staggering upright. there’s tons more stuff to be done, once the writing of it is going good. Next week we’ll think about it!

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Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: the Unhelpful First Step — 4 Comments

  1. A lot of my best stories have started with an image. Describing it and putting it in context will lead to a story. But I’m a pantser to the core. I always just start writing to figure out what I’m thinking about. The process of putting down words and revising them shows me what’s going on.

    • Mine start with an image but I have to coax them into telling me whether they are the beginning, middle, or end.

  2. What, you mean the secret gamers who rule the world? DWJ was a quintessential pantser. You can tell, by looking at her books. Her american editor tells the story of phoning Jones to see how the current book was going. But she learned never to just ask straight out. Asking if the writing was going well immediately put Jones out of step, like asking the centipede which foot goes first.