Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Listen!

Hng GlideIf you’re a pantser you are not in sole charge of the work. The characters, the plot, the theme, all chip in and drag the book to new and exciting places. You want them to do that. This is the whole point of pantsing in the first place. The book will go to places that you, if you outlined it at the beginning, could never have imagined. You know the thing’s really alive, when it gets up and runs!

But to get this to happen, you have to listen. Listen to the characters. Do they have concerns? Would they really behave that way? Hear the plot, the creaky places where it’s not bolted together well. Brood over the entire work as a unit, and mull over each section or chapter or arc. Go to sleep thinking about it, and when you wake up in the morning lie in bed and think about it.

If you listen with an open mind and heart for a while, you find stuff. When I was writing Speak to Our Desires, I began at the beginning and wrote about 200 pages about my heroine. She had to consult a detective, so she went to New York City and walked into a detective’s office. It was one of those ones with a glass transom and the name of the agency on the door, and the detective sat at a desk. As she stepped through that door, the detective looked up — not at her, but at me, the author. And he spoke — to me! He said, “My name’s Latimer Coates. I’m the hero, and this is page one.” I said, “What? You can’t do this to me. What about pages one through 200?!” But he said, “I’m the hero, so this has to be page one.” And it was. There was nothing I could do about it, as he took charge of the plot, seduced the heroine, and set the entire plot zooming off onto a roller coaster of murder and arcane psychic assaults. I had to chop pages one through 200 into chunks and make them flashbacks, the labor of days.

How did I know these major renovations to the work were good developments, the right direction? Easy — because wow! Was the book ever so much more exciting! If the new notions fit in, if they drive the work forward, if they tie the thing together into a steely unity — that’s how you know. The real goal is to write a really good book. Anything you do to get to that goal is the right thing to do. My new hero Tim Coates was irresistible, and he knew it, the rat. He turned an ordinary dark fantasy into the secret superhero origin of Ronald Reagan. That’s not something that had ever occurred to me. The book did that all by itself, as I protested from the back seat, and converted me completely to the Pants Side of the Force.

And, as a great concession, I will admit that yes, if you have to, outline it at the beginning and draw up combat tables, lists of characters, and the order of events. Kipling assured us that there are nine and ninety ways of writing. He was low-balling it. Do what you have to do, and you’ll be fine.




Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Listen! — 3 Comments

  1. I’m working on a proposal for a book to go to a BIG NY publisher. I got the a prologue I really like and 3 ordinary chapters that introduced everyone, gave a bit of back story, and… and… then I had to write the synopsis.

    Now the way I do a synopsis is to write 1 paragraph about each of the main characters then a brief summary of the necessary action. In the character sketches I need to set forth what the character wants most in life, what’s keeping them from achieving that goal, and the emotional growth they have to endure to get there.

    Um… um… three days later I’m still trying to figure that all out and now I have to go back and rewrite the 3 chapters. I had to listen to the characters and figure out what they want, what they need, and who is going to be disappointed. I hope it’s not the editor or the reader.

    You’re right, listen to the characters and let them tell the story.

  2. It’s equivalent to the theological paradox of free will. Am I the author? Of course I am. In me the work lives and moves and has its being. If I lay down the pencil or power down the word processor, nothing happens until I step up again. I am the total master of the book … except that I’m not. I have to listen to the work. The characters and the plot must be attended to. If I force it, it dies. If I listen to all of it, the work’s alive. I have to give it free will.

    Similarly: does God run His creation like the characters in a video game, or do we have free will? The answer, by analogy, is both.

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