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Rewriting: The Perils of Pantsing

December 28, 2014 by Diane

hand opening red curtain on white.

I’m a pantser. For those who don’t know the term, it means “one who writes by the seat of one’s pants.”

In other words: I don’t plot in advance.

I’m like the baker who decides to bake a cake, has all of the right ingredients, but doesn’t know what to do with them. I stand at the kitchen counter looking at the bag of flour, the tin of sugar, the eggs, the oil, the baking soda, the milk, the bowl, the mixer, the spoon to scrape stuff with, and I know it all goes together somehow, but do I throw the flour in the bowl first, or whip the eggs?

Well, there’s a recipe. There’s a recipe that tells you the order, it tells you the plan. You do this first, and then that will happen. In writing terms, this means plot. Cause and effect. Something happens, the character reacts, causing something else to happen, and so on. It’s a lot like life. But I choose to ignore the recipe. I throw in the flour and then the eggs, and wonder why it’s lumpy. And what’s the point of adding baking soda? Too much bother. So I skip it.

This, my friends, is a recipe for disaster.

There’s a reason you beat the eggs with the sugar first. There’s a reason for the baking soda. There’s a reason to follow the recipe.

Oh, sure, you can make your own version. Use almond flavoring instead of vanilla. You can add nuts or raisins or food coloring, but the basic recipe, the plot, holds it all together.

I have put together one hundred and seventy pages of ingredients without following a recipe, and now I’m wondering why it doesn’t hold together.

The ingredients I needed were:

concept
theme
inciting incident
first doorway of no return
second doorway of no return
climax
resolution
character motivation
conflict
character arc
a consistent voice

Yeah, yeah, I knew all of that, but still…what I’ve got is a character stumbling along from one setting to another, interacting, possibly having a conflict here and there, letting the world propel her hither and yon, and then wham! Throw in something new…a baby, and see what happens to the mix.

When I had finished I stepped back, brushed the flour off my face and shirt, looked at the mess of bowls and mixer blades and the glop of dough in the cake pan and thought, this is it! This is a novel! And then I let it bake. I walked away. When the timer went off I opened the oven door and the thing was flat. No substance.

So I tried cutting the cake apart and slipping in some baking soda, but it was too late! The thing was already cooked. It was solid in my head. I couldn’t let go of the ingredients that I had already put in.

What I needed was a recipe.

So I bought a copy of Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. I wanted to master the six core competencies of successful writing (which the subtitle promises):

concept
character
theme
structure
scene execution
writing voice

I wanted to understand what gives a story structure:

set-up (with inciting incident)
first plot point
character responding to the problem
character attacking the problem
second plot point
resolution

All of which define a character’s arc.

I wanted to learn the secret behind plotting a novel. Certainly, I’ve read other books on plotting. But something about this particular book made the pieces come together.

So what do I do with my cake? Do I throw it out? Do I redo the whole thing from scratch?

Sorta.

I put the manuscript, in its various pieces, back in the cardboard box. I pull up a blank word document and type these words:

Concept
Theme
Set-up
First Plot Point
Second Plot Point
(and so on)

And then I fill in the blanks. I fold in the ingredients. In the order they are intended.

Does this mean I’ll never pants again? Not at all.

I can still pants from plot point to plot point. Or pants the whole thing, then be willing to tear it apart and rebuild it with a solid structure. Or, with enough practice, when the recipe is firmly ingrained in my brain, I can pants, folding in the necessary ingredients in the right order, going by instinct.

Until then, I’ll stick to a recipe.

Takeaways this week:

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks. If you’re a novelist, this book is a must for your shelf.

For cake recipes, check out Food Network. That Red Velvet Cake looks downright embarrassed.

Celebrate your milestones. First draft? Have a drink. Second draft? Treat yourself to dinner. This is my 100th post. I’m going to raid the truffle counter at See’s Candies. I suggest you do the same.


4 Comments »

  1. Charli Mills says:

    So true! I like to pants in scenes so that I can rearrange them easier on my storyboard. Kind of like creaming the butter, sugar and eggs before mixing it with the dry ingredients! :-) Great post!

  2. I love your analogy! I’ve been doing a lot of baking lately (for the holidays) and so I totally get what you mean by having a recipe and adding things or changing things when you see fit.
    I’ve always been more of a plotter and for the last NaNoWriMo I decided to pants it. Well, I didn’t get very far and I really have no plot to speak of… I think I will start from scratch – plot it out – and do a rewrite! :)

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