Lisa Cron, writing on Writer Unboxed, recently offered a modest proposal to pantsers: Don't!
Before you leap to defend your preferred practice, you would do well to consider her argument and my mollifying proposal in the title.
Lisa observes that we do most of what we do each day because it is a habit. And because they are our habits, we tend to think that they simply reflect "the way things are." But habits are not destiny. " We can – and should," Lisa says, "break habits that are not serving us well.
And what does this advice from new-resolution season have to do with writing? Lisa explains:
"Habits are maddeningly hard to break. Especially because it doesn’t take long for them to stop feeling like a habit at all, and instead feel like “the way things are.”
"Which brings us to the real subject at hand: pantsing. Many writers embrace the notion of being a pantser – writing by the seat of their pants – as the most authentic way to write. That is, letting it all pour out as a way of “discovering” the story they’re fated to tell. Hey, as Robert Frost said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” It’s a dodgy sentiment at best, and often taken to extremes that would no doubt make Mr. Frost cringe, until it sounds a bit like Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams hokum: “Build it and they will come.” Translation: write blindly and the story will magically appear.
"Instead, the surprise in both the writer and the reader is most often: “Well, I thought this would be engaging, but instead it’s a big fat mess.”
"My goal here isn’t to bash pantsing per se. It’s to suggest that maybe it isn’t your inherent, hardwired process. Maybe it’s a bad habit you picked up along the way."
You'll need to read Lisa's article to get the full argument. But I wanted to add two observations:
- The advice to simply sit down and start writing is good advice for beginning writers who are overwhelmed or intimidated by the task. And writing teachers have nothing to work with until there are some words on the paper. But once a writer is no longer afraid to put words on the page it's time to step up to the next level and learn how to put words on the page with purpose.
- A sign of mastery is knowing what matters and what can be deferred--questions that don't have to be answered right away are often better answered when you know more about the project. Crafting beautiful prose for a scene that you ultimately wind up cutting may be a good writing exercise, but it doesn't help you finish the project.
If "plotting" still feels like a dirty word, then. like an artist making a quick sketch, you should at least try pantsing without prose--phrases, fragments, and perhaps a line or two, just enough to capture the essence of the scene.
Take a look at Lisa's article and tell us what you think.
Deren Hansen is the author of the Dunlith Hill Writers Guides. This article is from Sustainable Creativity: How to Enjoy a Committed, Long-term Relationship with your Muse. Learn more at dunlithhill.com.