Saturday, September 3, 2011

Pantsing: Scene by Scene

Usually I outline the plot from beginning to end before I set pen to paper (or...fingers to keyboard?). The outline might only exist in my head. It might be short, or vague, or sport a few large holes, but it will contain at least a beginning and an end. I like to know where the story’s headed so that I have a goal to shoot towards and so that I have some idea of how long it’s going to take me to get there. It’s these two things that keep me slogging through to the end of a first draft. At least, this is what I tell myself. Part of my success with outlining is just that I’ve made it a habit, and habits are maintained by, well, by doing them.

Then I took a six month break from writing fiction. I had just been through a move and it had completely obliterated the forward momentum I’d had on a large writing project. I switched to editing a short story and had to abandon that, too. I was suffering morning sickness and “looking forward” to moving some time before the baby was due. Frustrated, I decided that it would be better to take a purposeful break than to feel ashamed for accidentally not getting any thing accomplished*. But now that the break is over, I find myself writing... differently. It’s a bit like how I used to write before I decided to take writing seriously and develop My Way of Doing Things. But that’s not necessarily bad. It feels good to rediscover my roots.

My root is the scene. I used to think that my writing root was the characters, but it’s not. The characters are like the little tendrils that break when you mercilessly yank that pansy out of the pot for replanting. They grow to fit the container you put them in, and they regrow after you brutalize them like the heartless, character-murdering god you are. The scene, on the other hand, is how you present to the reader not only the characters but all the other good stuff, like car chases. And the Big Idea. You know, whatever there’s room to include.

The interesting thing about my scenes is that I also plan these in advance, even if “in advance” is only ten minutes beforehand. Envisioning scenes in my head is simply how I think about my stories most of the time, and although details such as exact wording will change once it’s actually written, I never find myself staring at the proverbial blank page. I do this because I can’t stand the idea of wasting time, so I’m brainstorming through scenes when I’m doing things like getting ready for bed or waiting at the doctors. If I give up on a story, it’s always at a scene break. That part hasn’t changed.

But now, instead of these scenes following an outline, they follow what I can only describe as developing action. I’ve got a basic world idea, a main character, and a theme. The more scenes I write, the more characters and events I have to draw from for following scenes. I think of two characters together, or a theme like, what would this character think about such-and-such? and from that come the scenes in my head. Then, before I actually write the scenes, I try to eliminate any that don’t have enough forward action. By forward action I mean any kind of discovery, decision, or action that has significance for the theme of the story and/or the main character. Compared to my usual method, this is flying blind. This is writing [i]too early[/i], before I know how the story will end or even who all of the main characters are. Example? After writing in it for a week, I finally have bad guys.

Part of me is screaming - how can I possibly finish a story like this? Won’t I paint myself in a corner at some point, or run out of ideas? But then the rest of me is enjoying myself. I’m banging out 1000 words a day after 0 words a day for six months. And since I naturally tend towards short fiction writing, 1000 words a day is a pretty good haul for me**. 2000 words is when I go buy myself (and my toddler) ice cream.

I suppose I won’t know how I feel about this New Way until I see how the project turns out. In the mean time you can take bets on if this hobbled-together method will have me cursing myself by Christmas, or if I’ll turn out with a workable first draft. If I do, maybe I’ll find some way to refine the method or explain it in more detail.

Does this sound like any thing you do? What works and what doesn’t, for you? Maybe I’ll get lucky and one of you will give me a heads up for what NOT to do when writing by the seat of your pants. Ready, set, COMMENT. Do your good deed for the day.

*Technically I wrote a couple thousand words during this break. That’s kind of like saying that you exercise at work by walking to the water cooler.
**Seriously. The first draft of this post was 1000 words and it felt like the longest thing ever.

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