Pantsing the Revision

That wasn’t the plan. I was cutting subplots, cutting back to one point of view, and changing some aspects of the crime, and I thought it would all work out in a predicted direction. Then I introduced a certain secret earlier in the plot, and out of the blue, my protagonist, Mae Martin, made a decision that changed everything.

It was a well-timed decision on her part, plot-wise. I’m at the Act Two/Act Three transition point, where the protagonist has to pass through her second doorway of no return. This choice she made, seemingly without my input, will raise the stakes for her exponentially, increasing the risks to her relationships and her reputation. It’s something only she can do, and if she doesn’t do it, there are risks to other people’s well-being. It’s a choice between two “bads.” (Meanwhile, in her romantic life she’s struggling with the choice between “goods.”)

The amazing thing to me about this unexpected turn she took is that it’s going to tie up all the loose ends, when it’s resolved.

At least, I think so.

I keep chapter notes as I go, something like a hindsight outline, noting Mae’s goal for each chapter and scene (I’m writing third person but only in her POV), the disaster or hook at the end, the loose ends each chapter has created that will need to be tied up, and the progress in the main plot and subplots. I suppose I can consider some of those notes a plan, since a few are quick sketches of what I can see coming next, but I can’t see very far ahead. Some parts of the original version have found their way almost whole into this revision, and others still might. I wonder if the end will. I liked it the first time around, but it may no longer fit. One of the biggest mysteries in writing a mystery is how my creative mind works.

A character in the work in progress used a phrase I didn’t expect him to say, referring to certain people as his and Mae’s “shadow families.” In the middle of the night, I realized that could be the title. It fits the plot and also the pattern of my titles: two words with a mysterious ring to them, suited to psychic mysteries without murder. The Calling, Shaman’s Blues, Snake Face, Soul Loss, Ghost Sickness, Death Omen … Shadow Family?

 

Undermind at Work

That’s not a typo. I have not been undermined at work. I’m rereading Guy Claxton’s Hare Brain Tortoise Mind, and he refers to the slow processes of creativity and insight as the undermind—the part of the brain that’s working beneath the level of verbal expression and logic, the part that can detect patterns the conscious surface of the mind misses. The part that creates what the surface mind cannot. I read the book eighteen years ago when it first came out, but I wasn’t writing fiction back then, just academic research papers. I perceive its ideas differently now.

On this reading, I see in it an explanation of how pantsing a plot works. Those of us who write that way often marvel at how we laid clues we didn’t know were there and how we brought in characters whose purpose was unclear at the time, but who later revealed why they showed up and asked to be included. The undermind is best at solving complex, ambiguous problems and recognizing hidden patterns. The other mode of thinking, what Claxton calls d-mode, for deliberative mode, is better at problems with clear rules and defined parameters. I see d-mode as the revision mind and the undermind as the first draft mind. I’m at a point of indecision near the end of a first draft. D-mode wants me to evaluate my options. The undermind wants me to keep writing and see what happens.

I can apply the concepts of the undermind and d-mode to how my characters solve problems as well.  Claxton describes experiments in which trying too hard, having time pressure, or having too much at stake can all inhibit subjects’ problem-solving and pattern-detecting abilities. The slow, unhurried tortoise mind is better at breakthroughs, and yet the nature of a mystery plot is anything but slow and unhurried. Still, a character may encounter a puzzle early on, be unable to solve it, attend to other problems while the initial puzzle simmers in the back of her mind, and then have a flash of insight. The flash isn’t a flash, though. All along, her undermind was at work. I’ve seen mystery writers use this pattern well, showing the protagonist’s frustrating sense that the solution is near while not quite grasping it yet, knowing that something in the mind-shadows wants to be understood.

D-mode works well while talking because it’s verbal and structured. When characters are doing the logical kind of problem-solving, dialogue is natural. Claxton cites studies in which subjects were asked to solve puzzles and either talk or be silent while they did it. With clear though challenging puzzles in which all the information was present and needed to be analyzed, talking improved the outcomes. However, with insight problems, bewildering visual puzzles that required creative shifts of perspective, talking got in the way or turned into babble such as, “I don’t know what I’m thinking. Nothing. I’m not actually thinking.” Silence gave better results. In fiction, this second process might take place in an internal scene, a sequel or reflection. The different modes of problem-solving could lead to conflict, as an analytical type needs to talk things out while an intuitive type needs to stop talking—and stop listening to words—in order to think.

My preference for creating my first draft from the undermind may be why I like a plot mandala better than an outline. I draw a circle and begin writing character names and story themes in what feel like the right places, then let my undermind connect the patterns among them.

Images: 19th century Chinese puzzle ball with the twelve concentric balls inside; puzzle cube; math equation dice.

Small Change, Big Change

When I started improvising my current work in progress, I had a seed for a plot in mind, but it changed directions because of one small thing. My first-round chapter-by-chapter critique partner told me that the name I was using for a character’s business, Minerva Press, is a real publishing house. No big deal, I thought. It would be simple to change it. She would name her small press after a lesser-known goddess. Having already established that this character was part Finnish, I picked Loviatar, a Finnish goddess, from the pantheon of my search results, though I had no idea why anyone would name a business after her. She’s a dark goddess, the blind daughter of death, the bringer of scourges into the world.

Rather than reject this goddess, I kept reading about her. Something told me to stick with her.

One article mentioned that that Loviatar is popular with black metal musicians. What, I wondered, is black metal? At the time, I didn’t know the difference between black metal, heavy metal, death metal, thrash metal, melodic death metal and Viking metal, or that most of these genres even existed. The next thing I knew, I was watching such bands on YouTube and digging into Nordic black metal and the world view of that culture, finding some unexpected connections with (not kidding) the Romantic Movement and Shelley’s views on Satan as the hero of Paradise Lost. My character is a poet, and faculty advisor to a poetry club. With the name of her small press, her backstory changed. Her situation of danger changed. The motives of her enemies changed. The only thing that didn’t change is my taste in music; I didn’t become a fan of black metal when she did.

I may have a title for the story that’s evolving: Dark Goddess.

Strangely, many of the plot elements fit better into the new version of the story than the old one. Clues that I’d planted, puzzling myself, fell into place. If I’d finished the first draft before sharing chapters, it would be a different story. Maybe I still would have liked it, but it would have been lighter, less complicated, and more predictable. And I don’t ever want to be predictable. Even to myself!

 

The Perplexities of Pantsing and Plotting

by Janis Patterson

In one of my discussion groups not long ago the perennial discussion of pantser vs plotter came up. Again. It rears its head every couple of months, and each side has its devoted and vocal advocates. One member – a downy little newbie – asked what the names meant and how were they different, a simple request for information that ignited a lively discussion of the various virtues of each.

Basically it boiled down to the facts that plotters like to have everything planned and laid out in varying degrees of exactitude. Some even use detailed cheatsheets to create their characters, some covering everything from their eye and hair color to their favorite flavor of Jello. (Don’t laugh – I have seen this.) The story is laid out in either a paragraph or outline form, sometimes going three or four or even more layers deep if it is bullet-pointed. Plotters say it keeps them on target.

A pantser is one who writes ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They have a basic idea, or perhaps even just an opening line, then sit down and write from there, letting the story and the characters take them wherever they want to go.

Full disclosure : I am – and always have been – a definite pantser. Even in school I loathed outlining, thinking even then that it was the best way I could think of to kill creativity and spontaneity. Yes, I was a very precocious child!

There is danger in pantsing, though, especially for the newbie – unseasoned? marginally skilled? – writer. It gives one the opportunity to wander all over the place with no story structure. One of the hardest things to convince newbies is that pantsing does not mean writing without structure. It only means no preconceived, written out structure. The story has to be a cohesive whole, with proper foreshadowing and rational action and reaction as well as a beginning, story arc and an end (yes, even in fantasy/scyfy). Otherwise all you’ll have is a great number of words – not a book.

Another danger with pantsing is that of writing yourself into a corner – meaning you have not set things up properly. A story has to flow as a whole, not just be a string of really nice scenes. Everything has to interact and work together. When newbie (and let’s be honest, not-so-good) writers find themselves in this corner, all too often they fall back on the old ‘and the cavalry rides over the hill’ trick. In other words, something happens to save the day but it’s never been set up properly or integrated into the story or even foreshadowed. That’s not only a cheat, it’s a cheap cheat, and the readers know it.

I’m always trying to hone my skills, so a couple of years ago I took a plotting class about which everyone was raving. It was quite good – just not for me. You took ten boxes; then in each box you would put five plot points. Under each one of those you’d put two minor plot points. Seems like there was another layer with plot points under each of them, but it’s been too long and I don’t remember. Theoretically when you finished you would have a very detailed outline for a 100K book.

I did all this. Came up with a really nifty romantic adventure involving a female race driver, her murdered brother, a dirty bomb, a terrorist plot, two luscious men… a story that will never be written. Oh, everything is there, and it hangs together beautifully, and I am bored to death with it before writing the first word.

I do not take boredom well. Also, as someone intelligent whose name I cannot now remember said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. One of my perennial strong sellers was pantsed, and two of the main characters were not in the original concept of the book. They just walked in and took over. Had I been slavishly following an outline they never would have been born, and the book would be so much the poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong – writing is hard work, whether you outline or (especially) if you are a pantser. Perhaps more if you’re a pantser. Reining in a rampaging imagination while giving it enough freedom to create is not easy. If you’re a newbie writer, or a writer who’s hit a rough patch, I’d suggest trying both and see which works for you.