Despite his tremendous efficacy in consistent and deep world-building, Tolkien seems to have operated in his basic plotting in a way I can only characterize as “pantsing”.
Whether you write to an outline, or churn it out by the seat of your pants, all of us are likely to come to a moment in the creation of a story where we are struck by a realization: if character X only did this instead of that, it would be so much better for the story.
How much trouble this causes you chiefly depends on how far along you are in the story at that point. It may cause you to revise your possibly painfully detailed outline, or it may force you to reconsider exactly where the story should be headed, if you're not confined to an outline, thus revising some of the highlights to come.
As a pantser instead of a plotter, I find this mostly happens to me when I brainstorm “what next?” for the moving boundary of the current words, but it can strike for older character actions, too, further back in the body of work.
I don't know about you, but my typical reaction when this happens is first elation (whoopee — an improvement!) followed by depression (look at all the changes I'm going to have to make to what's already been done and what is to come). Generally the former outweighs the latter, but I do have to get past the moment of deep despair at the work involved.
It could be worse. We could be George R. R. Martin.
As always, I find it useful to write a post to clarify my own thinking — this time, about the creative process of writing a work of fiction.
I'm 60% of the way through my current work-in-progress (Fragments of Lightning), and I was just rearranging my hints for the remainder of the book, since my subconscious last night was busy working overtime changing my conclusions about what was important about the events in the second half.
I was so delighted with the results that I wanted to take time out to write this post about how I understand the differences between the processes of outlining a book in some detail in order to write it (“plotters”) and not doing so, flying by the seat of your pants (“pantsers”). Your understanding may be different.
This is my 10th novel, so I'm beginning to get some insight into my own psychology and the creative process. That insight has changed over time, naturally. I spent a reasonable amount of my career writing software, which has to be planned from start to finish, and building companies, which requires understanding how systems are put together, so unsurprisingly I started as a plotter and outlined my first book in some detail. Even then, however, I was flexible about how the plot developed, and things I had outlined had a way of… shifting.
For books 2 and 3, the planned outlines got discarded or altered beyond recognition earlier and earlier in the process, until I was barely using an outline at all for book 4. By the time I started my 2nd series, I was a confirmed pantser. Not only did I not know when I started how the book would end, I didn't know how the series would end, even though it had a compelling quest running through the entire thing which would have to be solved in the end (over 4 books).
One thing about writing into the dark (pantsing) — you learn not to be frightened by uncertainty.
Different structural goals
Plotters are focused on control and a desired ending. There may be a structure that is appropriate for the genre (Happily Ever After (HEA) endings for Romance, as an example, or some of the conventions of Thrillers and Mysteries). There may be a need to keep the number of new characters under control in a long-running series. There may be particular goals for certain books in a series, to help keep the series from strangling on dead ends, or a need for a particular ending to entice the reader to the next book in a series. The author may have a theme he's developed that he wants to be illuminated by the choices his characters make.
The plot is a means of getting to the desired end.
Pantsers are focused on highlights, typically emotional ones. They have characters in an initial situation, and there are things they want to happen to those characters (“he's going to meet someone and fall in love”, “her best friend will betray her”, “he'll be left for dead on the battlefield”), but there may or may not be a particular ending in view at the start. In genres like ScienceFiction, the highlights might even be worldbuilding, rather than emotional — demonstrating the ramifications of an exotic setting, for example.
The plot is a means of holding the highlights together in a satisfying way.
I'm rolling down the home stretch for On a Crooked Track, just a couple of chapters from the end. Not only is the book almost finished, but it's the fourth and final book of The Chained Adept series, so it's been more of a marathon than a sprint. (Or, at least, it's a bigger dog than the others on the track).
The first book of the series was published in February, 2016, and the fourth and last will be published in early January, 2017. That's four books in one year, and a new “first” for me. (And if I'd been more focused over the summer and early fall, maybe I could have squeezed one more in.)
All four entries were written without outlines. In other words, instead of taking the “plotter” approach (outlining), like my first series The Hounds of Annwn, I went for the “pantser” approach (seat of my pants). Practically speaking, I knew what the major high-points in each book would entail when I started, more or less, but everything along the way was as much of a discovery for me as it is for my readers. I kept track of my structure to keep things moving along, so that the books would be well-formed, and was surprised how easy that was considering I didn't know where the plot was going until I got there.
You see, I find what happens is that your subconscious knows what it wants. This may be only my eighth novel in the Fantasy genre, but I've read thousands of them, and my subconscious knows what makes a good one work.
The difference in day-to-day writing is subtle. Let's say you have a character to kill. If you were outlining, you might decide how to kill him, and then go back and plant the murder weapon in a room that you described in an earlier chapter so that it will be handy in the chapter where he dies. In other words, you come up with a rational plot element and make sure the story supports it.
But when you're “writing into the dark” (another term for “pantsing”), you end up writing a room description with various objects that make sense in the context of that scene, and then later on, when it's time to kill the character and you don't know how you're going to do it, the little reader in your head says… “but, but, I remember this clue… I bet it was that alien artifact with a curious design that was described a few chapters ago,” and your creative mind says, “hey, that's not a bad idea. I should make that the weapon instead of what I was vaguely thinking of.” Or you might even say, “wait, not the alien artifact — that's too obvious. But what about the seemingly innocuous case that was built to hold it? Wouldn't that be even better? That would let me add all sorts of misdirection.”
I was reminded today of an excellent essay by G K Chesterton (1901), thoughtfully preserved for us by Martin Ward. Like all such things, the specific references are not necessarily still recognizable, but the core of the essay is both persuasive and witty. Some background on penny dreadfuls here and here.
UPDATE: On the Frank Reade dime novels — some of the earliest Science Fiction.
A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls
G K Chesterton
One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar. The boy's novelette may be ignorant in a literary sense, which is only like saying that modern novel is ignorant in the chemical sense, or the economic sense, or the astronomical sense; but it is not vulgar intrinsically–it is the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.
In former centuries the educated class ignored the ruck of vulgar literature. They ignored, and therefore did not, properly speaking, despise it. Simple ignorance and indifference does not inflate the character with pride. A man does not walk down the street giving a haughty twirl to his moustaches at the thought of his superiority to some variety of deep-sea fishes. The old scholars left the whole under-world of popular compositions in a similar darkness.
To-day, however, we have reversed this principle. We do despise vulgar compositions, and we do not ignore them. We are in some danger of becoming petty in our study of pettiness; there is a terrible Circean law in the background that if the soul stoops too ostentatiously to examine anything it never gets up again. There is no class of vulgar publications about which there is, to my mind, more utterly ridiculous exaggeration and misconception than the current boys' literature of the lowest stratum. This class of composition has presumably always existed, and must exist. It has no more claim to be good literature than the daily conversation of its readers to be fine oratory, or the lodging-houses and tenements they inhabit to be sublime architecture. But people must have conversation, they must have houses, and they must have stories. The simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and older than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac. In the East the professional story-teller goes from village to village with a small carpet; and I wish sincerely that any one had the moral courage to spread that carpet and sit on it in Ludgate Circus. But it is not probable that all the tales of the carpet-bearer are little gems of original artistic workmanship. Literature and fiction are two entirely different things. Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity. A work of art can hardly be too short, for its climax is its merit. A story can never be too long, for its conclusion is merely to be deplored, like the last halfpenny or the last pipelight. And so, while the increase of the artistic conscience tends in more ambitious works to brevity and impressionism, voluminous industry still marks the producer of the true romantic trash. There was no end to the ballads of Robin Hood; there is no end to the volumes about Dick Deadshot and the Avenging Nine. These two heroes are deliberately conceived as immortal.
My series, The Chained Adept, began as an exploration in overall writing technique, that is, the dreaded divide between writers who outline (plotters) and writers who fly by the seat of their pants (pantsers).
I'm an old software engineer and company builder, so (as you might imagine) I'm a natural outliner. Say what you will about software — in the end, if you didn't plan (plot) it right, the program won't run.
Of course, for my first series, I found that as an outlined plot progressed, less and less of the original outline was relevant. In the end, all I was really left with were echoes of the original goals and plot inflection points (the inciting moments, the setbacks, the crises, the resolutions, and so forth). So I thought I might as well start with just that much, or at least the end goal, and try the alternate approach.
The great virtue of writing as a pantser is that, if you don't know how it's going to work out as you go along, then neither do your readers, so you're likely to keep surprising them as you surprise yourself.
You have to trust to your subconscious which has read a lot of books in your genre. It's very good at putting together the clues you've already written (inadvertent or not) and speculating about what might come next. Writing becomes more like reading — you write to see how it's going to come out.
Each time you pause and add a bit to what's been written already, your subconscious adds that to the mix and continues to churn. Every now and then, though, I find I have to give my subconscious a good thump — I've put the coins in the machine, but nothing's coming out.
Right now, I'm headed for a big setback in act 3 of Broken Devices. It's not the final crisis, but it's significant. I've got the villains and at least three other sets of characters all headed for the same general area, with good reasons to be there and serious purposes, and I know what the result will be, but the actual paths that will tie them all together are being a bit… elusive. Like the center of that maze above, you can see the goal but you can't get there down any of the existing paths.
My subconscious is doing one of those whirr-thunk, whirr-thunk moments you get when you turn the key and the car doesn't start. I'm going to be stuck here until something shifts. I need some nice mindless tasks so it can churn away and spit out useful choices that don't depend on implausible coincidences.
I've been here before and I know it'll sort itself out, but they don't call this approach “writing into the dark” for nothing.
So here I am nearing the middle of Broken Devices, and I'm itching to broaden the scope. I mean, we're in Yenit Ping, the biggest city in the world, but it's just not… enough.
Ever notice that if you put your hero in a spot of danger, just a little bit, it has a way of greatly increasing your story options?
We enter the scene with everything all hunky-dory, and we exit… rather differently, as if a wind had blown down all the jackstraws. Let's see what our heroes (and villains) are going to do about it.
There's nothing like a good map to keep you honest as you tell your story.
When you want to know if someone can ride from point A to B in one long day, without being mounted on SuperHorse™, then you need to know how close those two points are, and how much terrain a horse can cover in a day.
If you want to create a caravan that will make a regular circuit of more than a thousand miles of territory, better work on your mileage-per-day/days-per-market/days-lost-to-maintenance tables. Not to mention your fodder/grain/grazing capacities on the route vs the needs of the freight-carrying animals.
National or sub-national boundaries typically feature mountains or water hazards, not arbitrary straight lines (the mid-Western and Mountain states of the United States not withstanding).
Now, most of us use scraps of paper with just the bare minimum of information and illegible commentary, but I am cursed with the desire for reusability and just enough computer obsessiveness to want to make a “real” map, with real landscapes, for my fantasy series.
Besides, I can't draw worth a damn anyway, so it might as well be computer-generated.