Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Plotting for Pantsers 5 - The confidence game

One of the most powerful scenes on broadcast television was dictated on the set of NYPD Blue by David Milch. Dennis Franz as Detective Andy Sipowicz brought the scene, a rant against God, to life on camera just minutes after it had been created. (I just read about this in The Revolution Was Televised, a book I recommend.) Pantsers, you are not alone. And some wonderful writing comes from a spontaneous flow of words.

And yet, as I indicated last time, pantsers often feel less confident than their (equally wonderful) plotting colleagues who, in theory, always know what they will be writing about. Pantsers write themselves into corners. They doubt the value of a scene, a chapter, or even a whole book. They run out of gas. They wonder if the last book they wrote is really the last book they ever will write.

There are traps that pantsers need to avoid. Looping, skimping on preparation and research, jumping to new projects when the going gets tough, and dodging emotional engagement can sap confidence and trigger paralysis. But you can also take steps to build and maintain your confidence.

Write one true sentence. This is especially useful when you seem to have painted yourself into a corner. Writing the whole scene or finding the plot point that will allow threads to come together may be impossible. Don't ask too much of yourself. Ask for one true sentence. It can be the next one in the story or it can be a question about what you need most to continue. (Yes, questions are sentences. And, chances are, your subconscious will answer the question later, in the garden or the shower or on the treadmill.)

Rediscover the fire. I hope you have adopted the practice, before you even begin a new work, of writing down ten reasons (in full sentences) why you love this idea and must write about it. If those sentences are good, they can revive your interest and reassure you that this project must be completed. If you don't have the sentences, either try to construct them now or go back to the best scene you have written (preferably in the work in progress, but it can be in another work you wrote) and reread it.

Know what drives you. Why do you need to write? Do you have a message? A person you want to communicate with? An image you have to get out of your head? A part of your life you need to understand? Find your best reason and remind yourself of if.

Understand what you do well. I'm a great one for lists, so I have written down what I have to offer as a writer. We tend to concentrate on our weaknesses, worrying about them and trying to overcome them. That is not a confidence builder. What do you do best? If you know what that is, use that gift to write another piece of your work in progress.

Create small successes. This may be the best. Success begets success. Find something small you know you can do, and do it. Then do the next thing. Don't be scared. Just scale back your ambition for a few days and get on with it.

Read something by your favorite author. The short stories of Harlan Ellison, Edgar Alan Poe, and James Joyce are the reasons why I became a writer. They thrill me by demonstrating what is possible. When I go back to them, I find the old impulse to put words on paper is revived and refreshed. Who inspires you?

All of these are positive steps you can take. And if you have a lucky hat or an affirmation that works for you, go for it. Oh, one thing to avoid - don't look for empathy from a plotter. Too many see the path they take as the only true path. Don't be bullied into following them. Instead, come to love your own twisty, turny, absurd and dangerous path.


  1. As a current plotter seeking a middle ground, I like the idea of outlining everything I can about my world (I'm a fantasy writer): the politics, economics, religions, et al., as well as making a detailed map of my character's personality and backstory. I don't typically outline my plot, though I will make notes of what I think each plot point needs to contain, as well as any subplots so I don't get confused. But when you're talking epic fantasy, I think some kind of outline is necessary, otherwise what's to keep me from getting confused. At the same time I want the freedom to just write and allow the mistakes to grow organically and, as you say, perhaps surprise me.


    1. Hi, Ryan
      It sounds like you are doing the right thing. The more epic your work becomes, the more milestones, notes, and explicit structure you're likely to need. At the same time, as I''m sure you know, a lot of magic is unplanned. Allowing yourself to veer off the path and explore new areas can lead to lost pages, but they aren't really lost. I've had to dump chunks of up to 10,000 words, but those words clarified and deepened what was remaining.
      It's hard to do. A little less difficult if the work is less labored over and the words are less precious. That's one reason I like fast drafting.
      Ultimately, it's best to do what serves the work, even when it hurts.