Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Pantser's Guide to Revision 1 - The problems

The spontaneity, daring, and freedom of writing by the seat of my pants appeals to me. I'm happy enough working with an outline for fiction (and it's my preference for nonfiction) but I have more fun letting a story pour out of my fingers moment by moment. I like the surprises. I like the way the words slip into poetry. I like being able to tell my internal editor to go to hell.

Sometimes pantsing is a little like going on a drunken spree. And, once I write "the end" for the first draft, there can be a morning after of regrets, confusion, and headaches. The morning after for me is about six weeks afterward for whatever I'm writing is that is possible. That distance is invaluable in providing a fresh perspective on the work.

But the day of revision number one must come at last. And while the plotting me finds a coherent story with proper beats and mostly free of inconsistencies, the pantser me will find... well, usually it's a mess. With my internal editor back from the place of fire and brimstone and looking for revenge, I read through and find blind alleys, characters whose motives drift, abandonment of logic, whole chapters that feel like a drive through a flat landscape, and scenes that read like outline.

That's the bad news. The good news is that I can sense most of a story is buried in these pages. I find paragraphs, pages, and sometimes chapters that charm me. And the voice seems fresh when I can stop cringing. With courage and persistence, the problems are solvable. A good novel or script is just waiting for me to get to work.

The task for me, as the editor of a pantser, is not the same as what I face when revising one of my plotted works. Roughly, these are the five things I need to deal with:
  • Story logic - Scenes are missing. Unneeded scenes are present. The order of scenes is wrong. The scenes do not connect properly.
  • Pacing - The story tension plateaus and dips at times.
  • Blind alleys - Promises are not kept. Good sequences fail to resolve or tie back to the rest.
  • Inconsistent voice and tone - Some sections feel like they were written by different people or for a different book.
  • Weak endings - The story is not resolved in a way that matches the excitement, daring, and creativity of the rest. It doesn't pay off the theme, and lacks surprises and insights.
There are other problems evident in the reading as well. Many are what a plotted work suffers from -- misspellings, weak verbs, a bad balance of narration/action/dialogue. Some come from lack of attention to calendars, maps, floor plans, and character descriptions. But the biggest problems are the ones listed above.

Not everyone will have all these problems. Natural storytelling tendencies and experience as a pantser mitigate problems in the first draft. So does the general attitude toward feeling free to take liberties.

To a pansters, these problems are worth the price, but they can lead to discouragement and panic when revision time comes around.

Be calm. Be confident. Savor the good parts, even those that may not end up in the final manuscript. You have wonders and delights that would not have shown up if you'd been a plotter. And everything can be fixed. As Damon Knight said, "This is not a watercolor."

In future posts, I'll have some suggestions on how to take on each of these problem from a perspective of a pantser. Making your manuscript longer or shorter. Reentering the story world. Making it fun again. Sparing the voice. 

If you're a pantser facing revision, I'm here to help. In the meantime, enjoy your adventure and congratulate yourself on making bold choices as an artist. Your work has what it needs to stand out. To move people. Celebrate that. 

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