I was writing a different post for today, but this week’s discussion about advice to young writers got me thinking . . .
Jimi Hendrix. Eric Clapton. Eddie Van Halen. Stevie Ray Vaughan. All are famous rock guitar legends. And though they may not have started out knowing, they eventually learned how to read and understand music. Then there’s B. B. King who has incredible talent and has had incredible success even though he can’t read any music (or so he claims. I suspect after all these years, he’s picked up a thing or two), but people like King are the exceptions.
And yet, if you were to walk into a roomful of teenage, novice guitarists, I’d be willing to bet that a high percentage of them not only wouldn’t know how to read music, but would think that they didn’t need to learn. They wouldn’t want their Muses crushed by the walls of structure and form. Fight the power.
But the legends, even those who fought against the norm, eventually learned to read music and comprehend music theory. It’s a million times easier to translate what’s in your head into a song for others to hear when you understand how songs are constructed and can plan out how your song will be constructed.
Writing is the same way.
While I have no scientific data on this, I’d be willing to bet that the percentage of writers who are pantsers dramatically decreases with both age and years spent writing. Now before all you pantsers get in a huff, hear me out.
When I began writing as a teen, I was a pantser. I didn’t need to outline, I didn’t need to follow the rules — just give me a blank paper and I’ll come up with something. It was fun, but I didn’t produce anything publishable. Besides, girls became more interesting.
Years later in college, the itch to write returned. This time, however, I had learned the value of planning (mostly due to my work as a director in theater but that’s another story). So, I outlined my first novel. Meticulously. Pages and pages of detail that took weeks to work out. And when I finished that passionate process, I discovered the desire to write the thing had vanished. I had done all the creative work, gotten the thing out of my head, and now I didn’t want to take it further because that would just be busywork.
So, I tried other methods. After years of writing, I’ve learned where the comfortable middle ground rests for me. I’ve also learned that that comfort zone is different depending on the length of the story.
For a novel, I need a beginning and an end plus a few key points in the middle — Points A, B, C, and D. Then, as I write, I outline (a term I use loosely since I actually just write down a list of notes) the scenes as I go. For me, this keeps the novel focused on where I need to go while also permitting me the creative freedom to change things as I progress. In fact, I never really reach Point D. If done right, I end up at Point D-1 or D-2 or at the worst, Point E. Close to what I wanted, but hopefully better than my original idea.
For a short story, however, things are different. I’ve gained enough experience that I can now do a lot of the work in my head effectively. But I still do the planning. In fact, with a short, I spend several weeks building the tale in my head until it’s like a movie I’ve seen way too many times and can quote before the actors actually speak. At this point, I start writing but still leave myself the room to change as I discover the difference between what works in my head and what prose problems exist.
This is my method. It works for me, but the only reason I know that is because I forced myself away from the methods I had wrapped around my “art” in self-defense. I experimented (and I still do) to find the best solutions.
So why pick on the pantsers? It’s a valid method, right? Well, yes, it is. However, it is also one of the most difficult to pull off well — even for those people who are good at it. It’s too easy to drift on tangents and lose sight of the story. Especially at novel lengths when writing takes the course of months, even years. And since this post is in response to the discussion about novice writers, I think it’s unfortunate that so many beginners choose this method (often because they mistakenly see it as less work).
All of this is to say that if you’re a pantser now, give some other methods a try. You may discover that you are, indeed, one of the few true pantsers — and, if you’re lucky, you may make a career with that method. Good for you. But if you’re like the majority of people in the world, you’ll discover an easier, ultimately more satisfying approach that will help you translate what’s in your head to the page so that others may enjoy your words.
That, and a lot of luck, might make you a legend, too.