A Pantser Technique: Editing as I Write

Usually when it snows here, the day warms up enough to melt it off.  We’ve been staying in the teens and twenties though, which has left snow on the ground and more is on the way.  Being from California, I thought snow was cool when I saw it the first time.  Then after getting stuck in it, trying to navigate it, trying to deal with crazy drivers who think “Hey!  I’ve got an SUV!  I can drive whatever way I want!” —  well, it’s not neat.  Give me warmth!

One of the things I started doing again was “editing as I write.”  This isn’t the right term for what it is, but that’s the one I heard over the years.  I always did it, but I kept hearing things like “write straight through the story and then fix it on the revision.”  It amazes me now how much writing advice that works for pantsers is decreed as a “Do NOT do this.”

What I do is bounce around the story like a pinball and continue to work on different sections.  It’s not revision — I’m not going back to Chapter 1 to tweak the words and make them perfect (which I did do on a past co-written project called Valley of Bones).  It’s actually still part of creating the story and making everything fit together.

I stopped doing it on Cascadian’s Blight, a later project, partially because I kept hearing “Don’t edit while you write,” and also because I was frustrated with the story and I wanted to get it done.   That was the lure of doing it — just get the draft done, and then everything could be fixed on the revision.

The problem was all those little things I left for later added up to a lot of big things.  I got the true impact of not doing this when I took Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel (which is threaded with outlining techniques).  In one of the early lessons, we had to go through the entire manuscript and identify problems.  It was so bad because I hadn’t bounced around that I was pulling out my hair.  I ended up scrapping the book and starting again, which was hard because of all the time I’d spent on it.

So this is how I “edit when I write”:

1. I don’t change words unless I’m fixing a typo.  Granted, I keep finding those pesky things!  Grr!

2. I don’t revise sentences unless I can’t figure out what I was trying to say (usually resulting from typos or missing words).

3.  I don’t revise anything to make it perfect or better.

4.  I do add more of the five senses, since these are hard for me to get in.

5.  I do add more setting from the character’s perspective.

6.  I do update any places where I put placeholders in for research.

7.  I “shake out the wrinkles” in the story, which means that if I thought I needed a fence in Chapter 7, but realize it’s creating a problem in Chapter 29, I take out the fence.

Mostly, it’s a lot of additions, and, well, a lot of typo fixing.  But it’s fun also because I can see how the story is taking shape.


What I Learned About My Writing in 2014

This has been a strange year. I’ve spent absolutely years and years struggling with finishing a book that wasn’t messed up.   At the beginning of the year, I set aside a contemporary fantasy I’d been working on because I couldn’t figure out how to resolve all the issues that made me want to pound my head against the wall. I started a cozy mystery, which ran into problems in the first five chapters and died. And then I drifted back to the contemporary fantasy in July, wrote it, and finished it in December – and a second book on top of that.

So here’s what I learned in 2014:

I had to get off writing message boards

I used to be on two writing message boards, but I dropped off them in early 2014. When I first got on them, it was exciting because there were writers and we were all talking about writing. It was a lot of fun reading and sometimes participating. But even then, I noticed that there was a pattern of keeping everyone at the beginner level and if you elevated above it, group think would try to knock you back down. It was easier staying out of some conversations.

But there’s also a lot of really bad writing advice that gets passed around. Some of the worst of it sounds deceptively reasonable. I knew it was bad, and the exposure to it was still creeping into my writing without me intending to. The only way I could fix my writing problems was to break away from the message boards. I haven’t been back.

Pantsing IS really different than outlining

A pantser is someone who doesn’t outline. I don’t like the term because, honestly, it sounds like something an outliner came up with dismiss someone who writes differently than they do. But I include it here for search so other writers who don’t outline can find it.

Unfortunately, so much of the writing advice assumes outlining, and sometimes it’s very subtle what creeps in. It sounds reasonable to “always know your ending.” I remember in Cascadian’s Blight, which was an early version of Rogue God, as I started the story, I had it in my head that it would end with a fight in some ruins on an island.

I wrote the entire story around getting them on that island. I kept wondering why I had problems with the story structure and why I couldn’t get subplots into the story. It was because I already knew how it was going to end, so I was writing to the ending. It disrupted the natural flow of the story.

When I wrote Rogue God, I knew only that I wanted a big fight at the end because it was that kind of story. Oh, and that the characters should win. I didn’t know where it was going to be or what it would be about.

As a result of realizing how different the writing processes are, I dropped a lot of writing blogs because they’re done by outliners. They say they’re also doing advice to help pantsers, but I’ve found that they really don’t get how pantsers write, and it was the same issue that I ran into on the message board.

Messy is Okay

That’s another thing that gets hammered at pantsers – that there’s something wrong because the writing process is messy. That there might be rabbit trails that end up getting cut up out of the book – oh, the waste of time.

I used to liken my writing process to throwing paint at the wall and seeing what sticks. That seems like such long time ago! A lot of it was my frustration with nothing seemingly like it worked right, and I didn’t want to have a story so messy that it required 20 drafts to clean it up. That, by the way, had nothing to do with not outlining. I discovered about October that most of those problems were caused by the proliferation of outlining techniques that are recommended for all pantsers to “fix” the “problems” caused by writing without an outline. Like the assumption that a pantsed story doesn’t have a plot or structure until you do X, which is not true.

But the process needs to be a little messy for me as I play out my ideas as I write. I sometimes write a little out of order, and stuff comes in and then goes right out. That’s just something that simply is. I found that if I tried to forge ahead, only for the purpose of checking the box of “Done” and not allow this messiness to happen, the story doesn’t work.

Finally …

Trust the process

That was one of the biggest ones. It was one of those things that hit me after I shed the message boards – there’s so much out there that focuses on writers NOT trusting the process, that writers are doing it wrong anyway. All you need to do is look at blog posts with titles like “10 Deadly Mistakes You Are Making with Your Story,” and this is all over the place.

And I’m looking this and thinking, “I know how to write. Why am I thinking like this?” It’s because it’s everywhere, and repeated over and over and over again. The problem was so pervasive that during the early chapters of Rogue God, I had to keep repeating it to myself. By the end of the story, I didn’t need to repeat it to myself.

Yup. Most of the year was shedding unhelpful writing advice masquerading as helpful.

What’s in store for next year? Indie in 2015.