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.


Sometimes Good Things Are Not Easy

I’m going to take a leap of faith and publish three indie books next year.  One will be Sisters-At-Arms: The Story of a Woman Soldier in Desert Storm (which will be the Desert Storm blog posts you’ve been reading).  The second is Red God, a contemporary fantasy set in an alternate world of Hawaii.  I’m finishing that one up now.  The third is a mystery called Murder on the Morro Strand, set in Morro Bay, California, where my family went to twice a year when I was growing up.  Morro Strand is a beach there.

I hope to have a total of ten books in the year, which is a really scary goal for me.

I always wanted to write novels, ever since I started writing when I was eight.  Everyone around me thought this was a too big and scary goal and pushed me to short story writing.  When I became an adult, I tried tackling that novel and ended up really stuck at the one-third point of the book.  It was “Now what?” and I didn’t know what to do.  I ended up figuring that I’d revise the beginning, since a lot of advice suggested if you got stuck, the problem was the beginning.

I thought the problem was that I couldn’t get subplots into the story because it seemed like at the point something else should be coming into the story.  I felt like I had a novel’s worth of material, and yet, I couldn’t get past 100 pages before it ran out of steam, so I always felt like I was running too short.  I ended up revising that beginning and revising it and revising it, trying to figure out to get the subplots into the story.  I revised it so much that I was sick of the story.  Yet, I didn’t want to give it up because it was my only idea for a novel!

Enter cowriting.  I hooked up with a cowriter, who said he was great at doing subplots.  I decided to set aside the first novel.  We wrote a thriller, and then after about 80 rejections, redrafted it as a new book.  We were making submission rounds when we broke up.

That was when I realized I was back at square one.  I hadn’t solved the problem of subplots or running too short.  I looked everywhere for any piece of advice, finding mere scraps.  Most writers tend to write way over, so there was plenty of advice on cutting and editing.  Not so much on too short.  I literally wrote Book #4 with my eyeballs on the word count, watching as the words slowly eeked their way up.  I still ran too short, and I couldn’t explain why.

I battled for every word to get it to pop over agent minimums, using every workaround I could find.  Then I went to a writer’s conference and met an agent, apparently impressing her enough that she remembered me.  She gave me personal comments — just a short paragraph, really, and the moment I read them, I knew the problems she mentioned were caused by those workarounds.  I’d messed up my book trying to fix it.

It was a real low point for me.  It was near Thanksgiving like it is now.  It seemed like the only books I could do at the publisher’s lengths were ones with the cowriter.  I wondered if I should stop trying for novels and just go back to short stories.  But I wasn’t quite willing to give up on that yet.

So I was looking around the internet for subplots and ran across Holly Lisle’s How to Revise Your Novel. So I signed up.  Holly’s method for revision is more based on outliner methods, than for people who write into the dark (we don’t outline), or pantsers.

I remember going through one of the early lessons and one of the things that she practiced was not revising until she had identified all the problems.  That become a frustrating experience for me because I saw so much of the junk I’d added for word count that now stood out for me.  I stuck to the lesson because I wanted to learn where the problem was, but what I really wanted to do was slash out all that stuff so I could see the story.  There was so much of it that it made it hard to do some of the lessons.  I was pulling at my hair.  It was really bad, and such a slow process.  I wanted to charge ahead and fix it.

The problem was that I still didn’t know what I was doing to mess up the stories.  As far as I could tell, I didn’t have themes, subplots, or a character arc.  Somehow those had never ended up in it.  About halfway through the lessons, the problem seemed to reveal itself to me:  I was starting too late into the story.  So late that the natural development of the story was thrown off.

Why did I start so late?  I thought it was because I have trouble seeing how to start a project until I’ve worked my way into it.  The actual cause was several pieces of writing advice that I’d seen over and over again:

  • Everyone starts with backstory.  Cut off the first fifty pages.  Start as close to the action as possible.
  • Start with the action.

Those two pieces of advice pushed me into starting in the middle.  It took a lot longer to figure out it wasn’t the only advice causing problems.

I emerged from the class ready to tackle the book again, though the revision techniques weren’t for me.  The book still ran short.  I still had a problem that I couldn’t identify.  So I wandered from cheapie writing class to cheapie writing class.  Two instructors flaked on it, and I derailed my novel trying to insert a theme because I wasn’t able to identify one for my book.  It wasn’t until I took an Odyssey class with Barbara Ashford, who isn’t an outliner that I could see a difference in the advice.

Nearly all of the writing advice assumes you’re outlining.  A lot of it is a particular writer’s process, not an actual technique, but it’s often presented as a technique.  Still, it would take some online classes with Dean Wesley Smith before I started to realize the impact of that.  DWS prefers not to outline (the phrase “writing into the dark” is from him).  The problem was not subplots or missing themes or character arcs.  It wasn’t a problem with me starting in the middle.  It was how-to advice.

Most of it assumes that the writer is a beginner.  It also assumes that the writer is doing it wrong or will screw it up.  And it assumes the writer is outlining.  I’ve been writing for decades, so I’m not a beginner, and I find vaguely insulting that the default is that it’s going to be messed up (this is particularly true for anyone who talks about pantsers).

As a result, I walked away from two writing boards that I’d been a member of for years and dropped several writing blogs.  I knew some of the stuff was garbage, but it’s super easy to try something suggested because it seems reasonable.  That’s how I got sucked into the outlining related advice.  It all sounded reasonable.  I had to remind myself in the beginning that I knew what I was doing, because it was that pervasive.

And I look back on it, and most writers wouldn’t have survived what I put into it.  They would have given up.  Too many people think writing is easy, and they look for shortcuts where there isn’t any.  It’s a lot of investment in time and learning, and you never stop learning.

I started Red God in July of this year.  It is 5000-6000 words from being done.  I’m kind of shocked as I write that.  It’s the fastest I’ve ever written a book, and it’s really good.  I don’t care how long it is any more.  It’s the story that counts.

From The Daily Post Writing prompt: “Good things come to those who wait.” Do you agree? How long is it reasonable to wait for something you really want?