When Pantsing Goes Bad

I am not, by nature, a pantster.  Which is not to say at times I haven’t found myself winging my writing, or my life for that matter.

Yesterday I had one of those days.  It was the last day of school term and it was shaping up to be pretty busy.  I had to help at school in the morning, go to a family conference at the hospital, and cook a meal for a family with a new baby.   Perfectly manageable with a bit of planning, but knowing I’d have the children home for a few weeks, I spent the past week ignoring the house and squeezing in as much writing time as I could while they were at school.   And because of that everything started to fall apart.  Fairly rapidly.

I’ll spare you the details, except to say I should have gone to the grocery store before I started cooking and I ended up running late everywhere.  By the end of the day I was exhausted and glad it was over.  And I was annoyed with myself because I could have made it so much easier.  Planning 1.  Pantsing 0.

For me, the same is often true when I try pantsing with my writing.  Because if I don’t know where my characters need to go, they often end up going nowhere – or stand around having inane conversations.  In fact sometimes the result is so bad it’s funny.

For example I wrote a scene where two characters (Aiden and Callum) rode quite a distance so Callum could show Aiden where something significant happened.  They both rode home, hung around the house and then the next day the Aiden rode back to the place and the story progressed.  The funny thing was I remember them getting back to the house and thinking – okay now what?  What resulted was a bit of huffing and puffing – all pointless.  There was absolutely no value in them doing the long ride back, especially when Aiden knew from the outset he was going to need to stay at this distant place and look for answers.

This is such a quick fix (just have Aiden stay out there) it normally wouldn’t even rate a mention.  But it’s still alive in an old draft because I wrote it during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) – the month where you try and turn off your internal editor and just get the story down on paper – warts, pointless outings and all.  The aim is to end up with 50,000 words at the end of the month, which you can go back and whip in to shape later.  But the annoying thing was if I’d thought about it – even briefly – I could have saved myself several hundred useless words.

Another problem I struck pantsing, was writing myself into a corner.  In the same NaNoWriMo I also had some of my characters get snowed in.  There is an unnaturally harsh winter, and it is important to the plot that they have a period of time cut off from the rest of the world.  The thing is I have never experienced that much snow myself and I didn’t really know how that might impact on their day to day survival.  Nor did I have any time to do the research I needed to make it feel real.  To compound my frustration, the weather event itself required a thaw before the story could continue – and I had another POV character in another part of the kingdom who needed to be affected by this weather too.  Do you want to see how I pantsed my way out of that:

For the first time since Magda or Matthew could remember, the snow remained banked up in deep drifts for the entire winter, and didn’t start to melt until late in the spring.

With the good weather came the Rohe.

As you can see it is good old first draft clunk, but I can remember the precise moment I wrote that.  I just could not resolve the issues, so I skipped over them.  At some point I’ll have to go back and sort it out.

But despite my frustrations, pantsing the writing wasn’t all bad.  I have got most of the third book down, even if it will need major edits later.  It has given me a lot of raw material to draw on for my current WIP, and my planning self has a good ending to work towards.  And once I let my internal editor back into the game I found I had great insight into what was working and what wasn’t.

I could do with a few less days like yesterday, but sometimes we just need to do whatever we can to get us through – with life and with writing.

Have you ever written yourself into a corner? Or followed a rabbit trail to find it goes nowhere?  Or have you just had one of those days and can relate? I’d love to hear from you.


2 thoughts on “When Pantsing Goes Bad

  1. Ugh! I currently have 70,000 words sitting in a document on my computer, wasting away because i wrote myself into a corner and need to do a complete overhaul before I can take it any further.

    70,000 words of not-quite-right. *headdesk*

    1. I hear you! But I bet that 70,000 words is a wonderful story just waiting for a resolution. Give it some space, and I’m sure something will come to you. But don’t feel any pressure either – my must deal with winter thing has been sitting there for 18 months. I’m sure oneday I’ll get back there and work it out!

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