Monday, March 24, 2008

The Perils of "Pantsing"

Eleven chapters and 28,520 words into my first draft of The Foundling Wheel I have to pause for a moment and share a secret with you.

Sssshhh. Don’t let anyone read over your shoulder.

Okay – are we alone? No, really?


I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I’m taking deep breaths. Om. Seriously, it’s not like I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had a premise and a fairly good idea of how to create what might be an interesting situation. Surely, there is an infinite number of possibilities for where I might transition from the past to the present. I’m just not sure what they are or which to choose.

I opened up a new file and I named it: Chapter Twelve. I typed 52 words and then I stopped.

Something tells me it’s time to step away from the story and find some time to take some long walks or paint a room or go outside and pull some weeds.

Muse, are you there? Muuuuuuuuuse? MUSE!

I know you would never find yourself in this situation. You either outline the whole story, or the story reveals itself bit by bit, getting better and better as you go along. I just know it.

But in case you’ve ever heard of anyone who’s gotten herself into a predicament like this, I’d love to hear how that poor lost soul found her way.


Usman said...

Lisa Hi,
I know someone called Usman who has faced the same problem many times. I asked him what to do. Being a proud pantser, he said, to either take a break if paralysis is complete and utter. However, in case you have a few ideas brewing, write them out. let the words guide you in different angles of the story, explore perspectives. Some might be rubbish, but there may be a nugget of gold.
The muse can come any time, anywhere. Then he slunk off saying he is waiting for the muse himself.

Hope that helps some.

Leatherdykeuk said...

I generally write to a broad outline and pants the details. I posted chapter 11 of ABLS last week with no clue of what happens in chapter 17 (which is the one I'm writing now).

My beta reader was excited by the 'mysterious woman' I'd written in but I had to confess I had no idea who she was.

kristenspina said...

I would try this: I would print out a hard copy of the entire draft, find a cozy spot near a window with a nice view of the world, and read. Start to finish without stopping.

My guess is that by the time you get to the end of Chapter 11, you'll have a few workable ideas for Chapter 12.

Good luck!!!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Kristen has a good idea. Here are a few other things--take a long walk or drive and just let your mind wander--okay, not so much that you get lost or anything, but try NOT to think about the story. Try to think of who Tracy was at 9 years old. Or what she'll be like as an old lady. Same with Aaron. Then, ask, how'd they get there?

And my always foolproof method for getting unstuck? Have them start a conversation. My characters can pretty much always talk me out of a funk.

Melissa Marsh said...

You're not alone, Lisa! I think going for a walk or painting something or doing anything creative will help you out. I've done that several times. Or get on the treadmill (no music allowed) and just think about your story. I can't begin to tell you how many times I've done this and always gotten myself out of sticky plot situations. :-)

Billy said...

Edvard Munch must have had the same feeling to have painted The Scream. When I type myself into a corner, I create a blank document and start typing nonsense (some argue that's what I do anyway LOL) and sometimes it turns into something, like punching a hole in the proverbial writer's block. Other times I count the bumps on my textured ceiling.

Larramie said...

Lisa, do you know who called both Tracy and Aaron asking about Natalie's baby? And why? Also, there's "what if?" These answers and the rest of the story are there in your characters...just listen.

Lisa said...


Hooray! Only with writing does it seem that the old adage "misery loves company" is not only true, but acceptable. Fortunately, I'm not paralyzed, I just came to the end of the parts I'd already figured out. Yes, writing out possibilities sounds like very good advice.


Oh, that's so good to hear. I've actually got plenty of loose ends to work with going forward -- just looking for the best way...hmm.


I'm going to do that. I think it will remind me of things I did early on that I probably had a reason for doing and then forgot about.


I like thinking about the characters as very young and very old. That's another great idea.


I'm pretty sure I need a long walk or a mindless physical activity to get the ideas flowing. That treadmill seems to really work for you. I think the trick is to get away from anything distracting to let the thoughts come.


Fortunately, I don't feel blocked, just overwhelmed a little. Ever since I started, I had a good idea of what the next chapter was supposed to accomplish. Now I feel like if this was a real book, there would be a page that said "PART II", only I'm not sure I've got a PART II and a PART III figured out. The ceiling in the basement has that popcorn texture on it -- maybe I'll head down there!


I was thinking about what Judy wrote last week about needing to really listen to the characters and you are both right. I know that's what I need to do. I just need to get out of this house to do it, I think -- after I sit down and read what I've set up so far.

You are all wonderful -- thank you!

Shauna Roberts said...

Chiming in a little late . . . . I like to use the List of Twenty. You set a timer for 10 or 15 minutes (or not, as you wish; the pressure of the timer can help free inhibitions) and you make a list of at least 20 things that could happen next. This can include aliens landing in the backyard or the Apocalypse, just so you get 20 things down. Usually, the list will contain something that strikes you as right or will spark an idea for what is right.

Greg said...

hehe, you're funny lisa. no worries. you'll do it up eventually

Lana Gramlich said...

I can sympathize with your predicament on 2 levels;
1. I stopped writing long ago because I had a really hard time narrowing the limitless possibilities to one, specific direction (this may stem from my background as a Dungeon Master, when I had to be ready for anything my players decided to do.)
2. I've "painted myself into corners" artistically before. The only "fix" would be a major overhaul of the entire work. I wasn't up to it. The work was never adequately finished past that point. I may have added a few things, but in reality, I mostly abandoned the work (& learned a hard lesson about better pre-planning, where paintings are concerned.)
Wish I had better advice on the subject, but alas... <:( Good luck, at any rate.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Invite a guest novelist to write a spoof chapter in your style.....

Josephine Damian said...

Lisa: IMO, this stems from not knowing your characters well enough. Character = action.

I'm all for the break, especially if it involves mindless activity (my yard needs cleaning if you're willing - lol). The muse prefers an un-busy mind.

Might I suggest you get the Debra Dixon book, GOAL, MOTIVATION, CONFLICT - all about understanding what makes your chartacters tick.

Bernita said...

Sometimes, it's not what comes next but which -- out of numerous possibilities.
The old advice is to blow something up.

Lisa said...


I remember you mentioning the List of Twenty and I like it. It seems something along the line of Robert Olen Butler's "dreamstorming", although he doesn't use a time limit.


Thanks for the vote of confidence ;)


I actually made the post sound more like I'm in crisis than I really am. I've sort of been anticipating this point in time when I'd have to change gears. The Dickens Challenge weekly posting format has created some opportunities and it's also partially created this situation due to its inherent lack of pre-planning. I hope to find my way out of this.


Now there's an interesting idea!


Your opinion is right on the money. What I have so far is a chunk of story that takes place when the main character is in her twenties. Now I need to move on and bring her back to the present day (20+ years later) and I know that means I need to figure out who she is now. I know part of the answer, but I need to take the time to round out the rest and the answers will come. Very astute assessment -- you're good!


Ha! I liked Shauna's idea of throwing an alien in, but blowing something up is good too -- or maybe I'll introduce a monkey. Seriously, it is a question for me of which future/present point in time I should choose to begin again and I do feel pretty confident that it will come to me. It's just not here yet.

Vesper said...

Don’t we all share this “secret”, Lisa? :-)

I don’t outline the whole story, nor does the story reveals itself to me bit by bit. Some people claim it happens to them. :-) I don’t know...

I sometimes get very enthusiastic because I have a great idea, with a good beginning and an excellent ending, but everything collapses into despair because the middle is a big void. I have no miraculous remedies to offer to you, unfortunately. You've got some great ideas from the previous comments. My mind’s wheels are spinning continuously; I examine all possibilities, I ask a lot of what if’s, I wait. Many times, I come up with a solution in the shower (if I remember well, Stephen King was mentioning something similar in his excellent book “On Writing”) – is it because I’m allowing myself to get more relaxed?

Anyway, I’ve just read Chapter 4 and I wanted to tell you that I liked it very much. The only comment that I have (for later, when you’ll be revising your work) is the following: I had the feeling that what I’d thought it would be a strong situation with Troy has been defused too easily. It came especially from these sentences:

Tracy's stomach tightened with anticipation of what she already knew, that Americans would be at the heart of the disturbance.


He was staggering and flanked by two of his dormitory lackeys.

It was probably the word “lackey” that made me think of a bully, of a “boss” when, judging by their conversation, Troy turned to be a relatively reasonable and hurt human being.

Just my feeling… :- )

Patti said...

just for the record i totally feel gyped by your title. i was sure someone had been pants'd (i am channeling homestar runner here) by you or that you had been the victim of a pants'ing (yes, i know the apostrophe is unnessassary, but it makes me laugh ala homestar). man, talk about a letdown.

just so you know.

Carleen Brice said...

Welcome to the middle. That's the way I always feel in the middle. My suggestion: write the next part you know even if it's Chapter 30. I always end up going back and filling in the middle after I know the end.

Another suggestion: Celebrate that you've written 11 chapters!!!

Lisa said...


Welcome back! Over the last few days I've decided that Saturday, I'll be working on an especially tedious home improvement project -- the kind that takes no thought and will give me plenty of time to think and open myself up to ideas.

Thanks for the thoughts on chapter 4. I'll have to think about making the incident a little more descriptive or disturbing. On the term "lackeys", I used that with a little bit of reservation because my intent was to portray Troy as outwardly like a bully or a punk and to your point, he's not really that way. In a way, your comment confirmed that his outward appearance was what I intended, but maybe there's too much dissonance between that and the conversation that follows. Food for thought -- oh, and if you read any of the other chapters, feel free to comment on those posts because I do get email notifications on all comments.

Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comments.


Ha! I really wasn't familiar with the term "pantser", as in "seat of the pants" either before I started blogging. Maybe I'll do a later post on the other kind of pantsing :)))


Good suggestions -- and I especially like your second one. Yeah, I should be happy I've gotten as far as I have, shouldn't I? Hey, thanks for that!

steve said...

Lisa, I've been there several times. I have a couple of unfinished stories plus one where the Muse showed up. I don't outline either. If I had, would my Armenian-Norwegian couple have shown up to save Timothy and Helena from being trampled by the crowd?

I like Kristen's idea of going through the whole text.

You have a fascinating storyline, a compassionate and sympathetic protagonist, and some very interesting characters. Plus a fine writing style and a real talent for dialogue. I suspect you need to let us know something of Tracy's life between then and now. Your Muse won't let you down.

Lisa said...


I love the metaphysicians in training! I think the best bits do seem to pop out of nowhere. I don't regret not outlining. I think previous attempts to try to structure too tightly have really limited my imagination and painted me into corners.

I think the muse might show up this weekend. At least I'm planning to leave a trail of breadcrumbs (or cookies or ice cream -- whatever she might like!).

Thanks for the encouragement. I feel pretty optimistic that if I give it a little time, I'll know what to do.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Riss said...

Hey there! I hear you. :D Really. and I only have 2! So yeah, while it sounds like you have a lot of good advice the only I can say is good luck and I'm looking forward to your progress. Bringing things back into the present is a different beast than bringing things from present to past if you ask me, so kudos to you for going there...and, like people have said, even if it's clunky and awkward, maybe just throw it down there, even if it's a sentence stating the obvious and the swing into the present and then write what is going on now. You can always worry about transitions later. I wrote a lot of essays and I always had to just throw down the "Thesis" for the paragraph and then worry about how it got there afterwards. Good luck. I am in the process of babbling aimlessly at Word at the moment. Hope you had a great weekend!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf