Skip to content

Tag: pantsing

Following the Threads

After a bit of a rocky start to the summer, I am moving forward more briskly with my sequel to Fester. The working title is Fall, although that is almost certain to change eventually. I had hoped that this story would be an easier one to write because I had somewhat of an outline.

The outline came from a series of local newspaper articles from Astoria, Oregon. It chronicled the final downfall of a once-prominent local family called the Flavels. And the end of their story was so weird, it seemed straight out of Fester. In fact, Astoria has some geographical similarities to my mental picture of Fester – save the three-mile-wide river mouth and the Pacific Ocean. I’ll save the story of the Flavels for another time, though.

I’m about 50 pages into the manuscript, which isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it is enough to give me a broad view of how the story is progressing. And I’m not particularly surprised to discover that the vaunted Flavel narrative is not the watertight outline I’d originally (and unrealistically) expected, but more of a loose framework.

I guess that is to be expected of an inveterate pantser. To Hades with the outline; we pantsers are allergic to them. However, what I do have, 50 pages in, is a number of narrative threads that will weave themselves together in ways I can’t predict and may not even want. Even better, I have a number of characters in interesting situations that have yet to reveal themselves. This is the best part of being a pantser: winding up the characters and observing what they do.

Seriously, I frequently have no conscious intention about a characters actions. I just watch and report. It’s like having a movie projector that only works when I hammer on the keyboard. Entertaining as hell, and also a little spooky sometimes.

Here’s how things are shaping up right now. Normally, I would be hesitant to give too much of the narrative away this early in the process. However, since this is the Shitty First Draft, what’s going on now may have absolutely no resemblance to the final product, so what the hell. Here are the threads that have manifested themselves so far:

  • Martin Prieboy has now been the Chief Constable of Fester for nearly twenty years. He has just lost his spouse to cancer, and finds himself bonding with a police informant.
  • Billy Snyder served several years in the state pen for his part in the events in Fester. Now he lives in the boondocks outside of town, where he sells military antiques – and plots revenge.
  • The land once known as the Wizard’s Woods has been developed into a mall. However, in 2014, malls aren’t doing too well, and Harold Todd, the mall’s owner, is starting to get worried about its financial viability. And there are some strange things going on at the mall after hours…
  • Michael “Bolly” Bollinger has successfully taken over his father’s automotive repair shop. His landlord, the Schmidt family, is once again hiking the rent on the shop, making Bolly concerned about his financial future.

What happens next? OK. I’ve got a pretty good idea what Bolly’s going to do now, and maybe some ideas about the mall, but that’s it. The rest will reveal itself as I pound the keyboard. That’s part of the fun of being an indie writer. That and the money. Woo-hoo!

Wind ‘Em Up & Watch ‘Em Go to Unexpected Places

Hello friends! I’m enjoying what has so far been a very pleasant summer in Portland. I’m closing in on completing the third draft of a new novel, called Laughingstock. I hope to have it published by the end of the year.

Laughingstock is about two comedy nerds, Chuck and Duckie, who as teenagers psych each other up to actually try performing as a comedy duo. After some miscues, they find that that they’re enjoy it and are good at it. Just as their nascent career is starting to take off, Duckie’s family moves (to Fester, Pennsylvania, of all the awful places). As with so many long-distance relationships, they grow apart. They continue to pursue their careers separately, with varying success. Chuck makes the move to Los Angeles, where his star rises quickly and he lands his own network comedy show. Duckie, meanwhile, languishes in the comedy backwater of Portland, grabbing whatever gigs he can manage and paying the bills with dull third-shift jobs.

Just as Chuck’s show takes off, he abruptly disappears. Duckie undertakes a search to locate his old friend. His wild search involves many strange people and circumstances, including the legacy of Mickey Gross, a legendary comedian who supposedly died of cancer five years prior. Duckie’s search leads him to a remote island in Bristish Columbia, where he discovers a strange comedy secret that has been concealed for decades.

Compelling stuff, eh, kids? I sure hope so, and I’m having a lot of fun writing it. (Which is almost entirely the point; I sure ain’t in this for the money!) I’d really hoped to be done with Draft 3 earlier this spring, but it sure didn’t work out that way. However, just when I think I’m approaching closure, one of the characters goes off the rails and I have to figure out how to incorporate their unexpected behavior.

I’ve spoke before about my “pantsing” approach to writing: the flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants approach to storytelling, as opposed to “plotting,” where most of the action is plotted out before Word 1 is written. I’m just too impatient to be a plotter; it’s pantsing all the way for this guy.

Which is a lot of fun, but not conducive to speedy writing. For example, in Laughingstock, Duckie meets the estranged daughter of Mickey Gross, and they unexpectedly fall into a torrid love affair. Honestly, I did not see this coming. Of course, it provided an excuse to write some steamy sex scenes, and diluted the “sausage party” vibe that comes from writing about male-dominated activities like stand-up comedy. (As a comedy nerd myself, I’m gratified to see more women rising to prominence in this field.) Good things come from pantsing.

Similarly, in Fester, Paul Plummer was originally meant to be a minor character who would sort of fade into the background after the first act. Instead, he ended up being on of the main characters of the novel. It was fun to sort of conceive of these characters and then set them loose to see what happens. I’ll also do this deliberately if I get a little stuck. For example, Laughingstock has a network executive named Don Bundy. I wasn’t sure what Don was all about, so just to find out, I wrote a scene showing what Don does in the evening when he goes home from work. It turns out that Don is a lot creepier than I’d originally thought. The scene was excised from the second draft as it didn’t really move the story along, but it provided invaluable insight into Don’s character which was very useful for the rest of the story.

So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. The novel is progressing slowly – not because of authorial laziness (well, not entirely) – but because these darned characters act like they have minds of their own! Onward!

A “Pantsing” Impasse

Partial manuscript for Laughingstock

Back in November, I took part (in a limited fashion) in National Novel Writing Month. It was a great experience, and I met with a lot of really cool local authors. I’ve been writing with the same small group for (egad!) 13 years now, and it was great to broaden my local writing network.

One of the many things I learned was that there are two different approaches to writing fiction: “plotting” and “pantsing.” Plotting involves meticulously outlining the story, developing characters’ backstories and motivations, etc. Pantsing – as in “flying by the seat of your pants” – means just sitting down and writing with little or no planning.

I’ve done both. For Jackrabbit, I did a fair amount of plotting, as most of the story (at least the first 2/3rds) was based on historical events. I wanted to get those events right, as I knew that with historical fiction, readers could be especially particular about getting the facts just so. Also, I wanted to soak up as many factual details as I could, as it would inform the tone and story I was trying to establish with the parts of the book that were purely the products of my imagination. I did a lot of research and developed a detailed outline before I started writing the manuscript.

With Fester, it was the exact opposite: I just started writing. It was an interesting process, and it took the characters and the story in unexpected directions. A lot of times I’d sit down to write and thing, “What are these weirdos going to do now?” I really didn’t know the specifics until I was actually writing the scene and the results could sometimes be surprising. Bolly Bollinger ended up being a much more interesting character than I’d initially thought. I’m certain there’s a place for him in the proposed sequel.

I’ve been working on a new novel, working title Laughingstock. It’s about two comedians who grew up together and started performing stand-up as a team. Their lives diverge, and one goes on to comedy fame while the other remains in the stand-up doldrums. At the height of his success, the famous comic suddenly disappears, and his old friend goes in search of him, encountering all manner of ill shit.

I’ve been totally pantsing this story too, but I’ve run into a bottleneck with the antagonist characters. I was able to consistently crank out chapters during NaNoWriMo, but as the New Year turned, it began getting harder and harder. It finally got to the point where I was afraid I’d be writing “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over – and then I’d go after Shelley Duvall with an axe. And that poor woman had enough of a time of it from Stanley Kubrick.

To cut Shelley a break, I decided to shift gears, and started working on a short story I’d had kicking around in the attic for a few years. I’m taking a step back from Laughingstock, to let some of the ideas ferment. I’m also going to apply some plotting framework to the pantsing story. I definitely need to work out the timeline better, as I have been taking a lot of liberties with timing and the order of events. I think that will help shake loose some of the antagonist characters – particularly the sociopath studio head and the psychopath director.

I’d really like to have a second draft of this novel done by year’s end. At the very least, I look to have a new short story ready to go. And if all else fails, I can get busy on a sequel to Reset.