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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.


Published ineditingwhiningwriting

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