What does it mean to be a pantser?
Good question, that. I think, though, I should step back briefly and illustrate why the question came up.
Last night I was celebrating, and rightfully so. See, I've known for some time that I'm capable of writing 2,000 words a day just as Stephen King--the other one--recommends. Typically it's an all-evening endeavor. I get home, chat with the wife and family a while, eat a tasty dinner, then settle down to writing. Once I get my hands on the keyboard, then, I run through a myriad of writing-related exercises like moaning about how the next line just isn't coming to me, stretching my head back to check for cracks in the ceiling, checking in on my castle in my Facebook game to make sure no one has attacked, reaching down to give my puppy's head a scratch, hitting the "refresh" button on my e-mail once again, whining about the general unfairness of it all, and eventually, actually committing words to the virtual page.
Total time taken: a few hours, ish. After, I always head off to bed completely satisfied over my productivity for the day.
Last night I turned the routine on its head with one simple act: I bought a couple of beers on the way home. I then announced to the world (and my wife, which is pretty much the same thing) that I wouldn't drink them till I had finished my 2,000 words. Suddenly I really didn't care whether or not my fake castle in a fake game had been fake-attacked. It's all fake, right? Instead of all the pre-writing stuff, I simply noted to Facebook that I was going off to write (e.g., closing that window), and then I went off to write, and then I came back.
Total elapsed time: approximately one hour. And then another minute or two to pour the beer. Rewards are sweet!
The time is significant because I hadn't to that point gotten an idea of how fast I can write given a steady effort. It's not the same as the typical words per minute typing test; there, you're parroting someone else's words on the screen. Creative writing isn't parroting anything.
I thought briefly, while I was celebrating the accomplishment of two thousand words, that if I could do two thousand words in one hour, why shouldn't I do four thousand in two hours? Now hold on there, Bucky, I thought immediately after. If I write tomorrow's words today, what will I write tomorrow? And besides, the reward I offered myself was for two thousand words, not four thousand.
Consistency is key.
So I drank my beer, and I crowed a little on Facebook. Then I got the question that led to today's query. A friend of a friend, my friend said, is bad about starting books but not finishing them. As a result, he's got lots of half-done manuscripts lying around (I'd presume in a virtual way). What should my friend do?
Stockades, of course. If you get the stockades configured right they should put the guy's hands in the right position to use his keyboard, and then you can either release him for food every few thousand words, or you can just move the keyboard for its safety and feed him right there with a spoon.
No, no, I'm kidding. Mostly. The way to deal with someone who starts stories but doesn't finish them must be far nicer and gentler. Because, um, I was one. I started Professor Kinder back in 2006, and it's my fault that he languished between the e-covers, his story unfinished for years and years before I brought him back a few months ago to finish his arc.
Because, you know, I have his arc. Now, I have an arc. I didn't have an arc, back then.
(That's an arc, not an ark. There's a difference.)
See, that was a National Novel Writing Month attempt, my first thereof. I'd read about NaNoWriMo. I'd read No Plot? No Problem, which lays out the theme song of the month. I thought it was okay, even good, to launch my way into a book without having a plot to speak of.
And it is okay, even good, in NaNoWriMo. It's not, in book writing. No, I'm not dissing NaNo. I think that month stands for a wonderful opportunity for those who have never gone through the exercise of putting 50,000 words into an order that kind of approximates sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and even a story. Just write, keep writing, and if you run out of story, you can just blow something up and make more story out of the splatters.
Problem is, winning NaNoWriMo is a psychological triumph, not a literary one. There's a reason agents cringe and put out the "closed for December" sign the month after NaNo. You can't--you shouldn't--you mustn't--write a book for publication without having a plot in mind for it.
But! But! But Stephen, you've said you're a pantser! come the objections. Sure, I have, and I've also, in past blog posts, pointed to famous and commercially successful authors who are also pantsers. It's one thing, though, to be pantser, and another thing entirely to refuse to do the work required to write a book.
See, a pantser is someone who doesn't outline. At least, he doesn't outline at first. I don't outline at first, though I find it a useful exercise to outline the story after it's written. To me, outlining spoils the fun. It's like writing the same story twice, and I'd rather eat fingernail clippings. I've got three relatively successful novels out there, and I'm working on what I hope will be a fourth, and I didn't outline any of them before I wrote the drafts.
But see, here's the thing: an outline is a different beast from a plot. A story, outlined or no, has a definite structure, one that no matter how creative you get in your writing you must not stray from. It's not hard to stick with it, honestly; I mean, it's like this: a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's it. A reader expects a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you leave one of those out (especially the end), the reader will be perturbed with you. On top of that, a reader expects certain things to happen in the beginning, and certain other things in the middle, and other things in the end.
It's really that simple. That's the "three act structure" that they're always talking about, just with all the useful details stripped away because this blog post is getting too long.
If you're going to write a novel, it's up to you whether you wish to outline or fly by the seat of your pants. It's fine, really; whichever whacks your keyboard is the one you should pick. But it's not up to you whether you plot your novel out first. If you're going to eventually write "THE END" at--well, at the end; anyplace else would just be silly--then you're going to need to know what and where the end is going to be.
Your story, in other words, at some point must go from a cool idea to a plot.
Cool idea: a guy who handles elephants falls in love with the woman who's married to the circus boss.
Plot: a veterinary student's parents are killed in a car crash, so he flees the situation and joins the circus as an elephant handler. He has a hard time with acculturation at first, but eventually he wins some friends. He befriends the boss, who is an abusive alcoholic, and develops an attraction to the boss's wife. Over time they come closer together in mutual attraction, and then.... (nope, not gonna spoil the plot for anybody who hasn't read this fantastic novel)
Make sense? A guy who handles elephants falling in love with the boss's wife can go just about anywhere. Starting the book on such a shaky bit of work just about guarantees that Water for Elephants isn't going to happen.
(Yes, I picked the most successful--so far--example of a NaNoWriMo novel on purpose, thus showing that NaNos can be good, just not if you don't have a plot.)
To steal an idea from a satellite TV commercial: when you start a book with just an idea, you reach twenty thousand words and realize you don't know what else to write. When you don't know what else to write, you make stuff up on the fly. When you make stuff up on the fly, your writing turns to crap. When you write crap, people make fun of you. When people make fun of you, you stop doing what you've always dreamed of and go off to join the circus instead. Don't go off to join the circus. Start your books with a plot.