Some fifteen years ago one of my favorite all time teachers (love you Mary. Hope you’re reading my stuff in heaven. Sorry about all the cursing) handed me a copy of On Writing by Stephen King. I remember sitting on her classroom floor and devouring the paper back. I brought it home and finished that night.
I knew two things. 1. I wanted to be a writer and 2. I didn’t need permission and nothing could stop me but me.
In a fever of the next few months and daily 24 packs of Mt. Dews I wrote my first, shitty novel (yes, you read that correctly. Pepsi had just started selling them in “THE CUBE” boxes then and I would use them as an ever softening leg rest as well as writing fuel).
It’s safe to say that King’s book is inspiring. It still is. This past week I downloaded the audiobook version and listened to it on my walks and runs. I’d still highly recommend it. I’ve sampled many a book on writing over the years and On Writing remains the best.
But the best does not mean it should be treated like the Bible or anything. Every writer is different. One could argue that Stephen King, arguably a genius of our time, is ESPECIALLY different, and this book is simply espousing his writing philosophy.
Ben had a post last week where he discussed saidisms in direct contrast to the advice King gives in On Writing, and I’d say he’s mostly correct (even though we had more than one friendly argument about this when handling the manuscript for Detroit 2020). Another contentious section is where King establishes that plotting is paramount to trying to excavate a fossil with a forklift. It’ll get the job done, but at what cost?
My counter to Mr. King, with much respect and admiration, is what if not using the forklift means the job doesn’t get done at all?
Libby Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants adopts a position that sadly is starting to become my own. If you want to write fast, if you want to complete projects, you need to plot.
I say sadly, because I actually agree with King. Your characters should be so individual and defined that they should be able to dictate what happens next. You as an author should be along for the ride.
In silly jargon, this method has become known as “pantsing,” as in writing by the seat of your pants. I hate this jargon. I hate it so much. I hate anything I simultaneous have to use because it’s become ubiquitous and have to explain every time because it’s only become standard for very few.
Rant over. Sorry about that.
So I prefer pantsing (vomit noises) and even started writing my new novel that way after being so inspired by listening through On Writing again. It was only three days before I hit a wall, and wanting to still hit my words for the day, I started writing complete bullshit that took the book in the wrong direction.
Remember that bit where we talked about how Stephen King was an individual genius? Like really unique and individual? Like you and I aren’t him, and likely we won’t meet anyone like him in our entire lives?
The dude has a dizzying intellect. Seriously, go watch his old Celebrity Jeopardy appearances some time. He’s able to consistently produce good work being a pantser (seriously, that sentence makes it sound like the divine writer of The Stand runs around pulling down people’s trousers). Likely he doesn’t need to plot because he’s capable of fitting all those characters, their diverse motivations, and the multitudes of potential events that can transpire in his head in a way that you and I just can’t.
On my best days, I can tap into that magic, and it does feel supernatural. You have no idea what is going to happen and suddenly it’s there and your fingers can’t keep up with the story dump that’s coming from your head. My worst days, I don’t know, I guess I’m out of mana.
The best thing though about Libby Hawker’s approach is that it still allows for those miracle moments, as the outlines you are doing are 1. character based and 2. just a loose stating of events. It’s a sort of map of where you are going without exactly saying (except for a few sign posts along the way) how you’re going to get there.
After getting lost and veering off in a very wrong direction, I almost abandoned my current project (my first attempt at a traditional haunted house story). Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time. My hard drive is flooded with pantsing gone wrong (now that sounds like I’m talking about weird porn, thanks internet).
But I spent all my work hours yesterday surrendering to plot it all out. Now I know where I’m going and there are scenes that I just can’t wait to write. All in all, I love King. I love that book. But I think I’m done with pants (okay, I did that one on purpose).