(Cross posted on One Bite at a Time.)

I tried. I really did. People have told me for years. “Be more of a pantser,” they’d say. “Don’t plot so much. Surprise yourself.”

I knew I couldn’t sit down to write not knowing what would happen that day. Endings of stories often come to me immediately after the beginnings, sometimes right after the premise. Once the ending actually came first. I thought the “headlights” system would be a good compromise: plot only a few chapters ahead. (I call it the “headlights” system in deference to Patricia Highsmith, from whom I stole it. She used to plot that way, and used the analogy of a car’s headlights. You can only ever see a little bit ahead, but follow them and you’ll get all the way to where you’re going.)

I’m 21 chapters into the WIP. Three more are plotted. It’s an unholy mess. The time line is off. One subplot is missing. I’m trying to introduce it after the fact, but this requires going into already drafted chapters to insert information that should have been there in the first place.

I hate writing first drafts. I only get through them by building momentum and letting the narrative take over as I go, so I’m essentially typing up a story that is already fully formed in my head. All that’s left is the manner of telling. The events are already there. Writing without a definite plan of where I’m going is like trying to tie my shoes wearing mittens.

Tonight I’m getting out the index cards and capturing what has happened so far. Tomorrow I’ll start working on what comes next. The general form of the story is in my head, as well as where it has to wind up. I’m going back into my comfort zone.

I wish I could write something longer than a few thousand words without a detailed plan, but it’s time to admit I can’t. Thanks to everyone who encouraged me to give it a try. I can see why you enjoy it. I can even see how some stories probably should be written that way.

Just not by me.

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Comment by Eric Christopherson on May 1, 2009 at 1:48am
Here's the view from one of your heroes (and mine), Dana, Raymond Chandler: "A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled. I always regard the first draft as raw material. What seems to be alive in it is what belongs in the story." A pantser is supposed to mess his pants is what I think John and Ingrid and Raymond are saying.
Comment by I. J. Parker on May 1, 2009 at 12:41am
After the first third of the book, I start keeping a notebook with reminders about changes that will need to be made in earlier chapters. The real job of making it all hang together happens after the first draft is finished and generally takes about a month.
Comment by John McFetridge on May 1, 2009 at 12:36am
I think the "unholy mess," is one of the stages a manuscript passes through, it's part of the process. It took me a few books to figure that out, and I'm no less stressed when I go through that stage, but I haven't found a way to get to the end without going through it.

This WIP may very well turn out to be the best thing you've ever written.
Comment by Jack Getze on April 30, 2009 at 1:31pm
A man has to know his limitations.

And I always thought it was E.L. Doctorow (sp?) who talked about the headlight thing.

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