By the Seat of My Pants

you can’t ’pants’ editing:

Lara Zielinsky

Ms. Zielinsky, an author, editor, and teacher, recently wrote a blog post titled “editing for pantsers.” It’s an excellent article and I recommend it for all of us who write by the seat of our pants. (her blog can be found at larazbooks.com) It got me thinking about the process I use writing novels.

I am a Pantser – in writing and in life. One off the best vacations my wife and ever went on was when we took three weeks to go 1,000 miles; often pitching our tent in spots we hadn’t known existed that morning.

I’m obviously pantsing this blog. See how easily I get distracted.

Getting back to writing – I don’t personally know any other authors and have no ready resources for the process of writing a novel, other than my own experience. I have taken two college Creative Writing courses, neither one of which covered this most basic of topics. The first one I took was in 1965 so I may have forgotten some of the stuff the instructor covered, but still . . .

From the hints I read in other authors’ blogs, they write a first draft pretty much from start to finish, then go back and pull the story together while editing. I don’t do that. For years I wrote short stories, rarely over ten thousand words. Because of life, work, and other distractions it would sometimes be several days between writing sessions. When I finally got around to writing more, I would read what I had written from the start before adding to it. This was to get my mind back into the narrative, and to ensure that I kept the tone of the writing and the voices of the characters consistent. I try to ensure that each of my characters have their own voice, i.e. word choices and sentence structure, and I don’t want to sacrifice their individuality to my procrastination.

Obviously I can’t go back to the beginning when I’m fifty-thousand plus words into a novel. I usually go back two or three chapters, and sometimes will read a chapter or two at either the beginning or middle of the story. One result of this is that I do most of my editing and polishing at the same time I’m doing the actual writing. If there is an incident that seems out of place with no precedence (Ms. Zielinsky might refer to is this as an ‘effect’ without a ‘cause’) I can insert a section to account for it.

One example is in my most recent novel, The Woman in the Window. The two main characters Zelda and Val, meet at a conference in Chicago and end up in bed together. Several chapters later, when Zelda gets back home to Omaha, she is embarrassed about what she’d done because it clashes with the image she has created for herself. When I got to that point, I realized this embarrassment was coming out of the blue. So before going on, I went back and inserted three conversations with side characters, one before and two after the tryst, that clarified her opinion of herself. They also brought her motivation into better focus for the remainder of the novel.

I often tell people that I let my characters tell me the story and I just type it up. That sounds pretentious, but sometimes it feels as if that’s what is happening. When I start on a novel, I like to have the main characters’ personalities and backstories already created. Often, I will write short stories about them, and other times I have them worked out in my mind but not written down. Once that’s done, I create the situations that drive the story, then let the characters react appropriately. Sometimes they surprise me.

When I was writing Kitty-Kat I was several chapters into the story before I realized two things. One: that Nan currently volunteered at a battered women’s shelter; and Two: that she’d grown up in an abusive household. I honestly have no idea why those facts had been hiding from me, but once I saw them I had an ‘ah-ha’ moment. Several years ago I worked for an organization that ran the women’s shelter in our small town, so the symptoms should have been obvious. Nan was a loner who didn’t let people get close to her. Self-isolation is typical for a woman whose experience has been if you let yourself care for someone they can hurt you. For entertainment Nan either sat in her window watching her neighbors partying, or went out alone. (Granted it is not typical that while going out alone she wore a remote-control vibrator in her underwear, but that’s just Nan.)

The back story I’d had in mind for her when I started writing was incomplete. Once I saw the whole story of her life, and let Nan’s early experiences drive the story, it became one of the most important themes of the novel. That and the vibrator thing.

As noted above, I don’t believe that I write the same way other novelists do, but I don’t know that for a fact. If you write novels and are reading this, I would really appreciate hearing about the process you use.

Progress Report: Since publishing my latest novel last week, I’ve gone back to one I started and put down last fall. It’s a friends-to-lovers story about two young women living in – of course – Omaha. I’m only two chapters into it, but hope to move ahead quickly. I expect it to be a novella rather than a full novel. The Woman in the Window was longish for me, and writing it wore me out.

2 thoughts on “By the Seat of My Pants

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