Writing Fiction: Into the Dark, Trusting Yourself, Pantsing.
Two days ago, I spent the day writing. Not so unusual. But this time, it was with no outline or character interview or any way to know what I was going to write.
Simply a test.
D. W. Smith calls it “Writing Into the Dark.” He’s got blog posts, and a book, and a lecture on it.
It’s simply pantsing. Of course, that phrase doesn’t accurately describe it at all. It probably comes from some elitist Academic who was pushing the outline-research-draft-rewrite-rewrite-rewrite concept. Some idea that you’re writing from the seat of your pants. Of course, that is the furthest description you could possibly have.
Louis L’Amour said he went where the story took him. And he never knew where he would end up until he got there.
Most of the pulp fiction survivors use(d) that model. And the more productive writers I’ve chased up (3-4 novels per year, or at least 50 short stories) all follow that idea. Start typing and quit when the story says you’re done. The story knows how long it needs to be.
So I did my own test of this.
Inspiration to Start You Off
You can get this from many places. There’s a list inside James Scott Bell’s “Plot & Structure.” He compiled several approaches. Most you’ve heard of. And you know of people who keep notebooks of titles, first lines, scraps of dialog, even lists of nouns. All these are some sort of symbol to prompt your unconscious to get something for your conscious to chew over.
Dorothea Brande (book | course) says to simply quiet your mind. Or do mindless physical work, such as knitting, floor scrubbing, or simply sitting alone on a part bench. A recent post here covered Kenneth Grahame’s essay on taking walks in solitude.
For me, it’s a graphic approach. I have always worked in graphic arts, and so that’s a plus for me.
Before I started writing, I pulled up Pixabay.com and looked over their front page. There you find their most recent and popular photos. There I found a picture of a woman with blue-green eyes staring over a blue, coarse-weave cloth. The rest of her face and background had been drained of color back to black and white.
And so I lost myself in her eyes and started writing.
Wound up done at over 12,000 words some 6 hours later. I just had to keep going to find out how it would end.
Editing it over, my conscious mind brought me all sorts of ways to improve it. But I have to draw the line at major re-writing. Tweaks, sure. Otherwise, I might as well start a new story. That’s what L’Amour did – just put in another sheet of paper and start typing again. Old story done. New story starting.
Guided by Inspiration, Guiding Your Writing
In Bell’s book, he quotes Alfred Hitchcock, “A good story is life with the dull parts taken out.”
Your inner storyteller may be giving you a nice narrative, it’s your job to turn it into a great story. That probably brings in your conscious side. Brande says you have to get your conscious and unconscious work in sync. That’s the problem that most people have with outlining and multiple drafts. Too much editor-mind at work. Your unconscious has to be an equal player.
Pantsing doesn’t work for many people, as they haven’t internalized (or trust) their own understanding of what makes a good story. Smith and other “into the dark” writers tell you to trust yourself. The story needs to come out and you’re the one to do it. So go ahead and write it. Edit into the best shape you can, and then publish it – get it on sale and keep it there. That’s what Heinlein said to do.
All these plots have been written before. But not from your voice. That’s why that story came to you. You’re the best one to bring your particular version of that story to life. Right at this time and right from where you are sitting.
So do your very best and get it out there. Don’t worry. Make it something you are happy with. Get it done. Then start on the next one. Just be sure to learn from every story you bring to life. Make each one better than the one before.
If you “look” carefully, maybe as the edges of your vision, or back behind an ear, there is a long queue of stories waiting for you. They might be jostling with each other for position, they may be calling your name, “Hey, pick me!” Or they may simply be polite, quiet zombies. It’s all how you treat them. It’s how much life you give them.
Deciding How to Write
Look over what you’ve been doing and see if how you do it fits. Like a pair of shoes. Do they chafe? Do they fit snugly? Are the soft and pliable, or give you the firm support you need?
Writing is a personal thing.
My test above was to try another approach, one which more often than not is what the most prolific authors take. (I did find that Patterson is writing outlines, but that is to get co-writers to help him out. Essentially, they are fleshing out a short story into a novel, if you look at it.)
Did this test work for me?
You’ll see the results shortly. Just tweaking the editing, and I want to record it into audio as one of those edits.
But it was certainly fun. And that’s the point.
Trusting Yourself at Your Craft
You could as simply call it writing into the light, or following the light. Far less spooky and dramatic. Or not. Just the way you look at things.
D. W. Smith says he has two signs above his writing desk:
- Write episodes.
- Trust the process.
Probably right. You definitely have to trust that the words and ideas are going to come to you. The more you trust, the faster they arrive. Episodes is a good concept for trying not to see further than your headlights. You’ll get their soon enough. Just keep describing what you see as fast as you can. That car will only travel as fast as you can keep up. Or you can jump ahead if that part of the narrative is too slow to make a good story.
That car metaphor has its limits. “Take nothing seriously.” could be another sign to post.
I sometimes would get the idea of being a child and having a story read to me. I’d ask the storyteller at times to skip to the good parts, or that storyteller would insist that I’d have to know this part in order to understand what happens later.
Three Guides for Happy Writing
- Trust yourself.
- Enjoy what you’re doing.
- Love every moment.
Look those over and you’ll see they pretty much sum up what we’ve been covering today.
(PS. Non-fiction is the same thing. Don’t overthink it. Just write.)
Like what you’ve been reading?
Also published on Medium.