Here’s a guest post from the fantastic writer/poet/editor/code dude/creator Kaolin Fire. If you’ve ever wondered what it means to write by the seat of your pants, this is the way he does it:
Hello. My name is Kaolin, and I’m a pantser. I think that means the same thing for everyone, pretty much, but I was recently asked how I went about writing a story, and I thought I’d try outlining a somewhat concrete—and all-too-typically-incomplete—e
My writing group did a 12 minute warmup today—we spent two minutes each coming up with a plot based on a theme, and tossed that into a hat; then we each pulled a theme from the hat and spent 10 minutes trying to write a “complete” story. Now, a complete story can be a paragraph, or a page, maybe even two or three pages—in ten minutes, you’re going to get a piece of flash fiction, or a vignette, or you might only get a couple of disconnected ideas (or no ideas at all that you can convince yourself have a prayer of working…it happens, though it’s better to write a bad idea than to not write at all, especially for warm-up). And then we read our stories at the end…not really for critique, but just to share.
The plot (well, plot hook) I got was “you’re slowly turning into a dinosaur”. Of course, I flashed immediately on “The Metamorphosis”, but I wasn’t going to let that effect me. I didn’t know where I would go with it, but I knew where to start—with the viscera. I have a character, and they’re changing into a dinosaur. I’d get that process going, and see if it gave me any clues as to why it was happening, or where I could go from there. Depending on how long changing into a dinosaur took, that could be the entirety of the story.
I was a little distracted while writing, but put together a pretty reasonable first paragraph in about six minutes. Okay, I was very distracted, but I was also trying to find the character. It was a little overly-dramatic—the sort that might work, or could easily be edited out. I started getting a slight noir tinge from what I was putting down.
“It’s happening again. I can feel it, deep in my bones.”
The first line led me to things-that-you-feel-in-bones, which led me to chemo. Maybe the radiation was triggering some primal dna…I mean, it’s corny, but there’s room to run with corny, or there’s room to make it not corny if you phrase it right…maybe. But I didn’t want to go there. So I let my character ramble a little bit, and found out he (apparently male, so far) was divorced, and a down-and-out alcoholic. Suddenly, he was in an alley (in my mind, anyway, though I hadn’t described it yet, and that could change with different input).
I’d gotten a bit more description of him feeling his skin change, cold and hard, and that reminding him of his gun (which made me think noir more strongly, and I got lost trying to come up with a good noir-ish way of phrasing one line…)…and that’s when six minutes was called.
I jumped to the end, because I have a bad habit of not having ends, and it’s a little embarrassing. People seem to react better to a story that has an end but no middle than they do to a story than has a middle but no end, at least…in my experience, with my writing, most of the time. Of course, you have to actually find an end, but I figured if I focused the rest of the time on that, I’d find some end, and it’s a lot easier to change an end than to come up with one whole cloth later. I’m also more likely to find inspiration to fill out a story between a beginning and an end than I am for a beginning and a middle (that’s gone nowhere).
I pictured him as a dinosaur, whole and complete—why was this happening to him? Well, maybe the chemo was making him more receptive, maybe he was the right sort of person, but maybe it wasn’t for any particular reason, not the root of it anyway. I jumped back in time to a large crowd of dinosaurs…they were plotting to escape the pending apocalypse. They were smart, but not technological…they were going to “ascend” (to use the Stargate term). But (for some reason I’d figure out later) they were leaving one of their own behind…and it was him.
I got a few lines past that and realized if he was being left behind, then this great migration wasn’t what was causing his current jump. I could brainstorm something else, but it was easier to say it was his mate that was being left behind for some reason (some crime, I presumed, though perhaps unjustly accused, or complicated circumstances that would have to be figured out later…). And they were all “shuffling off” to now, my original protagonist being subsumed by the dinosaur soul.
And that was what I got down, basically, in the last four minutes. The end was very rushed, and painfully overwrought. It wasn’t a complete story, and it didn’t make sense on a number of levels, but it had many threads that could be picked up, followed, and fleshed out (or removed to make the tapestry simpler/more coherent). And if I’d had more time, that’s what I would have done. Hopefully.
For now it’s in a folder of “things to finish, some day”, and…maybe I will. And that’s pantsing, for me, at any rate. That’s pretty much how I approach every story I write, though I might have more of an idea, or at least more elements of an idea, to start, they tend to grow and mix and jumble until they turn into something, or nothing. 🙂