On Pantsing and Learning from it

In my THE BLIND LEADING THE BLIND post about “pantsing” at The Good, The Bad, and the Unread, romblogreader had this question:

As you progress through writing and revising your second and third novels, have you remained as much of a “pantser” as you were for the first? Has the preliminary stage of writing changed much now that you have the writing/editing/completion of two novels under your belt? If so, how?

I like to think that I’ve changed and learned from the process — I’ve written two novellas and two novels in this series, and gotten helpful and critical feedback on each. Now that I’m writing the third full-length novel, I am keeping my problem areas in mind (like pacing) and making an extra effort to fix it.

But here’s the thing: when I started DEMON MOON, I’d just finished DEMON ANGEL and was freaking out that I’d written a 140K+ novel (for comparison, the average single title for Berkley is around 90-100K, and my contract stated that it should be about 100K) and was determined not to do that again, not to go over 100K, or 120K at the most. And some of my freak-out was because I knew that the extra word count created an additional financial burden for Berkley, because it meant they were editing, proofing, typesetting, printing a book and a half … and I’m a debut author who really shouldn’t piss off her publisher.

But aside from that concern, there was just the feeling that I’d let it get out of control — that it wasn’t tight enough, that I could have cut more out. And when I’d proposed DEMON ANGEL, the entire Part One didn’t exist … it was all backstory. The book started with a prologue, and that was the scene in 1991 Seattle.

So I thought myself pretty much a failure technically, though I really loved the story.

(Okay, this is my writing style in action — the long roundabout way of explaining how I wrote DEMON ANGEL, in order to get to how I started DEMON MOON, and what I did/did not learn from it.)

At the time I sent out the proposal, I had the prologue and three chapters, but I wasn’t completely happy with them. Feedback from someone whose opinion I really, really trust indicated that Hugh was “sluggish” and she couldn’t see why Lilith had fallen for him and had such an obsession for him. The sad thing? She was right. Hugh was … not good enough, not at all equal to Lilith, and telling their history in backstory was not going to cut it.

So I got the contract, and then I freaked out for about a month … because I couldn’t go forward. Hugh wasn’t working, the romance wasn’t working, there were too many infodumps, too many references to events that weren’t shown, too much wrong. So instead of going forward, I went backward to 1217 and wrote the story of them meeting and that initial fascination … and I finally, finally really understood Hugh, and why he meant so much to Lilith. And I also learned a lot about Lilith that way.

But then there were 800 more years of fighting … and I needed to convey their changing relationship. And once again, I didn’t want to tell it, I wanted to really show it.

But I skipped those 800 years, and went back to the contemporary section, rewrote part of those original chapters so that Hugh wasn’t a slug anymore, and went from there. After that, it just flowed. At about 70K words I did have a panicky couple of weeks, because I realized the book was going to be longer than 100K … I thought maybe 120K. And I was following the general outline of my original synopsis … kind of. The BIG events in the synopsis are still the big events in the book — only the details have changed (and that’s because the medieval section allowed me a much better look into their characters, and opened up several new avenues (the symbols, the bargaining, the theme of rebellion) to pursue).

And all the while I was compiling a list of things in my head that I still needed to show for those In Between medieval and contemporary scenes.

Around 100-115K, I realized exactly how I was going to get my HEA (not every detail, but pretty much … I actually had an a-ha! moment while lying in bed one night). And I can’t exactly describe how I realized it … only that I was looking at the story, looking at all the threads, looking at everything that had gone on in this book and in “Falling for Anthony” — and I knew exactly what I was going to do with the nosferatu, and with Lucifer.

(For example, for those who have read it, this will make more sense if I mention something concrete (and it is kind of a spoiler, but not a ruin-the-story kind of spoiler) — At one point, I sent Colin away because he was taking up too much in the story and his character was too big and I needed him out of the way a little bit so that I could have just Hugh and Lilith together, showing how they work together and interacting on their own and having major relationship time, and I couldn’t see why Colin wouldn’t be popping in all the time because he’s Lilith’s best friend … so I thought, why not take advantage of something I’d hinted at in “Falling for Anthony”? And he went away. And that away became a critical point in the victory at the end — both the method of his leaving, and the reason behind it….and it was all because I wanted to speed up the story and get more Hugh/Lilith time.)

I went back and tightened and filled out those threads as much as possible, and then wrote to the end … and it worked.

Of course, there were still those In Between scenes to consider … and I made certain that not only did I try to reflect the changes that were taking place between Hugh and Lilith and their relationship, but also laying the initial clues for the victory later — so that there was no last minute revelation or deus ex machina (I HATE THOSE — nothing cheats a reader and the characters more than offering a solution out of nothing on a freaking silver platter) and everything had been laid out. Not obviously, of course … but there.

Then there were other decisions to make: like, should I put the medieval section and in-between scenes in chronologically, or insert them between other, contemporary scenes like flashbacks? Would that disrupt the narrative flow too much? How do I weigh the need of the story to have a constant forward motion against the odd, broken structure of the vignettes stuck in the middle, and a long Part One that reads more like a Prologue? How do I tie both parts together enough so that they don’t seem like two different books?

I don’t know that I wholly succeeded … and when I turned in the manuscript, I cut out as much as I possibly could because I was worried about the length so much. (I chopped out the scenes between 1666 and 1991, and those I’d left I’d pared far, far down). It turned out that my editor wanted me to put some of it back in … because everything was so tightly intertwined, that removing even one of those in between scenes ended up leaving an unexplained jump in the characters’ evolution — especially Hugh’s.

So that is one of the things I really like about pantsing — the natural evolution of the story, and the way it all ties together, and the way that I can pick up unexpected threads and weave them in and make them work in a way that surprises even me. Now, I do have a destination and specific points in mind, but getting to each of those points is somewhat up in the air … and took longer than I’d expected. I think that shows in the book — and I was aware of some of those issues … but I wasn’t sure of a way to change the structure without sacrificing something else, like scenes or dialogue that I considered very important to their characters. I’m still not sure if I could.

And when I got to DEMON MOON, I was like: No Way. Not again. I wrote a pretty tight synopsis, each plot point well established, and three chapters — and got the okay to continue. And I continued. I didn’t go back and forth like I had with DEMON ANGEL — the narrative was straight, the two flashback scenes coming out naturally from the flow of the story, everything was going well.

But, goddammit, the characters were fuller than I’d imagined, their relationship more complex, and there were things that I wanted to explore that wouldn’t change the plot I’d developed all that much, just enrich it … but letting them grow and exploring their world once again took a lot of time, and the world itself grew and became deeper as I went along.

I mean, what the fuck? Here I was with two stories in this world under my belt, and there was more here to look at? Although I do introduce new ideas to the mythology in the second book, especially about vampires, the base is still the same — Guardians and demons, nosferatu and vampires, free will and bargains — but at the same time it’s completely different.

I hadn’t expected that. And it wasn’t necessarily that I was changing the rules of the world (hell, no) but that Colin and Savi were so different from Hugh and Lilith, that the way they looked at the world and experienced it was so much different. And it reflected in their characters, and their interactions.

And I ended up with a 156K book that had some pacing problems in the second quarter. With feedback, I’m currently revising it and fixing that problem … but it’s not going to get any shorter, though I think the lull (created by a lot of fun dialogue, but not really much action) is pretty much taken care of.

So I think that’s where my pantsing creates a problem for me — I know where I’m going, but there’s a short lull where I’m figuring it all out and sticking in threads and issues that I have to unravel later … and sometimes the unraveling takes longer than I think it will. Because I really, really, really like to put my characters in absolutely impossible situations … and then make them get out of it, without resorting to a deus ex machina. And I think that if I was as smart as my characters, they’d get to it faster … but I’m not.

The ending of DEMON MOON is exactly what I’d planned at the beginning, and for the most part, the plot is exactly what I’d intended (there are a few details that changed, but nothing in the big picture). Yet it was still so long, and not a lot to pare away (though there’s some) … I don’t know what to make of that.

But going into this new book, I know that I have that tendency to write long, and to go deep. The plot in the synopsis is tight, but my characters are complete nutjobs, so it’s going to take some time to do that unraveling again…and little things might come up that I didn’t expect. But I know that, so I’ll push very, very hard to move them along. And the heart of the conflict is different, more character oriented than external-forces oriented (although there is a lot of that) so that might make a difference in the length (I think on the shorter side) and I have a one or two less subplots running through it (although there are plenty of those, too).

I don’t think I’ll hit 100K … probably 120K. I hope. And, frankly, if the story demands a little bit more, I’ll take it. If it is less, I’ll leave it. It may just be that *my* style of storytelling is always going to be slightly long. I don’t know.

Looking back, there are a couple of things that I could probably change in DEMON ANGEL, learning what I have in the year since I’ve finished it — but I don’t know if there would be significant changes. Tightening it up a bit, definitely, maybe clarifying a few details — but overall, the story is what I want it to be, the characters’ journeys are exactly what I want them to be — and the story and characters matter to me more than anything else, even if it means, on some level, the technical part suffers. And the book won’t work for everyone, but … yeah. It may be that I write with more enthusiasm than real craft — but craft is something I can keep working on, and will keep working on. I do want the books to be the absolute best they can be … and I learn a lot with each page I write and/or revise.

So I guess the short answer was: Yes. 🙂 I approach the newer books differently, with my flaws very tightly in mind … but I also think the execution is somewhat the same. I simply don’t know any other way to do it.