Pants’ing the Night Away (or, My Writing Process, Part I)

I am currently stuck in first draft hell, so I’ve been thinking a lot about my process lately.

I can’t stress enough how very, very (VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY) idiosyncratic the writing process is. Not only does everyone have their own way of getting from that initial messy sentence of a first draft to the shiny, polished, sparkling THE END of the final version, but even people who seem to have the same process on the surface usually have wildly different ways of accomplishing each step of that process. There are, at least in my opinion, no right or wrong ways to approach writing. I’m even wary of “best practices” because everyone’s brain works so differently. To me, the only time you’re getting your process wrong is if whatever you’re doing stops you from writing (and I mean “writing” pretty loosely here, because you can be writing without producing actual words. As long as you’re advancing your story in some way, you’re writing).

But even knowing that no one’s process will ever be my process, I love reading about how other people write. It confirms my conviction that we all write differently, and even if no one’s process is exactly mine, I’ve picked up so many great strategies and tips from other writers. (Most recently, one of my CPs has introduced me to colored index cards for revisions and it has revolutionized my first revision process.)

So, since I’m thinking about my own process anyway, I figured I’d jot those thoughts down here, in case what I do might help someone else with what they do.

There are pretty distinct steps to my writing so I’ve decided I’ll tackle each one in its own post, starting with the first draft, which I have affectionately titled the “pants” draft.
(SIDE NOTE: In case the word “pants” means nothing to you in this particular context, writers often talk about “plotting” vs. “pantsing”—planning out a story before beginning to write vs. jumping in and…well….flying by the seat of your pants.)

I guess I should say upfront that I’m a reviser at heart. I get my writing joy from taking the seeds planted in first drafts and making them bloom. Developing a whole character out of one thing they said in passing in the first draft, building and connecting whole plotlines from scenes that may, while drafting, have seemed insignificant. It’s where my strengths lie too. My best writing happens in those second, third, fourth drafts.

Meanwhile, first drafts for me are a slow form of torture. They take forever (I think I’m going on a year with my current WIP), and are quagmires of bad wording, turtle-stuck-in-tar (i.e. SLLOOOWWWW) pacing, generic world building, and undeveloped/inconsistent characters. First drafting activates all my perfectionism, which makes me want to immediately go back and “fix” every page/paragraph/sentence/line/word that I write. I used to let myself do that. I don’t anymore.

For me, stories are puzzles. And the first draft is the outside of the puzzle. I have to have that border created before I can make sense of the middle. Drafting is dumping all the pieces out on the table and separating the edge pieces from the inside ones. Then putting those edges together. When I’m done, I still don’t have a perfect picture of the story, but I can see patterns, trajectories, places where things interlock. I can see, in other words, where the next piece goes.

It took me a lot (I mean, A LOT) of trial and error to find a drafting style that works for me. I attempted outlining first, but I found that once I had the whole story planned out, I had no interest in writing it. Even though none of the details were developed, it felt like I’d already told the parts of the story that mattered. But pure pants’ing, while enjoyable, caused too many false starts, as I inevitably wrote myself into useless corners, forcing me to begin again. Those drafts, when I finished them, would end up bloated monstrosities that I struggled to edit down to a recognizable narrative.

What I’ve learned is that my first drafts go most smoothly if my pants’ing comes with a side of plotting. “Plants’ing,” so to speak. I crave the discovery of the pants’ing first draft: sowing the seeds, uncovering the edge pieces. I’ve developed more of the magic system in my current WIP from writing the story than from all my hours conceptualizing and pre-writing. My characters tell me things about themselves in Chapter 15, Chapter 28, Chapter 35 and already I can see how working these new discoveries into Chapters 2, 3, 4 will blow open the story in fantastic ways.

But I need limits to my discovery. I want to play in a sandbox. A fenced-in backyard. Sow my seeds in a planter box. Start my puzzle on a narrow coffee table.

Now, I establish those limits before I even begin to draft. I do a lot of character-focused pre-writing, getting to know their voices, their goals, what makes them tick. I also identify the five major beats of the story before I start—the opening image, the inciting incident, the mid-point high, the low point, the end. They might change as I get going, but these five beats give me the limits I need to “pants” (relatively) well, without making me feel as if the whole story has already been told. How I get from the opening image to the inciting incident, for instance, is full of the potential for discovery, but I have a concrete goal to work towards.

I also set smaller goals when I sit down to draft. Usually I will jot down in a bolded line or two at the bottom of the document what I want to accomplish in that scene or that chapter.

[Get them to smash their lips together.]
[Expose ____ secret.]
[Kill ____.]

Lately, I have also been trying to add two other elements to the goals I plan out before I write a new chapter/scene. First, I try to identify the central tension of the chapter/scene/moment—what is the conflict or what plot line does it move forward or what is the goal of the main character? Secondly, I challenge myself to achieve this tension as much as possible through external action and dialogue. I’ve noticed from working on first drafts of previous manuscripts that my characters spend too much time in their heads alone, and that my chapters can lack purpose (all of which has been echoed in some way by feedback I’ve received on those manuscripts). Tackling these issues as much as I can in the first draft will, I hope, ease up revisions in those areas later on and give me more time to focus on other elements of this story, like world-building and voice (which are incredibly complex in this particular WIP).

Once I establish my goals, I write until I hit them. Sometimes, it will happen in a page or two. Sometimes eight pages later, I’m still stuck in a transition scene. But as much as time allows, I try not to stop writing until I reach that established goal.

I end drafting sessions by jotting down ideas for where I think I’m headed next. Sometimes, they change as soon as I settle in to write again. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, they help to create more limits.

The most important part of my process, though, is drafting chronologically. Without exception. If I get inspiration for a later scene, I’ll take notes, scribble down the images/lines in my head, but I don’t let myself write it until I reach that scene in the narrative arc. When I write scenes out of order, they feel too peripheral to the rest of the story. They often have no context, no dovetails with previous or impending action, and the characters are the most static. I also often spend too much time smoothing over and perfecting these kind of OMG-I-HAVE-TO-WRITE-THIS-RIGHT-NOW scenes, making me much more resistant to change in revisions.

If I write chronologically, I know better what has happened to my characters and where they are emotionally leading up to this scene and I can work all that into the action. As much as it can be painful (and again, this is one of those things that I think is really, really individual to the writer), waiting to write scenes that inspire me helps me better understand the scene’s role in the story, and usually this means that the scene ends up more effectively crafted (even at the first draft stage).

I also don’t let myself edit in drafting phase. When I sit down to draft, I’ll read back over the last chapter or scene to remind myself where I am, but I don’t make any changes. If I start to edit a line, or a paragraph, or a scene, it will only snowball until I find myself in the throes of an editing avalanche without a full manuscript. For me, editing always leads to crafting, and crafting always results in a stubborn refusal to change anything I’ve crafted. And I throw out too much between drafts one and two to start getting precious about my words.
(SIDE NOTE: The only exception to this rule is that I will often take a few writing sessions to craft the opening chapters of a new MS. This helps me to establish voice, which gives me some further limits as I move forward.)

Basically, my entire drafting process is built around plowing forward as quickly as possible from the beginning until the end. I need to see the whole story before I can understand how to make it better. But I can only learn the whole story while writing it, while seeing who my characters are and what choices they make. And they show me this best when I don’t start with too much of a plan.

I draft sequentially, I draft messy, and I draft for those moments of discovery when I can already feel my brain begin to snap the middle pieces of the puzzle together, even as I am still building out the edges.