I used to be a die-hard panster. My first published novel came about after I had an encounter with a charismatic clerk in a dollar store. The three that followed had similar sketchy starts. I’d read a news story or overhear a conversation, and I’d plunge in without even the skimpiest of plans.
The blind trust I had in the process was astounding. I was like Christopher Columbus searching for the New World without a single navigational tool. I proudly declared myself to be an organic writer. Looking back, it’s hard to figure out how I managed it.
My first three novels were part of series so, after the first one, characters and setting were already in place. That made things easier. My fourth novel was a departure. All I had in my head was a half-baked pitch, “Bridget Jones Meets Lovely Bones,” and I was off. I cringe when I think of how many times I had to re-write that thing.
How It All Went Sour
My fifth novel changed everything. As usual, all I had was a concept in my head. I wrote the novel, sent it off to my agent and after she read it, she said, “Ewww.”
Well, not “ewww” exactly. She was more diplomatic but I knew what she meant. She gave me dozens of notes, and I spent months re-writing. I sent it off again. My agent said it was better but she wasn’t exactly popping champagne bottles and pricing Mercedes. She sent it off to two editors to see what they thought, and they both said it needed a lot of work. (One said it would be like trying to cut through acres of bramble with a pair of pinking shears.)
The editor did have some suggestions as to how to fix it. I took her advice and spent six months re-writing it. I sent it back to the agent and she said the four words no author ever wants to hear: “You made it worse.”
I re-wrote and re-wrote. I got more feedback and re-wrote some more. This process went on for three years. I could sense my agent’s impatience with me so we parted ways. I did another re-write and queried. On the strength of my pitch, a superstar agent called me, itching to read the novel. The next morning I got an email from her. It praised my voice and the premise, but said, “You need to work on your storytelling skills.”
Talk about your botched opportunities. I was a national bestselling author of five critically praised novels, and yet it seemed as if I still didn’t know what I was doing.
Time for a Change
I knew there had to be a better way. That’s when I decided to do some serious study on novel structure. A colleague suggested I read screenwriting books. I was initially resistant. What could I possibly learn from writers who specialize in car crashes, super heroes, and tired sequels? A whole lot, as it turns out. Screenwriters do not mess around; they have always worshipped at the structure shrine and borrow heavily from Joseph Campbell and Aristotle.
With my spanking-new knowledge, I wrote another novel and five agents wanted to represent it. It will be published in September 2015. Now, before I write a single word of a novel, I use the techniques I learned to make sure the premise is solid. I end up abandoning oodles of ideas, but that’s a lot less painful than trashing an entire novel.
Speaking of novels, remember the one I couldn’t fix? A few weeks ago I read it for the first time in years, hoping maybe it was salvageable. Wrong. It was still dog food. In fact, it was so structurally flawed it should have never been written. If I had conceived of it six months ago instead of six years ago, I would have known that.
I learned my lesson the hard way; no more blind pantsing for me ever again. All in all, it cost me over five years of writing life. I can’t spare that kind of time.
P.S. Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, every writer can benefit from reading screenwriting books to sharpen their storytelling skills. Below are a list of my favorites; I also recommend Larry Brook’s story structure series
I’ve also written a 25-page article on how to plot a novel using screen-writing techniques. Email me and I’ll send it to you. Karin.gillespie (at) gmail.com
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principals of Screenwriting. New
York. Harper Collins. 1997. Print.
Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat! Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions. 2005. Print.
Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. New York:
Faber &Faber. 2007. Print. (This is my all-time favorite among the screenwriting books!)
Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Studio City: Michael
Wiese Productions. 2007. Print.