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Don't pants yourself!

A successful young author once told me, "There are writers who call themselves pantsers. You can tell who they are because they don't have anything finished."


Now before you get your pantses in a bunch, let me just say that I know there are writers who identify as "pantsers" who actually DO finish novels and get them published. But the identification as a "pantser" versus a "plotter" (which sounds unflatteringly like "plodder," doesn't it?) is often a way of evading the real work of crafting, which every novelist ultimately has to do. It's avoiding the hard work by placing the focus on what kind of person you are (which isn't about results), not what kind of art you are producing (which is all about results). The truth is, every novelist is both a pantser and a plotter. The truth is, nobody freewrites a publishable first draft. No seven-part novel series was ever born complete in a single dream which only needs to be copied out, like a divinely inspired manuscript, like the goddess Athena springing fully formed out of Zeus' forehead. The truth is, no novelist is Zeus. Every good novel is inspired by talent, dreams, and bursts of inspiration, but without a serious author sitting down and doing the work of building a story structure, those flights of fancy have nowhere to land and ultimately don't become anything.

Neither talent nor discipline alone are enough to complete a successful novel; you must have both. What you don't need is an MFA--In fact, the people most educated in writing and literature tend to have the biggest egos to overcome and the hardest time actually writing a novel. It's very simple. To build a house, you need scaffolding and a foundation. You need to put certain things in place before you can do other things. You can't start with the roof and work down. A viable living creature can't develop skin first and have the bones added in last. A novel is like any other "work." There are many ways to do it and many ways it can look when it's finished, but there are even more ways that it can't be done. A "writer" with a huge ego will take statements like that last sentence as challenges and spend endless years trying to prove them wrong, without ever forming a positive plan.

In my writing group, The Pigasus Pen, we have no dearth of sparkly ideas or compelling characters. The hard part that we're helping each other sort out right now in all of our manuscripts is the structure. I'm working with a chapter outline and an actual calendar of events I've written to help me keep track of what happens when. One of us has tried various kinds of novel writing software to organize her text. Another has worked on drawing diagrams and maps of the physical spaces in her book. Another is researching plotting exercises.

What we've all come to understand is that "writer's block" is just another word for not being prepared for the next step. If you get stuck on Chapter Three, don't blame it on your lazy muse, your disobedient characters, or any other imaginary friends. (P.S. Those behaviors don't make you sound writerly, they make you sound like the kindergartener who eats paste and sits alone at lunch.)

Quit whining and take a look at the well-crafted blueprint for your story, and you'll never be lost. Even if you get stuck in a sticky scene, you can skip ahead and work on another scene. A burst of inspiration may drive you to change your blueprint, and that is totally fine--as long as you still have one.

That's the key difference between a successful writer and an eternally aspiring one. A work in progress is a work. It takes craft, planning, and hard work to progress. Writers' block, an unresponsive muse, or confused characters are all symptoms of a lack of structure. They are red flags indicating that it is time for you, the author, to get serious and pick up the slack. If you're serious about improving your craft and getting your novel finished, don't limit yourself with silly, romanticized labels about what kind of writer you are. Instead, focus on what kind of creation you intend to produce. Are you more interested in "being" a writer or in actually writing? If you truly love the art of writing, don't pants yourself! Zip up and get your butt in the chair. You will amaze yourself with what you are able to create!

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