Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Pantsers' P.O.V.

Publishers generally require an unpublished fiction author to have a completed manuscript before they will buy the book. After the first novel, however, most publishers will offer the writer a book contract based on a proposal, which is the first three chapters and a synopsis of the full book.

A couple of days ago C.S. Harris posted "A Question for Pantsers" on her blog. C.S. is a plotter, who plans her books fully before she starts writing the first line of prose. She wanted to know how pantsers--writers who write "by the seat of their pants," not plotting the story fully in advance--come up with synopses for their book proposals.

I am a pantser, but can't answer her question because I am unpublished--and also because I have never yet finished a manuscript.

(Aside: "Aha," say the plotters, "You can't finish because you don't plot!")

The Internet Writing Journal recently posted an interesting article by Timothy Hallinan. His seventh novel, A Nail through the Heart, was released this summer. In "To Outline or Not to Outline," Hallinan explains his writing process. He doesn't mention how he deals with writing a proposal, but he does give a good description of the way many pantsers probably work. Here's an excerpt:

I personally can't stand to outline. My main problem is that I don't know my characters well enough until I've written about them at some length, and it doesn't work for me to try to force them into a story they might outgrow. I want them to grow as I write them, and then I want the story to grow out of them. [Emphasis added.]

Someone once said, "We learn what we're writing about by writing about it." For me, and for most of the other novelists I know, writing a novel is (to use an inelegant simile) like circling a drain. We start out by working around the edges of our story, and then the spiral narrows as the story, and our characters, become clearer to us. We center in on the things that really matter.

I particularly like his "circling a drain" metaphor for closing in on his story by starting at its edges. I recommend you read the entire article for a fuller explanation. I do wonder, however, how he writes a book proposal. Surely he has done so, since he's had several novels published before this one. In addition, his new book is first in a series, so he'll have to present something to his publisher to get contracts for the later books.

Maybe I'll go to Hallinan's website and email him about it.


Charles Gramlich said...

I like the "circling a drain" analogy too. Never thought of it that way but there's some truth there. Usually by about a third of the way in I do have a pretty good idea of the story and could probably do an outline then.

Lisa said...

I love how a thought in one place can spark further thoughts and questions all over. The original question apparently has been nagging at you the way it has at me. The article was good and I hope you do email him to ask the question. Staying tuned...

cs harris said...

I wonder if he writes his books before he tries to sell them? I can see an editor giving someone like James Lee Burke a new contract on a vague idea, but with anyone else they're going to want something concrete.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hi -- this is Tim Hallinan. It's interesting that you would pick up on that particular article right now, because I'm actually in the process of writing a book proposal. And I can tell you, I hate it.

If you want me to write something about it, go to my site and use the Contact Me button. Maybe I can write something you can post here. And you might look at the newest blog on the site to see how my new novel got its title.

Steve Malley said...

Cool article. Thanks for the link, Sphinx!

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Some people who are pantsers, shouldn't be. I get tired of hearing about people who write that my opinion they tend to be lazy and often lean strictly on pulp narrative storytelling at the sacrifice of literary elements such as foreshadowing, metaphor, parallel construction, etc.

Sphinx Ink said...

Charles, Lisa and C.S., I didn't get around to contacting Hallinan, but as you can see from the comment following yours, he contacted me. (Must have a Google alert for when his name comes up.) So I'm going to his site to post the question to him.

Steve, you're welcome, and I appreciate the info on your blog, too.

Stewart--OUCH! Perhaps you're right in many cases, but there are many very good writers who operate so instinctively that, despite their writing by the seat of their pants, they still turn out books with all those features you mention. In those writers, the subconscious operates strongly--they don't consciously "plan" such things as foreshadowing, etc., yet a reader later can find such things in their books.

Looking at it from a difference perspective, sometimes writers who plan every element of their stories thoroughly can end up with books that are mechanical and lifeless--well-planned, but lacking spark.

Sphinx Ink said...

Tim, thanks for commenting on my blog and inviting me to contact you. I'm honored. And I will take up your invitation.