Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Panster Who Became a Beater by Karin Gillespie

Back in January of 2007, I happily started a novel. Since it was my sixth novel, I had every confidence that it would chug along as merrily as my last five novels. I’d figured I’d take a few months to churn out around 80,000 words, polish it up for another couple of months, and then, as usual, I’d have a shiny new novel published some time in 2008 or 2009.

I couldn’t have been more deluded.

Problems plagued the novel from day one. I had a nagging feeling that my first draft was monkey gook but continued to slog through it. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought.

I set it aside for a couple of weeks, read through it and discovered it wasn’t just monkey gook--it was steaming, rotting monkey gook. Monkey gook that needed to be handled with gas masks and protective gloves. Nothing, save for the words “the end” was useable. So I re-wrote it again… And again… And then once more. Finally I sent it to my agent who, you guessed it, asked for yet more re-writes.

Two years later, my agent finally sent it out on two test submissions, and though the writing was praised, the storytelling was not. One of the editors said, “If the author really wants to roll up her sleeves and work, this novel could be huge.”
Trouble is, I’d already “rolled up my sleeves,” I’d practically dug the world’s biggest ditch for the novel. What more did it want from me? A kidney?

Ever the optimist, I was willing to try one more time. Both editors had given me great feedback, so in the name of a book I couldn’t let go, I did the one thing every writer fears doing: I opened a new document and started from scratch.

Nine months later I was like Henry Higgins triumphantly singing, “I think she’s got it.”
My euphoria was short-lived because once I sent it to my agent, she said, “I hate to tell you this but instead of improving the novel you’ve just created more problems for yourself.”


Back and forth I went desperately trying to fix my novel until I realized I was almost at three-year mark with the manuscript, and I still didn’t love it. Not only that, I honestly didn’t know what else I could do with it.

During all this mess, I started a new novel to distract myself, and as I was writing it I had this horrible feeling of dejavu. The novel wasn’t coming together. Was I doomed to waste another three years?

I couldn't figure out what was wrong. I’d easily written five novels before and they’d ended up being just fine. Had I been cursed?

I began to question my methods. I’d always been a seat-of-the pants writer (or “pantser “as organic writers are sometimes called). Did I possibly need to re-think my way of approaching a novel?

In the past I’d read a lot of screenwriting books and discovered most screenwriters are meticulous planners. They have bulletin boards, index cards and push pins and very systematically outline the whole darn film before they would dream of writing the very first word.

To me their process seemed as restrictive as a strait jacket. Every time I thought about outlining a novel I’d get the heebie jeebies and would start hanging out on Facebook instead of working.

But then I happened to run across a screenwriting book called Save the Cat by the late, great Blake Snyder. His method of outlining a story actually seemed doable. First off, he didn’t call it “outlining.” Instead he talked about “beating out” a story which sounded so much less oppressive than outlining.

The more I read his book, the more I comfortable I became with the idea of beating out my next novel. Everything Snyder wrote started to resonate with me in a deep way.

So what the hey? I went to Office Depot, got my cards and started writing my key scenes on my cards and fit everything into a three-act structure. Then I beat out my story as best as I could. Whole process took a couple of weeks.

The beginning of October I started to write, and instead of my usual slogging, I was skating. Each day I slapped down 2,000 words with very little problem. Even though, I’d worked out the structure ahead of time, I didn’t find it the least bit confining. I also discovered plenty of opportunities for surprises along the way.

By the end of November, I had 76,000 words and was ready to type “the end.” I set it aside for a week and read through it. I was in shock, thinking “who wrote this thing” because I’d never written anything thing so tight before in my life. Instead of facing a string of endless re-writes I was looking at two or three passes tops.
Need I say that I am a convert? I’m now more committed to “beating out a story” then Tom Cruise is to Scientology. And yeah, I’m sure all the outline people are reading this thinking “duh.” But to me, a former pantser, I feel like I’ve found the Holy Grail.
As for my previous three-year project, if I ever have the heart to re-visit it, I’m going to have to totally re-think it. It was never built on strong structure so every time I messed with it, it just fell apart some more.
I hate to think of all the time I wasted but at least it forced me to take a long, hard look at what I was doing and for that I'm grateful. Incidentally if you’re a panster who’s thinking about becoming a beater, here are some amazing resources. No only do the following emphasize structure but they also analyze the crucial elements of storytelling. So go ahead: Drink the Kool-Aid.

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby
The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers By Christopher Vogler
Also fellow Southern writer Alexandra Sokoloff has an informative blog about screenwriting tips for novelists.


L Adams said...

Well, gosh. I've wondered just what you've been doing in between dropping in at The Bistro!!

River Jordan said...

Thank you for sharing the work, the real work, that goes behind writing and getting the words right. Regardless of the method - the fact is storytelling is this mysterious thing that we call work and it's not always easy. Greatly appreciate your honest angst and rumbling over getting the right story to the page. Looking forward to the new novel and all the sweeter with the inside backstory.


Karin Gillespie said...

Thanks, River. It's been rough sledding for the last couple of years but I learned a lot.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Karin -

I'm a pantser, who ends up revising until I can't stand the story any longer. I've read all kinds of books on plotting, bought software, and nothing works for me. Maybe Mr. Snyder's book will help.

Thanks from a revision-weary pantser.

Susan :)

Karin Gillespie said...

I hope it helps, Susan. Jackie Miles read it and it blew her away just like it did me.

Katrina said...

I actually start my novels just writing them, then on my second draft I outline and do my re-writes. Sounds crazy but it works for me.
Another thing, (and this is totally irrelevant to the topic) but was your son on this season's Top Chef?

Karin Gillespie said...

No relation, Katrina. My son's more into eating than cooking.

JLC said...

Having had part of the same experience as a "pantser" and written 5 novels in 10 years, I especially appreciate this post. Only two of the five have been published, and without any editing but my own, at that. The experience taught me in spades what I really well knew beforehand: a writer needs an editor. Now that I don't even have a critique group for help, I can't wait to get this book! Thank you, thank you!

Karin Gillespie said...

Glad it was of help, Joan.