Book Surgery for Pantsers

Has this ever happened to you? There you are, minding your own business, sipping some Starbucks, 367 pages into the novel you’re writing when all of a sudden you realize you have no earthly idea what your book is about.

A Pantser discussing his novel

This man may be suffering from Pantser Tourette’s. Approach with care.

Or perhaps someone asks you about your book at a party and you say something like, “Well, it’s got this thing with this guy who does some stuff with some things and there’s this girl and well, then there’s other people too, and…umm…some pygmies and a conspiracy in Ancient Rome and, you know, cats. There are a lot of cats, actually. Probably too many cats. I should cut some of the cats. Friggin’ cats. I don’t even like cats anymore. And there’s a missile silo. I like yams. Are you a Buddhist?”

I call it “Pantser Tourette’s.” I’m a sufferer.

If you write by the seat of your pants (i.e. you’re a pantser), I’m guessing this has happened to you at least once, although I hope you’re more eloquent than I am at parties.

I’ve even known Plotters who occasionally come down with the condition, even after their neat little Plotter outlines are tucked away in their neat little Plotter Trapper-Keepers with their cute little Plotter stickers and their fancy little Plotter charts.

Plotter Trapper Keeper

I’m simply certain this is where Plotters keep all their marvelous and miraculous tools of plotsploitation.

(I love you Plotters. I really do. I want to be you. Help me.)

I’m such a ridiculous Pantser, it took me eight years to figure out what my first novel was about–eight years after I finished writing it the first time.

Eight years ago, I would have told you the story was about a homicidal talking book. A few months later, I would have said it was about the lost true story of El Dorado. Still later, I might have told you it was about rebellion, friendship, magic, vision, identity, society, bipolar disorder, and humorously bad sex. And then I would have said it was about the search for God as played out in a series of tragicomic religious conversations between two star-crossed lovers interspersed with the story of a reckless scheme by a bunch of poorly organized New Agers to launch a rebellion by attacking Wal-marts with broadswords. There was also a phase where virtual worlds played a big role and another where a half-crazy former-CIA-black-ops-bagman-turned-shaman-of-a-made-up-Indian-tribe made a grab for center stage.

Yeah, I’m awesome at parties.

Anyway, through all of my book’s many iterations, there was a sweet little mystery/love triangle story that just wouldn’t quit.

The Sword of Revision

Pantsers may find this tool helpful when revising.

The problem was, I wouldn’t let myself believe in the value of that small little story and so I kept tacking on fantastical elements that would sound good in query letters or give me something cool to say when talking about it to others.

Finally, after 8 long years of fighting for my derelict darlings, I slaughtered them like Sun Tzu in the kindergarten of his enemies. In the end, there was only one story left standing and I truly feel it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

So how does one find the core of a book if you’re mired in the muck of a million potential plots?

Three things helped me:

1) Determine your theme. Look at all you’ve written in your book (or wish to write) and discover what’s most common and essential. What message or mood or concern shows up most? What lessons are learned (or tragically ignored) by your main characters? What would you love for your readers to take away after reading your book?

Once you’ve found this theme, take a surgical knife (or a broadsword, if necessary) to the themes that don’t belong. I sliced out an entire sequence of scenes I’d treasured for years because I decided I was writing a book about the perils and power of how we see each other, not a book about the search for spiritual meaning. I’ll save those scenes for another book, but this one is much stronger without them.

2) Determine the key steps in your key characters’ personal journeys. Listen to your characters, even (or especially) if there’s a lot of them clamoring for your attention. Who keeps your attention most? What are his, her, or their most driving concerns or fundamental desires? What is absolutely vital for them to experience in the pages of your book? Who and what can they do without and still get where they’re going?

I cut all the history around my CIA-bagman-turned-self-declared-shaman not because it was uninteresting to me, but because it ripped the book away from the focus it needed. It’s fun for me to know Rex Cavendish’s history, but to my readers it was just a distraction. It’s off-theme and off-journey, so it’s out of the book.

Surgery Time

Good surgeons require focus and a lack of sentimentality when it comes to cutting flesh. Pantsers need the same.

3) Focus on your readers. Perhaps when you’re first drafting, your book should be your own adventure. Learn what you need to learn. Feel what you need to feel. Delight in the many fun twists and turns of your creative mind. If, at some point however, you decide you actually want to publish your book, then you need to switch mindsets. It’s kind of like the difference between…ahem…self-care and partner-based-bedroom-logistics.

What do your beloved beta readers enjoy most in your book? What resonates with them most strongly?

Conversely, what takes them out of the story?

If you have too many beta readers with too many different preferences and tastes, this could get confusing. Try to focus on those readers that connect most with what you want to accomplish and write for them.

As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

If you listen to your readers and your characters, and if you find your theme, then all you need to do is cut. It can be hard to work the knife, but it will be worth it. Heck, you might even meet a cute little Plotter at your next writer party, win her (or him) over with your charmingly concise book summary, take the sweet thing home for some partner-based-bedroom-logistics and then steal off with her (or his) Trapper Keeper in the middle of the night. If you do, make sure to send me the notes!

11 thoughts on “Book Surgery for Pantsers

  1. “There you are, minding your own business, sipping some Starbucks, 367 pages into the novel you’re writing when all of a sudden you realize you have no earthly idea what your book is about.” – THIS! Excellent post! JS

  2. The WIP I’m editing now, I rewrote the entire story because of not understanding my themes. The sad thing is I put aside 79k words, 6 months of work. I want the trapper keeper too.

    • Rachel, I don’t have an exact count, but I’m pretty confident I’ve killed over 100k on this book. My most recent cut took out 45K and I know I’ve cut more than that amount if you add up all of my prior revisions as well. A whole novel’s worth of wasted pantsing. Alas!

  3. This is not a malady I’ve ever wanted to admit to (unlike my inability to focus or my all-onsuming hate for MS Word). Thank you for the permission to accept that I’m a sufferer.

  4. Thank you for the new term, “Pantser Tourette’s.” I am afraid you sound like the kind of person I enjoy at parties. And every version of your first novel sounds like something I would want to read. But my struggle to find the balance between creating by “letting the story tell itself” and the control needed to craft something readable is what writing is all about, for me. Even in the “self-marketing” I enjoy so much, I stray from my carefully planned strategy when a “neat” idea pops up — or a glowing opportunity presents itself. I may suffer from a few maladies, but I am also blessed with the qualities of both an introvert and an extrovert. The introvert is content to let things flow inward and the extrovert is driven to present completed products to the world. Both could benefit from more organization, though!

  5. I’m not going to lie, the book I’ve been working on has changed drastically too. When I first wrote it, I of course knew nothing of how to write a book. Then I met up with a critique group. One of the members introduced me to an awesome online community, and I can now say I know a ton more than I did when I first started out (which still seems like not enough at times). But now I’ve found myself writing version #3, and I can only hope that it all gets to a place that’s good enough to be published, whether it’s through the traditional or indie route.

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