A Panster's Guide to the Dreaded Dead End
Writers, we are all often reliably informed, fall broadly into two categories: plotters and pansters.
A Plotter agonises over their story well before their fingers touch their computer keys, they make copious notes, keep organised files and character bibles and know exactly what happens in the story as they begin to write it. My good friend and writing partner Liam Livings is a plotter, as you can see here in exhibit A (a small snapshot of the deforestation which occurs before he begins a novel)…
A panster does none of this. They literally write by the seat of their pants (hence the name) and have little, if any, idea of where their story is going. This is what they start a novel with…
I am most definitely a panster. I’ve tried plotting twice, and both times my odd, rebellious head veered away from the plan within the first chapter and the copious notes were never glanced at again. I’ve decided I much prefer writing a book like a reader reads it- from page to page, never knowing what’s going to happen next, totally engrossed in the imaginary world that odd head is creating in real time. For me, panster-ing (and yes I know that is not a word!) is exciting.
But alongside that kick of adrenaline there is an obvious and inevitable downside. We pansters get stuck. A lot. We dig ourselves big holes to fall into and regularly write ourselves up the wrong path, which means we smack into road blocks. Nasty dead ends which stop our crazy brains dead in their tracks. Some call this writer’s block, because you literally cannot move on. The engine of your story has died and there is no writer’s RAC to tow you home. I prefer to call it being lost, which is something I’ve always done exceptionally well and with tremendous panache. Being lost is fixable. Being blocked sounds like you may need surgery. Like those weird bras they do in M&S, minimise the issue and then it stops being quite so big.
My atrocious sense of direction is the source of much amusement in Chez Heath, where my satnav is affectionately known as my ‘Disability Living Aid’. I can get lost anywhere at any time and have come to accept it as normal. I don’t panic. What’s the point? All roads lead to somewhere and on most of them you can do a U-turn and head back the way you came. Once or twice, I’ve even discovered something truly amazing whilst lost, like the wonky spire of that church in Chesterfield which I never would have seen had I gone left at that roundabout rather than straight on. That day, like on so many others, I rather enjoyed being useless at finding my way. On those rare occasions, being lost is a gift I am blessed with. Had hubby been driving, we never would have marvelled at that glorious medieval wonkiness.
But I digress… I treat my writing wrong-turns in much the same way. Sometimes they take the book off on a journey that I never expected and is all the stronger for it, and sometimes I hit the swampy quagmire of the Dead End. So how do I know I’ve hit a dead end rather than a weird twist in the road?
Simple. The words stop coming and the frown line between my eyebrows become so painful I need to hit the ibuprofen. Instead of pacing around like a tortured artist howling for my missing muse, the single most important part of the journey is to accept that you’ve gone wrong (NB- the more you do this, the easier it is to forgive yourself for being an idiot. I used to flagellate myself for my stupidity, then I simply muttered obscenities to myself and now I’m down to a resigned shrug).
The next stage is a little more complicated because you need to work out exactly where you went wrong. I find a complete Crisis of Confidence works wonders here. ‘I’m rubbish… this book is rubbish… this is the book where the whole world discovers I’m really a charlatan… my publisher will drop me… yada yada yada’ (Yes, like most creatives I’m overdramatic and suffer from self-doubt. This too is normal. Get used to it!).
The Crisis of Confidence- hereto referred to as COC- is a useful writing tool because, if you are sensible, it forces you to go back to the start and read the pitiful dross which is inevitably going to lead to the end of your writing career.
The Ancient Greeks never feared the COC. If anything they found it essential. Before Archimedes had his Eureka! Moment, he spent a great deal of time wading through the treacle of Aporia. They were clever people the Greeks. They understood that to have a eureka moment (a cry of joy or satisfaction when one finds or discovers something) you always had to experience aporia (an irresolvable internal contradiction or logical disjunction in text, argument or theory ie; the expression of doubt) first.
During a COC, read it like a reader. Don’t self-edit, that route only leads to more misery when you are having a COC, because you are NOT rational and incapable of the rational thought processes such things entail. Over the course of several cups of tea, I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised to learn that your words are not dross and the plot actually hangs together pretty well. I will also guarantee that you will soon be bursting with ideas to fix it and layer it, little fizzles of enthusiasm for the story you were about to bury just a short while before.
More often than not, this considered read-through will show you exactly where you went wrong well before you actually get to read it- because the panster’s brain is a resourceful organ- and you’ll be off on your merry way again completely invigorated. Accept those two thousand, five thousand or even ten thousand words were wrong and ruthlessly get your shears out.
Cut it all out.
Don’t try to fix wrong words, it’s always a waste of time. Trust me, I’ve tried. Write fresh words. Better ones that take your story where it was meant to go before you wandered off like Red Riding Hood.
That said, I never hit delete until I’ve copied and pasted all those words onto another blank document which is always imaginatively titled ‘Wrong Turn Stuff’. Sometimes I can then insert those precious words somewhere else as the book progresses and sometimes I can’t. This too must be accepted, and to avoid clogging up your hard-drive with nonsense, any unused words must be deleted when you reach the end of the book. Let’s face it, once you shove it into a folder, we both know you’re never going to look at it again. Pansters aren’t good with notes.
My only words of caution about the COC is to indulge it sparingly. I allow myself no more than two COCs per books, because more than that becomes self-indulgent self-doubt and I’d never get anything finished. Keep calm and carry on pantstering. Or if that fails, start plotting like Liam ;)
Liam Livings and Virginia Heath create practical, jargon-free writing workshops as
If you want to attend their ridiculously cheap Building Believable Characters & Conflict workshop in September, then there are still a few places left. Early bird discount and instalment offer ends in July.