It's Called Pantsing, Apparently

I'm in the middle of a complete short story revision right now. The story, tentatively titled "The Fisher and the Trout" is about the perpetual misery of living up to the ideals of selflessness. It's also about a talking hairy fish. It's about many things.

The process has me thinking about revision, though.

I'm a pantser, I guess. It's a broad term, and in broad terms, it fits. If you're not familiar, the idea is that some writers -- plotters -- carefully plan and outline the structure and details of their stories before writing the text and others -- pantsers -- pursue the structure and details of their stories as they write them. "Plotters" feels self-explanatory. "Pantsers," I guess, is the word because it describes writing "by the seat of your pants." When I visualize it, though, I imagine dressing up my story without really stopping to think about what clothes look good together and then, when I'm finished and have had the chance to step back and see how few of the elements work together, ripping off the pants to replace them with a better fit. This feels accurate.

I almost never outline a story before I write it. Sometimes it works, depending on the story, but more often than not the narratives that pop out of me during the drafting process resist traveling in the directions I've already planned for them. It's frustrating to build a whole outline just to break it, irreparably, two pages in, so mostly I discovery write.

That means my first drafts can be pretty messy, with the beginnings, middles, and endings of those drafts rarely reflecting each other in a way that isn't purely free associative. So from my perspective, that means that imposing structure in my revision is more important than it would be otherwise. This is how I impose that structure:

I write an outline.

Specifically, I go through the finished draft and write a scene-by-scene outline that tracks a particular set of details across the whole thing. In rough terms, the outline looks like this:

  1. Bare-Bones Summary of the Scene's Action
    1. Any characters, character details, or meaningful information that is appearing for the first time.
    2. Any meaningful information that is being repeated.

      The desires of any character appearing in the scene.
      The decision made by any character appearing in the scene w/r/t these desires

Repeat for every scene. Lately, I've been doing this in a doc so I can record comments in the margins as I go.

I pick this information because it makes it easier to see the whole story all at once. The scene summaries show me how the narrative action progresses, which lets me assess global structural flaws, pacing issues, etc. Keeping track of when things appear for the first time allows me to track when I've seeded that information too early or -- much more likely -- too late. Tracking how often those details appear once they've been introduced allows me see how well I'm guiding the reader over the course of the narrative, when I'm pushing something too hard or not enough. It also lets me discover patterns I had not seen before, and use them for the better (for instance, I inadvertently wrote in several scenes that a character in this particular story brushes her hair away from her eyes; in my revision I can make this a meaningful tick and not just a description).

Most important for me is the last bit. As a reader and a viewer I've learned pretty recently that story structure in a mechanical sense doesn't really matter to me -- like, at all -- that I don't really care if scenes move or if scenes and actions fit together as long as everything I'm seeing, however ordered or however chaotic, is motivated. What I find in my drafts is that I almost always have global motivations and character arcs worked out, but in serving the global story I neglect the local ones. In any given scene in a first draft of mine, I'll have a character whose existence in the scene itself is unmotivated, even if they are serving a global purpose. Those scenes inevitably read as flat. And what I've found is that motivating every character in a scene and having them act (or visibly fail to act) on that motivation actually creates and drives a compelling narrative more than anything else.

So, this is what I'm doing.right now with "The Fisher and the Trout." And it's what I'll do with another story, called "Agnos" over the next week or so. And then I'll head back over to My Many Bodies and try to make up my wordcounts a bit (revision counts as work, but I still have new-word quotas to hit).