On Pantsing and Lining

KAT PAULK HAS BEEN POSTING over at Mad Genius Club (that is Kate, right?) [Yes — GFD] an Extreme Pantser’s Guide — or How to Fly a Ficton by the Seat of Your Pants. Thursday’s episode, Kate advises pantsers (and this advice actually is even more important to ‘liners) to WRITE IT ALL DOWN. The best idea in the world won’t do you any good if it’s gone in the night. The trick is to A) know where to put it and 2) to remember you’ve got it when you need it.

So. Do I have anything to add?

A plug. For Scrivener.

Before I start, I’m not claiming this property is exclusive to Scrivener, but it’s there, and it works brilliantly for exactly this purpose (rather than it was designed for something else and you have to warp it into service for this purpose, like you’ll find in, e.g. word processors).

Lemme ‘splain how I see this. Say you have a collection of printed cards. Doesn’t matter what’s printed on them, except that they have to be sorted in some order — alphabetical or numerical would be two possibilities, but not the only ones. And say you have to get them into order. Somebody played 52 Pickup with them (or, if it’s Obama, 57 Pickup, but whatever), and you have to get them back in order for some urgent reason.

One method — and I think the easiest, but I could be wrong (Yes, it happens, albeit rarely.) — is to lay the cards out in grid pattern, rows and columns, to allow you to quickly sort them without having to sort the entire stack in your hands.

For example, if your stack were a deck of playing cards (and you knew it), you could lay it out in four rows for the suits and 13 columns for 2 through Ace.

But, if you didn’t know the limits (four suits of 13 cards each), such a matrix wouldn’t make so much sense, because you don’t know the dimensions So you might lay them out in a single row. Or start in one row and go until you run out of room and start another one. And you might have to guess at intermediate dimensions and keep sliding cards or stacks of cards around as you get into the problem and come to understand what you’re dealing with better.

For example, say you’re working in a foreign alphabet. And you have to figure out what order the letters come in from context. There’s enough there to tell you that, but it’s not immediately obvious as you turn the cards up seriatim — rather only once you get a large enough sample to see and guess at the pattern. And you have to reiterate your sort several times as you gain more context and understand the dimensions of the system better each time.

And this last is a pretty close analog to ordering random fragments in a story. You may not be able to tell from the fragment as it occurs to you — in a dream, or (as has happened to me twice in the past week) while you’re washing the dishes. But, once you line up several of these, a pattern will slowly emerge. And, eventually, there will be a whole story, with only a few bits and pieces missing, which you can then fill in “by hand” as it were, connecting your previously disconnected fragments.

And, just as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle can, with a change of orientation, or the filling in of a seemingly unrelated portion of the whole, suddenly reveal where they go — and surprise you doing so — so, too, can the pieces of your story reveal where they belong and how they connect to the larger story (if at all).

And as for why Scrivener aids in all of this, it is in two ways: first, that it is trivially easy to move parts around. You can either drag-and-drop any given fragment as though it were a discret object (which, to the program, it is), or you can follow menu options — either from the menu bar or from right-click context menus. (This is, obviously, the Windows version. Macs can be problematic with right-click operations and I really don’t know how Scrivener behaves in this wise on OS-X.) Second, there are a good many ways for you to identify a fragment. You can tag it according to its fundamental nature — note, scene, chapter — and you can include notes and descriptions at all levels of organizations.

All of which aid in making each fragment into a building block you can A) find and 2) manipulate to serve the needs of your story.

At another level of abstraction, Scrivener provides tools for building a “scaffold,” if you will, that lets you hang unconnected fragments on it and move them around as on a bulletin board. (In fact, there is a piece of the program’s UI that follows the cork board metaphor for just this purpose.) It makes it very easy to move story parts around and try their various arrangements, letting the author come to a conclusion on a story’s organization surprisingly quickly.

And, if you’re not sure whether this fragment goes in Chapter 13 or Chapter 19, then put a folder in between the two and call it a Part and give it an ordinal that puts it between the two. Then plunk your orphan fragment down there until you figure out the sequence and where it all goes.

Which is a rather roundabout way of saying, “Get this thing. It’ll make your life so much better in so many ways.”

Also posted at Musings of an Indie Writer.

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