Sunday, January 11, 2015

Adventures in Pantsing: A Plotter Tries to Cut Loose

Adventures in Pantsing. Just call me Jeniana Jones. I'm not kidding. That actually sounds cool.

The first ghost story I ever wrote sucked royally. It was derivative as hell, like everything I wrote in middle school. I named it after my favorite Julee Cruise song ("The Nightingale"), called my ghost heroine Mina (I'd just read Dracula), and made the hero kill the ghost of the woman he once loved (more shades of Dracula). My eighth-grade teacher made just one comment. He wrote "Good word use" next to "tentatively." I got an A. Then he read it out loud to the class. I was a little traumatized by having my private creation shared with the world.

I haven't written a true ghost story since.

Until now.

For the hell of it, I revisited two ideas I'm still uncomfortable with: pantsing a story and writing a ghost story. Let me preface this by saying I am SO NOT a pantser. I need things to be spelled out, plot-wise and character-wise, before I feel comfortable diving in. I like knowing where I'm going, so I can focus all my effort on the language and descriptions. If I'm too worried about the how, I can't think about the what. And as for ghost stories, mostly I don't write them because it's so hard to come up with something original. Hell, after nine and a half seasons of Supernatural, what's left for the rest of us?

I. The Prep Work
As a writer, it's my duty to try and grow as an artist, right? All right, fine, challenge accepted. As an exercise, I forced myself to pants my way through a ghost story. No pressure, no word count, no real goals other than to write for 30 minutes during my lunch break at work and just see what happened. I chose the first setting that came to mind--the area I live in--and what it's famous for--the gold rush. A long-ass time ago (okay, it was October of 2013), I watched a Discovery channel show on the Gold Rush. A couple of elements really stuck with me, so I tied in two of them: a struggling group of miners called the Boston Company and a cholera epidemic that struck the gold fields. And I started typing.

The gold fields lay empty, the sole glimmer emanating from the hard metal of the stars above. Once again, Frank had found nothing." - from "Gold Fever" by Jenni Wiltz

II. The Opening
Predictably, it was ASSLOADS OF HARD to get going. I began with a lame description of setting. Normally, my inner editor would take over and tell me to delete it all, but what the hell, I was pantsing, which meant I didn't know what I wouldn't need. I typed and typed. Blah blah starlight, blah blah cholera. I knew something creepy would have to happen, so about a page in, I casually mentioned that one of the miners had disappeared. When his horse returned to camp, they found him chopped into bits, stacked in the saddlebags. That took care of the whole "introduce a conflict" thing.

But then I had to figure out who had done this evil deed. (A ghost, of course. This is a GHOST STORY, after all.) That's why it really sucked when I realized a man had done the deed. An old man. A weird man. But a man. Damn it.

In keeping with my being a plotter, I could have overruled my gut. I could have made the man a ghost because it made more sense. But being a pantser isn't always about what makes sense. So I allowed the villain to take shape as a man inside my head. To further the conflict, I had to send my hero out looking for this man. Because I'm kind of a bitch to my characters, I made him half dead from cholera. Real hard to aim a gun straight when you're not even strong enough to hold it up.

Now I started to feel things coming together. I had a man, a conflict, a weakness, and a creepy villain. This was going to be easy, right?



"Ten days ago, the doctor said he would live. Seven days ago, Frank started to believe him." - from "Gold Fever" by Jenni Wiltz

III. The Complication
Once I put my hero on a horse and sent him in search of the old weird man's cabin, I realized I had no idea what would happen when he got there. Because I had no idea why the old man did it. Insanity only works in the legal system; it's not a good way to motivate a story. Stories need to be tied together more firmly than our minds are in real life. So the old man can't be a lunatic. He must have had a good reason for butchering that poor miner. But what the hell was it?

My hero approached the cabin at night and called out to the old man. When in doubt, generate more conflict, right? This was the most direct way of doing that, so I went with it.

I hesitated here...should the old man actually answer the door, or should my hero have to spy on him to get the information he needed? I decided to go for broke here, and have a direct conversation between them.

The old man opened the door and invited my hero in.

And then I realized why: the inside of the cabin was hung entirely with guns. Muskets. Rifles. Of all ages and types. Mounted on the wall. All pointing toward the old man's chair by the fire. Apparently, my old man was a suicidal paranoid kleptomaniac nut job. But now I'd given myself another problem: who was this guy, and how did he get a collection of weaponry that included guns that were 300 years old? And why was he in the Sierra foothills with this massive collection of Renaissance-era European weaponry? What the hell was happening?

The old man was running away with my story, writing checks my brain couldn't cash. I had no idea how I would explain any of this, but these are the images that popped into my head and that my fingers typed out on the page. In the true spirit of pantsing, I let him do it. It went against the very fiber of my being not to stop, think, and really figure out who this guy was before continuing. But I didn't. I wrote a garbage conversation where the hero asked the old man if he murdered the miner. The old man said he did. No surprise, and no tension. I felt the story floundering. Where could it go from here? And wasn't this supposed to be a ghost story? I had no ghosts, no whodunit, no motive, and a buttload of guns I couldn't explain. Because pantsing is AWESOME that way. You will never do this again, I told myself. As Bartok had warned, this would only end in tears.

"Farrier had left for the dark hill at dawn and been delivered back to the river camp in pieces, stacked neatly in his saddlebags. What had done the delivering no one knew." - from "Gold Fever" by Jenni Wiltz

IV. The Payoff...Maybe
But the next day, on the way home from work, I had an epiphany. I remembered something from a trip to Santa Fe I'd taken years before. The city was settled ridiculously early in history, in the late 1500s if I remembered right. And then I remembered...weren't all those early Spanish explorers looking for the one thing the miners had just found in California? Holy shit. That was it. The link that made my plotting self giddy: a historical connection. The Spanish explorers who came to New Mexico were looking for El Dorado, golden cities that would be overflowing with riches for everyone. And did they find it? No, but the miners did. Hell, I live in El Dorado County.

But now I had another problem: how does this historical connection translate for these characters? There's no damn way a dude alive in 1849 would have been alive in the 1500s...or is there? This was supposed to be a ghost story, wasn't it? So maybe the old man's a ghost after all. But if he was really a ghost, why all the guns? Are there guns that can kill ghosts? I was getting backed into a corner by my own pantsing. God, this is painful, I thought. Why do people do this? When did thinking really hard become passe?

V. The Reveal
So I had to nix the full-on ghost idea. The man is a man, which explains why he needs guns. He is also 300 years old, which makes him a kind of living ghost. But how? And why? What did I know about Spanish explorers? Only what I remembered from grade school. But that wasn't strictly true. A couple years ago, when I got obsessed with genealogical research, I discovered that my great-grandma's grandma was a Sevier.

A little online digging produced some circumstantial evidence that links the Seviers to the name Xavier, which was originally Javier. It was Spanish, or to be more precise, Basque. One member of this family became incredibly famous. His name is Francis Xavier, the Catholic saint. He traveled to Asia to spread Christianity, and died in the Philippines. So now I had a famous explorer (sort of), a connection to Spain, and the right time period. Now I just had to connect Xavier to my old man.

In typical Jenni fashion (overdoing it and over-thinking it), I created a grandiose link between the two men. No, I won't tell you what it is. That would ruin the story. But I poured out the whole story through the old man's lips, as his cholera-weakened adversary lay on the floor of the cabin in defeat. But there was just one more problem left to solve. The ending.

"Did you kill John Farrier?" / "I don't know your names." / "Did you chop him into pieces and put him in a saddlebag?" / The stubble on the man's lower cheeks began to move. He was laughing. "Kill one of you? I have killed almost all of you."

VI. The Triumph
So, the good guy is lying half dead on the floor of the bad guy's weird cabin after a brief skirmish. It hardly seems fair. I mean, the bad guy wins? Whaaa? Is that how it works when you pants a story? Not if I have anything to say about it. I had to create a way for the good guy to triumph...even if his cholera kills him. 

Going back to the basic mechanics of fiction helped here. I had to think about what it was my villain (the old guy) wanted. And then I took that away from him, with one sentence from the younger man. So, whether the younger guy gets away and dies of cholera, gets away and survives, or is killed by the angry old man, no one wins. I like stories like that. When I'm doing literary-style stories, I always aim for the gray area. Black and white is good for genre fiction, but not a story like this. In that, I might have succeeded.

Which brings us to the end of the story.

Or is it? I still have to figure out how to explain all those guns, after all.

Damn you, pantsing.