I’m Pantsing the Pants Off This (and Loving It)

Or, How I Learned to Write Without a Massive Outline

For as long as I’ve written, I’ve loved a good outline. It comes from my screenwriting where outlines are something of a necessity when dealing with agents, producers, directors, etc. They like to know what they’re getting for their money upfront and it’s not unusual for the writer to put together some kind of pitch, synopsis or beat-by-beat outline ahead of actually writing the thing.

I’ve done the same with my novels. I’ve always liked to write a thorough chapter-by-chapter outline — a clear roadmap, because I’d hate to be halfway through a hundred-thousand word novel and not have a clue what happens next, or discover a massive plot hole. If you’re a regular listener of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, you’ll know that it got me a proper bollocking from that nice Mr Ben Aaronovitch (skip to about 26 minutes in…).

Since the Great Bollocking I’ve had two novels published, Back to Reality and The End of Magic, both heavily outlined and people seem to like them. But… both were well in progress when Ben gave us an earful, so I figured what the hell, I should just finish what I started with them.

I listen back to our old podcasts fairly regularly. Not out of any vanity, but I really do believe we got tons of amazing evergreen advice from some of the best authors in the business and it would be daft to ignore them. One thing that became clear is there’s no single method of writing a novel. Lots of writers love to outline, plenty of them are pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants… a term I had not heard before starting the podcast), many do a little of both. There’s no definite, step-right-this-way-to-success system. You have to figure out what works for you and build on that.

I was happy outlining, but I’ve prided myself on never writing anything the same way twice. Every time I start a project, it’s a little different and I learn something new. I figured it was time for a big change, so why not try and pants a full-length story?

But what about that fear of getting lost? Of getting halfway through a story and not knowing where to go next?

It was another podcast that had a nugget of advice that unlocked it for me. I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes, a podcast for screenwriters (and things that are interesting to screenwriters). In it, screenwriters John August (Big Fish) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) discuss craft and the industry, and I find it invaluable. Last summer (2019) they released an episode featuring just Craig who gave a talk that he’s given to screenwriters at festivals over the years.

It’s a brilliant episode, crammed with terrific advice. It’s behind a paywall now, but you can read a transcript of the full episode here.

The advice that stuck out for me was this…

“If you can write the story of your character as they grow from thinking “this” to “the opposite of this”… you will never ask what should happen next ever again.”

Craig Mazin, Scriptnotes, ep403, 41m 50s

A little lightbulb went off in my head. It was the same question I would ask myself while writing an outline anyway, so why not apply it to the blank page of a fresh draft? Would it be any different? Would it be any better?

I’ve been using and adapting this method for one screenplay (written on spec, no outline necessary) and one-and-a-bit novels and I’m loving it. I’ll start with a one-page outline, but with a bigger focus on character and theme. Who is this character? How will they change, and what’s stopping them from doing it? With those two polar opposites in mind, I rough out a very basic story and then start writing. It can be hard at first as you test the water. When I get stuck, I put the laptop aside and start scribbling in a notebook with Mazin’s advice in mind: What’s what the worst thing that can happen? What will stop this character from getting what they want? How will they overcome it?

If I can’t figure it out right away, I might stop writing altogether and get on with my day. More often than not I’ll have a solution come out of the blue while I’m washing dishes, in which case I dry my hands and email myself the note ready for the next day.

It’s working so far. The screenplay has a director and producer attached and looks like it’s a goer, and the one and a bit novels…? I’m hoping to have some good news about them soon.

I’m not saying this is going to work for everyone, but I’m enjoying living on the edge. If you’re a big outliner, why not give it a go? All you’ve got to lose is your word count…

You Are Not Your Software – My Writing Diary, Ten Years On, Monday 18th September 2006

There’s a lot of fetishisation* around the writing process. Articles and books on screenwriting would tell you about George Lucas only writing on yellow legal pads in pencil, attributing part of the mystique of Star Wars’ success to this arcane ritual.

Then he went and wrote the prequels the same way.

And perhaps you’ve heard the quote about Hemingway writing drunk and editing sober (though he probably never said it)? Or of Anthony Trollope getting up at the crack of dawn to write for three hours before going to work at the post office? Or of the many authors renowned for writing in bed?

Everyone seems to have their rituals, and accompanying magic talismanic devices to ensure that the muse is welcomed into their aura and the magic can begin. If the modern screenwriter is a knight valiantly overcoming the onslaught of movie execs and development notes, then our hero’s sword and shield are Final Draft and a Macbook. In September, 2006, I came into a bit of money thanks to a defunct pension scheme. I had two grand spare! My wife wanted a new kitchen. Guess what I got instead…?

Monday 18th September, 2006

The Mac came with me on the commute to work. Progress on the script was slower than I would have liked as I’m still getting used to the peculiarities of Final Draft. It was distracting, too, as I spent more time worrying about formatting than the script itself. I’ll get used to it though**

Final Draft touts itself as the industry standard, with the inference being that you simply can’t call yourself a screenwriter unless you have a copy. It’s expensive and brimming with features that you probably won’t ever use, even if you go into production. In my experience it’s been fairly well behaved, but like Microsoft Word it has to be all things to all screenwriters and as a result it feels very top-heavy… Oh, and every now and then they update it in a way that means you can’t open old versions of your script (at least, not without a huge hassle) and they charge you more dosh for the privilege. That’s always fun. For a very entertaining debate on the vagaries of FD, do check out the transcript of this episode of Scriptnotes. These days I keep it simple. Slugline is favourite, though I also dabble with Highland and Fade-In, all of which are based on Fountain, a plain text markup language.

But back in 2006 I felt like I had joined a secret club. Until now I had been writing in MS Word and formatting everything manually. Final Draft did all the formatting as I typed, which was very nifty, and I had a MacBook! Surely a Hollywood movie deal was just around the corner?

Not exactly. I still had to write. Once I got used to all the keyboard shortcuts, I was still just a writer trying to make words on a page jump into the reader’s head and screen a movie. There’s no software for that.

A ritual does not make you a writer, Final Draft and a Macbook does not make you a screenwriter, a Fender Stratocaster does not make you Eric Clapton. You are not your software. I should have bought a kitchen.

Just get words on a page. Pen on paper, pencil on a yellow legal pad, words on a screen. Build a story. You can worry about the formatting shizzle later.

By the way, MacBooks are also expensive and brimming with features you will never use. But they’re bloody awesome, and the software updates are free.

*A word I can type, but simply cannot say aloud without sounding like a drunk.

**Sort of did… eventually…

Great podcasts for screenwriters…

I love me a podcast. On my daily commute, any long(ish) drive or walk, or when I’m doing the ironing or washing up, I’ll plug in and absorb news and information like Neo in the Matrix. Well, I like to think that’s how my mind works, though the reality is I need the same ideas reinforced again and again and again, and podcasts are a great way of doing that.

Many of the podcasts I listen to are writing- or film-related, and I thought I would share them with you now (and yes, I did something similar a couple of years ago, but these are updated and I have a handful of new additions)…

You can get all of these on iTunes or whatever podcast software you use for free, but it’s well worth having a look at their related blogs and Twitter feeds too.

Scriptnotes with John August and Craig Mazin:

 

@johnaugust

@clmazin

There’s never been a better time to get on board with this one, as the latest episode is a Spring Break clip show, essentially a greatest hits. Click here to listen.

What sets these guys apart from the Syd Fields and Robert McKees of this world, is they’re actually working as writers in the film industry, so they can talk with authority about how the industry works today. They cover everything from writing techniques, to agents, managers, lawyers, the WGA, writing software (don’t get Craig started on the vagaries of Final Draft!), and even typefaces and fonts (John August also develops apps). It’s been running for quite a few years now, and the most recent 20 episodes are free, and the backlist is only available via the premium feed, or you could buy a USB stick with all the episodes. It’s worth it: this is cheaper than any seminar or writers’ retreat and far more useful.

Scriptwriting in the UK with Danny Stack and Tim Clague:

@scriptwritingUK

Danny has one of the best UK scriptwriting blogs out there, and, in this monthly podcast, he and Tim Clague cover all aspects of writing for the screen: film, TV and games. And, most astonishingly, they actually went and made their own children’s film, WHO KILLED NELSON NUTMEG? which premiered at the London Film Festival. An incredible achievement, and an experience that has informed their podcast ever since.

This is invaluable for insights into the UK film and TV industry, and they’ve interviewed the likes of Tony Jordan, Chris ChibnallAndrew Ellard, and yours truly (if I sound like I’m at the bottom of a well, it’s because it was recorded via Skype in a glass room!)

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith:

@yogoldsmith

Jeff gets an amazing roster of writers talking at great length about how they started, their careers and their latest film. This is American too, but he gets loads of British writers on the show. These are often recorded after a screening, and the audience get to ask questions.

He previously presented the Creative Screenwriting podcast, which no longer seems to be on iTunes, but I’m sure you can find it if you go digging online. They were terrific, essentially the same format, but presented in association with the magazine Creative Screenwriting.

Filmsack:

Not a podcast about writing, but these guys love popcorn movies. They watch them on Netflix (which can skew what kinds of movies are available) then get together over Skype to dissect them. They’re really good at pointing out tropes and plot holes, which is invaluable for a writer. The earlier episodes on films like Superman and Wrath of Khan are outstanding.

Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review:

@wittertainment

Probably the best film show on radio. It goes through phases of being overly self-referential, but Kermode is passionate and really knows his stuff, and Mayo keeps him in line, and it’s a weekly lesson in how intelligent, informed audiences will react to movies.  Hello to Jason Isaacs.

Empire:

I bloody love Empire, and this podcast is huge fun, but it’s the spoiler specials that are particularly good for writers as the gang will often dissect the story in minute detail. The epic Chris McQuarrie Mission Impossible spoiler special (nearly three hours long!) is an incredibly frank look at how a blockbuster gets made. Gold:

 

 

The BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series:

More of an annual event than a regular podcast, these are live lectures recorded for podcasts, and so there are references to clips that the listener doesn’t get to see, but there are some very experienced and wise minds dispensing advice here and you’d be a fool to miss out!

Film Nuts

Filmmaker Mustapha Kseibati shares his colossal passion for film in this series of interviews with UK writers and directors. And it’s the only place where you’ll here me get excited about the Dad’s Army film. Mus’ is a busy man, so there aren’t as many of these as I’d like, but each one has nuggets of wisdom.

The Allusionist

Okay, so not a podcast about writing, but if you’re a writer you’ll love words and Helen Zaltzman’s podcast is a delight. You’ll come away from each episode with another insight into what makes word work, and that can only make you a better writer.

 

And that’s it! Do please let me know if there are any I’ve missed. I’m not sure I can squeeze any more into my week, but I’m always up for something new.