The topic of this article began as an idea for a tweet.
The tweet was going to read something like this:
writing new books in your own series, when you’re a pantser, is like writing fan fiction on your own stuff.
The problem with this tweet—which I did not send—is that it only makes sense to a few dozen people, which isn’t a typical characteristic of a good tweet. (Stephen King is probably one of those few dozen people, but he doesn’t follow me.)
As I was running through the ways to rephrase it so that it could be more universally understood, it grew into something the approximate size of a typical Facebook post. Then, it got too large for that too, and I decided it belonged here, in a place where I can blather on for as long as I want.
So let’s get to blathering.
Definition of terms
Just to make clear we all know what we’re talking about:
- the word ‘pantser’ (note: not an actual word) refers to someone who writes by the seat of his/her own pants, as opposed to outlining things ahead of time
- Outlining is called ‘plotting’, by the way, which is silly because pantsers still create plots, but I’m getting ahead of myself
- ‘fan fiction’ is the act of writing original stories using someone else’s characters, in order to tell the stories you want to read, that the author has not him/herself gotten around to writing
Now you’re caught up to the point where I decided this was going to be longer than a tweet, because those definitions don’t at all explain why pantsing feels like writing fan fiction when one is drafting a new book in an existing series.
Probably, by the end of this, you’re going to realize that the observation is at best pithy, and perhaps not worth being explained as thoroughly as I’m about to explain it. I’m going to do it anyway.
So let’s talk about ideas, and creativity, and how they go together with writing.
We’ll start here.
Is there really such a thing as pantsing?
If you’re predisposed to the idea that an outline is critical to fiction writing, it’s entirely possible to come away from a lengthy enough conversation with a self-declared pantser, with the conclusion that we are indeed outlining—we’re just doing it in our heads.
To an extent, this is absolutely true. I’m not sitting at my computer with a blank document and a blank head and just letting the muse take me somewhere. That’s not how this works.
What I have to start with is an idea, followed by a thought experiment where I play with the consequences of that idea, followed by the creation of at least one character, followed by the basic architecture of a plot.
Then I start writing.
That’s not an outline, but it’s not a blank page either, even if the page in question is actually blank at the beginning.
I prefer doing things this way—when I tried outlining, the outcome was that I never finished the book—because it saves some of the discovery for the writing itself. In other words, I can only keep going if I don’t know for sure how it’s all going to play out until it does.
- The idea for Fixer came from a conversation I had with a coworker, who claimed his wife met a guardian angel once. (The story was, some guy pulled her out of the street just before she was hit by a car, but when she turned to thank him, he was nowhere to be found.) I created Corrigan Bain from this conversation, and then worked out how it might be possible for Corrigan to do this without invoking anything literally angelic. That was all I had when I started writing; I invented the science on the fly, and the murder plot came when I realized that running around and saving people was surprisingly conflict-free.
- The idea for Immortal came out of my wanting to turn my non-fiction blogger voice into a work of fiction—an immortal blogger, essentially. This was all I had when I started writing, but as soon as I created the red-haired woman I thought of an ending for the book. That ending was the conversation which took place between her and Adam at the end of book three, because I removed if from book one after an edit. So in the process of not outlining book one, I managed to come up with an ending for the third book in a trilogy I didn’t know I was going to be writing.
- For The Spaceship Next Door, I had the ship landing, and the nothing-happening-for-three-years, and I had the town. I didn’t know Annie Collins existed until after I wrote the first chapter.
I prefer discovering characters, and plot, as I write, rather than working all of that out before writing. It’s a fantastic approach, (for me, because anything that works consistently is a fantastic approach) as long as it’s the first book we’re talking about.
What I’ve learned, is that writing a follow-up book requires a slightly different skillset.
The tragedy of the sequels
The problem with writing a sequel is that it immediately runs counter to my need to know very little about what I’m writing, before I start writing it. It’s also why every series of mine began with a book I thought was going to be a standalone.
Since I didn’t plan out the plot of book one, it goes without saying that I also didn’t plot out future books. So to write a follow-up, the first thing I have to do is a deep dive into the first book, for something that will lead to another story.
This is what I meant by the fan fiction observation. It came up in the first place because I’m in the middle of writing a sequel right now—for Fixer—that I never planned to write. I feel like I answered all of the questions I wanted to answer the first time around, but enough of my readers disagree with me that it’s worth going back and taking another look at text I originally wrote (oh god) twelve years ago.
What I want is to be able to find a new way to tell a new story about Corrigan Bain that A: leverages what I already established in the first book, B: gives me enough new things to fill a whole second book, and C: leaves enough unknown-before-I-write-it to make sure I don’t get bored. (If I write fiction that bores me as I’m writing it, I guarantee it will also bore the reader.)
This plays out more obviously in the Immortal universe.
Books 1-3 are an accidental trilogy. I wrote them as if they were three standalones with a common character—the way mystery novels and thrillers tend to be written—so in theory they could be read independently, and understood just fine. But I wanted to write the second trilogy (i.e., books 4-6, and no, we’re only up to book 5 so far, you haven’t missed anything) as a real trilogy, with an unfolding mystery that carries across the books, and that relies on the books that came before.
Take a look at Immortal From Hell, the just-published middle book of this second trilogy, because it’s the best example of what I’m talking about. The big reveal at the end of the book was seeded way back in Immortal Stories: Eve (a standalone novella), but when I did that, I didn’t know the identity of the person Eve recognized in the story. I just knew he was my new villain, and I’d worry about figuring out who he was later.
Did I figure out who he was while writing Immortal and the Island of Impossible Things? I did not. I laid seeds for him in Adam’s historical record, but I didn’t know who he was yet. Mind, this is the Big Bad (this is a Buffy reference; I apologize) for the trilogy, and I hadn’t figured out who he was yet.
I didn’t finally decide on his identity until I sat down to start writing Immortal From Hell, and where I found it was in a throwaway line in Immortal, the very first book.
Minor spoiler: the line I’m talking about had to do with why Adam left England for the United States, along with a promise to tell that story one day. I didn’t write that line intending for it to be the seed for an entire future novel, much less the groundwork for an entire new trilogy, but here we are. Basically, I’m letting my unconscious mind from fifteen years ago (when I wrote that) drive what I’m writing now.
What this also means is that I know almost nothing yet about what’s going to happen in the sixth Immortal book, until I sit down and write it. And that’s a teeny bit nerve-wracking since, as you may or may not know, I’ve gone and ended the fifth book with a rather large cliff-hanger.
I do not know what I’m doing, and I’m getting better at it.
Sorry, no, let me try again
Since I don’t outline (and again, I can’t if I want to finish the book) I lay no plans for future books. Since I can’t lay plans for future books, in order to write those books I have to go back and look at the earlier books and figure out what would make for a good new story. Since the original story had its own beginning, middle and end, the process of mining those stories for something new feels like I’m writing fan fiction, even though I’m the guy who wrote the original story in the first place.
There. Now I’ve explained the tweet I never sent, and I feel better. Even if it was a pithy observation in the first place.
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