Writing Method: Writing into the Dark (Pantsers) by Dean Wesley Smith

There are numerous books out there on writing from a plotter’s perspective. So I thought, for fun, why not look at what’s been happening on the other side of the coin? What are the pantsers up to?

From the pantser’s club, we have well-known authors like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin and Nora Roberts. You can usually spot a pantser by their prolific bodies of work.

One such pantser is Dean Wesley Smith, a sci-fi writer who has written over 100 novels for licensed properties such as Star Trek, Smallville, Spider-Man and Men in Black, along with his own fictional work. And lucky for us, he was kind enough to share his method of writing in his non-fiction work, “Writing into the Dark

Recommended For:

  • Pantsers who would like tips on riding a story over the speed bumps or around road blocks and through to the finish line all without losing the adrenaline rush.
  • Plotters interested in coming over to the “dark side” (or at least curious about how pantsers work their magic without a road map).

Just Writing

What does writing into the dark entail? Put simply: setting your gluteus maximus down onto the chair and writing into the abyss before you. No planning, no character sketches, nothing but pure storytelling off the top of your head. Just writing.

Why, You Ask?

Writing into the Dark Feeds the Reader

“Writing into the dark imitates the reading process for the writer…The creative side is making up the story and entertaining us as we type.”

I believe we write because we are avid readers and would love to read the kind of story we have racing through our imaginations. Having not found a story exactly like it in the world today, we resolve to write it ourselves.

“Feed the reader part of your brain and just write for fun.”

So why not just give the reader in us what it wants and delve into a story we only have a vague idea of but are more than willing to explore?

Planning Kills Creativity

“Great art is rarely created from critical perspective. Art is never done purposely.”

Planning kills creativity. It eliminates spontaneous connections. Takes away the ADVENTURE of writing and makes it into the process of writing.

“Your critical voice will only dig up old ideas and old plots and parrot them back to readers already familiar with the plot.

Probably because while your creative side will boldly burst through and explore the unknown, your critical side will start thinking it’s too strange, or not good enough and then bring your attention back to the stories that were already done and have experienced success. Nevermind that the stories that have experienced success are usually the ones that have an unique flair to them.

Eliminates Rewrites

Smith believes the biggest waste of time is rewriting and he believes adopting the Writing into the Dark method will help you avoid rewriting. I believe he mainly wants to dissuade writers from endlessly editing or reliving the story. He usually ‘edits’ as he goes, using his cycling method (i.e., writing for a while, then looping back about 500 words or so and fleshing out or scrapping off parts of what he wrote).

Before You Start…Don’t be Afraid of:

  1. Overwriting. No words are wasted. Even if scrapped. They’re seen as practice. “Imagine walking up to some poor kid practicing a musical instrument and telling him he’s wasting his time by practicing. He needs only to play concerts or nothing at all.”
  2. Embracing uncertainty. Don’t be afraid to go down a path that leads you to a dead end. You can always get back on track (see “Getting Unstuck” below).
  3. Writing out of order. Write a scene in the future and “loop back” and write up to that scene. Go back into the story and fill in the gap by weaving in another scene. Write a scene that you’re not even sure belongs in the story. Don’t worry. Anything goes. You can put everything in its place later.

Want to Give it a Try? Get Ready, Set…Go!

Imagine telling the story to a friend. Or imagine that your life depended on you telling this story. Got yourself situated? Great, now stick a character in a setting. Doesn’t have to be a cool character or a cool setting. Just a character in a setting.

Next, create depth —

“A story with depth is one that the writer takes the reader and drags the reader under the surface and down the steep slope to the bottom of the lake.”

— and that’s done by writing from within a character’s mind. Everything is experienced through the character’s opinions, emotions, and through their 5 sensory sensations all indicating something about the setting.

Wait Hang On…There’s an Outline?

Before you run away, let me explain:

Apparently Smith does do a bit of outlining, but only after he’s finished writing. In other words, he reverse outlines. It’s a quick thing where after he finishes a chapter, he usually just scribbles down a 1-sentence summary of what’s going on and which characters are present.

Its purpose is to help keep track of what’s been happening in the story so that we can:

  • keep an eye on the pacing
  • become aware of patterns
  • use it to reorient ourselves when we’ve written the story into a stone wall (see below)

And the best part is when you’ve finished, you can just toss the outline.

Getting Unstuck

When we run out of steam or feel like we’re trudging through a swamp, we’re either:

  • on the wrong path — use your reverse outline to go back until you find the intersection where you could’ve gone down another road and try that road this time around.
  • wrote past the scene/chapter/ending — cut off the excess
  • worried about uncertainty OR at the 1/3 mark of the book

What to do if You’re Stuck at the 1/3 Mark:

  1. Lower the bar, focus your attention on just writing the next sentence. Ask yourself what the character would do next. Only write from the character’s perspective.
  2. Reread the last scene or go as far back as you need to in order to get back into the story. It’ll help you enter the mind of the character again.
  3. If you still are unable to go on, take a 5 minute break. If that doesn’t work, sleep on it (i.e., nap for 15–20 minutes).
  4. Put aside that scene and skip forward or back to a scene you can write about right now.

Daily Practice

Smith aims to write 10 pages every day (which equates to approximately 2,000 words). The process is not linear as Smith writes using his ‘cycling method’, as illustrated below.

Cycling Method

Smith jumps inside the character’s head and lets the character’s emotions and senses give him a feel for the environment/setting of the novel, which gives him enough fuel to write for about 500-700 words. At that point he comes to a halt, cycles back to the first word and goes through the story again. Sometimes adding, sometimes taking out, sometimes just rereading or fixing mistakes. This helps build enough momentum to add 500-700 more words. The cycle repeats until he’s added 2,000 words for the day.

He never does this with his ‘editorial hat’ on, where he judges his writing harshly. He always approaches the work with his creative brain, just enhancing it by tightening the text, making a character better or enriching the environment.

In this method, everything gets attended to right away. If there is a detail that needs to be looked up, he does so immediately and incorporates it. If there is a detail at an earlier part of the book that needs to be corrected, he makes the changes, goes through the rest of the work and ensures that detail is consistent throughout the story. A similar action is taken when a current scene or dialogue requires prior groundwork. The required changes are made immediately and the story is reread from that point forward, to ensure everything aligns with the new information.

Due to this constant review of his manuscript, Smith does not re-write. His first draft is essentially his only draft.

Do you know of any other books that are specifically made for pantsers? If you’re a pantser, what are some of the techniques you’ve discovered that help keep you writing?

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