The Pantser and The Second Act Sag (Or, more things I have learnt writing a novel)

I’ve finished my first novel, and plans are underway to publish it. As I bask in the afterglow (AKA the thank-feck-that’s-over, Netflix-saturated, crap-magazine-reading malaise), I’ve been reflecting on the novel-writing process and what more it has taught me (You may also want to read my earlier post, Ten things I have learnt writing a novel).

As I press play on the 12th episode of the latest mediocre European crime thriller, the arc of the series’ storyline (shock-factor start involving dead body and emotionally tortured cop interrupted mid-shag, followed by a few muddy episodes that manage to confuse you so much you wear out the rewind button on the remote, rounded off by an ending featuring aforementioned cop in an another compromising position, but this time with clothes on and holding a gun, a dramatic rescue, another dead body or five, and a wide shot of a windy moor) reminds me of my own novel-writing arc.

Starting isn’t a problem. You set off with a whizz and a bang, embarking on your writing journey with a full tank, virgin pages, and the tantalising promise of adventures to come.

You’re excited.

You dream about your ten-book publishing deal and the literary awards that will inevitably follow. At your internationally publicised book launch, Salmon Rushdie will shake your hand. A bitter Stephanie Meyer will try to slip a mushy vol-au-vent into your handbag at the after party. J. K. Rowling will send you brilliant and vaguely magical hate mail. Publishing magnates will gauge competitors’ eyes out with letter openers in an undignified scrap over the discarded drafts of your next novel. You can see the movie credits rolling already, and you fantasise about your teary but dignified walk to the stage to receive your Oscar for Best Novel Ever to be Turned into a Movie (Even Better Than The Girl on the Train or That Tolkien One).

You introduce characters. You set the scene. You establish what’s what. Everyone is enthusiastic (apart from your friends / colleagues / the chap in the corner shop whose eyes glaze over as you tell them for the twentieth time that you’re “writing a novel. No really, I am.”)

At the end, the relief at finally finishing the bloody thing makes you want to weep.

But the middle? Think of Sam and Frodo halfway to Mordor. Or that bit in Voyage of the Dawn Treader where they get lost in the fog. Or Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

Like a vindicated hypochondriac, I felt enormously relieved when a wise author friend told me that my condition had a name. The phenomenon is called the “Second Act Sag.” (Relieved as in: Thank God, it’s not just because I’m total gobshite. This is a writer’s condition. Made me feel part of the club.)

He explained the simple concept:

You start with a hiss and a roar, establishing key roles, setting up conflict, introducing themes. That’s Act One. Act Two is like the end of the honeymoon period. The wheels, previously whizzing around in well-oiled smugness, start to wobble. Then loosen. Then fall off. You turn this way and that, unable to get your bearings. Confused and disorientated, you end up meandering in a literary desert, or (and please forgive the rather clumsy mix of metaphors), struggling through a swamp of dead-end paragraphs, redundant ideas, and incomplete phrases. By Act Three you’re back on solid ground, tackling the classic Crisis – Climax – Resolution arc with renewed vigour.

At one point I didn’t just sag; I came to a grinding halt. I was completely and utterly stuck, not knowing what the feck was going to happen next, or how I was going to move my characters towards the already determined finale.

So I took a step back and decided to write a detailed plot synopsis to get everything clear in my head. I followed the same wise author’s advice that everything should be driven by character (i.e. if you are unsure what happens next, make sure you know your characters well enough so that when they come to a fork in the road, you know instinctively which fork they would choose).

By Jove, it worked! I had needed a road map; something solid and tangible to guide me as I continued. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for writing as the spirit leads and seeing where your pen takes you. In fact, I’m more pantser than plotter.

When I started my novel I had a vague idea of the overall story and themes and where I was headed, but most days I just sat down and started writing, without referencing forward or back. I tend to be in Ray Bradbury’s camp here:

Now this is all very well, but I’m also aware that there are no absolutes. God bless you, Ray, but pantsing doesn’t work for everyone, all the time.

When I hit the Second Act Sag, I needed some kind of “anchoring” to feel confident enough to push on. My plot outline, driven by my intimate knowledge of my characters, was it.

So, to my fellow pantsers: bravo! I’m feeling you. Isn’t it wild and juicy and exciting? And, here’s the thing: I promise you’re not boring if you go over to the other side, just sometimes. It can be enormously helpful.

And to the plotters: bravo to you, too. Now try letting go…and inviting even more magic to happen.

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4 Comments on “The Pantser and The Second Act Sag (Or, more things I have learnt writing a novel)”

  1. Stuart Danker November 23, 2020 at 11:54 am #

    Ugh the midpoint sag is real. As a pantser, nothing debilitates me more than not knowing where to head to next.

    This is where my 250-word a day programme helps a lot. Even if I’m stuck, I just write my minimum word count and consider my writing part done for the day. It may be slow progress, but I’m still putting one foot in front of the other, and frankly, that’s the most important thing.

    Thanks for this post!

    • thebellbirdblog November 23, 2020 at 5:38 pm #

      Yep. Even a few words are better than nothing. Keep pantsing!

  2. greenbook829511120 November 23, 2020 at 9:42 pm #

    I wonder sometimes if I’m not a true pantser as I usually think about what’s coming several chapters ahead of where I’m at. But that’s how I avoid sagging middles (or getting lost).

    • thebellbirdblog November 23, 2020 at 10:04 pm #

      I suspect most of us are hybrid pantser-plotters, TBH. I certainly am. Also: my mind dwelt on pants and sagging middles and getting lost and I suddenly realised that snippets of your comment could neatly sum up one’s mid-life crisis

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