Plotting vs Pantsing: You Can Have It Both Ways

Writers have a way of turning the nuts and bolts of creation into a heated political debate. I don’t know if this is the result of increased exposure in the form of social media or if we’ve always been this way, but it’s interesting to watch. One of my favorite hot-button debates is the issue of plotting vs pantsing.

Plotting is exactly what it sounds like. You map out the course of the story and figure out how it’s going to end before you start writing. Some plotters map out every twist and turn, while others create a rough outline that they know their characters will escape by the end of the book. Plotting is like architecture; the writer designs and measures and sketches before he begins to build.

Author Jan Ropers puts it thusly: “For me the fun moved from figuring out how it would end to how they were going to get there.” Rather than plan out every step, Ms. Ropers figures out how it’s going to end and then “pantses” her way to that ending. Different authors have different methods for plotting, depending on their literary needs.

Pantsing is more like planting a seed and watching to see what comes up. The pantser sits down with only the vaguest idea of what she’s doing and makes everything up as she goes. Sometimes the pantser starts with an image, or a character type, or an odd combination of thoughts that come together and make the writer say, “Hey I wonder what would happen if…”

The plotter writes to tell what happens; the pantser writes to see what happens.

In my earliest attempts to write a novel, I tried to plot. But I realized that if I planned the story out in advance, I got bored and lost interest in the story. Planning made me not care about writing the ending, because I already knew what would happen. This discouraged me, because at the time I thought I had to know how the story would end in order to write it.

As he often did in the course of my angst-riddled adolescence, Stephen King came to my rescue. In his brilliant memoir On Writing, he says, “Why be a stickler about the ending? Every story comes out somewhere.” So I said what the hell and gave it a shot. I sat down and started writing about a dragon kidnapping a unicorn. That was all I had—just that one image—but it was enough to get me started. I forced myself to write at least a few words every day, and six months later I had completed my first novel. It was absolutely terrible, one of the worst books I’d ever read in my life. But by golly I had finally finished something. I was on my way.

Every book I wrote for the next ten years was a complete ad-lib. Sometimes the starting point was a young woman avenging her mother’s death. Sometimes it was a party my husband had formed in his favorite role-playing game. But each time I went in with no idea where I was going. Sometimes I didn’t even know if the story would be a short story or a novel until I’d written ten thousand words and the characters were still doing things. I did what I did and loved every minute of it. I decided that plotting was an acceptable method for control freaks, but not for the free-and-easy creative likes of me.

Until the fateful day a serendipitous conversation on Twitter changed my whole outlook on the writing process. Never let it be said that the Internet is anti-creative; I’ve gotten some of my best ideas from random conversations with strangers on the other side of the globe.

I don’t remember the exact course of the discussion, but it included this question: “Why are werewolves never depicted with weapons? They never have knives or guns, even when they’re wearing clothes.”

My companion responded, “Because they don’t need weapons. They’re super strong and have razor teeth. A weapon would be pointless.”

That was a good point, but I said that nevertheless I would read the hell out of a story about werewolves with ray guns. Then I flashed on the image of a wolf-headed man in a 50’s style space suit, complete with fish bowl helmet, holding a bright silver ray gun. Werewolves in space. Why the hell not?

It seemed like a simple enough idea, so I took of writing the way I always do: I picked a scene, picked up a pen, and went to town. I finished two or three chapters in high spirits. And then the Doubts started creeping in. And then I sputtered and stalled.

Part of my trouble was my overwhelming awe of science fiction as a whole. I grew up watching Star Trek and Doctor Who; I cut my literary teeth on Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. I felt instinctively that sci-fi was this vast empire of wisdom that I, a simple horror writer, could never hope to enter.

This feeling was exacerbated by the realization that writing this book was actually hard. It genuinely felt like work. My werewolves were from another planet, with alien technology and alien ecosystems, and I had to create and maintain this vast structure all by myself. My daily word count went from a thousand words to five hundred, then to zero. It was just too much.

My husband, bless his heart, wouldn’t let me give up. He insisted that Star Pack was one of my best stories yet, and if I gave up I’d never get to the next level as an artist. So I dragged my butt through it, and three years later I finally had a finished manuscript. (As a point of reference, my usual timeline is between six and nine months.) I’ll always be grateful to him and my writer friends who insisted that my story was good and that alien invasion was going to be the Next Big Thing in publishing. I have no idea if that’s actually true or they were just blowing smoke to get me to stop talking and start writing, but it worked either way.

I learned a lot from this experience, more than I’ve ever learned from my “easier” books. The first and most important is try never to give up on a work in progress. Sometimes it can feel like you’re handcuffed to a corpse, but you have to drag that sucker across the finish line. Secondly, don’t underestimate the power of people telling you what you want to hear. Sometimes a little candy-coated baloney is just what the doctor ordered.

Finally, when you try out a new genre, be prepared to find out a new way of writing it. Pantsing is fine for genres like horror and fantasy, where if you get stuck you can just change the rules to make it work. But it turns out you can’t create an entire planet, culture, and ecosystem by the seat of your pants. Not without a lot of cursing, despair, and moaning, “This isn’t going to WORK!” to your significant other. Geography, even on an alien planet, needs to make sense. If you have predators living on your alien planet, they need prey to feed on. And the prey needs to eat, too. Worldbuilding as you go along is like building a flight of stairs in the dark with a flashlight.

When I realized that I had it in me to write a sequel, I took a deep breath, broke out my trusty notebook, and set to work on an outline. I spent about a week describing the land my new characters would hail from, then another week on the planet my explorers would discover. Finally I composed a rough outline of the events of the book. I still don’t know how it’s going to end, but I know where the people are going and how they’re going to get there.

And I still haven’t lost interest in the story. Even though I have a good idea of what’s going to happen, I still want to write it out. So plotting did not, as I have long feared, ruin my enthusiasm for writing the book.

I’m still a pantser at heart and probably always will be. But I feel great knowing that I’ve found a new way to do what I love. It’s like a new restaurant with an old love. You’ll always have your traditional date spot, but making new discoveries can bring a fresh outlook to a long-term relationship.

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