Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Pantsers and Plotters

If you're looking on advice on plotting, you may want to go somewhere else. Before I write a book, my summaries sound like this: "So there's this person in this kind of world. THEN! Bad things happen." Usually, something explodes. OK, if I'm being honest, lots of somethings explode.

Pantsers vs. Plotters is the aspect of writing methods I find most fascinating. There are Pantsers like me and Nora Roberts (yeah, see what I did there?) who start with a general idea or snippet of something, sit down at their chosen media and let the story take them down whatever road it chooses. Then there are Plotters who I imagine have plotting systems that take more time than it takes to write the actual book. And then there are people at every single little miniscule point along the spectrum. Somewhere in between the Plotters and Pantsers there are the Plotsers, Plantsers (a word I'm not entirely convinced wasn't made up by Corrine O'Flynn last night), and even the Panters (a word I made up two minutes ago because it makes me giggle).

The reason why this fascinates me so probably has something to do with my education. In school (especially those run by the DoD), we're often told there's only one correct approach to a task - the way the teacher does it. I honestly think it took me so long to get serious about creative writing because I felt that I was "doing it wrong."

Remember the creative writing assignments where we had to submit the outline for the story a few weeks before the story? I LOATHED those. It's not that I couldn't do it, but - even then - I knew the quality of my plot was far inferior when I was forced to outline ahead of time. These plots were contrived, cliched and boring. It didn't take long for me to discover - sneaky little over-achiever with nothing else to do that I was - how much better I did if I just went ahead and wrote the story first and base my outline (by then it was really a synopsis though, huh? I hate those too) on that.

(and teacher-friends, please don't get mad at me. I understood the point, what you were trying to teach us. I just also understood that it sucked.)

I did this (and got good grades) but it made me feel dirty, like I was a misfit. It wasn't until, while researching before signing up for my first NaNoWriMo, I read Nora Roberts discuss her plotting (or lack thereof) that I thought maybe I wasn't such a freak after all. She says:

"Honestly I don’t do a thing. I have a basic idea in my head, I do whatever research needs to be done – and will continue to research throughout the course of the book – and then I sit down and start. That’s it. Oh, and I try to make sure there is a good supply of Diet Pepsi in the house. And pretzels or some salty thing. And chocolate."

(side note: after reading thisinterview, I've decided that Nora Roberts and I are the EXACT SAME PERSON. I'm just the personality that prefers Coke Cherry Zero over Diet Pepsi. And minus some romance, add some magic, and lower the MC's age. And, you know, without one of those pesky little publishing contracts. But whatever. Other than that...)

On the plotting side, I know there are writers who are as in to it as I am against it. Though I can't possibly understand how Plotters can do their thing, I'm not going to tell you it's a bad idea. Some can't start a book until they know the ending. I met a girl who was starting her book after finishing the 75 page outline. There are entire books written about methods involving color-coded index cards on multiple cork boards connected by interweaving pieces of yarn that represent something I can't even imagine.

And what I'm trying to say is: That's cool too.

If you've always used the same method, I'd suggest to give the other side (I like to think of Pantsing as the Dark Side - that's right: I'm a Sith writer) a try. But once you find a method that works for you, don't let anyone tell you you're doing it wrong. Because my ex-Marine drill sergeant sophomore English teacher is the one who was wrong: there is more than one way to arrive at a great story.

What about you? Are you a Sith Pantser or a Jedi Plotter? Or somewhere in between?

PS: When we reach 200 followers, I'll do a giveaway!
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  1. Planter, I think. I have an idea, an idea of where I'm going and all kinds of ideas for along the way and I write down a flimsy outline that I usually throw away the day after I finish it. Then I plant myself in the chair and let 'er rip.

  2. I write as it comes to me - I don't need to know the ending or the exact order when I start - so "panster" I guess. :) My newest story came to me in a shocking orderly fashion, but the prior story was like a puzzle that I had to piece together. I love it that there's no right or wrong way to do it. Each person has their individual creative process. Cool.

  3. I'm 50/50. I have a rough idea, maybe a couple of characters and then I write as fast as I can! Once the first draft's finished, I spend at least a month on outlining before re-writing. There's no way that I could plot from day one. Some of my best inspirations appear during the unplanned stage.

  4. I am in between. It's different for each book. Most of the time I start with an idea and characters. Then I just write. about a third of the way into the book, then I start writing down what else is going to happen. Just a sentence or two of the rest of the major scenes so I know where I'm going.

    Other times I will sit down and write small character profiles and write out a blurb ahead of time, but I never completely plot a book first.

  5. So weird--just did a blog post about this. :) I'm definitely something in between. I have to outline my first few scenes and then my characters take over the show. :)

  6. Plotter all the say - I have color-coded notecards all over my walls so that I live my life inside my outline.

  7. I totally agree with you. I'm a pantser all the way. For every project I started it begins with an idea and the formation of the main characters in my head. Then I just start writing. I still haven't figured out how my latest story is going to end. But I cannot plan for the life of me. It just never works out well, so I've stopped trying. :D

  8. I don't outline so much as write down ideas for certain scenes. Like for my new WIP, I have some great banter and character quirks already, but I haven't ironed out the traits for the Bad Guy, other than he's Very Bad Indeed.

    And then once I have some scenes, I begin to string them together and make a whole book.

  9. misty: planter! Haha. One day I'm going to make a spectrum with all the categories!

    yay, wendy! Welcome to the Dark side!

    MC: you sound like a Pantser to me! Outlining after it's written is definitely useful for revisions. maybe I'll write my next post about that!

    i agree, Kelley. Sometimes I know a little more than other times, especially if the idea has been marinating for a while.

  10. Pam: haha! Well, I subscribe to your blog so maybe that's why I decided on this subject! I don't outline my first few scenes, but maybe I should because they usually get cut!

    oh Kathryn, you're one of THOSE people. ;) I have two friends that are like that. That's cool though. I'm crazy organized like that for other things, just not writing.

    It's alright Marisa. Embrace it :)

    So do you write out of order, Angelica? I've never met a Pantser who writes out of order!

  11. I'm a plotser, somewhere in the middle of being a panster and a plotter. I actually did a blog post on this very topic a couple days ago. I actually am not really clear what's the ending going to be for the book im writing right now. I'm pretty sure it'll come to me when I'm actually writing. The panster in me does not want me to spoil the ending. :)

  12. E: I never know the ending - except for that it will at least be mostly a happy one. ;) I can't stand spoilers. Aparently not even with my own stories.

  13. Darn, I need to find a pair of trousers with wings!

    I'm a pantser all the way. Planning bores me endlessly. Inspiration on the go is the most fun ^_^

  14. Miss Cole: I know! Aren't those pants awesome. Pantsers rock!