Different approaches to writing

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is coming up pretty fast here, again. This will be my 10th year participating – I haven’t missed a year since I first tried (and won, in 8 days and after two false starts, not to mention taking on the role of Phoenix ML & getting press coverage in 2 cities) in 2002. (No, I haven’t been an ML since; in 2003 I was out-of-region, and when I came back in 2004 Phoenix had 2 good MLs) I’m not sure I’ll be anywhere near following the “rules” of NaNoWriMo this year, though I rarely do, because the writing project in front of me, as I keep mentioning, is a dystopian duology (with vampires) which I’ve been thinking about and researching/studying-for all year – that’s two books to write, I don’t know how long each will be (probably longer than 50k words apiece), and it doesn’t particularly matter to me whether I begin and end writing them in November.

Anyway, as happens in NaNoWriMo circles as November approaches, a familiar meme has arisen in recent discussions with friends and family members; the idea of pantser vs. plotter (or pantser vs. planner – interestingly, I like both plotter and planner as words, but not pantser at all, so having a choice between two frustrating formations is worse than having no choice at all?). For those of you not in the know, this is a question of whether one writes “by the seat of their pants” or one plans/plots out their book ahead of time.

My sister, who was recently named one of the MLs of the Phoenix region (after only 1 year’s participation!), attended a pre-planning meeting with several other Phoenix NaNoWriMo participants a couple of weeks ago. One of the things which frustrated her was their assertion (the other writers in the group) that if you weren’t planning out every little detail of your books ahead of time, down to a minute level, you were a “pantser”. My sister doesn’t feel like a pantser; she has a plot laid out, outlines her chapters, and has a firm grasp on what her book is about, who the characters are, and what they’ve got to go through. She and I agree that a pantser doesn’t really have all those things. A real pantser probably doesn’t have any of those things. I’ve done that several times, myself, sitting down in front of a blank page/screen with literally no plan -no characters, no plot, no setting, no theme, nothing at all but the blank canvas of the page in front of me and my imagination behind me- and watched a book flow through me and onto the page as if by magic. When it works, it works splendidly. I often, in that situation, find myself startled, surprised, and delighted as I read the words a sentence or two behind where my hands are working and learn what happens next only after I’ve written it. In fact, in my most-planned novels, the full outline for the book and the plot and the characters and the conflicts, the chapter-by-chapter breakdown of events and pacing … has all fit on the front of one piece of paper… but has been a hundred times more planning than the books I’ve “pantsed”, with structure, length, pacing, and character arcs all carefully crafted ahead of time and the rest of the story and details fleshed in as I wrote. But I always knew where I was and where I needed to be and in how many words and what route to take, and I considered myself a planner, even if the exact words to get there, the characters’ exact thoughts and dialog and a lot of the specifics were unknown to me until I wrote them.

Which leads me around to what I wanted to post about tonight; I think the line between pantsers and planners is really a false division. Divided that way, it certainly isn’t black and white, and the division isn’t particularly helpful or useful. I know that part of my sister’s reaction to the other writers’ views (and the way they express those views) is because they believe that plotting is superior to pantsing, that their way of plotting is the right way, and everyone else isn’t as good at writing. I’ve certainly met plenty of writers who hold similar views, in my time. It’s a position I believe is artificially supported by the weight of words about writing and how to write which have been published (I include blogging as publishing, here), in that the plotters and the planners, the ones who have a formula, a method, or a list of rules or guidelines they follow, are the ones who can most easily document those ideas about “how to write” – whereas the pantsers, especially the real pansters like I sometimes am, when they try to tell you (or write down) “how to write” have nothing to say, or only something vague, quasi-mystical, and often poorly understood (both by the one trying to share and those trying to learn). So the plotters write more and write more often about “how to write”, and what they write is easier to simply follow/obey, and over time it is this disparity in documentation which has given the plotters the veneer of being “right”. And which has, thus, created an us/them mentality and needless strife amongst authors who feel they aren’t really authors, or aren’t doing things “right” or don’t belong, somehow.

Here’s what I think is a better way of looking at it, a better question to address what is basically the same idea, but which I hope paints a more full picture and which paints different ways of storytelling as equally valid. This is not the complete picture, but consider: Are you engineering a story, or are you growing a story?

When I write, I’m growing a story. Sometimes I’ll build a lattice (an outline) to give the story the support it needs to grow in a particular direction, but the real shape of the story is not something under my direct/conscious control. I usually get to pick the seeds from which the story grows, but the stories then grow and change and thrive (or wither) according to their own designs. My job is to give the story a healthy environment in which to grow, to give it the characters and settings (and conflicts, et cetera) it requires, to prune it here and there, and mostly to stay out of its way and enjoy watching it unfold and expand according to its natural beauty.

Other writers, especially toward the more precise end of the plotting spectrum, prefer to engineer a story. Before they begin writing they create a detailed schematic (outlines, chapter details and synopses, notes, and more), a parts list (characters, usually with full biographies, settings, props and gadgets, et cetera), planning committee approval (careful, detailed world-building, sometimes writing/researching centuries of history and family lineages and architectural details of buildings and drawing/finding maps), and on and on so that, when the time comes to finally begin writing, nothing will be left to question. Often these writers are carefully engineering their stories to fit a very specific set of guidelines, ranging from economic viability in traditional publishing markets and established genre conventions to trying to express a particular political point of view or express a theme which is important to them.

When growing a story from the seeds of the theme and genre and characters and settings of your choice, there’s always the possibility that things won’t go as planned: That the book will be too long, or too short, to be considered by traditional publishers. That it won’t strictly adhere to the established conventions of a single genre, and will have trouble finding an audience because of it. That the characters will do unexpected things, take the story in unexpected directions, introduce new themes and come up with an ending you never imagined. Sometimes it turns out wonderful, sometimes you can get a publishing deal, or find an audience, or express a theme you didn’t even realize you cared so much about, in spite of all the randomness and unpredictability of growing a story. Other times you wish you were a story-engineer, because they at least seem to have some real control over their stories.

I can’t write as much, or as well, or as accurately, about those who engineer their stories, since I usually don’t. As I said earlier, my most-planned books have had little more than a lattice pointing the right direction and a few sketches guiding the placement of the seeds; when I try to engineer a story, or really even consider engineering a story, I get a little sick. (Nowhere near as bad as when I try to engage in Marketing; just a little … unwell.) Planning out every little thing, every scene in every chapter, every action, interaction, motivation and development, knowing it all in advance… just doesn’t work for me. (It occurs to me that the same is true, generally, of my life.) So I’ll not attempt it. There are already a lot of words out there about how to engineer a story, and what you’ll get when you do.

I’m just suggesting that the pantser/plotter division doesn’t really fit as well as that between engineering a story and growing a story. (Though there are positions even beyond those two, in this shape; the real pantser is probably more exploring a story; wandering around sniffing wildflowers, observing the shape of wild stories in their natural habitat, not really gardening or growing, and certainly not designing and constructing, but discovering and observing.) Every method of getting to your stories is a good one, as long as the result is a story told by you in the way which was right for you. Don’t let anyone try to get you down about being a grower of stories, or an engineer, or a wandering explorer. Embrace who you are and get good at it.

Remember, you won’t get any better at gardening by practicing drafting engineering schematics, and you won’t get any better at requisitioning parts and getting past the planning committee by wandering in a field of wildflowers. Try different things out, figure out what fits, and commit.

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