Monday, July 24, 2017

Breaking Character

A post by Mary Fan
Those of you who’ve been around the writing community for a while have probably encountered the “plotters vs. pantsers” debate more times than you’d care to think about. Just in case some of you haven’t heard of these terms, “plotters” are writers who carefully outline and map out their books before beginning the actual writing process, and “pantsers” are those who “write by the seats of their pants”—that is, who open up a blank page and simply write, often without knowing where the story’s going.

I’ve always been a neurotic plotter. Ever since I first started scribbling silly stories in middle school, I’ve always had detailed outlines of my stories. Plus a bunch of other supporting documents—worldbuilding “encyclopedias” and character backstories and such. Having completed over a dozen stories this way (from full-length novels to flash fic… yes, I outline my flash fic…), I pretty much had my writing method down. I’ve written blog posts about it and spoken on panels about it—the merits of outlining and how well it works as a writing method. And my outlines aren’t just short little chapter descriptions… They’re often 10,000+ words long by themselves, detailing every move a character makes.

So you can imagine how surprised I was when my latest WIP started writing itself. Without. An. Outline.

That’s right, folks. I pantsed a manuscript. A 100,000-word, novel-length manuscript. If I were a fictional character and my author wrote me doing this, their editor would write a long note in red pen saying “this is inconsistent with Mary’s character and readers won’t buy it.”

How did this happen? Honestly, I still have no idea, though I suspect it has something to do with the fact that I’ve written and read enough novels in my genre (sci-fi/fantasy) to have some kind of internal outline hard-wired into my writing system. I also suspect that switching up my writing method gave me the jolt I needed to finally complete another book.

I’d been in a major writing funk for pretty much all of 2016. The only things I completed in that time were a novella and a short story, even though I’d hoped to finish at least one novel-length manuscript (in previous years, I’d done two). I started writing two books, using my usual neurotic-plotter method, but they just weren’t clicking for some reason, and I abandoned both a few chapters in. I figured that at some point, I’d pick one and beat the words out of me at some point, just so I could finish something.

Then, in early January of this year, a random idea hit me seemingly out of nowhere. I remember being in choir rehearsal when it did… in fact, I still have the page of Bach’s St. John Passion with my early brainstorming scribbled in blank space beneath the soloist cue. Unlike my other two projects, which were slightly out-of-genre for me (one was magical realism, and one was hard sci-fi—neither of which I’d written before), this one was going to be pure fantasy fluff. A fun adventure across an enchanted land starring a girl who fights demons. Maybe it was a reaction to trying so hard to write something… hard. My lazy brain was sick of trying to make book-vegetables and just wanted book-candy.

Anyway, me being me, I then sat down to start outlining as usual. But I quickly found myself impatient to begin already… I could already picture the opening scene where the protagonist guards her village and gets to kick some demon butt. “Fine,” I told myself. “Let’s just write that scene and outline the rest later.”

Except “later” never happened. Once I finished the opening chapter, I kind of just wanted to write the next thing. And the next thing. And so on and so forth until I realized I was actually pantsing this whole damn book. And it was awesome. There was a kind of freedom to having only the vaguest idea of where the story was going. And it was terrifying. There’s nothing scarier than a blank page, and heading into one without an outline feels like diving in the dark.

There were a few drawbacks to pantsing—mainly that sometimes, I’d come up with something halfway through the book that I realized I should have introduced earlier. “Well, make a note of it and move on,” I told myself. I had whole document titled “Things to fix later” full of these kinds of things.

While that was a fun foray into the world of pantsing, I’ll probably go back to plotting for my next manuscript. But who knows… maybe that one will start writing itself as well.


Carrie Beckort said...

Yay! I love mixing things up, so I'm glad it worked out for you. So far I've mostly been a pantser. When I have outlined, it's mostly been either timelines or chapter headings to give me an idea of what will happen in each chapter. And that usually gets done parallel to my writing the story. At some point I'd like to try to outline and entire manuscript first and see how that goes for me, but right now I just wing it - and like you said, I love not really knowing where the story is going. I've been known to say, "I didn't know that was going to happen" after typing something out. Or introducing something early in the story but not having a clue why until several chapters later.

Mary Fan said...

It's such a weird feeling, all that not knowing!

Cheryl Oreglia said...

I'm the panster that wants an outline but it illudes me. I rarely know where I'm going with a story or life but I like the "idea" of a plan. I might be to old to change it up now but never say never!

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