Monday, April 2, 2018

Plotter? Pantser? Neither? Both?

A post by Mary Fan

For as long as I remember writing, I’ve been a neurotic outliner. Something about a blank page just terrifies me, and I can’t seem to get anything down unless I know exactly what I’m doing going in. I’ve written blog post after blog post and answered interview question after interview question about how much I like to outline. I’d map out plot points, chart out exactly what happens in each chapter, flesh that out into point-by-point descriptions of what happens so by the time I get to actually writing, all I have to do is turn notes into sentences. Some of my outlines wound up being over 10,000 words long.

So it was more than weird when I found myself totally unable to outline my latest project.

Before that, the closest I’d come to “pantsing” – that is, writing by the seat of your pants and making things up as you go without knowing where the story will take you – was last year when I started writing a novel two days after coming up with the idea. I had an idea for the general shape of the story and had maybe a sentence for what would go in each chapter, but that was it. To me, that counted as pantsing since I didn’t know what would happen within the chapter. And some chapters got cut when I got to them, some got added as I wrote because it seemed there was more needed for a certain section. It was disconcerting, but I was too impatient to get the book written to sit down and flesh out my ideas before actually writing sentences.

This latest project, though, I didn’t even have that skeleton of an outline. I tried—I really did. Several times, I jotted down bullets for what might happen in what order, but I always ran out of steam at the halfway point. I managed to come up with a vague outline for the first half of the book, but kept blanking on the second. Meanwhile, I intended to write at least 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month, and it was just around the corner. So I decided I’d just start writing the first half and hope ideas would come for the second half by the time I got there.

They didn’t.

I let the book sit for three whole months while I worked on different projects, thinking hey, maybe I’ll come back to it, reread the first half, and come up with an outline for the second half. That… didn’t happen. No matter how many times I tried to hash out the plot for the second half the book, I kept drawing  a blank. It was weird. I really can’t explain why it wasn’t working out. Part of it might have been because I wanted to delve more into the characters’ internal thoughts, but I had no idea how that would play out on the page against what I wanted  them to actually do. Part of it might have been good old-fashioned writer’s block.

Still, I had an image in my head for how I wanted the second half to start. So finally, I thought: Why not just start writing it and see what happens? Maybe once I get started, the outline will come…

It’s been two weeks, and I’m still totally winging it. I’ve gone into chapters thinking things would go one way, but they wound up going another. I’ve finished chapters with no idea what would happen in the next. The only thing I do know is how I want the book to end, but so far, my characters are still winding their way toward it. For someone who’s as attached to their outlines as I am, it’s nothing short of WEIRD.

How did my writing  method do a complete 180? I wonder if part of it’s because this book is a sequel, and I know my characters and world well enough at this point to make things up as I go. This book’s plot is also a bit more straightforward than some of the others I’ve written. Also, it’s maybe the ninth or tenth manuscript I’ve worked on, so maybe I’m just getting more used to this whole writing thing, and the blank page isn’t as terrifying as it used to be.

Who knows. Anyway, people will be debating plotting vs. pantsing as long as writers write, but my personal experience has shown me that the dichotomy is false. Some people prefer one, others prefer the other, and it’s entirely possible to flip flop between the two.

I still plan to outline my next book—or at least attempt to. And I’ve outlined every short story (even ones as short as 3500 words) I’ve written in between composing the two halves of this current manuscript. So I wouldn’t call myself a pantser. But I suppose neither can I call myself a plotter anymore.

I suppose I can just call myself a writer.


Cheryl Oreglia said...

I've never been much of a planner, the first novel I attempted I did write a brief outline for every intended chapter, but the story sort of left my outline in the dust? Never to return to the original ending or premeditated events. When I blog I start with a topic sentence and hope it finds it's way home. I know when I've landed but sometimes I journey far and wide to get there. Great Post Mary. I'm always interested in the unique processes authors use to write. Thanks for sharing your journey.

Carrie Beckort said...

I love winging it - It's great when the story gives me little surprises :) Good for you to set out of your comfort zone to do what the novel wanted you to do!

Blogger Template by Designer Blogs