How Do You Do It?: Plotting, pantsing and gardening.

As someone who doesn’t regard The Rules as great dictates chipped into stone and then dissolved into binary ether and sent forth to confound us all (or even something deserving a capital), I feel like I should begin with an apology. There’s a possibility this might get a little biased…

I’m a pantser – which is an odd word for a Brit and always makes me want to assure folk I’m not just wandering around the house in my knickers.

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It’s never felt like a choice as much as a compunction. Something’s are bone deep. This is the way I write. I love the idea of organising my head. I periodically attempt it, before, during, after – more during and after. I like the surety, the systematic certainty of it whispers to me and I have often tried to whisper back, but for me when I create, I must create. That’s simply how it works. Only in the act do I find my inspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, for all I talk of feeling the lure of the planner, I know well how alluring the pantser (ye know without that name sullying it) can seem. They are the epitome of the romantic writer, ink smudged across their pensive faces, caught in the mania of creation, the passionate scribbles of the possessed. We’re all a little in love with that image of ourselves, mostly because we know the reality and yeah, pants might be a better description..

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This debate goes right to the top. King calls himself a ‘discovery writer’, believing he doesn’t create anything, just keeps chipping away, one word at a time until he uncovers the story.

Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses. ~  On Writing, Stephen King

George RR Martin believes in Gardeners and Architects.

There are some writers who are architects, and they plan everything, they blueprint everything, and they know before the drive the first nail into the first board what the house is going to look like… And then there are gardeners who dig a little hole and drop a seed in and water it with their blood and see what comes up.. they don’t how big it’s going to be, or what shape it’s going to take. I am much more a gardener than an architect.  ~ GRR Martin

As for the plotters, it would be so tempting to go with Patterson, whose entire writing is an outline. However there are a few others who have come out in favour of the planned approach. Grisham has claimed the more time dedicated to preparation the better the final work while JK Rowling imagines this is a basic outline…

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Beyond them are the middle-grounders, the ones who believe we’re all on a sliding scale that tends to tip us towards the middle where we’re all slightly pantsing and slightly plotting. Oddly in this instance I think the dichotomy has merit. There are inherent differences between the two that I believe matter and will show in the end.

That’s not to fully sway you towards one when you’re naturally drawn to another. Part of the reason I think the distinction is relevant is that how we write is such a personal issue that trying to force ourselves to fit to someone else’s style can be crippling. Lisa Cron, in Story Genius states that she believes only one percent of writers are capable of holding all their story in their head – nice to know I’m finally a one-percenter even if I can’t afford a car. Of course she also believes that both plotting and pantsing are flawed and instead preaches her blueprint, somehow magically different from your bog standard outline as it focuses on your character and their internal struggle rather than external events. Which in turn brings me to my second concern, something created almost entirely by the misdirection of semantics.

A blueprint is an outline. Which is also a plan. Which is something we plot. This is the heart of a plotter. It’s not someone who has an idea, or a scene playing in their head. It’s not someone who only writes events, it doesn’t preclude those who don’t delineate chapters, or call characters A,B and C. As we can see from JK’s outline, her concern isn’t simply plotting action, certainly not in detail, but takes a big picture approach, laying out the underlying thematic arcs, ‘prophecy’, key relationships, ‘Hagrid & Grawp’ as well as important scenes, such as ‘Ron and other w’s told about fathers injury’. Whether you snowflake from thematic logline to intricate outline, or research everything to do with police procedure before killing off your first victim, the point is you are amassing a body of material so you will know what to write.

Many pantser’s have an idea of something when we sit down to write. What that something is will vary considerably, not just person to person but work to work. I free write many shorts, I usually have a story idea in mind when I write a novel, not much when I started my first three, but as time has gone on, the list of what I would like to write just keeps growing, giving me plenty of time to ruminate on them – although I rarely get much past  a series of vague images in my head. Sometimes a scene or a unique character as well. Like I said it varies. Saying that adds up to a plan is like getting in the car to go on holiday and remembering to pack underwear. I may even have some sense of the destination, but it’s a long way away and I have no idea how I’m getting there or even if I will. I’m prepared for that but I haven’t planned for it. And that to my mind makes a difference.

Where you put the emphasis will guide where you put the emphasis in your story. If I’ve packed sunscreen, I’m going to be looking for the sun. I’ll drive south, to the coast. If I know how much money I have I’ll plan ahead to make sure I can stretch it out, know where the cheap petrol stations are, good camping or luxury hotels.. The more I know before hand the more it will inform the decisions I make, no matter how much I believe I am open to change.

But as I said, I’m not sure it’s a choice. Lisa Cron wants us to put the emphasis on characters. I’ve yet to read a story where the characters, their wants and needs, behaviour and personality weren’t a defining factor. Not necessarily to the benefit of the work, and that probably comes down to things you’re not even aware of. If you naturally incline towards a fascination with character it will show in your work; you’re always looking for interesting attitudes, unusual relationships. If you like battles and magic systems, rich playboys or sexy werewolves, it will show not by lack of characters but in how they come across – and not everyone will have a problem with that. Recycled tropes are as popular as ever. Lisa herself cites 50 Shades of Grey as an example of how her method works, but there are some of us character writers who think its an example of how it doesn’t work, sales be damned.  Planning or pantsing will not change this, but it might indicate slightly which you are more likely to benefit from.

As a character driven writer I need to let the characters lead. A plot driven writer is more likely to stunt the development of her characters and I wonder if it’s because they’ve boxed themselves in with a plan? Take JK for instance, a planner. It was evident early on in the books that Harry and Ginny would end up together, yet by the time it happens, I wouldn’t have shipped them for all the gold in Gringotts.  She hadn’t given Ginny time to breathe or room to grow into an interesting character in her own right. It felt like ticking a box.

I can’t help but feel the approach we take is knitted into our mental makeup – the very reason I know many dislike thinking of it as a dichotomy. Yet I can’t dissuade myself from this idea that our attitude defines our work in myriad nuanced, even unseen, yet important ways. I don’t know what is going to happen until its happening, til I’m there living, breathing, fighting.

No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader. No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader ~ Robert Frost

Science has identified something known as the incubation effect, where creativity is fostered by a wandering mind. Ever get great ideas in the shower? Or taking the dog for a walk? These rote mechanical tasks free up our higher minds to make incredible leaps. Conversely when we try to force our focus we tend to follow well laid plans, the road already known. To take planning and pantsing to their absolute, I create as I write – or to be more specific as I type. This is my rote mechanical aid. While when I plan I sit thumbs twiddling, waiting for inspiration before I write a single word. Even there the attitude of the planner is defining, the emphasis always on the before. Before we write we must have something tangible, concrete in hand, fuelled by a belief that we cannot spin nothing into gold, cannot discover something that doesn’t already exist.

Maybe all writers need to believe enough to take that leap. Maybe that’s why every time, every story I think I got nothing.. until I start. I keep hoping it’ll get easier to trust I will always be able to unearth something, but thus far.. And sometimes I think that is the true lure of the plan. Writing is hard. Planning is naming spaceships and thinking about how much I really love my eccentric new android – he’s got a thing for cockroaches, so cute! – planning can very easily fall into procrastination. No matter how much stuff you accumulate the only thing that’s truly tangible is the writing. Until then you’re still in the before, facing a blank page.

I promised myself this wouldn’t turn into a plea to pants and its worth reminding myself that I love Harry Potter and never really liked King. And who can ever remember how his stories end?

As I said it’s a matter of listening to your bones. In my first ever drafts I got consumed with research to the point it was crippling and it distracted me from what I really wanted to write, what I believe is my strength: character dynamics. Likewise when you consider Tolkien it’s that world which has blueprinted an entire genre, the history, languages, geography and breath-taking scope that works. How much of this lies in planning and plotting? Martin is six books and thousands of words in and does anyone feel closer to a resolution? He, like King, has always struck me as a man who is exploring the nature of the darkness within us.

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It’s easy to read that as me condemning all plotters to the formula or action-heavy genres – which in itself isn’t a condemnation unless you’re not overly fond of reading it – but Joss Whedon, a man who puts huge emphasis on structure, can deliver larger than life personalities better than almost any screenwriter working today. He does however fall victim to trope-holes more than I suspect a man less inclined to plan would. I suspect it happens most when he is hemmed in not by his own creativity, however it comes to him, but other’s expectations.

I wrote down everything that I thought would be useful–what we hadn’t had enough of, what I thought had clicked, what we could improve–and also things that excited me about the second season. Once I had that memo out to the writers I felt like I was ready for anything. I wasn’t, but it was cute that I thought so ~ Joss Whedon

And that’s really how I’d like to leave it. The most important thing to remember when it comes time to try and figure out the best approach is to shake yourself free of any expectations, romantic notions of a real writer, wannabe’s selling you their latest four pronged, ten-horned, thrice guaranteed formula. Listen to you. There is room for every kind of writer, even bad ones. Thank god 😀

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