Monday, June 20, 2011

Plotter Vs. Pantster: The Age-Old Dilemma

During the course of your writing career, especially when you're pre-published, you get a lot of writing advice (some of solicited, some not).  And one of the issues that splits many writers is plotting a novel out versus writing it by flying by the seat of your pants.  Aka, Plotter vs. Pantster.

I remember taking a workshop with the best-selling author Terry Brooks several years ago in which he spelled out his meticulous way of plotting out a novel before he ever writes a word.  I also remember thinking, "if I had to write a book that way, I would kill myself."  

I'm a Pantster by nature.  I like taking the journey of the characters and being surprised along the way.  I think plotting it all out takes out some of the fun.

But pantsing can also cause its own set of headaches.

When I wrote my first novel, which was a rather epic historical, I pantsed my way through it.  Of course, I was learning how to write a book, so there was bound to be a lot of revision anyway.  But when I finished the first draft, I had 750 pages that were an utter mess.  It then took me more than a year and a half (and the help of an independent editor) to shape it into something submittable.  

A lot of that time and work could have been avoided if I had given myself a road map to follow before spewing out 750 pages.  But when I started my next novel, another historical, I still hadn't learned this lesson.  That book remains unfinished because I never figured out where exactly it was going.

So when I started writing my next book, I plotted it all out before I had much written.  I had a complete scene list.  I knew exactly what I needed to write.

The problem was, I couldn't write it.

I had plotted it TOO much.  I was bored.  There was no spontaneity, no mystery, no freedom.  This book was the precursor to WINTER FALLS, which I had conceived as an historical novel.  When I realized that it needed to be a contemporary story, I decided not to plot it out, but write a rough draft (what I call, after Anne Lamott, a shitty first draft) in a set amount of time.  I gave myself four months, in which the last month I would do NaNoWriMo and write 50,000 words all in one month.

By the end of those four months, I had 80,000 words that I had written by the seat of my pants.  And writing it was FUN.  Then I put on my Plotter hat and used two different plotting methods to shape it into a submittable draft.  (Tune into Thursday's blog to find out more about those methods.)

Now I'm wearing my Plotter hat again to plot out both books two and three of The Benandanti Trilogy.  I think it's a good approach, but it's in reverse of how I usually work.  What I have to remind myself is that these outlines are written in sand.  That way I can allow for spontaneity and unexpected turns when I'm pantsing my way through the first draft.

I also find it helps me to free-write at least several thousand words before I can plot a book out.  That way, I have a feel for the characters, the story, the setting.  With books two & three of the Trilogy, that's not so much of an issue since I've been living with the characters and the setting for a long time already.

So no offense to Terry Brooks (whose work I adore), but meticulous plotting just doesn't work for me.  And neither does completely pantsing it.  I've found a way that combines both that seems to work.  Every writer is different.  It may take some trial and error (and 750 pages) to figure out what works for you.

1 comment:

  1. I have also come to a resigned acceptance that I need to plot. Originally I wanted to write fluidly with no constraints on my creativity, and like you, this gave me pages and pages of character development that went absolutely nowhere. And like you, I'm working on a trilogy, so plotting out the major conflicts and plot twists is pretty essential. But I agree--I get bored if I know exactly what's going to happen. No surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader!