Wednesday, September 21, 2011

writing: on plotting and pants

Back in 2003, I wanted to write a book.

I had an idea. I had a title.

A really, really clever title.

And I wrote exactly one paragraph and then froze up for six years.

SIX. YEARS.

Why?

Because I didn't know how to start.

And I was terrified that I would somehow do it wrong.

If 2011 me were to give one piece of writing advice to 2003 me, this would be it.

Before you write, figure out if you're a plotter or a pantser.

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So they say there are two ways of writing: goodly and badly.

Just kidding.

Really, it's PLOTTING vs. PANTSING.

That means that you either plot out your entire story first or just write by the seat of your pants.

So how do you know whether you're a plotter or a pantser?

Look at your grocery list.

Is it a fill-in-the-blank computer list of things you always buy? Is it in store-order, numbered, or based on a cleverly organized system of couponing and moon cycles?

In short, is it precise and well-planned?

If so, you are probably a plotter.

That means that before you start typing IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT, you should sit down and hammer out an outline. Knowing the direction of your story will help provide the structure you need to relax and let the words flow. Give it a skeleton, and then just fill in the blanks in the correct order. First this happens, then this, then this.

Maybe you like the whole I. A. i. a. 11th Grade English Paper Outline thing. Or perhaps you like regular old numbers. Or graphs. Or spreadsheets. Or a whiteboard. Or a series of index cards or Post-It notes all around the room. Choose your poison and start plotting. And if you still want to hammer out that first paragraph, go ahead and hammer it out. Save it. And forget it.

Then finish your outline, plotter.

On the other hand, maybe your grocery list started with HONEY, because you're out of honey. Then you added SOCKS and BATTERIES and RED MILK, which isn't communist, just whole fat. Maybe you have to cobble your grocery list together from two receipts and a bookmark in the bottom of your purse. Maybe you've written the pertinent items on your arm with a Sharpie.

Maybe it's not so much a grocery list as a compilation of crap held together by random threads of memory and hunger.

If so, you might be a pantser.

I'm a pantser myself. I start a document and write everything I can think of. Scenes I envision. The end of the book. Character points. Whatever. All in random order, in big chunks. I thunk in URLs and definitions and bits of dreams and songs.

And as other points come to me, I write them on receipts or in notebooks or on my arm. I add them into the info-chunk portion of the document, embellishing or deleting as needed. But the process isn't organized at all. It's organic and flowy, with plenty of room to move things around or have interesting sidebars.

And when I have enough chunks, I start writing.

Eventually, if history proves anything, I have a book.

*

Is that all?

Of course not. Don't be silly.

But I think that discerning my method really helped the first book come out. Knowing how to work freed me up to actually work and not feel like the novel was a huge, amorphous, terrifying beast that I would never master. I looked at those chunks of story and finally realized that they all added up to a book that I very much wanted to write.

Plotting and pantsing are simply your way to a first draft.

And the first draft, as we all know, is just the beginning.

*


5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think the sequel to your book should be called "There Will Be Blud".

delilah, the unruly helpmeet said...

Or Blud Money.

Anonymous said...

Have you considered "Blud Meridian?" I'd read that.

You have plans on the last Wednesday night in October. Be prepared to drive on the interstate.

delilah, the unruly helpmeet said...

Can't we just go back to that dog bar with your dog? I liked the dog bar.

linda said...

Great advice! I'm pretty sure I'm a plotter, even though I never did much with outlines before. I'm hopeful that writing a first draft will be easier for me now that I'm planning ahead!