Saturday, August 27, 2016

You Can Be a Pantser And Still Know What's Going To Happen In Your Story

taxi, cars, people, backpack, hoodie, jacket, jeans, pants, street, road, city, night, evening, lamp posts, light, urban, drivingIf there had been room, the title of this post would actually have ended with...And You Can Be a Plotter And Still Be Surprised By Your Characters. But that's a bit, I don't know, unwieldy for a title. At any rate, both of those things are absolutely true.

I should stop here and explain for anyone new to writer blogs that a plotter is a person who plans out the whole plot of a story or book beforehand and writes according to the plan. The term pantser comes from the phrase flying by the seat of one's pants, or working by feel and instinct rather than a set plan. In travel, I'm a firm plotter. In writing, however, I'm a dedicated pantser.

Because of my proclivities, I can speak to the pantser end of the equation from more experience than the plotter side, but I have written shorter works in which I knew beforehand every scene that was going to take place and basically knew how they were going to work out. For instance, in "The Legend of the Tatted Battler" I had it completely plotted. I knew every single scene from beginning to end. To be fair, I did dream the whole story, but the one I wrote down was a lot more fleshed out than the one I dreamed. And I started the story knowing every character and every scene. Yet there were times when a character said something that popped up so spontaneously that I was learning it as I typed it. It's moments like that, which make writing a blast. By the way, you can read that story on my website by clicking here and going to "Other Writings."

On the other hand, I'm a firm pantser when it comes to my novels. Each scene I write leads me to the next scene. And when how I write a scene changes, it changes where the next scene will go. For instance, in my work-in-progress, I'm in the midst of writing about the heroine's first day of school. First thing in the morning, the teacher calls a young lady to the front of the class to be that day's leader for the Pledge of Allegiance. I had first envisioned this girl as EJ's nemesis, so to speak, and I was going to make her the class beauty. Kind of a Mean Girl. But suddenly she took over and morphed into an ugly duckling who was nonetheless completely comfortable in her skin. And instead of being the leader of the taunts on the playground, she was suddenly EJ's protector. And suddenly, EJ had a lifelong friend.

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All that being said, I still know exactly where my story is going to go. Do I know the specifics of every stop between Point A, the beginning of the story, and Point B, the end of the story? Absolutely not. But I darn well know where Point B is. I can tell you exactly what kind of person EJ is at the end of the story and how she became that person. So when I write a scene, I let it go where it wants, but if, in the process I realize that it's taking me in a direction I don't want, I have to stop and evaluate whether this detour is worth it and how I might make it back onto the track if I choose to keep going.

You may be thinking that this isn't a very efficient way to write. That it would be simpler to storyboard the whole thing and know how every single scene will go. That would, I admit, save a lot of time. In fact, it would save all the time because I would just not waste any time writing at all if that were how I had to do it. Part of the joy of writing is the sloppiness of it. The inefficiency of it. The wow-I-didn't-mean-for-that-to-happen-but-it's-amazing of it. In fact, it's most of the joy of it. It's way more joy than editing, I can tell you. Admittedly, it does lead to more editing than a plotter style would because allowing for spontaneous movement from scene to scene lends itself to plot holes, which means I can't skimp on the second draft. Or the third. Or even the fourth. I was still patching holes on the fourth revision of my last Shalan book. In fact, the chapter in which they visit Tony Bezaleel in prison was a really late addition, but one which brings a stronger resolution to the end of the story, in my humble opinion.

Every writer falls somewhere on this scale. Some are positively scientific and workman-like, doing all the heavy lifting in the outline phase, with the actual writing just a matter of putting meat on the bones that have already been assembled. Others, like me, are more free-form. I kind of think of it like being an archeologist. I muck around until I find something and then I dig it up and examine it. It's a dirty job, but it sure is fun when you find something neat.

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