Posts Tagged ‘Panters and Plotters’

Rant Alert! R E S P E C T – Have a little why don’t you?

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Today I was listening to an RWA workshop from a previous year. My jaw dropped when I heard the speaker say this (verbatim).

How many of you are pantsers? [Pause] You’re making the biggest mistake of your lives. Just gonna start with that. And if you are a pantser, what you need to do in terms of brainstorming is find somebody that’s going to help you do the 42 drafts of the book you’re going to have to write because you didn’t plan it out in the beginning. Pantsers invariably have a harder time of it because they have to do draft upon draft upon draft and then revision upon revision upon revision. My suggestion would be: plot your book. It’s a little faster that way.

When she was finished unloading on pantsers1, my first response was along the lines of F.U. only without the acronym.

I think it’s safe to assume that this woman is not a pantser.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a writer who works on the plotting side of the spectrum make such statements about pantsers. I don’t know where these particular folks are getting their facts. I suspect that they’re making an inference based on their results. They’re plotters so pantsing doesn’t work for them and, therefore, they ended up doing all those drafts and revisions because their writing style isn’t suited to seat of the pants writing. Or maybe they just don’t see the value in revision as a method.

The problem with her pronouncement isn’t just that she’s wrong in just about every way. I happen to know she’s wrong because I am, myself, a pantser. Not only is she wrong, but she certainly gives the appearance of being inflexible and close minded to the possibility that there is more than one way to end up with a publishable novel. She was disrespectful to every single writer for whom plotting does not work.

Let me state for the record that I have no problem with plotters or anyone who needs more structure in their writing process than I do. Hey, if it works for you, AMEN sister. I applaud you for discovering for you what gets the job done — for you. And I will never tell you that you need to give up your charts and outlines.

The only thing that matters is that a writer discovers what works for her. And that she respect what other writers have discovered about what they need to do to write.

By all means, offer and explain your process, especially to writers who haven’t reached a working process. I suspect we’re all looking for ways to improve and be more efficient. But don’t make the mistake of believing your way is the only one that works and that all other methods are mistakes. That’s insulting. And it closes your mind to things that might actually help you.

A little later in the presentation, this person remarks on the empty seats and says, All the pantsers have left.

Gee. I wonder why? Because maybe they were depressed and disheartened to hear they were wrong even though they may well have been struggling with plotting or perhaps even suppressing their seat of the pants tendencies because of wrong-headed claims like this. Or maybe they figured there was no point in listening to someone so close minded, because I assure you, at least some of those pantsers knew she was wrong.

She lost the opportunity to let curious and inquiring writers learn about another approach, parts of which may actually have been useful. I know if I’d been at the workshop, I’d have walked out too. Life is too short to sit around listening to someone tell me that I’m doing it wrong. Because, you know, the evidence suggests that I’m not doing it wrong. But neither is she, and therein lies the respect she lacked for others.

I respect her process. It works for her. Just for fun, let’s examine those disrespectful and incorrect statements from the point of view of a pantser:

  • Even if I were to write 42 drafts, I don’t need help writing them, thank you very much. But I don’t write 42 drafts. I actually usually have only one draft but I revise the living hell out of it until it’s not a draft anymore.
  • I don’t have a harder time because I’m a pantser. But I sure as hell had a harder time when I was trying to plot in advance.
  • I write my books in about 4 months. Now, I prefer to have more time, but so far I keep ending up with 4-5 month deadlines. And I meet those deadlines, pantsing the whole way.

I don’t think there’s a reader or editor in the world who cares about an author’s process. They care about the finished product and whether it’s any good. I also don’t believe it’s possible to tell from the finished product whether the author was a plotter or a pantser or something in between or even neither of those things.

How Plotting Failed For Me

Don’t think I haven’t tried plotting. I have. I really, really tried. Between 1989 and 1991 I wrote and published two books and I wrote them totally by the seat of my pants because I didn’t know how else to write. Or that, apparently, I was making the biggest mistake of my life.

From 1991 to 2002, I was unpublished. Why? Because I was trying to plot. At one point, I had a 50+ page outline (for my doorstop book). I wrote long character bios and filled out GMC charts and made lists and kept spreadsheets, and whenever my writing deviated from my master plan, I killed that dead and stuck to my plan.

Let me repeat the really important statement: During the period I was doing all the things plotters do, I was and remained unpublished.

Finally, I reached a point where I had to decide whether to give up writing — because eleven years is a long time to fail at something. But I didn’t want to stop writing. I wonder what would have happened to me if I’d heard that anti-pantsing statement at this point in my writing life? Because you know what I did?

I thought long and hard about the difference between what I was doing all that long and unpublished time and what I had been doing when I wrote two published books. And the difference between the two was that before, I followed my instincts. I looked at what was happening on the pages and went with that instead of what I’d plotted in advance.

Sure, I had outlines so I could keep track, but they were short. And when I read something in my work and had an inspiration about what was really going on in my book, I followed my instinct. To hell with my outline.

So I took my WIP and I tore that thing apart. I let go of all that advance plotting and I followed my instincts. I followed the thread of story that was interesting and unexpected and I deleted the stuff that wasn’t. I wrote in a kind of fugue state where I just fucking put the passion down on the page and flew without a net. And guess what?

Six weeks after I finished, the book sold.

I am a pantser. I can advance plot until the cows come home and it won’t help me. In fact, I know it will kill my story dead. I know it for a fact. Every book I have written since then has been seat of the pants. I have figured out the level of advance work I need to do, which, no surprise, tends to be minimal — but not none. I don’t plan more than three chapters ahead.

Right now, in my current project, I’ve been brainstorming and doing what if scenarios and keeping track of who’s who, what they look like and keeping a skeleton outline. Two days ago I started working on chapter 1 again (to refresh after RWA and ComiCon) and my heroine lost her ability to see. The words just ended up on the page. At that point, I was 14 chapters into the book — about 27,000 words. Early going.

I know, because I now pay close attention to such things, that this development deserved some thought. And I also know that her loss of vision never once came up in any of my advance work. I also know that I’d just hit on a very powerful theme for my story. And I’m now working it, layering and complexifying what it means for my heroine. As this theme develops, I will learn whether the loss of vision is permanent. I suspect it’s transitory in nature. I don’t need to work that out yet because the questions will resolve themselves as I develop what I have and forge ahead with more chapters.

I highly recommend that writers read Freud’s Introductory Lectures for a fascinating discussion and analysis of the role and function of the subconscious. It’s a far cry, by the way, from his suggestion that women have penis envy.

As for me, I don’t care if someone gets at the subconscious meanings of their stories before they’ve written a word or if they find it while they’re writing. What I do care about is whether others have respect for a process that isn’t theirs.

1. Panster: Someone who writes by the seat of her pants, that is, with minimal outlining and advance plotting. As opposed to a plotter, who does a good deal of plotting before the book gets written.