Sunday, August 30, 2009

Writing pt 2: Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?

So you’re ready to write. You’ve got your computer on and a blank Word page in front of you.

Now what?

Well, first you have to understand what kind of writer you are. Are you a pantser or a plotter? Do you write by the seat of your pants—just sit down and write what comes to you—or do you have to figure EVERYTHING out before you can begin to write your first word?

Most people are somewhere between the two extremes, or if they’re like me, they find themselves sliding from different spots on the scale depending on where in the book they are.

I’m basically a plotter. I gots to have me a hard, definite plot in mind at some fairly early part of the writing. I ALWAYS know how the book will end. (And yet I know a few people who NEVER know how it ends!) I usually have a scene or two in my mind. Then all I have to do is figure out how things got that way, how those scenes come about, etc.

For example, on my current wip (that’s “work in progress”) I knew that the end sequence would involve our plucky heroine strapped on the outside of a spaceship as it barreled through hyperspace. I knew that the midpoint (that’s a big Turning Point in your book which amazingly enough occurs smack in the middle) would involve zero-gravity sex. And, oh yeah, I wanted the action to take place on a space station of some kind because you almost never see space stations in sci fi and I wanted to be Different.

It took me a very long time to build a book around that. Very, very long time. Extreeeemely long time. (The fact that I’m a procrastinator helped the delay.) (And this was going to be my "how fast can I write a book?" experiment, too!) I’ve only recently figured out many of the finer details, but everything fits together now and it’s just a matter of correcting what’s been writen already and adding some bridge material between some scenes. And then a few dozen rewrites just to make sure it’s perfect.

So I had a couple of ideas before I wrote the first word. I know people who don’t. Not anything. They sit down and possibly spirit channel for all I know to get those words on the page.

And some of them succeed marvelously!

I also know a published writer who has to have a detailed outline of EVERYTHING that happens in the book before she begins. That outline is over twenty pages long! She follows it word by word. If I had to operate that way I'd go raving insane.

A lot of pantsers are character-driven. I really hate to say this, as I’m a plotter and all, but... wait, let me put this in bold:

Character is MUCH more important than plot.

You can have weak plot if you’ve got strong characters, but the opposite doesn’t work, no matter how many flashy explosions you add to things. Think about your favorite books and movies. What do you recall the best? The special effects and cool theories, or the colorful characters? Ah ha!

We who are weak at characterization just have to work harder at it, that's all.

If you have a character before you start to write your book you know their strengths and weaknesses. You can work with them to figure out what’s going to make their weaknesses so dominant that they’re going to face an almost insurmountable problem and will have to change, to build upon their strengths, maybe even find the positive points within their weaknesses, in order to survive. (Hint: read a book about enneagrams to find out the major weaknesses-strengths combos.)

Many years ago I discovered the Plot Doctor. She’s got a website at , and her forms and process build off a seminal writing book called GMC: Goals, Motivation and Conflict, by Debra Dixon.

The Doctor had a sheet with a chart that had the turning points and important moments of a novel’s structure listed on it. You filled these in, and voila! You already had a lot of scenes figured out and could see the general flow of your book.

If you were a plotter, you could figure out your characters by what they needed to be to function within those scenes, and how they best faced conflict. If you were a pantser/character-driven, you first filled out a chart about your characters and what kind of conflicts they were up against, and thus could figure out your plot points.

You don’t have to have the Plot Doctor to show you these plot points. I just finished Save the Cat, by the late Blake Snyder, and he’s got a list of ‘em with different names on his “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.” He calls his “Big Black Moment” the “All is Lost” moment, but his Midpoint is still the Midpoint. It’s on page 70 of his book.

Read his book, too. It’s entertaining reading and concerns screenwriting instead of novel-writing, but just about everything he says can be applied to your book.

So how do I write? Well, I begin with what I know: hyperspace scene, zero-g sex scene, space station. Then I think. I can’t have that hyperspace scene unless there are spaceships in the picture, so maybe my space station is some kind of space port where ships come in a lot.

I remember the space station from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It looked like a gigantic wheel spinning in space to create a false kind of gravity. At the center of this wheel is a zero-g zone (gravity increases the farther you get from the center). So that’s where the sex scene will take place.

But how did my heroine get to this space station? Why, I bet it wasn’t her idea. Maybe she was even kidnapped by aliens. No, by a sexy hunk of a guy, yeah.

For some reason the Scarlet Pimpernel came to mind, so Sexy Hunk was going to be British and operate under a secret identity deal. Which meant he was a spy or freedom rider or some such. He lived adventure every day.

Which to me meant that my heroine didn’t so she would contrast to him. She was an everyday shlub, working to provide food on the table and a roof over her head. Say, she’s been kidnapped. Put into a completely alien environment, no other humans around (okay, that changed a tiny bit). How does she survive Out There? Surely her number-one goal would be to get back home, but... what if she decided she liked it on the station?

And what if Our Sexy Pimpernel did not?

Then I had to come up with a threat menacing enough that Our Hero would be involved in stopping it, and Our Heroine would be obsessed with stopping it, but from another direction. Everyone's lives would be on the line because of the threat...

But this came after a lot of thinking. Then I’d sit down and write what I thought I had, then write on from there into unknown territory until I got stuck and had to come back to reassess the plot.

Restructure. Rewrite. Write from seat of pants. Restructure. Etc. etc etc until the first draft is done.

After that (and not before) you’ll discover what your book’s Theme is. This will be a statement of how the world works that you’ll want to bring out. It could be “True Love Conquers All” or “Illegal Immigration is Bad” or "Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day," or something, and the beginning of your book will pretty much state it outright. Then the rest of the book will be either proving or disproving this statement. You’ll be surprised at how much depth a theme can add to a book. You know when you’ve read a book that the author has taken the time to define and refine their theme. It’s ever so much more satisfying.

During all this postulating and stuff, your characters are going to go through what is called an “arc.” This means that they will change. Joe will have discovered that he truly can settle down with just one woman by the end of the book. Jill will discover that she does indeed have enough courage and skills to slay the dragon that’s been menacing her village.

So it’s okay to be a pantser OR a plotter OR someone in between OR someone who fluctuates from one to the other. Everyone has their own way of writing.

Your job is to discover what works best for YOU.


Beth Caudill said...

I'm a panster and I'm in character. But I hate filing in those little sheet thingies. I know it will be help me in the long run...I mean with so many characters how else will you remember your hero has gray eyes other than searching through a bazillion pages. But still very annoying to worry about his favorite color and other stuff. Ugg. That is the most difficult part for me the characters.

Carol A. Strickland said...

I always thought that pantsers were character-driven writers. Guess there are exceptions to every rule, hm?

I've got a foamboard chart propped up next to my computer with gingerbread-shaped cardstock people velcroed to it. Each person is a different character in the book. Whenever I write something specific, like gray eyes, I lean over and scribble on whoever's gingerbread self. That way I don't have to flip through pages to find the right chart, or concentrate for an hour on "things I need to remember about this character." I can always transfer everything at some point from the gingerbread people to a chart for a more permanent record, as in when I'm working on a series and the character reappears.