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Plotting vs Pantsing – it’s not either/or

Over the past year or so I’ve been gearing up to write a new novel, and I’ve had to rediscover my own writing process all over again. Writing The Alchemist of Souls took so long that I barely remember how I got from vague idea to first rough draft, and whilst the two sequels are very recent, they were written so fast it’s something of a blur!

If anything, writing The Merchant of Dreams and The Prince of Lies gave me a very misleading view of how I work. I assumed that because I was able to come up with an outline fairly readily and only needed a couple of drafts before it was ready to polish up and send to my editor, that this was the way it would go for all future books. Turns out, not so much.

Whereas on the sequels I was working with familiar characters and an ongoing plot, in this new project I’m starting from scratch. Not, admittedly, from a blank page like some true pantsers such as Stephen King, but whilst I have some characters and a setting, there are a thousand plot possibilities, a thousand places I could take them. And although I need a basic outline to prevent me from running out of steam, try as I might I cannot outline an entire novel in advance – at least not a first novel in a series. My creative right-brain only comes out to play when I’m writing prose – outlining is too left-brained and analytical, and hence liable to go astray if I try to do it before I’ve written anything. It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum: I need an outline to finish a first draft, but I can’t outline until I’ve spent time hanging out with the characters on the page. Aaargh!

I blogged about my struggles to pin down a plot last summer and autumn, but it wasn’t until today that the light bulb went on. This is the early, unpublished phase of my career all over again: piles of false starts but no finished novel. Back then I made the mistake of thinking that if I couldn’t get into a story after a couple of attempts, it was a lame idea and I should try something totally new. I now know that I should have persevered and explored all the plot possibilities before moving on – but what I didn’t realise until today is that the false starts are a vital part of the process for me as well.

Note that this is a different thing from Chapter One Syndrome, whereby a writer polishes and tinkers with a novel’s opening over and over instead of completing the draft and then revising. This is writing a first chapter and realising you don’t like the way the character has turned out or where the story is heading, and trying again with a new character or scene (or both). I’m not really bothered about the quality of the prose (and in any case it tends to be at least tolerable), but if the story isn’t working it has to go, regardless of how good the scene is.

This came to a head because for the past two weeks, my writing process has been:

  1. At the weekend, come up with a brief outline of the whole book, and a detailed outline for the first couple of chapters
  2. On Monday morning, fired with enthusiasm, start writing the first chapter
  3. By Tuesday or Wednesday, realise it’s not working for one reason or another, and grind to a halt

Rinse and repeat! I was just beginning to despair when I realised that this is a necessary stage for me. It only takes a few hours out of my weekend to throw together a new mini-outline and decide how the book is going to start, and only a few hours of writing to discover if it’s going to work. Better to do it that way than to labour over an outline for weeks or months and have it still not work.

So, next time someone asks if I’m a plotter or a pantser, I can honestly say “neither”. Or perhaps more accurately, “both”. And at the end of the day it matters not one whit how you write a book, as long as it gets written.

Comments

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Jacey Bedford

I’m a half-and-half, too. It’s usually the opening that comes first together with a vague idea of where I want the whole thing to go (and at this stage it is very vague). Sometimes I can get 20k words in before I sit down and think about the actual route to that vague ending. Occasionally new characters will crop up and derail my ideas completely and cause me to think again. If it’s going to be a series, of course that complicates matters even further. It’s an incredibly exciting stage of book development.

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Anne

I’m always a bit panicky that I’ll grind to a halt entirely if I stop at 20k – hence my flailing around trying to outline! I guess my ideal technique is probably:

  1. Rough outline
  2. Outline a chapter or two in detail
  3. Write them and see how it goes
  4. If all is well, repeat from Step 2.
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ChelSierra Remly

I’ve come across the very first book I’ve ever seen on ‘pantsing.’

Story Trumps Structure by Steven James

If there are others, I’d love a heads up. Thanks.

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Anne

Well, the NaNoWriMo “bible”, No Plot? No Problem! is definitely about pantsing, since that’s seen as the ideal (though now you’re “allowed” to outline, as long as you don’t write the actual prose).

However my recommendation would be for Plot and Structure, by James Scott Bell. It’s not purely about pantsing, but it does describe several different approaches, on a spectrum from pure plotter to pure pantser. It was the first book I came across that, instead of pushing the author’s preferred method, acknowledged that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to writing.

I guess the issue is that structured methods are far easier to write about. Pantsers find it much harder to describe their work methods because it all flows from the subconscious. So maybe On Writing by Stephen King would be another useful read if you want to know more about pantsing, though lacking the practical detail of other works.

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ChelSierra Remly

I forgot about Chris Baty’s book. I have all the books you’ve mentioned, plus “Ready, Set, Novel!: A Workbook.” I’ll be sure to group them together and read them back to back.

Thanks

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12590721-ready-set-novel

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ChelSierra Remly

Funny I never thought of those books as for pantsers. *shakes-head*

I also have books on outlining though, so I can learn it and have the knowledge for whatever route I may need, at whatever given time.

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ChelSierra Remly

I didn’t know where to put this, so decided I’d put it here:

I was looking through old files, and I opened a “Works 4.0 95/Works Word 97″ document to see what I’d find inside. (I always used Works instead of Office.) It opened up in WordPad, with nothing but jibberish. This I expected. I wasn’t concerned about this because I still have my desktop computer & the old software discs that can still open and read these files. So I have the ability to save them to “Works Suite Word 2003,” and that file I can open on the new laptop and save to “Office Word 2010.” (I believe I’ve already updated the old files to the latest software anyways and saved them to new files.)

Anyhoo, I got a pop up that said I had apps that I could use to open these types of files if I wanted, so I clicked on LibreOffice. And I got a ‘Read Only’ perfect file. No jibberish. And so I saved it as a new file that I could work in. I thought I’d share this information in case it would work for others too. (I also use “Publisher,” and have old files of it as well. LibreOffice will open those too. They will be in the ‘Draw’ section of the program.)

I wasn’t able to open the ‘Read Only’ LibreOffice file in Word 2010, but I could open the new file I had saved with LO. And I then saved it as a Word 2010 file. (It seems I didn’t save all of the old files to new files like I thought I had, so I will do that now that I can use LO to open and save them to a new file. Best to do that before LibreOffice is no longer able to open them, and before my desktop bites the dust.)

Hopefully others will be able to reopen old files they have sitting around, and hadn’t thought to update over the years.

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ChelSierra Remly

Both Draw & Impress can work with Publisher files. (In both OpenOffice & LibreOffice) There’s also Scribus. I only just downloaded it recently. I found when I imported Publisher files I couldn’t make any changes. If there is a way to do so, I haven’t discovered it yet. I’m thinking I might use it versus Draw/Impress to create newsletters, ebooks, etc. Calibre will convert a number of files into a large number of ebook formats. I’m searching to see if there is any other free product that is better with ebook conversions.

BTW: Feel free to share both of my comments on other sites.