Friday, May 23, 2014

Choosing to plot or pants

Deciding if you're a plotter or a pantser (short for seat-of-the-pants, or unplotted, writing) is a trial-and-error process. Doesn't matter how much research other people do, you'll have to do your own trying, and your own erring, to figure out which is better for you.

That's okay. Writing isn't a fast process. Authors write hundreds of thousands of words before they ever publish. Not all of these are novels, or things that are ever publicly shown--they might be journals, letters, fanfics, science papers, legal papers, school essays, or more. But it takes time to learn to write well. So if you're at the point of trying to decide which is best for you, don't be intimidated by the amount of writing you'll need to do. Like becoming good at a sport, writing a good book requires practice.

Everyone should try plotting, and everyone should try pantsing. Do it more than once. But I don't recommend writing 6 failed novels--try short stories, try character sketches, try roleplaying. Find out if you prefer performing improv or memorizing scripts. And know that most of us are happiest somewhere in between.

You'll do a lot of writing before you're ready for publishing. Much of it may happen while you're still a teen, or even a pre-teen. Or, it may all happen just after you've retired, or while you're struggling to balance single parenthood and a dead-end but secure job that has you in front of a computer, babysitting a seldom-used help desk and mostly just watching people sweat. No matter how it happens, no matter the reason we start, we all start the same--we start writing.

And find it's fun.

Then we try crafting. It's like writing, but it has intent. An idea. Sometimes we plot it from beginning to end, intending a masterpiece, and instead find ourselves holding a soulless abomination with all the first-effort pride it deserves. Other times we start from our hearts and pour out hundreds of hand-written pages with soulful, well-rounded characters and less plot than the average raisin, and find ourselves filled with all the first-effort shame it deserves. (Pride and shame are the concurrent souls of creation, and neither comes alone.)

After you've gotten your first efforts aside, try both forms, plotting and pantsing, more than once. Try them in different forms, be it the snowflake method, outlining, or notecards; be it barely-there outlines, flash fiction, prompt-of-the-day, or character backstories.

Interchange them. Experience will improve your writing quality, and if you do all one and then switch to do all the other, the other will inevitably begin to look better. But it won't tell you if the new method is really better for you.

So switch it up.

It's like a trip: Maybe you'll have more fun mapping out
your route first, or maybe you'd prefer  flying
as the wind takes you.
Write longer things. Write shorter things. Revise. You'll discover whether your hatred of revision outweighs your hatred of contrivance (and you'll do both before learn not to do them). You'll learn if you are capable of creating deep and intricate characters within the confines of a pre-set plot, or if your plot must evolve as you write to reflect the deep and intricate characters who refuse to be confined. Both are okay, but you'll find only one is true for you.

You'll know because the words come, if not easily (writing is almost never easy), then easier. You'll know because you'll spend slightly less time frustrated and slightly more time in that delightful zone of creation, where scenes pour from your fingers and you can barely be bothered to go back and correct minor typos, because there is so much more in your head and you must get it down.

That is where you belong. When you have chosen which you prefer, begin writing something longer. It doesn't have to be a novel, just something long enough to play with.

But you're not done yet.

Because all you have is a preference backbone. You have one thing that works. Write this piece, beginning to end, but add a little more of the technique you don't use. Lightly plot a chapter ahead if you're a pantser. Choose a single scene further in and set everything to work towards that goal. If you're plotter, give one scene only the bare-bones plot. Leave a section blank and fill it in at the end, no plot, no instructions.

Maybe that scene will be the hardest you've ever written. Maybe it will turn out badly, and you'll go back and redo it with your preferred method. But still, you need to try. Because most of us aren't fully one or the other, and if you don't try, you won't know.

And even after you've tried, and decided yes or no, still take time every now and then to learn more. Read an article every few months about a way different from yours. Don't be afraid to pepper in something different if you're stuck.

But now, now you know if you're a plotter or a pantser. Now you can start writing that book you wanted. Now you know which method is best for your creative process.

Just don't be surprised if it slowly changes over time. You'll change, too. You'll keep learning. Even after sitting on the New York Times Bestseller list for a year, you'll still be learning, and still be changing.

But now you know where to start.

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