Friday, July 24, 2015

Planning by the Seat of my Pants


If you’ve spent any time reading the inner musings of novelists then you know there are essentially two types of writers – pantsers and planners.

To define each, a pantser is someone that flies by the seat of their pants and writes whatever comes to them in the moment their fingers hit keys while a planner meticulously details a full outline of each book and sticks to it through the end.

Which is better? As far as I’m concerned either way is terrific if it works to produce a quality piece of fiction.

Me?

To the tune of the Osmonds: I’m a little bit pantser, a little bit plan it out. But to fully understand how that’s possible, let me share a bit of my writing process.

Outline pantser

When I sit down to start working on a new book I think about the characters, the basic plot and some of the scenes. I’ll start writing and maybe come up with one or two gems that stick around but at the beginning all I really try to do is figure out what the characters are trying to say and why they do what they do.

In other words, I am an outline pantser.

An outline can be a great tool while working on a book. Consider how many characters there might be in a piece of fiction. Then how many personality traits each of those characters have. How many places they go, things they do, moments they have that push the story forward.

Those little nuances are what give a book a feeling of completion, fullness.

But I couldn’t possibly plan for those moments, sometimes spontaneity is crucial to a story so it feels organically birthed and not contrived.

The first 25 or so pages I write will work toward developing a story. One that isn’t real yet but is on its way. Meaning that I haven’t spent enough time with the characters yet to understand their motivations or background.

Think of it like this: you get invited to a dinner party but know no one other than the host. Could you tell me what will happen at the end of the night before you even arrive? (If you can then you might be a planner!)

Likely, the answer is no.

What might happen at the end of the night only becomes apparent after a glass of wine, some food and dialogue among your peers. A book is the same thing with the only difference being it all comes out of your head.

Planning plot points

That’s the point where things get interesting for me as a writer. After meeting and getting to know all my characters in a pantsy way, I start to dwell on the good and evil sides of their personalities.

After all, I write mystery fiction. Which means every character in the book will have something to hide as well as the face they put on for the general public around them. Good guys aren’t always 100% good people, just like killers aren’t always 100% evil.

But once I have a general idea about who those characters are, because of the handful of pages I write to work it out, that’s when I can get down to the planning phase.

In the past I mentioned my novel journal where I make notes of the various aspects in my book. That journal is a direct result of caution-to-the-wind pantsing (and yes, I’m using this as a verb, sue me). The cast is established, motivations of the killer/victim/observers are clear and the setting established.

Then I can take that info and start building scenes because, like a game of chess, I can now see three moves into the future.

The moments that make a book special are the ones that seem to spontaneously appear on the page though, the unexpected things that turn a corner or change a reader’s perception of a character.

All that stuff comes with pantsing an outline.

They surprise me in a good way and then I work hard to fit those surprises into the greater structure of the story as a whole.

Some make it, some don’t, but all of that early work has merit because it gets you closer to your character’s inner motivations.

But I don’t get bogged down

To be a pantser means writing stream of consciousness and not caring much about how it will fit. Because, to be a pantser also means you understand how much editing you’ll be doing later, regardless if there’s a solid outline or not.

For me, to embrace being a pantser means to just keep writing. Even when I encounter things that trip me up.

For example, a new character can be confusing at times. I’m just getting to know them so sometimes I can’t name them until more of their “self” shines through.

In that instance I use brackets and come back to the issue later. Sometimes not until the end of editing the first draft! Here’s how that might read as I pants my outline:

I looked out the driver’s side window at this twenty year old kid in front of me. He was average height and build and his fancy nametag read [VALET NAME] but all I could think of was that episode of Friends where Ross bleached his teeth. The kid’s smile had to glow in the dark.

How I do it:
  • Use the bracketed label in the story as I write
  • Immediately note down the character and bracketed info in my journal (for reference)
  • Use the same label throughout the book
  • Take advantage of Word find/replace when the name comes to me
  • Note the name in the journal (for future reference)


So, as you can see, I feel there’s a lot of merit in both styles of writing and I use both in the crafting of my books.

Which do you use? Do you do a little of both, like me, or does your writing tend to lean one way or the other?



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