On this blog and others you will often encounter discussions about different writing approaches, the general idea being that writers are either “pantsers” or “planners.” That is, some of us prefer to let our fingers lead us into the unknown (flying by the seat of our pants, so to speak), while others like to map out the story ahead of time so we can fill in the details systematically and let the tale fall into place as we go.
Each method has upsides and downsides. Pantsers are likely to get their projects up and running much faster, and, unbound by a preplanned route, they may find themselves going in unexpected, creative directions. On the other hand, they can write themselves into a hole and end up deleting a lot of promising material simply because it’s in the wrong story. Pantsers are at greater risk of continuity mistakes as well.
Planners are less likely to lose track of the story, and they can build more comprehensive, multidimensional worlds. They can also write with less anxiety, knowing that they are executing a sound game plan. But they might be oblivious to exciting story opportunities because their maps only show one road. If a planner is also a procrastinator, she can put chapter one on hold forever while she creates character bios, histories, and so on.
Rather than being two distinct extremes that exist in mutually exclusive worlds, though, these writing approaches lie on each end of a scale. I suspect most of us employ a method somewhere closer to one than the other, but with elements of both.
As I’ve mentioned here in the past, I consider myself a pantser, though I prefer the term “blank pager,” which makes me sound less like a sexual deviant. I also reported recently that I have begun composing a novel based on a three-word phrase that randomly appeared in my mind.
Of all the fiction I’ve ever written, this project is turning out to be the blank pagiest. What I mean is that I have no plan whatsoever. I just started by typing that three-word phrase and hit the gas pedal. Now ideas are spilling out from the fog of my subconscious faster than I can record them. Events are unfolding on my monitor screen as if I am merely a spectator detached from the hands that type the words. The unbridled spontaneity is invigorating my –
→ INSERT “TURNTABLE NEEDLE SCREECHING ACROSS A RECORD” SOUND EFFECT HERE ←
Have you ever taken a wrong turn and come face to face with a “road closed” sign? It’s happened to me twice: Once in Philadelphia (what’s with the bad street markings in that town?), and again this week when I introduced a bunch of new characters and a scenario into my novel that, I admit upon reflection, ran the whole thing into a ditch.
Days one and two of writing went swimmingly (if one considers the limited amount of time I have to write). Then, on day three, I was reminded of the pitfalls of blank-page writing when I took that wrong turn. For the rest of last week, I couldn’t get enthused enough to work on my project, but I didn’t yet realize why.
Sometimes you need to ruminate on things. Like when you think you’re mad at someone for a one reason, until a few days pass and then you have that “a-ha” moment, discovering you are actually upset about something entirely different (typically, your anger says more about you than about the person who pissed you off). A similar thing happened here, only I wasn’t mad, just uninspired… Until my a-ha jumped out and told me I had taken a wrong story turn.
So on Friday night, I opened my laptop, highlighted the offending pages without even looking at the words contained therein, and hit backspace… Goodbye new characters and events. Enjoy oblivion. No, you will not be paid if you do not appear in the finished novel. Get a better agent if you don’t like it.
Then I picked up where I’d left off, whacked away at the keys for several hours, and ended up improving my existing characters and storyline and giving everyone more depth and motivation. I’ll probably make more mistakes as I go, but at least I’ve got my mojo back, and I’m on the right road this time. I think. Such are the risks you take as a pantser.
Other than getting arrested on the subway for public indecency.
So how about you? Whether you are a “pantser” of a “planner,” or, as I prefer, a “blank pager” or an “outliner,” do you have any horror stories or tragedies about characters you had to fire or painful rewrites you had to make? Do share.
Today I talked about an “a-ha” moment I had with my current writing project. Here was another A-Ha moment, way back in 1985: