Monthly Archives: February 2014

Two Writers Debate: Pantsing vs. Plotting

Janna (L) and Eric (R). There's no debate about which one eats more Dunkin' Donuts.

Janna G. Noelle (L) and Eric John Baker (R). There’s no debate about which one of these two eats more Dunkin’ Donuts.

Only two approaches to writing exist: Good and Bad. Write good. Debate over!

Hold on a sec. That’s not what this post is about. This post is a point-counterpoint between two WordPress bloggers arguing the merits of two distinct writing methods, pantsing (freeform writing) and plotting (writing from an outline).

Read on as right-brained, right-coast writer Eric John Baker argues in favor of pantsing (at least we hope that’s what happens… he is making it up as he goes, after all), followed by left-brained, left-coast writer Janna G. Noelle making a case for plotting, probably with all kinds of charts and graphs and stuff.

No matter how ugly and violent it gets, they promise to return you home in time for tea and biscuits!

~~~

Plotting. Pantsing. Marching. Dancing.
By Eric John Baker

I’m not much of a dancer. Stepping this way and that, being graceful, weaving a pattern not immediately apparent. Can’t do it.

Walking a straight line is easier. But walking only brings me to a predetermined destination, whereas dancing can send me places far more mysterious and wonderful: Joy. Surrender. The coat closet for a snog with my dance partner (come on, all that eye contact and bodies touching… it’s nature). If only I knew the moves.

Writing is like dancing in that way. Plotter or pantser, I’m sure you’ll agree: You have to understand composition before you can write well. Until you reach that level, outlining is probably necessary. Once you’ve mastered mechanics, though, maybe not so much.

Outlining seems smart and efficient; it helps you keep track of settings, characters, and events. You know exactly where you are, eyes straight ahead, sight set on your ending.

You know what else is efficient? A pair of handcuffs. And what would we do without lines painted on the road, telling us where we can and cannot drive the car? I’d say outlines are the law enforcement of the writing world.

I used to outline my fiction, scene by scene, and I never crossed the double-yellow lines. Sure the outcome was boring and predictable but, um… I stayed true to my outline! I got to type “The End” exactly when I planned as well.

You see, once the outline was in place, my creative brain shut down. It was all about mechanics after that. The regions of my mind that encourage me to poke a dead jellyfish with a stick or to intentionally alight at the wrong bus stop or to ask, “I wonder where that road goes?” had gone dark. Any reader could guess where my stories were going, because I was telegraphing the conclusion.

Then, one day, I came across the term “blank-pager” in a writing book, though most writers call it “pantsing.” Inspired, I took a (boring and predictable) short story of mine and rewrote it, reusing only its concept and main character. I ended up with a 70,000-word novel, and it was the most fun I ever had writing. I bet any reader would say, “I didn’t see that coming,” at least a dozen times. How could they? I didn’t see it coming either. I spilled seeds as I went, and by the end, I had grown a garden of twists, hidden identities, and red herrings. Fact: my conscious mind could not have generated such ideas in advance. I know, because I had already written the same story with an outline and it failed.

I don’t actually like the word “pantser.” It sounds like a person no one wants to sit next to on the train. For my own reasons, I prefer “phone ringer,” but today I’ll stick with the more popular term because it rhymes with “dancer,” and that was seed enough to grow this argument, sans outline.

Keep Your Story In Line With An Outline
By Janna G. Noelle

I’ve heard just about every explanation for why pantsers don’t outline their stories:

  • It hinders creativity
  • Knowing how a story’s going to end ruins the fun of actually writing it
  • Plotters are rigid, unimaginative, their work is soulless, and they have cooties
  • Creativity is a transcendent process wherein a story’s true essence only emerges when permitted to spring forth unfettered in ecstasy of inspiration, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Or at least the first 30,000 words of true essence.

Yeah, I said it.

30,000 seems to be the magic number where many pantsers’ journeys of discovery comes up short, and unsurprisingly, they realize they’ve run out of plot.

This is unsurprising because of nature of that which pantsers are trying to freestyle. A story isn’t an organic, right-brained, boundless entity; it’s contrived, structured, and logical. No matter how simultaneously beautiful.

Of  course  there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Of course there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Nothing that occurs in a story is just ‘coz. Everything needs to fit together in a causal chain of events that points toward an inevitable (though not necessarily predictable) ending.

If the middle of a story is saggy, it’s because it wasn’t set up well enough in Act One.

If a story’s ending is weak, it’s not a problem with the last chapter, it’s a problem on page 127.

In no other endeavour would someone leave the creation of a highly structured entity to a vague impression of how to do it coupled with chance.

If you were building a house, or a business, or a garden, you’d be all too willing to draw up a blueprint, a business plan, or a list of what actually grows in your region lest you plant bananas in the Northwest Territories.

If Eric decided to drive to Vancouver, BC to have this debate with me in person, he wouldn’t just head north in the general direction of Canada (at least I hope he wouldn’t, especially since Vancouver is northwest of New Jersey!)

Rather, he’d want much more detail of where the road ahead actually leads: some timely hints from the British GPS lady, plus a supplementary map of some navigable scale showing every major junction along the way.

Because an outline is map in the truest sense of the word: a representation of everything between here and there to help you not get lost in your own plot.

It’s not a set itinerary you’re beholden to follow. It’s not a prison sentence. You can take your story in a different direction any time you want.

You probably will, for when have you ever had something go 100% according to plan? Even President Eisenhower recognized this:

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

An outline will keep you moving in right direction, providing a reference if you wander too far off the beaten path. It’ll also likely save you a few drafts of backfill and the risk of growing sick of your novel before it’s fully completed.

And in this way, rather than hinder a writer’s creativity, plotting actually sets it free to explore and discover the full range of possibilities within the story you’re actually trying to tell.

~~~

There you have it, writers. The battle lines have been drawn (most likely by a plotter; they’re big on setting parameters up front). So where do you stand in this debate? Squarely inside the plotters’ outline? Over there somewhere with that bunch of pantsers gathered sorta together but sorta not because they’re free spirits, you know?

Somewhere in between?

And more importantly: which of us do you think will be the dirtier fighter if this degenerates into a back-alley brawl? All bets are on!

~~~

 Hey, gang! Check out Janna’s cross-post on her excellent writing blog, A Frame Around Infinity.

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What do you write and why?

Writing is like figure skating: A mix of creativity, discipline, and sweat. But it's not as pretty to watch.

Writing is like figure skating: A mix of creativity, discipline, and sweat. But it’s not as pretty to watch or as hard on the knees.

We only have so much time to write and so much energy to devote to each project. I know many of you can relate, because you blog about it.

This week I’ve begun pushing myself to work on my novel. Yay me! Unfortunately, I have finite writing mojo, which means that I am too lazy to come up with an insightful post tonight. My mental energy went to the novel. Fortunately, I have you, so I am going to put you to work!

Please, in the comments, tell me what you write and why you choose (or are compelled) to write it. The “what” is up to you. It can mean poetry, fiction, or non-fiction or even blogging. It can be genre, like Romance or Haiku or Personal Essay; as long as it’s writing and it’s for creative expression. Shopping lists don’t count because I know why you write those. Duh.

The WordPress comment processor, bolted to the wall at WP headquarters is Greenland. Note the spam filter just below the three combobulators.

The WordPress comment processor, bolted to the wall at WP headquarters is Greenland. Note the spam filter just below the three combobulators.

I’ll go first:

What: I write fiction that falls in the general category “speculative,” typically thought to include horror, science fiction, fantasy, and supernatural. If the description “twilight zonish” resonates with you, then you probably have a good sense of my material.

Why: I enjoy speculative fiction for the freedom it offers. I can set a story anywhere in the universe, or even outside the universe. I can change the rules of physics. I can go anywhere, anytime, and do anything. At the same time, I can and often do keep it very close to reality. An odd coincidence in an otherwise ordinary setting and situation is enough to set a character on a strange journey, physical or metaphorical or both. I’m a sucker for a surprise ending or a twist as well, and the possibilities for such in speculative fiction are limitless.

There; that was easy. You don’t have to be so long-winded if you don’t want, or you can post a gigantic comment and text the very limits of WordPress’s comment processor. You take it from here…


My Wish List for The Walking Dead – Season 4B

I’d warn you that this post contains spoilers, but, for cryin’ out loud, you have had two flippin’ months to catch up on The Walking Dead. Do you expect the whole world to grind a halt while you shuffle around aimlessly like… well, you know… a zombie, expecting that someone will eventually traipse along to pin your eyelids open and make you watch the darn thing? Frankly, I’ve had it up to here with you and your sense of entitlement!

Right.

TV’s #1 drama without an acronym for a title returns from hiatus this Sunday, February 9 to begin the back 8 episodes of season 4. When last we left Rick and gang, their prison compound was wiped out and overrun with walkers, and the band of bloodied and broken survivors had scattered in different directions, cut off from each other and alone. The action-packed mid-season finale set up what promises to be the most harrowing circumstances the group has faced yet.

As much as I love this show, I’ve long thought it could be improved in a few areas. They did fix one problem in season four, but I’d like them to address a couple of others, all of which is handily summarized in this wish list:

walking dead 4

1. Continue structuring the story so that it sustains momentum.

The six-episode debut season of The Walking Dead was pure cinematic nihilism. We met the characters, they were swept up in a maelstrom of apocalyptic terror, and they reached their journey’s end, only to have all their destination (and accompanying hopes) go up in a massive fireball. It was relentless and epic, partly because you can be relentless and epic when you only have to sustain the story for a little over six hours.

Then they doubled the episode output for season 2 and… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Those zees are not for “zombie.” They represent snoring. You can’t have 13 episodes of unrelenting epicness because it’s unsustainable, but sticking your characters on a farm and setting up a tedious love triangle with an irritating, unlikable shrew at the center is hardly the answer. Season 2 was a study in inertia punctuated by a couple of brilliant episodes that recalled – and sometimes exceeded – the dramatic intensity of the first season. Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the overall story arc was a letdown.

Season 3, which was about Rick’s gang vs. the Governor’s gang, was a vast improvement over 2 and far more suspenseful, but it suffered from a number of pointless episodes leading up to a pretty underwhelming climax, and a dearth of zombies.

Hooray for new Executive Producer Scott Gimple, then, who finally brought momentum back to the show in season 4A. Instead of having the characters stand around and manufacture their own problems out of stupidity, season 4 introduced external threats such as plague, a new, bigger horde of zombies, and the return of the Governor, this time with tanks. The story kept moving because choice was taken away from the characters. They had to act or die. Let’s hope the writers keep it going the rest of the way.

michonne

2. Do something with Michonne.

The Walking Dead, as most of you know, is based on a comic book, and by far the most comic book-eque character is the sword-wielding Michonne, who is a bit like a superhero compared to the rest of them. The problem is, after introducing her at the end of season 2, she has had almost nothing to do but scowl and decapitate zombies. We want to know more about her! Who is she? Where does she come from? Why is she pissed off all the time? How come she never changes her clothes? Inquiring minds, people.

Hershel

3. No more melodramatic, heroic speeches.

Between Rick and Herschel, I’ve had enough pseudo-inspirational speeches about the human spirit, representing the better part of ourselves by forsaking violence, the importance of working together, and the true meaning of leadership to last five zombie apocalypses. Whenever I see the others standing in a circle with Rick or Herschel at the center playing reluctant, yet earnest, orator, I get up for a chips-and-salsa refill. It’s like an episode of 7th Heaven with zombies instead of teen angst. I realize I’m in the tiny minority here, but… Sayonara Herschel. You sure gave a great reluctant speech. But now that you’re dead… let’s go shoot us some zombies!

 


I wish they would name big storms after 1970s TV sitcom characters

How do you get the “storm naming” job at U.S. Weather Command? By being boring?

George and Weezy

George and Weezy

As someone who has recently endured hurricanes Irene and Sandy and winter storms “whatever,” “I forget”, and, last night, “Nika,” shouldn’t I have some say in what they’re called? Assuming you said yes, I propose naming storms after something beloved the world over; something that evokes the innocence of an earlier, sweeter, by-gone age (provided one overlooks the gas shortages, the Vietnam War, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the spread of STDs, Three Mile Island, rampant cocaine abuse, genocide in Cambodia, and the Bee Gees): The 1970s sitcom character.

Potsie

Potsie

Wouldn’t all the power outages, floods, and closed airports go down a little easier if Hurricane “Horshack” were the culprit? Who can stay mad at a weather event named after that knucklehead from Welcome Back Kotter? And let’s go with Typhoon “Weezy” next time one of those monsters rolls around the Pacific wreaking havoc. You wouldn’t mind cleaning up after Louise Jefferson. She’s practically family!

I forget what they called Monday’s storm, but I’m hereby renaming it Winter Storm “Potsie.” Potsie Weber, of Happy Days fame, was a big, likable goof, always bounding around in a happy-go-lucky fashion and never taking life too seriously. With that psychological frame around it, who doesn’t want a big heap of snow and a day off from school, eh kids?

Last night’s snowy, sleety rerun, erroneously dubbed “Nika” by the powers that be… well, it pretty much names itself, doesn’t it: “Rerun,” after the beloved comic-relief character and second-best bud to Roger “Raj” Thomas (no one could ever replace Dwayne as Raj’s pal #1. Hey HEY Hey) on What’s Happening? from 1976 to 1979. Plus-sized Rerun danced his way into TV viewers’ hearts in the late ’70s, and we’ve loved him ever since. Now don’t we all feel better about that &^%$#^ storm yesterday?

Free storm names for the taking:

Hurricane “Hot Lips”

Winter Storm “Stubing”

Typhoon “Murray the Cop”

Tropical Storm “Meathead”

Blizzard “Fish” [also available as a band name]

Superstorm “Roper”

I can do this all day, so you’d better stop me now. By the way, I’m being like other bloggers for once  and posting my own pictures, except mine are rubbish. These were taken from the sidewalk outside my apartment two nights ago with an 8-year-old Kodak digital camera, which isn’t equipped for night shooting, so stop complaining. Winter Storm Potsie, post plowing:

snow 003

snow 002

snow 011