October 30, 2015

Writing Methods

There's this idea that two methods of writing exist, plotting and pantsing (flying by the seat of one's pants). Plotters outline the whole story in advance, potentially in great detail, then write a first draft that follows the outline. Pantsers begin writing with no plan and discover the story in the process of writing it, knowing they'll revise later to make everything fit together better. Often these two strategies are discussed with the suggestion that any given writer is one type or the other.

As with most dichotomies, the reality is more of a spectrum. Plenty of plotters expect to adjust or even ignore their outlines once they start writing and think up new ideas. Pantsers usually have some overall plot concept in mind at the beginning and may have many smaller details planned out. People also swear by writing processes that fall in between the two camps or aren't identifiable as either. And while some writers can only imagine working at one or the other extreme, others try out both at different times.

A month ago I gave an update on the novel I'm plotting in a hardcore way. This is the first time I've done extensive outlining before the first draft, but much of the work feels familiar from planning subsequent drafts of novels I wrote pantsily. I'm now revising my outline, which is also a familiar process, and I'm still pleased at the idea that all this advance work will eventually lead to a first draft that's solid, well-structured, and doesn't require several rounds of rewriting.

In response to a discussion about that post, my friend Julia wrote an amazing breakdown of her writing process, which involves a great deal of outlining and advance planning. Many of the steps Julia details are similar to what I've been doing as I plot out this novel, as well as what I've done when preparing for past revisions. Some of the parts that resonate with me aren't things I was conscious of doing or wouldn't have thought to call out, so I'm very impressed with her level of insight into her own process. Do check out her post, and feel free to imagine me doing most of that stuff, especially lying on the floor in despair.

While I'm enjoying my plotting, other than the bouts of floor despair, I was growing eager to begin writing something new, and this plot-in-progress isn't ready to embark on yet. I'd been musing for a while on another idea I thought I might be able to start drafting, but once I took notes on what I'd thought of so far, I found I didn't have enough to work with. I went through the "I will never have another idea oh wait I have an idea" routine surprisingly quickly and came up with something that I was fairly confident could result in a novel-length text.

In the past month, I've written 25,000 words on this new novel, and while I will not claim that they are good words in their present combination, they do set in motion a story that I'm curious to get to the end of. I've been pantsing pretty hard, assigning the characters problems that come to me on a whim, setting up scenes with no plan for how they'll play out, and surprising myself with intriguing developments. I have a very general sort of conclusion in mind but only the vaguest sense of how I might get there, which is both fun and terrifying. I fully expect that if this story turns out to be any good, I'll have to throw out at least half the subplots and overhaul many of the characters in the next draft. This novel, unlike the one I'm pre-plotting, will require a ton of rewriting.

I like plotting, and I like pantsing. Maybe eventually I'll decide that one end of the spectrum is more useful for me to stick with, but at the moment, I'm quite content to be working with both methods.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ In The Atlantic, Noah Charney explains the the reality of the modern book tour: "Then arrived another solution that I only learned about on my first tour, back in 2007 for my novel The Art Thief. It peeled back the veil over this quasi-legendary concept of authors on tour (I imagined groupies, whiskey, cigarette smoke, typewriters), and exposed me to a new, and completely fascinating, role that I never knew existed: that of the awkwardly named 'escort.'"

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