Haven't posted a lot for a while. I've been busy writing and editing and haven't had a lot of spare time. But now that I have a little, I thought I'd share with you one of the thoughts that's been on my mind lately. It's about time I suppose.
This time it's about the ever present debate in writing circles – should you plot or write by the seat of your pants? There are probably, as everyone who's in this game will know, as many opinions as there are writers. And so many of them are strongly held and even more powerfully argued.
Those who are plotters will argue that working to an outline gives them the chance to pull a coherent book together right from the start. It saves them time and effort and focuses them on a target allowing them to be more efficient. Pantsters on the other hand will talk about creative freedom and being unable to stick to an outline anyway. And then there are the guys in the middle who will do some plotting and some free writing and hopefully pull together a story that way.
My thought in this post is not to support either side. Nor to hold some place in the middle ground. But rather to look at the entire argument in a different way. It may not actually be a choice at all. As a writer you should write the way that works best for you.
To begin with I suppose I should start by laying my cards on the table. I'm as close to a pure pantster as any writer can be. I never plot. I don't work to an outline. And when I write I not only don't know where the books going to end I usually don't know where the chapter's going to end. My approach to writing is simple. I start with a character or a scene or an idea and I write it. Then I stretch it a bit by asking questions. Who is this man? Why is he doing what he's doing? What sort of world is this? And little by little what started out as a wisp of an idea becomes a story and in time if I'm lucky, a completed novel.
That's not to say that this is the right way to do it. Just that it's my way. And as a writer I pay a heavy price for this approach. Not having any idea of where a story is going to go means that very often it goes nowhere. So I have well over a hundred partially completed novels sitting on my computer now which have basically run out of legs. Some of them are all but complete but I simply don't know how to complete them. Others are simply fascinating ideas that I explored, and may one day take further. But all of them share one thing in common. They all took a lot of effort to write and there is no novel to show for that effort.
This is a problem. Pantsting comes with some heavy prices for an author. As an author if I want to make more money I should stick to one genre like epic fantasy and write series etc. But how can I stick to one genre when I don't know even what world my idea comes from when I start writing it? And how can I write a series say when I wrote the original novel and completed it without any thought that there should be any more. I had a story, I wrote it, and that was all there was!
So that's my world as a pantster. A sort of organised chaos that sometimes comes up with a novel and occasionally even an original one. But with a lot of dry runs and misfires along the way. And sometimes, like every other writer out there, I think to myself – maybe there's a better way.
Then about a month ago I came up with a story idea that I really liked and threw myself into it. The book, though I doubt it'll ever be finished, was called Three Wishes, and was in essence a cautionary tale about wishes and having them come true. And like a mad man I quickly started working out what those wishes should be and how they should go horribly wrong while being granted exactly as asked for. And then at some point I expanded the idea to have two antagonists both having three wishes granted by the same agency, both having them fulfilled exactly as requested, and having them go horribly wrong, and yet at the same time have each antagonists wish the perfect foil to the others wish. In short they cancel each other out.
Yeah I know, sounds complicated. And it is. And it became more so when I had to formulate the three – or actually seven as it became – wishes so that each and every one of them perfectly countered another so that in turn everything went horribly wrong for both antagonists, yet the story would somehow end up in a positive place.
That's where the plotting versus pantsting thing comes in. As a pantster, knowing all the places where pantsting lets me down, and finally having a logical construct to hang a novel on, I thought it was time to finally embrace the dark art of plotting.
So I went out, read all the books and advice columns on plotting – there are a surprising number of them – and ultimately set out to craft a plot around my two antagonists and their wishes. Then with everything nailed down and a twenty seven chapter book outlined, I began writing.
That as you can probably guess is where the pain began.
Within the first chapter I went off plot – and not just a little bit. We're not just talking character outlines and city names here. By the end of the first chapter I'd swapped genres, shifting from an urban fantasy to an epic fantasy, and also changed the relationship between the two antagonists as well as throwing in a third character with her own wish to confound things and a religion.
But undeterred because I knew that plotting was the way to go to advance my craft, I went back to the drawing board (lap top) and replotted the entire novel based on the new first chapter. After all I figured, most plotters say that there's room for a few changes here and there. And most of the guides talk about having a looser outline that allows for minor changes here and there. I'm not sure though that I can do minor when it comes to changes!
Unfortunately none of those guides had allowed for chapter two where it became obvious to me that in fact I'd got the entire thrust of the story wrong, and that the two antagonists while the ones making the wishes weren't the ones driving them. There was in fact another player behind the scenes pulling their strings as well as granting them their wishes – the Red God.
So back to the lap top and re-plot an entire novel based on this new understanding, then start on chapter three. Alas chapter three was the one where the king's daughter turned up unexpectedly and completely changed directions. In a heartbeat she went from being the loving daughter who was unable to wed the prince because her golden dowry and turned to lead, to the daughter forced to marry the prince of a rival kingdom because the entire treasury's gold supply had turned to lead. It was just a tiny change but it changed the entire story necessitating yet another complete re-plotting of the book.
Then came chapter four where – you guessed it – more shit happened.
And that brings me to where I am now, a month later and ten chapters wiser. And what's the one piece of wisdom I've learned? I can't plot! Or rather I can sketch out a brilliant plot, outline it to twenty decimal places, and make it perfect – but I just can't damn well write to it.
So far from making me a more efficient writer and helping to weave together a plot perfect story, plotting has slowed me down immensely and contributed precisely nothing to my writing. Because what's the point of having a plot if you can't stick to it? And especially when every little change I make as I write, means I have to completely rewrite the plot? It may be a brilliant approach for many writers. It may overcome many of the problems inherent for pantsters. But it's absolutely useless for me.
Which is really my point for other writers entering into this fray. And it's not to say that plotting is bad and pantsting is the way to go. You're all plotters or a pantsters or some hybrid creatures in between. And that's fine. As long as you've found what works for you.
My point is that before you start thinking of how wonderful it would be to either start plotting more or free writing more, and before you waste your time and money on the various writing guides, you take a step back and think about whether there's any point in trying to change. Because despite all the arguments about how each side is so much better than the other from whatever perspective, the truth is that the one that is best for you is the one you're most comfortable with. Trying to change how you write may well be the biggest, most frustrating waste of time and effort you could ever engage in. In fact you may well end up like me – pulling your hair out clump by clump!
So this is my new golden rule of writing. There is no right way to write.