Writing Wednesday: Pantser or Plotter

Writing Wednesday

Welcome to Writing Wednesday, a weekly feature where I attempt to help you troubleshoot your writing and give you a dose of motivation. Today we will be discussing the Pantser-Plotter Dynamic, why it’s false, and how you know when you’re Doing It Wrong.

First off, how is everyone’s NaNoWriMo going? I’m doing okay, but it’s been rough going. I’m working on a book idea I’ve had ever since I was in my early twenties and have only just recently discovered how to write it. Unfortunately, that means this book has come with so much baggage that I sometimes find it hard to move forward because of all the weight. I’ve kept up with word count, but it’s a little bit of a cheat, since I’m recycling words some words (all 227,000 of them!) from previous drafts.

Anyway, that’s not what I wanted to talk about today. What I wanted to talk about was writing strategy.

Because I like systems-building and information matrices (see also: this epic breakdown I did of the Hogwarts Houses), I think identifying your writing strategy is key in helping you approach the process. A few years ago, Jennifer Lynn Barnes, an author and professor, surveyed writers on Tumblr to gather data for her Cognitive Science of Fiction class and asked the following questions:

  1. Do you believe writing is an act of creation?
  2. Do you believe writing is an act of discovery?

I love this distinction. If you’ve been around the blogosphere long enough, you quickly learn that there are two types of writers: Pantsers and Plotters1. I tend to think of them as Inside-Out or Outside-In writers, or according to Professor Barnes, Discovery vs. Creation writers.

But which is which? If you answered yes to question 1, then it’s likely you are a Plotter. If you answered yes to question 2, you are probably a Pantser.

I like this distinction because it doesn’t set up false dichotomies, such as idea that Plotters are organized and analytical or Pantsers are emotional and intuitive. As I mentioned before, I enjoy organizing information and analyzing data, but I am not a plotter; I’m a pantser. If I try to outline, I’ve veered so far off course by the second chapter it’s pointless and a waste of time to even try.

And this is what I mean by identifying your writing strategy. For those of us who are discovery writers, it doesn’t always help us read books on structure, such as Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.2 Breaking a story into component parts before we’ve even begun to figure out who our characters are may break our brains. Instead of books on structure, it may behoove us to read to read books on archetypes and narrative types instead, such as Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

So to help you through drafting for NaNoWriMo, I’ve come up with some tips and strategies.

Strategies for Creation Writers

As a Creation writer, it’s likely you don’t like to be surprised while writing. It’s likely that you aren’t surprised by what you write. Your revisions probably involve fleshing out your world. You are God in your fictional universe; you control everything. Things happen because you know they must, and you know every last thing about your characters: from their favourite hot beverage to how that one time when they were six, they ate themselves sick on jelly beans and now can’t even look at a bag of them without wanting to throw up.

I tend to find a lot of Creation writers hate drafting because the cognitive dissonance of what they know the book should be and what the book is(n’t) trips them up. Because of this, my tips for Creation Writers include:

  • Change the font color to a very pale grey so you can’t read what you write and edit it. (Tip stolen from Karen Akins!)
  • Write to the end of a scene, not word count.
  • Do not look back, do not read what you have already written. You have your roadmap; you know where you’re going. Don’t stop.
  • Skip if something isn’t working. Write out of order if you need to.
  • Nothing is set in stone. Yes, you might know which side of the bed your character gets out of every morning, but you’re the God of your fictional universe. Change it if necessary!

Strategies for Discovery Writers

Now, I can speak to these far better than I could ever speak to strategies for Creation writers. As a discovery writer, I tend to enjoy first drafts more than I do revisions but I also rage and despair a lot about how I don’t know what I’m doing. The thing is, Discovery writers do know what they’re doing, but that knowledge is generally buried in their subconscious and they have to go about uncovering that knowledge indirectly.

Characters often get away from us, plots grow unruly branches that have to get lopped off, and sometimes you find yourself completely and utterly surprised by where you end up. Because the big picture of your book is too scary, my strategies for Discovery writers include:

  • Consistency > inspiration. I know the problem is that many of us have no idea where our stories are going, so we’re likely to skip writing if we’re “not feeling it”, so to speak. But the more we write, the easier it gets, and the longer we write, the faster the words come. Write at the same time every day, every other day, every week, even if the words don’t come. 100 words might not be as good as 1000 words, but it’s a lot better than 0.
  • Have a game plan. I don’t mean an outline; I mean have an agenda or a to-do list for the day. Set small goal for your book.
  • Pre-write. I usually do this by journaling my thoughts and feelings about my book, where it’s going, how I don’t know what I’m doing, etc. Pre-writing helps us talk out our stories to ourselves, and hopefully through this process, a path will become clear.
  • Get a running start. I know a lot of Discovery writers need momentum to power us through a draft. Read what you’ve written the night before to get a sense of where you’re headed, and go.

Here’s the thing about being a Pantser or a Plotter: like many other things in the world, it lies on a spectrum. (One of these days I might make up a matrix to better illustrate this.) You may identify as a Creation writer, but you might find that my tips and strategies for Discovery writers works better for you. And although I fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants through every book I’ve ever written, I generally have a destination in mind, as well as major pit stops along the way. (I may not know the details of every twist and turn, but I know where I’m supposed to end up.) The real takeaway here is There is no wrong way to write a book.

Repeat after me, There is no wrong way to write a book.

And anyone who says otherwise is wrong.

That’s all for this week! Let me know if you guys are Creation or Discovery writers, and if these tips and strategies work for you.

  1. Or, as George R. R. Martin calls, Gardeners and Architects.
  2. Although I would argue books on structure are useful at the revision stage, not the drafting stage.
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