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Writing 101 – Pantsers and Plotsers

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This is my second Writing 101 article. The purpose is to provide a little of the lessons learned I have discovered over the years as an independent author (Indie). It may help you, or it may not.

Pantsers and Plotsers

The writing community seems to like to divide itself into two broad groups: the pantser and the plotser. A plotser is someone who plots out their novel, and a pantser is someone who writes by “flying from the seat of their pants” (i.e. makes it up as they go along). Each group is passionate about their form.

There are pros and cons for each method. I am firmly in the plotter realm. I carefully craft my story line, with an eye to timings, sequence, etc. I work backward from the climax of my novel to the start, work my way back to the end, and then start writing. I use a product called Scapple (developed by Literature and Latte – the makers of Scrivener). It’s nothing more than a Microsoft Visio-like product. But if you use Scrivener you can suck Scapple outlines in; which is nice.

I truly don’t fully understand pantsers. I admit I’m a little blind on the subject. Pantsers basically sit down, open their writing software (or pad of paper) and start writing. I always imagine Snoopy sitting on his doghouse writing “It was a dark and stormy night…” when I think of pantsers. Snoopy is a pantser, lol.

There are articles for pantsers on how to plot as one (really?), and they have me scratching my head. I suppose there are pros to being a pantser. You have total freedom to go wherever you want. You are not confined to an outline and can do whatever you like. I suppose you will have moments where you pleasantly surprise yourself, as well. The problem I see with this approach is that you will often write yourself into a corner. I did this with my first novel (unpublished) attempt and set it aside before plotting out the New Druids series. I have since written five novels in that series with one more to go. My first novel is sitting on Scrivener wasting away. I plan on going back to that novel and plot the thing out. The point is, being a pantser stopped my writing for years. Being a plotter gave me wings.

I suppose for short stories and even novellas, the pantser approach would work. I still wouldn’t recommend it. There is still a structure to writing, regardless of size, and I believe that plotting will achieve that best.

How to Plot

There are several plotting tools which some writers use. Examples are the Snowflake Method, and the Hero’s Journey. There are even templates for these plotting tools for Scrivener. Just try Google-ing it. These tools give you nothing more than a template to plot out your story. The Hero’s Journey provides plot points and character development stages. Snowflake is a little more complicated. But they are only tools. You need to fill in all the detail. The point I am making is that they are not a quick fix or a magic bullet to your writing.

I admit to using neither. For better or worse, I have read enough fiction in my life that I know how a good story develops. On my own, I plot out the story, provide challenges, surprises, challenge my characters (and kill them sometimes), all while keeping my eye on the goal: which is the climax. I know that a flat story fails to excite a reader. You need the challenges of life, the antagonist thwarting the best laid plans, and the surprise no one saw coming. Readers want the protagonist to rise to the challenges and become a better person and discover something about themselves they never knew existed. Why? Because we all want that with our own lives. It can’t be all vanilla. We read and watch movies in order to live through the life of the protagonist. We cheer them and cry with them. THAT’s what you need to write.

There are tons of articles on the web explaining how to plot. I roll my eyes at most of them. You see, I don’t believe you can cookie cutter a plot. You first need a compelling story. Then you need to know how to write. This is not the Disney movie Ratatouille: not everyone can write well. But I plot out my story line. Use a whiteboard, sticky notes, or Scapple; whatever floats your boat.

When I write I always try to see my writing through the eyes of the reader. My plotting is the same. I can predict easily 9 times out of 10 the conclusion of any Hollywood movie within the first 30 minutes. I love it when I am surprised when a novel or movie goes in a direction I did not see coming. I try to capture that in my writing.

And admit it, it is those kinds of novels that keep you reading until the last page is turned. Sometimes it is the journey through the novel that captivates you. More often than naught it is the ending you are anticipating; with a plot that builds and twists. You hold your breath and turn to the climax and hope to be amazed. It’s true some endings are inevitable. You knew Tom Hanks would get off the island and that Matt Damon would escape Mars. But some are not and we remember those stories so vividly (I see dead people…). You have that “ah-ha!” moment and then lie back and put all those sneaky little clues together and you have a new favourite author.

Plotting Benefits

Because I plot out my novels, and break them down into chapters and scenes, and then populate Scrivener with all those details, I have found a wonderful freedom in my writing. I can write any chapter in any order I want. I can take a plot line and write it out in its entirety, or I can jump from scene to scene. That is so liberating. Especially if I run up against a particularly difficult section. I can put it aside and focus on other areas. It’s wonderful.

Another benefit is plotting will have a greater chance of removing plot holes. Plot holes are horrible. It suspends the reader and kicks them out of your world like a glass of freezing cold water being poured down your back. Plot holes mean you have failed in your writing. Examples of plot holes are: illogical events, contradictions, unresolved story lines, impossible events, and continuity errors. Imagine the Three Little Pigs with the wolf starting with the brick house and working his way down.

By the way, even as a plotter, I am not immune to plot holes. However, because I can see the entire story line, I can easily rectify the problem once I identify it (read my blog article Writing 101 – Editing). My imagination is the best spackle there is. I can patch, sand and paint over anything.

The Best of Both Worlds

So time for a full confession: I am a plotter AND a pantser.

Yup.

But! I plot out my story line as fully as I can first. The problem is that I can’t plot out everything. Also, as I write – and I’ve mentioned this before – my characters often write their own story. I can’t count the number of times a character has changed dialogue and even changed events in my New Druids series. This is very much a pantser moment for me when it happens because I almost always go with it. I trust my characters know themselves better than I do. The beauty here is because I have plotted out my story, I can see the immediate cause and effect of that change and adjust relatively quickly. I consider this the best of both worlds.

Conclusion

I must say, every author will have their own approach to writing. If you are new to writing, I cannot emphasise enough that it is better to just write than worry about plotting out an entire novel. Writing is about writing. It’s why it’s called writing. Duh, moment there folks. You will produce something and something is always better than nothing.

I do suggest that you try to plot though. This means that you have the entire story in your head. Or maybe just a cool ending. Or something in the middle. Start there and work your way backward, forwards, and sideways. Then finish it. Please. The world needs to read your story. Trust yourself.

Readers: Tell Me What You Think

I’ve been writing the New Druids series for a few years now. In all this time I’ve been remiss in asking a simple question: what do you, the reader, think? I don’t ask this lightly. I have always written for the reader. For each paragraph, I strive to see it through the eyes of the person reading it.

I’ve never asked what you think of the series. I should have. So, if you have the time, I would welcome any feedback. Be critical. What did you think of Duilleog? Did it resonate with you? What didn’t you like? 

Leave a comment below or simply contact me.

 

Show Don’t Tell

In the world of writing one phrase is used more often than any other when one author is giving advice on how to write: Show, Don’t Tell.

There are so many posts and blogs about this topic that it staggers the mind. And look, I just added to the pile! I digress. Somone just posted a question on how to “show, don’t tell” on Reddit. I rolled my eyes. Why? A ten second Google effort would answer the question, but clearly, this Redditor is looking for Karma. Nonetheless, I clicked and went to the post. Why? I wanted to see what humorous comments I would find. One of those comments had a link. I hovered, wondering if this was going to be a risky click, and clicked.

I was taken to perhaps the best description of Show Don’t Tell I have ever read. Here’s the link (not risky at all, trust me): Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs.  Still not sure you want to click it? What if I told you the essay on that page was written by Chuck Palahniuk, author of the novel Fight Club? I’ll wait here until you get back.

Back? See? What did I tell you? Brilliant.

By the way, if that has you excited about writing I encourage you to go read Passive vs Active Voice articles. And if that excites you, then I challenge you to go through anything you’ve written and delete the word “that” out of your sentences. Try it. It will improve your writing quite noticeably. Sometimes you can’t remove it. Like in this paragraph.

All-in-all a wonderful essay by Mr. Palahniuk. So happy I read this just before I started the second draft of Freamhaigh.

Ciao.

Change Is A Good Thing

“Strange fascinations fascinate me
Ah, changes are takin’
The pace I’m goin’ through.”

David Bowie from “Changes”

So, I announced my retirement from the Royal Canadian Navy. I am changing my life, once again. I am transitioning to a civilian life but still working for the RCN. I couldn’t be happier. Change is merely a transition.

I have also transitioned as an author. It’s a subtle thing but the more you write the better you get and at points you can look back and wonder how you managed to get to the next plateau. I read posts from new authors, each struggling to find their way, and remember with a shudder going through those same pains and tribulations. I’m on a new plateau at the moment and it’s a wonderful view.

Then I look up and see all the other plateaus above me. It’s such a climb. But it’s worth it. The view gets better.

Musing: I’m not sure how many people see an author and think “that person is an artist.” Do they instead only think of musicians, painters, and sculptors as artists? Well, I think of myself as an artist. I always have, whether I was writing software or writing novels. Or even playing on my piano.

Writing is such a joy and expression of creativity. I marvel at the wonder of putting words together that illicit a stirring of emotion. You can write a sentence a hundred ways, much like you can paint a flower a hundred ways. It is writing that sentence until it is just right that brings joy to a writer. At least for me. Words are power. This civilisation of ours is a thin veneer of laws and beliefs that protect us from the underlying chaos. Some words make us stronger while others try to tear us down. Choose your words carefully. Try and make the world a better place.

“Turn and face the strange
Ch-ch-changes
There’s gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I can’t trace time.”

David Bowie from “Changes”.

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