For those of you who are preparing for this year’s NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month, where participants are given tools and tips and encouragement to bang out a book-length work of fiction in just one month) I have just a quick piece of advice, which is that this whole “plotter versus pantser” thing is just a big pile of horseshit.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say “plotter versus pantser”, you’re probably better off. There is this supposed dichotomy between plotters on the one hand, who decide in advance, in detail, what they’re going to write, and then write it; and, on the other hand, pantsers, who fly by the seat of their guess-whats, opening up their golden conduit to the muse and letting the ideas come willy nilly and then just slapping them into place.
My awareness of this distinction comes from doing blog interviews, where people ask with apparent seriousness, “which kind of writer are you? A plotter or a pantser?”
The question is flawed. The question is not, “are you a plotter or a pantser?”, the question is “how do you develop and maintain a healthy balance between these two complementary and crucial components of your process?”
For me, I start by writing a shitload.
Let me say that better: I get an idea I’m excited about, and I launch in, sailing on the wind of the idea for as long as the wind holds—maybe it’s a chapter, maybe it’s twenty pages, maybe it’s just a few exhilarating hours where the force is strong in me, the idea keeps racing forward, and I am just galloping along trying to keep up with it.
If you are a writer for whom that exhilarating white-hot feeling lasts long enough to write a whole novel, then I say peace to you and godspeed—and I will tell you what the pediatrician told my wife when she reported that our daughter was sleeping through the night at three months: Don’t tell the others, because they will burn you for a witch.
But usually, you feel lucky when the white-heat-exhilaration segment of the program lasts long enough to get that great idea on paper, to establish the opening scenes, to get a good strong sense of what this world is and where it might go. And, crucially, this is where a lot of people stop. How many marvelous ideas have been abandoned somewhere at the end of chapter three? At that moment where self-styled “pantsers” run out of steam, where their metaphorical pants fall off, and they figure they’ll go and check their email real quick, and leave their great idea to die, forgotten, on a fallow field.
So here’s what you do: you stop, there, and you outline. (By the way, I’m using a form I call the pretend-second-person, where you say “you” instead of “I”, to presume that your own preferences and habits are universal). But it’s not a solid rock, carve it in stone outline. You can’t know yet everything that will happen in the entire story,and you shouldn’t try and force yourself to know. It’s loose. It’s bare bones. It’s “here are ten basic story beats, here are three moments of conflict, here are one-sentence descriptions of each of the, oh, let’s say, 25 chapters”.
I’m talking about the inimitable sensation of writerly exuberance, not the Cagney movie.
While you are making the outline, though, you will make discoveries—you will find new ideas—you will get flickers of the white heat, and one of them will drive you back to the draft with a revived passion.
You make discoveries in the outline and bring them into the draft, and then when you are working on the draft you make discoveries which you then build into the outline. Both documents are provisional, both are rough drafts, both grow together.
Because, look, when you get that white-hot feeling that says I have to write that’s when you know you want to be a writer. When you implement a set of strategies (i.e. building a provisional outline and then tacking back and forth between it and the draft), strategies that allow you to write in the absence of the white-hot feeling, that’s when you are a writer.