by Donna Andrews
I was at a library event on Saturday the 8th (thank you, librarians and patrons of the Kings Park Library in Fairfax, Virginia), and someone asked the inevitable question: do we know beforehand what we're going to write or do we make it up as we go along.
Yes, we know exactly what we're going to write, and at the same time yes, we make it up as we go along.
It's often said that the writing word is divided between the planners--writers who plot in detail before they begin to write a word of their draft--and pantsers, seat-of-the-pants writers who just sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and start. But I think it's more a case that all writers pledge their allegiance to one camp or the other. And that having done so, we overlook that fact that planners and pantsers aren't two rival systems. They're the end points of a continuum. We all fall somewhere along that continuum--and may find ourselves in a different place as our careers progress, or when we take on a different kind of project.
I think this is particularly important to keep in mind if you're ever at a writing conference and hear a writer you admire--or, worse, two or three writers you admire--dissing the part of the continuum where you find yourself. I was at a conference once--a general writing conference, that included but was not limited to genre fiction--and heard two well known writers denouncing writers who outline, saying that outlining was at best a cop out and at worst, a sign that the outliner was completely uncreative. A hack. I wanted to run up on stage, shake both of them, and say "Just because it's not your method doesn't mean it's wrong."
I've also heard some of my fellow planners--yes, I tend to count myself among the planners-- muttering that writers who don't plan are lazy and unprofessional. Or inefficient. Or idiots savats, who don't really know what they're doing. And that's not fair, either. I alternate between thinking pantsers must be uber-though-unconscious planners and thinking that they must really love revising a lot more than I do. But I don't think their method is wrong, just because it's not my method. If it works, fine. If it's not working, talk to other writers to get some ideas that work better.
We all plan. We all improvise. When it's really working, the act of writing is a constant tension between trying to capture on paper what we already know about our characters and being amazed at what we only find out when we're bringing them to life on paper. We are all trying to do the same things when we write. And we all do it a little differently from each other. Which is great, because it gives us the chance to learn tricks and techniques from each other.
You'll notice I use the term "planner" rather than "plotter." I prefer "planner" because for me it's more accurate. I read an essay recently suggesting that pantsers and plotters alike were doomed to failure because their methods didn't allow them to get to know their characters. I thought it was a good essay, and bookmarked it for future inspiration, but I thought it had a very narrow idea of what a plotter is--as if everyone who plans comes up with a complete and intricate plot first and then starts inventing characters that can be jammed into the slots in the prearranged plot.
I have known writers who did this. Early in my writing career, I was, for a while, in a critique group with one. When we told him we didn't understand the motivation one of his characters had for doing something, he replied, "Oh, I'm just working on the plot now. I'll go back later and fill in all that motivation stuff." Maybe that's the kind of writer the essayist has encountered.
But I think for most of us planners, a very important part of planning is learning who our characters are, what is driving them, what they will do when we put them in a particular situation. Whether you call us plotters or planners, the plot's only one small part of the planning.
The analogy I like to use: imagine you're taking a trip. Very few of us walk out to the car with no baggage or map and start driving, not knowing whether we're heading for California or Maine, assuming we'll choose our destination by taking the turns that appeal to us and buy what we need along the way. Most of us start with a destination. And probably a map. Some of us prefer a GPS and some of us go to AAA and get a Triptik. Some of us don't start till we know exactly how many miles we'll be driving every day and where we'll stay every night. Some of us plan the first leg but leave ourselves open to byways. Or let the weather decide if we'll go north through Chicago or if a blizzard makes it wiser to go via Dallas. As long as we get there in the end, the method doesn't matter.
So, are you a planner or a pantser?