Misconceptions About Plotting (vs. Pantsing)

Right up front I’m going to be honest and disclose that I have a horse in this race and his name is Plotty McPlotface. It took me a long, long time to figure out how much plotting I needed to make a working novel happen, and yes, I started out pantsing.

I plot because plot holes bother the crap out of me. They make me doubt the entire work. Pantsing led me to lengthy ‘stories’ that never went anywhere, tangents, and umpteen scrapped drafts. “Something’s not working… something back there isn’t working… I have to start over.” Never reaching the end of anything.

This did not work for me. So I started experimenting with outlines and plot structures. Novels are complex beasts, and they have patterns that you can emulate. That’s what I did. That’s why I now have a novel I feel ready to query.

This post was spurred by an old post from NY Book Editors titled, “PLANNING TO OUTLINE YOUR NOVEL? DON’T.” All respect to these professionals, but I disagree. In fact, I think some of their arguments can be flipped around. Such as…

But I just might mold some clay into a bowl without envisioning the end result. I might sketch a woman I have a vague sense of, without thinking about her features.

Ah, but you did start with the concept of “bowl” or “woman” and go from there. Unless you are Picasso, you know that “woman” also requires… head, face, eyes, mouth, nose, ears, hair, neck, torso… and so on. You know roughly how these ought to be arranged. You are not starting without a road map, you’re starting with a structure that you customize.

When you head into a piece of writing without the planning, the job of the writer is to create. Your writing can exist in a mutable state for a very long time. The best writing happens when the writer is discovering what happens as he or she is creating.

I do that when I’m outlining AND when I’m writing. I do a lot of brainstorming and problem solving long before I start to write, and those are very creative processes.

For NaNoWriMo 2016 I spent months in development, and wrote my first draft in November. I thought I knew the story inside and out, but it still surprised me. I realized that my outline wasn’t sufficient, the grand climax wasn’t building properly. So I had to invent something on the fly. And I consider the ‘solution’ I came up with to be rather weak. I had to do a lot of post-draft analysis to decide if I would keep it and then what else had to change to support it. This isn’t my best writing.

My best writing comes when I have a plan. I have a goal post. “In this scene, X happens.” That’s all I need, and then I write. I don’t need more detail than that, but I need to know where I’m ending up. And still, the story will surprise me. I leave space for that.

Early work by beginning writers is often prone to explaining everything that can be possibly be explained to readers. We have a point, a theme, or a purpose in writing that we want to be sure our readers understand. This has to be abandoned in order to create compelling work. Once we cease our micromanagement of the reader experience, there’s more room for reader interpretation, which means a larger audience can identify with the story. Leave your readers with plenty of gray area, write on the cusp of what you don’t know, so that they can plug in their own experiences and perspectives, and eventually, you’ll be creating work that leaves readers both satisfied and unsettled.

But-! That’s precisely why I outline, so I don’t waste time over-explaining! If I’ve already figured out Plotty McPlotface’s tragic backstory, I don’t have to overwrite to uncover it in the middle of an action scene. I can make passing references and choose when to reveal what I know, because I already know it. Some writers feel the need to include all their background work in the story, but I have taken the advice of writing professionals to heart and I avoid doing that as much as possible. Having an outline reassures me that the ideas are already written down somewhere safe, I’m not going to forget them, and I can focus on the scene.

I understand why some writers pants. I understand why they feel energized by it, and how “organic” the story feels. But I’ve been down that road and it didn’t work for me. Which is the important thing that this blog writer neglects. All writers are different and have different processes. 

Again, for the kids in the back:

All writers are different and have different processes. 

Being prescriptive about writing does no one any favors. It adds to the confusion and frustration of aspiring writers.

So, plot it or pants it or do the hokey-pokey–your process is yours.

Image: mrbrenner‘s pant

Getting stuck in the Muddy Middle of your novel is no fun. But there’s a scaffolding for how your novel should be built–that’s what makes it a novel.

The Monster Novel Structure Workbook: How to Plot Without Getting Stuck comes with downloadable worksheets, examples, and even a Scrivener template.


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