The Truth about Plotters and Pantsers

Stardust Memories
Photo Courtesy of IMDb

When I started writing fiction seriously, I pretty much began the process by staring down the blank page and typing words. I didn’t produce a complex outline or write detailed backstories about my principle characters. I just wrote. And wrote. And wrote. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m a pantser. I knew this when I used to write screenplays. I was always taught to create the outline, define the characters—and only then, begin with FADE IN. I tried this once, and I got so frustrated, I gave up and banged out the damn thing. Take THAT, mother!

Defining the Terms
For those of you who might be new to the discussion, let’s first explain the terms. I am quoting the from a post I found over at “The Write Practice.” For my money, these comments work pretty well as definitions.

Plotters, having planned out their novel ahead of time, know what’s going to happen before they write it. This makes it easier to bust writer’s block. It’s harder to get stuck when you know what’s going to happen next. Plotters also tend to get their novels written faster, or at least more smoothly.

Pantsers have the freedom to take their novel in any direction they want. They have flexibility. They’re not stuck following an outline, so if they don’t like a character, they can simply kill him. If they don’t like the way their plot is going, they can change it.

I will say that if you read the article, you’ll notice the author is biased in favor of plotters. And I say, bully for her. Because, in the end, whether you are a plotter or a panster—if you’re a good writer—it doesn’t matter. Let me give you an example.

At the risk of bringing up Woody Allen, I would like to talk about that beautiful and funny opening scene in his 1980 film Stardust Memories. The whole thing was heavily influenced by the opening to Fellini’s 8-1/2, by the way. Even some of the shots are nearly identical. Never mind.

In this scene, the main character, Sandy Bates, finds himself on a train. He is surrounded by humorless passengers who look like they’re on their way to a mortician’s convention. He happens to look out the window and sees another train across the way, filled with well-dressed passengers drinking champagne and laughing gaily as they show each other their trophies. One woman blows him a kiss. Realizing he must be on the wrong train, he tries to get off, but it’s no use. At the end of the scene, Sandy’s train has arrived at a landfill. But so has the other train.

Now, I’m not saying plotters are humorless, and pantsers are happy-go-lucky folks who like to socialize with a drink in their hand (wink wink). It’s just that if you are a professional writer, you’re getting to your destination despite the How. By the way, that girl blowing the kiss? Sharon Stone.

The Problem with Labeling
I don’t like being labeled. No one does. So, whoever came up with these labels for writers must own a labeling machine company. My main problem is that calling someone a pantser vs. a plotter seems to imply that pantsers don’t care about the plot. That couldn’t be further from the truth. We do care, but we just haven’t figured it out yet. With each new book, we are on a road of discovery. And trying to lay it all out in advance isn’t much fun. It’s like eating your vegetables. We want dessert!

Another problem with labeling is that it encourages people to take sides, which is never a good thing. Need proof? How about the HUAC hearings in the late 1940s which led to the Hollywood blacklist. Yeah, that went really well; it practically tore the country apart. Fun times, people.

Finally, what if you’re a writer who is somewhere in the middle? I’ve adjusted my writing process to accommodate a short synopsis and a timeline, so I don’t trip myself up by getting dates wrong and such. I still don’t consider myself a plotter, because I don’t follow an outline. So, what does that make me, a hybrid? Sounds kind of SciFi-ish, don’t you think? Folks, to deal with the hybrid problem, I’m afraid we’re going to have to ban these nutjobs from ever using Amazon KDP again.

Okay, so here it is. When I sit down to write a new novel or short story, I have a general idea of where I am going, and I let my characters tell me where they need to go next. If that sounds a little new-agey, I get it. But it’s true. I can’t tell you how many times a character has surprised me by disobeying me. Come on—I’M the writer! And guess what—the story was better for it. I’m not sure those kinds of discoveries would happen if I forced myself to outline. And as far as plot, I can assure you, there is one.

Wrap-Up
So, whether you like to write copious outlines with detailed scene descriptions—or you’d rather put on your shoes, go outside, and see where the road takes you—I applaud you. Over the years, I’ve read many wonderful books by plotters and panters. And to be honest, I couldn’t tell the difference in terms of quality. They were both excellent. Why? Because the authors did the hard work.

Look, the point of writing is not to feel bad about yourself. Writers do that enough already. We should celebrate who we are and be professional writers. I don’t know, maybe out there somewhere there’s a plotter who wishes she were a pantser. Sure. And maybe unicorns are real.

Avoiding Strangers on a Train to Write

Strangers on a Train
Photo Courtesy of IMDb

Like many indie authors, I work for a living. There are worse things, like plantar warts. Never mind. Because I live in LA, having a day job requires me to endure a long, daily commute. Several years ago, I decided to abandon my car and use public transportation. Though the combination of trains and ride services such as Uber and Lyft, my commute isn’t any shorter, it does free me up to do other things. For instance, I can read. And more importantly, I can write.

Stalling Our Way to Happiness
Most writers I know are born procrastinators. Netflix and Amazon Prime were made for us—not to mention mobile phones bursting with games and social media apps. And if like me, you are stuck on a train with a bunch of strangers, it’s easy to tell yourself there’s no way you can get any real writing done. For one thing, it’s too noisy, what with all the announcements and people watching funny cat videos without earbuds.

And then, there’s the problem of where to put the device. The light rail trains don’t have flat surfaces, other than the floor. And the seats are narrow, so other passengers are usually sitting very close. In short, there are plenty of reasons not to write on the train.

When You Wish Upon a Star
A few months ago, I decided I’d had enough. I was going to write every morning on the train, no matter what. So, I took myself on a journey of discovery. I already owned a MacBook Air, which is what I use to do most of my writing. Unfortunately, because of the problems mentioned above, I found that it was too large for me to work comfortably. I needed something I could balance on my lap—a device that runs Microsoft Word.

Surface Go

After spending time researching laptops, I decided on a Microsoft Surface Go. Though small, the device is responsive, and the screen is bright. And battery life is outstanding. As a rule, I don’t like touch screens, so I decided to purchase the optional keyboard, which I find to be comfortable, though compact.

My only complaint is the touchpad. It’s overly sensitive and often sends my cursor flying to unknown parts of the page, which I didn’t intend. But, trust me, that’s a small price to pay to avoid writing with paper and pen. Even on a full train, I can bang out anywhere from 750 to 1,000 words, which is plenty for a morning’s work.

Go Forth and Write
Now, I’m not trying to sell you on Microsoft products. I’m sure there are plenty of other choices out there. All I’m saying is, writing on a train—or a bus—is possible with the right device. If you’re the kind of person who can get work done on an iPad, then go for it. I’m just happy I found a solution that works for me.

Happy writing.

How to Train Your Inner Critic

Ray Liotta
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I used to ride horses. I know, right? Let me just say that these creatures are beautiful. And when the horse and rider are one, the experience can be magical. But horses are also dumb—and incredibly powerful. Not a great combination, if you ask me. If a horse doesn’t want you on its back, it will throw you. And there is nothing you can do about it. Ask a rodeo cowboy. We’re talking half a ton of raw animal power, people. Oh, and they bite, too. But—and I can only vouch for English riding—show a horse a thirty-inch riding crop, and things can change for the better. You don’t even have to use it—just let them see it out of the corner of their eye.

Lately, I’ve been reading posts by other writers moaning about their inner critics. You know what I’m talking about. The inner critic is that nagging little macher who’s always in your face whenever you try putting pen to paper (not to be confused with one’s Muse). And, as far as I know, it doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are. Mine is a guy, is shorter than me, and resembles Ray Liotta, for some reason. Though he smells like hand sanitizer, I gotta give it to him—he dresses well. Now, I have never met Ray Liotta, so rather than besmirch his good name, I’ll call the bane of my existence “Stan.”

The Prick Who Came to Dinner
Stan is not the kind of person who values relationships, so obviously, he’s single. He’s been known to vanish for most of the day—I have no idea where he goes. Maybe he’s torturing some other poor schmuck. Which makes me wonder. Does he talk about me? Never mind. Stan has an uncanny ear, and as soon as he hears me typing on my laptop, he’s in the room, standing directly behind me. Breathing through his nose. Watching every letter that appears on the screen. Well, that’s how things used to be, anyway. Sound familiar?

If he gets the chance, Stan will tell me what I am writing is crap and should be burned. He wonders aloud how I’ve managed to have any success at all as a writer and suggests I look into selling insurance. He enjoys laughing at my analogies, similes, and metaphors, and bawls comically whenever I attempt to craft a tender scene. In short, he’s merciless. Now at this point, I’ll bet you think I hate Stan, right? Well, I don’t. Because as annoying as he is, he’s smart—really smart. Okay, he’ll never invent time travel. But he knows a lousy sentence when he reads one.

Stan, ladies and gentlemen, is my inner critic, and I need him. There, I said it. But here’s the thing: I need him on my terms, not his. If it were up to him, I would never write another word. “The world will thank you,” he told me one time, leaving a trail of pistachio nut shells on the shag carpet. But I’m not listening. A long time ago, I decided to train him. Just like a horse. And although he doesn’t always behave, things have gotten way better.

Now, there are writers out there far more qualified than me to explain the phases of writing in a way that makes sense. Nevertheless, I’ll give it a go.

Writing Process

Dreams and Nightmares
An idea comes to me, and I jot it down in my Big Book of Ideas. This can happen when I overhear a piece of a conversation or in the middle of the night when I’m trying to fall asleep. There’s really no rhyme or reason to it. Most of the time, the idea just sits in that book, collecting dust like a lonely little toy no one wants to play with. Sometimes, I incorporate it into something else. And on rare occasions, it becomes a short story or even a novel. I do not control this process—it just happens. And as I record it, Stan is nowhere in sight.

The Dreaded First Draft
This is where I sit down to the blank page. Or, in my case, the blank screen. By the way, this stage applies to short or long fiction. I’m a pantser, so I have only the vaguest notion of how to write this thing. I have a protagonist and, if I’m lucky, an antagonist. But other characters come into the picture as I go. The minute I start writing, Stan waltzes into the room, ready to tear me a new one. But before he can take his place behind my chair, I show him the riding crop. His eyes get huge, and he slinks away, muttering something like “Just for that, I’m eating all the Häagen-Dazs.” But don’t be fooled. He’ll continue trying to get back into the room, usually pretending to be the cable guy. My job is to keep him out until I finish the day’s writing. And let me tell you, it’s exhausting.

The Baby Edit
This happens the next day. I read what I’ve written and invite Stan to join me. That’s right. This pomaded idiot is like a kid in a candy store as he goes to work, pointing out lame construction and tired clichés. After allowing him to eviscerate me, I kick him out and proceed with the next day’s writing.

Keep in mind these last two phases continue until I finish the book or story. Sometimes, I get stuck and work on a different project. Currently, I have at least three unfinished novels kicking around. I’m pretty sure I will finish them. But even if I don’t, others will take their place.

The Mother of All Edits
This is where I edit the entire manuscript, with Stan at my side. I leave the crop on the desk so he can see it, in case he gets any ideas. Usually, he keeps his snarky comments to himself and provides useful suggestions on how to improve what I’ve written. This process takes days, and when I am finished, I set the work aside. I may go through this stage half a dozen times over the course of months. When I am absolutely sure the thing is perfect (nothing is perfect, but you know what I mean), I send the book off to my editor.

Wrapping Up
So, there you have it. Every writer approaches the process differently. No matter how you write, though, there is one thing I would advise. Never mix writing and editing. That’s like inviting Stan to sit down. And you don’t want that, trust me. For one thing, he’s never had an original idea in his life. Also, writing is miserable enough without saddling yourself with a banshee screaming in your ear over every ill-chosen bon mot. Not to mention those pesky adverbs. Anyway, enough. I’d love to hear how you deal with your inner critic. Why not post a comment? In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this quote.

You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished. ― Will Self

Better Writing Through Reading and Research

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot more. Mostly, I stick to contemporary fiction—especially in the genres I write in. This helps me in two ways. First, I get a look at the competition. And second, I see what’s hot and what’s not as far as reader tastes go. But there’s another benefit and, depending on what you buy, you can take advantage of another writer’s research.

But wait, you say. I thought writers just make crap up and hope they can fool you. Well, that’s true—for bad writers. Good ones take the time to learn about the world they are constructing and endow their stories with a rich undertone that immerses the protagonist—and the reader. Here’s an example. I just finished a novel about a journalist who gets caught up in a conspiracy that involves soulless corporate giants and an assassin with a love of greasy food. To be honest, the book isn’t great. Though the story is well constructed, I felt the principal characters lacked believability. In other words, they just didn’t ring true. Nevertheless, I am so glad I read the book. Here’s why.

The Only Source of Knowledge Is Experience
Einstein said that, and I happen to agree wholeheartedly. The author of the book in question is a former journalist and, when it comes to dogged reporters on a beat, he knows what he’s talking about. I really enjoyed learning about the mindset of the journalist, as well as hearing the faint praise and jeering commentary about the profession as a whole. The author has also peppered the story with discussions of the power of big media and print vs. online. I’m not saying that after reading the book I could go off and write my own novel about a journalist/detective. But I could certainly create a secondary character who’s a journalist and make them sound authentic. Experience counts.

Reading for Pleasure and Learning
When I was a kid, I always compartmentalized my reading. There were books I read to learn and those I devoured for pleasure. But it was rare that a book served both ends. I say nuts to that! Providing you pick good material, every book can be a learning experience. Often when I read, I like to pore over the language. This is what helps me to write better. But I am also aware of the setting and the jargon a character uses. Recently, I reviewed a horror collection. There was one, in particular, I fell in love with—“The Corpse King” by Tim Curran. Now, I could be wrong, but I am of the opinion that the author researched the hell out of the period and in particular about how resurrectionists plied their trade. This is an excellent example of a story that is pleasurable to read and teaches you something in the bargain.

Apply Your Knowledge
I’ve read a lot of nonfiction books about the demonic and possession. I’m not saying I’m an expert, but I do bring that background to the stories I write. The last thing I want is for someone in the know to read my work and dismiss it as uninformed drivel. And this is apart from the writing. Readers either like my work, or they don’t. I just don’t want to be accused of ignorance when I could have just as easily researched before I wrote. And neither should you! Remember, writing isn’t just about the words—it’s about what’s behind them. Have fun.