Plot vs. Pants, or, Handing Back My Plot Card

It was at one of the first writers’ group meetings I attended in Fayetteville when my soon-to-be friend, writing buddy, and future woman-who-gives-me-good-advice Suze fixed me with her steely gaze of inquiry and asked in her formidable British accent:

“So, what are you – plotter or pantser?”

Okay, so the “steely” and “formidable” part may be my own projection of my squirming reluctance to be pinned down unexpectedly, but it caused me to start thinking about my process … and that’s never a good thing. Or rather, it’s not a good thing if I start to doubt my process not realizing (and I’m skipping ahead here) that I’ve been doing this writing thing for a little while, and this reading thing for even longer, and what I’ve worked out might not be the strict equivalent of “plotter” but I do actually have a system. (Perhaps I’m a “systemer”?)

For those who aren’t quite tracking, “pantser” and “plotter” are two categories of writer that have arisen in the context of NaNoWriMo to denote writers who, respectively, either fly by the seat of their pants, or meticulously plan out their books, characters, schedules, software, and coffee breaks as they head into the November craziness of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ve always felt that I should be a plotter. This is in keeping with my feeling that I should make better plans. Or perhaps, follow the plans that I make.

Which reminds me of the time I planned to get a manicure. First, I walked into a beauty shop. All of the women in the room stopped what they were doing, stopped their conversations, and looked at me. I realized, I had walked into an African-American hair stylist. I inquired as to where the nail place was, and they politely directed me next door. I finally sat down and tried to explain what I wanted – a French manicure for the nails I had carefully refrained from breaking or chipping for the past couple of weeks. The manicurist smiled, nodded, grabbed the biggest pair of clippers I ever saw and proceeded to clip off all of my nails. After she did the first one, I stared at her in horror. She looked at me and the guy who was in charge of the salon (I think … it was a little confusing) looked at her, and then I just shrugged and let it go. Plans. Who needs them? Also, cutting one’s nails is useful for things like playing the guitar and typing one’s novel swiftly and accurately.

My track record with plans and how they turn out notwithstanding, I began thinking – I should be a plotter. Suze helped fuel the fire, hooking me up with various documents, including clueing me into Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, and explaining what, exactly, was a trope and how did it fit into the process of writing in the romantic fiction genre. She even hooked me up last NaNo (2012) with the Savvy Authors boot camp. The primary purpose of this boot camp seemed to be to plot your romance novel. It was great – run by the editors of Entangled Publishing, it was a good way to make contacts in the industry. I began to think, hey, maybe I’ve got a romance novel or two inside me. So I sat down and plotted my little heart out.

I made it about 16,000 words and gave up. Okay, so there were some other things going on in my life, but there came a point where I just could not write. Why should I? The whole thing was plotted, so why keep writing?

I’ve done this before with other things I was planning to write. Plotted the whole thing out so nicely I knew EXACTLY what was going to happen and when. Most of those totally-plotted wonders still languish in work-in-progress status. See, I know what’s going to happen. I know that deviating from the plot will be bad. And since I know what’s going to happen, and I simultaneously worry that I will want to GO OFF SCRIPT and that will be bad, I find myself doing other things. Like reading books. Or practicing German. Or playing the guitar.

As we roll up to NaNo ’13, I found myself thinking, why am I so unmotivated write? To continue work on this romance novel? To start a new work?

At first, I thought it was my chosen project. Originally, I was going to work on a sequel to Cold Run. But the idea that’s been kicking around in the back of my brain hasn’t reached the “I’m coming ready or not!” stage. Then I had an idea for a sequel to Soft Target. And I even started to do research on it. Then, the research I was doing took a sharp turn when I read a news article from last week and realized that my fiction had just become reality. First, terrorists need to quit stealing my ideas. Second, I need to do more research. I need time to let this idea percolate. I also need a beer.

I was about ready to throw caution to the wind and give up attempting NaNo this year in favor of diving back into research and trying to finish up a couple of short stories (and maybe those romance novels that currently are still mocking me from my WIP-folder….) Then I thought, You know what? My favorite stuff has always been the stuff that took shape in my head, the work that came about because I just sat down and started writing. No plot, no pressure. I find that with my favorite pieces, the idea sprung a leak in my brain and I sat down and wrote far enough until stuff started to take place. I eventually ended up with a manuscript that was half written and the other half was a series of plot notes that came as I went. And somehow, that all resolved into the finished product. And that stuff – that’s the stuff that not only do I like it, but that other people have responded to the most.

Even writing papers for school. I don’t do a lot of prewriting or outlining. Research? Heck yes! Double-tons. Sitting and thinking about what I’m researching? Check. Having a pretty good idea of how I’m going to structure my paper as I sit down to it? Double check. I once wrote a 3-5 paper for the Captains’ Career Course during each 10-minute break, starting when we arrived, and was able to finish the paper, print it, and turn it in by the end of the class. It wasn’t because I’m good at making shit up (although I am.) It was because I had read five or six books on the topic, had thought about them on a pretty consistent basis for weeks, and then finally something clicked and I knew the angle I should take.

And yet, there’s this nagging voice inside saying: But this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to plot this stuff beforehand! I want to be like the lady on the panel at Dragon*Con, talking about how she was a “reformed pantser.” What if Suze doesn’t want to be my friend anymore??? (Cue full-blown writer neurosis…)

Wait a minute. I’ve been reading since I was little. In the first couple of grades, I was reading so far ahead of my grade level, that the teachers just kind of let me alone during the “reading” lessons. I’ve been consuming all genres of fiction – plus movies, comics, plays, experimental street theater (although that was usually by accident.) How could I doubt that I know what makes a good book? How could I doubt that I know how there has to be a set up, then a twist, then a “all seems lost” moment, and then the “good guys” come up with a plan, set the plan in motion, and maybe they win a little, lose a little, but then you have the rising action, the climax, then anticlimax, maybe a little loose end for a sequel. I know this. I’ve internalized this. It’s part of everything I write.

So I said, Whatever. (Thus proving, once and for all, that my home lies in Generation X). I’m going to write something completely new for NaNoWriMo and I don’t know what it is, but I’m not plotting anything. Just going to open a new MS Word document, call it “NaNo 13” and go with it.

And then, the idea started to germinate. I’m thinking of calling it “Steel-Toed Blues,” but my sister Thea tells me that sounds like a cowboy romance, and I’m going for wild, modern, musical, gritty, urban Fae/fantasy. It’ll be a working title, I guess.

As far as my NaNoWriMo prep this year? Discovering and downloading Blues artists (Shemekia Copeland – where have you been all my life?) from iTunes to get in the spirit of things. This month, if I want to procrastinate, I can play the guitar and call it “research” or “getting in the mood to write.” I am intentionally NOT thinking about NaNo. Yet, here I am, adding notes to the long sticky taking shape on my desktop when my subconscious refuses to cooperate with the whole “don’t think of NaNo” plan, stocking up on Deathwish coffee and cutting my nails.

Here I sit, one unrepentant NaNo pantser, impatiently waiting for November 1. Let’s do it!

Read 4 comments

  1. Oh how you dis the concept of planning.. my heart is shriveling….

    *Snarf*

    I’m very happy that you’ve found your groove WITHOUT the plan, beatsheet, synopsis, query already in place. Clearly you need the surprise of where your story will end up.. and that is SUPER-COOL.

    Now come back home so we can hang!

  2. I’m always a plotter. But sometimes pants-y moments come up during the actual writing process, when I get to one those points where it’s like, “I need something here. What something? Let’s see what happens, brainmeats.” And off we go.

    • I always *try* to be a plotter with pants moments, but usually I’m just a pantser with moments of sudden plottiness. I’m wiling to try new things, which is how I started all this over-planning, but eventually had to realize what was keeping me from actually sitting down and writing.

      Actually, after finishing this post, I sat down at one of my open WIPs referenced above, and had a moment of pantser innovation. The words haven’t been coming super-fast, but at least they started coming again…

Leave a Reply