Pantsers vs plotters

I recently got a review that said the book was pretty good but there was a part that “was played to evoke emotions and then, improbably resolved.”

That’s fine. I can perfectly understand that opinion. However, it highlights an assumption many readers have, which I’d like to dispel: that writers do everything on purpose.

Let me make this abundantly clear: I have no plan. This applies to my life, and my writing.

My main writing coach, Prof. Al Wachtel, said, “If I knew what I was going to say I’d write an essay.” Creative writing, for people like me, is a process of discovery. I get inspired, start writing, and see what happens.

Of course, if it’s any good, it ends up with a plot and character development and all the items on the good literature checklist. But I can’t create something that way, on purpose. I can’t assemble parts and breathe a soul into it.

I’m not saying other writers can’t. Many can. James Patterson sells a bajillion books, and they are not exercises in personal mystery. (In fact, he doesn’t even write them anymore. He comes up with plot outlines and pays ghost writers to fill in the details.)

I am not criticizing this. He has a lot of happy readers, and happy readers is the point.

Patterson is, in writing lingo, a plotter.

On the other side of the coin are what we call “pantsers.” These are writers who go by the seat of their pants. The popularity equivalent to James Patterson, on the pantser side, is Stephen King. He does not do plot outlines. He gets inspired by an idea, has some idea of how stories are going to end, but sometimes it goes in ways he doesn’t expect. That’s part of the fun for him. We’re alike in that regard.

I sincerely do not think one way of writing is better than another, per se. I think one way of writing is better than another, for each author — and I believe it has to do with the toolkit they’re born with.

Some of us are so good at improvising that we far prefer it to planning. It’s exciting, it uses our strengths, and by nature we get better at it because we keep relying on it. Most of us improvisers have a mystical side — not exactly religious, but a bit superstitious, in which we have great faith in our intuition. (In fact, most religious discussions lose us because we’re not interested in analysing scripture the way plotters tend to do such things — we’re interested in how we respond to scripture, or to put it more simply, ancient ideas, vis-a-vis what’s going on in our lives right now.)

Likewise, I believe there are readers who are, in their hearts, planners, and readers who are improvisors. They tend to prefer one author over another because they’re speaking the same language — classical or jazz, structure or abstraction, outline or freeform.

There is a point where the two major styles overlap. What I believe happens, over many years of writing, is that the plotter gets his mind invaded by the character, who eventually will do or say something they didn’t outline — that, or the outline just won’t seem to fit anymore — and the work sparks to life. The plotter may need the map to get started, but probably won’t need it to finish. Likewise the panster, through intuition and much reading, comes to a natural sense of plot and structure without needing any map. He knows what feels right and what doesn’t, and adapts as he writes.

As I understand it, there is much the same divide in film making. Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick were plotters. They had every shot sketched out before they started filming. Other directors are still writing the script as they make the movie — or don’t even have one, as in the documentaries of Werner Herzog. Woody Allen lets his actors improvise dialogue as long as they don’t say “huh” or “umm.” Each artist finds what works for them, and each attracts the audience who’s drawn to that kind of storytelling.

So, to my reviewer: Yes, I write to evoke emotions. No question there. And, perhaps the conflict we’re both thinking of was improbably resolved. But… seriously… I didn’t do that on purpose. I wrote what I saw. I went where the story led me. I’m not insane — I know the stuff came out of my imagination — but I have about as much control over that as I do over the weather. I could choose to force something sensible on it… and it might work, but it probably wouldn’t. It would feel forced and artificial and break the spell.

When you deny the imagination gods, they withhold their favors. I really don’t want to mess with them, as if I and my plot outline knew better.

Call it a superstition, but to me, plotters are Dr Frankensteins, and pantsers are trying to get lucky in the back seat. We both end up making babies, but my way is a lot more fun — at least for writers and readers like me.

Note to self: Settle down, Beavis

It’s easy to get sucked in.

I’ve enjoyed reading all the back and forth between established authors and independents, traditional publishers and Amazon, over the past few weeks. It’s got the fervor of religion and politics combined, at least for people who are into books. Amazon is destroying the publishing world! Hachette is part of an evil empire, squeezing the lifeblood of its peasant-authors!

My favorite writers on the subject have been Joe Konrath and Hugh Howey, both major successes in the self-publishing arena. Konrath in particular is great to read to learn the nitty-gritty of the publishing world (contracts, agency model problems, self-publishing strategies).

But I’ve come to realize what a waste of energy this sort of thing can be.

First, I’m not a big player in either arena. I’m just starting a career as a novelist. I’ve made a little money, and I think if I keep at it, writing a book or two a year and building a fan base, I can have some real income in a decade or so. But, that may not pan out as I hope. It may remain a hobby with a little income and a satisfying outlet for my creative instincts.

I don’t need to be involved in all this arguing to grow as an artist. Don’t get me wrong — I signed the petition in support of Amazon, and that’s where my loyalties currently lie. Hachette wants to drive ebook prices up and keep author royalties low, and I don’t support that. But that doesn’t mean I’m volunteering for a marketplace crusade.

I’m an artist, not a politician. I don’t think you can be both — at least not to the best of your abilities. I only have so much energy and attention, and with a full-time job and a family, I’m lucky if I set aside time to write 1,000 words a day.

Arguing is exciting, but winning an argument won’t earn me new readers. It won’t sell my books, or help me write the next one.

I’ve started to think that for this sort of thing, I’ll vote with my wallet.

If you want to talk religion, join me at church. If you want to talk politics, catch me on election day. Otherwise, I think it’s better that I live my life and spend my money as I see fit, and if that has some influence, so be it. Beyond that, I’m going to try to focus my attention in those areas with the biggest impact — my job, my family, and the next book. Internet flame wars, like junk TV, suck up too much time and offer too little reward.

As a mortal, I need to be pickier.

Speaking of mortality… I’m working on a new novel in the supernatural horror genre, working title THE TAKERS. It would be nice if it were ready for Halloween, but I suspect Christmas is more realistic.

I also suspect I’ll come up with a better title by then. :)