As you’re reading this post, I’m knee-deep into my first try at National Novel Writing Month.
It’s a climate fiction story that started as a kernel of an idea this summer. I scribbled the first 10 pages or so, then left it to rot until November 1. (Not for lack of love, just for lack of time. You know how it goes.)
Now, each day, I open my story document and…make it up as I go along.
I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m a pantser.
The idea of outlining a plot, crafting character profiles or weaving story maps bores me. So I fly by the seat of my pants and let the story take the controls.
Does this sound like you? Or are you a planner?
Let’s take a look at these two writing styles and how they can benefit your craft.
Planners: small steps toward big ideas
Planners are methodical writers from start to finish. Sometimes before there’s a lick of dialogue on the page, a planner knows the key plot points of the story.
Take J.K. Rowling, for example. One image that floats around the web features a handwritten looseleaf page organizing plot points and characters for her epic Harry Potter series.
Rowling’s idea for the boy wizard popped into her head during a train ride, and she immediately got to work scrawling the first few pages of what would later be her first book about Harry and company. As she considered how to mold and shape that first book, Rowling also plotted out major events throughout the series, including the ending.
After all, with a magical world and host of characters, many of whom came of age over the course of the seven books, it behooved Rowling to have her outline as a guide. Otherwise, Harry and the rest of those wizard kids could have ended up printing t-shirts on the Jersey Shore instead of going to Hogwarts. You never know.
Planning isn’t just for the type-As and overachievers among us. It’s for anyone who doesn’t want to sit down in front of a blank page without help. It’s for people with minds too busy or preoccupied to keep track of the nuances of an entire story.
If you’re a planner, remember that your notes, outlines and resources are a guide, but not a turn-by-turn GPS unit. Deviating from your planned route — perhaps as a brief experiment to get your wheels turning on a tough day — could lead to some interesting discoveries for your characters.
Pantsers: It’s all under control
Stephen King is my favorite pantser. He’s got the chops to prove it, with more than 50 books on the shelves — many of them major horror favorites.
How did some of King’s most famous supernatural tales form? Organically, it turns out. One day at a time.
“I distrust plot for two reasons,” King says in On Writing. “First, because our lives are largely plots even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.” The stories make themselves, he argues.
He goes on to explain that stories are like fossils. You find a piece of one and start to carefully unearth the rest of it. When you first discover the fossil, you don’t know what the final specimen will look like.
You don’t know if your own kernel of an idea has potential for a full novel, or maybe just a blip of flash fiction. You have to play with it (carefully, because it’s a fossil, remember) until the full story shows itself to you.
Pantsing is about trusting yourself. Trusting yourself to come to your writing desk regularly, to test ideas, to be willing to scrap entire chapters — or entire ideas — if they don’t work. By committing to your creativity, you give yourself room to play with the words until you’re satisfied.
So, which kind of writer are you?
This is not a debate about whether you like wizards or creepy clowns better. J.K. Rowling and Stephen King could both teach us lessons for days.
But if you’re still figuring out your writing style (Hint: many published authors are still working on this), it can help to bring awareness to your planning methods vs. your …well, your planning avoidance.
Author Heloise Jones recommends keeping an evidence journal, or a log of each time you sit down to write, in her book The Writer’s Block Myth. By keeping notes about each session, you can look back at the time you spent, what time of day you were productive, what you worked on, and how you felt about it.
You can also keep notes about your current project. Pay attention to how your plot develops during a writing session. Did you mull over a piece of dialogue or a key event on your walk to work in the morning? Did you dig through your purse to find a scribbled note to guide your next writing session?
Use the hints your life leaves you (yes, sometimes crumpled up in your purse) to determine whether you’re a pantser or a planner.
Maybe you’ll find you’re a little bit of both. Either way, if you’re sitting down to write, you’re a winner in my book.
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