A Lesson Learned

Are you a plotter? or are you a pantser?

As writers, we all inevitably fit into either of the above categories, maybe even into both as we move from one project to the next.

A plotter is someone who researches and plots out the entire project from beginning to end. Plotters ensure that, at the very least, they have a simple overview for every chapter, character profiles for any main characters that they plan to introduce and a clear idea of exactly what the piece of writing will be trying to say to the reader, long before they ever put pen to paper and start actually writing the piece.

A pantser, on the other hand, is someone who ‘flies by the seat of their pants’ as far as their writing is concerned. They don’t have a plan, or even a complete plot idea, at the point that they begin to write their story. They rely solely on the organic flow of their ideas, moment to moment, in order to create the necessary magic on the page.

From what I have seen, there is a pretty even split between the two schools of thought amongst the writing community at large. Both sides have their own list of pro’s and con’s and you can get some pretty interesting and heated debate going when you open the floor to the two warring sides.

In my writing lifetime, I have been both a plotter and a pantser. I did a degree in journalism and spent many years just writing organically with only the facts of the story and a word count to keep me in check. It seemed to work pretty well, and I found that I could work pretty quickly, without all of the tiresome plotting and planning getting in the way. This is a great plus when you have lots of hard deadlines to meet, so I figured, rather smugly, that I had picked the best side.

Then a couple of years later, I found myself moving on into full-length novel writing, and boy did it take me a while to work out how terribly wrong I was! Now I am not saying that there aren’t countless highly successful ‘pantser’ authors out there, but I can assure you right now, that I am definitely not one of them!

Two years, two unfinished manuscripts and hundreds of thousands of words later, I finally realised my mistake. For me, writing organically without plot or plan was the worst possible move. With each new chapter came new disjointed ideas, new writing styles and countless soul-destroying hours of obsessive re-writing in order to try and jam it all together into something that actually fit. Needless to say, by this point in the proceedings, this was a totally impossible feat. With each unsuccessful pass, I found myself steadily sinking in a lethal pool of writer’s block fueled mental quicksand.

After all of the heartache and work, all I had left to show for my efforts was a hacked to pieces 70,000-word mess. The most tragic part for me was that my beloved characters who started out so full of promise had become nothing more than two-dimensional hollow shadows of the fierce, independent personalities that should have made them great.

After a long break to lick my wounds, I finally stumbled across a fantastic idea for a female lead. Determined not to let bright and vivacious Penny suffer the same fate as her predecessor Mara, I decided to try a far different approach and jumped, lock stock and barrel, into the ‘plotter’ camp.

I now have a well-researched concept, plot overview and well-outlined chapters to work on, and most importantly of all, I have a great story which flows.  My characters, even the side ones, are the kind of people that you would love to share a beer or a cup of coffee with and the crippling writer’s block is firmly a thing of the past.

The fantastic thing about having each chapter outlined in advance is, that no matter when or where you pick up your pen or turn on the computer, you already know exactly what it is that you need to write and what direction your words need to take in order to get your characters to the next stage in your plot.

Creating that outline also keeps your writing style more focused, as the outline for each chapter was created by the same writer, in the same mood and at the same period of time in their life. Something that won’t then change, even if actually completing the novel takes you another year or two. It turns out that this is crucial when it comes to writing anything approaching novel length work.

The moral of the story is that it is very important that you know who you really are as a writer from the outset. If it doesn’t seem to be working for you then explore new ways of working, don’t just try to smash it together in the hopes that it will one day fit. There is a style and a method out there that is ideal for each and every one of us, and once we find that magic formula, there will be no stopping any of us from becoming the fantastic writers that we all have the inner potential to be!

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