Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Perils of Pantsers

If you’re not a writer, you may not be familiar with the terms “Plotter” and “Pantser.” Plotters, um… actually plot their books before they write them. They know what’s going to happen in chapter eight before they get there. Pantsers, though, fly by the seat of their pants. Pantsers start writing and see what happens. It’s an adventure! Who knows what will happen? The possibilities are wide open! Chapter eight? I'll worry about chapter eight once I finish chapter seven.

For me, every book is like a college road trip with a group of friends. I know I'm leaving campus and heading for Graceland. I have a general map – I know which direction I need to go at least – and I’m pretty sure I want to See Rock City, stop at the outlet mall in Nashville, and do some bar-hopping on Beale Street on the way. (That’s the synopsis I turn in to my editor.) But when I see that sign for the Giant Ball of String or The World’s Biggest Sweet Potato, I turn because it sounds like it might be fun. I figure I'll get to Graceland eventually.

And because I’m with friends, I enjoy the ride. Except when I don’t. Someone is going to keep changing the music to a crappy station and then sing along off-key. Someone else is going to conveniently “forget” their wallet and never chip in for gas. No one wants to take a turn riding in the middle of the back seat. After a while, I’m wondering why I ever thought I liked these people in the first place and contemplating ditching them at the next rest area (where, if I’m really lucky, a serial killer will find them).

Know what I mean?

Now, when I get stuck, I’m stuck. That general road map is kinda helpful – I know I’m at Rock City, and the next stop is Nashville, but I don’t know how to get back to the interstate. And it’s not like I can skip ahead and write that great scene that takes place on Beale Street. I don’t know what happens between here and there, so there’s a good chance that conversation won’t work by the time I catch up. Maybe my characters will have already had that moment by then – in a rest area on the side of I-24. And, of course, there’s an equally good chance they won’t make it to Beale Street at all. Hell, they might not make it to Nashville.

Another problem with Pantsers (or at least this Pantser) is that we end up writing ourselves into scenes we don’t have any research on. All of a sudden, my characters are pulling into the parking lot at the World’s Biggest Sweet Potato, and I don’t know how big the sweet potato is, who grew it, who decided it was the World’s Biggest, what purpose it serves in the tourist industry of the surrounding area, or even how much it costs to get in to see it. (In particularly exciting circumstances, I’m not even sure exactly where they are or what I hope to accomplish with this little side trip.) Everything has to come to a grinding halt while I frantically start Googling “giant sweet potatoes.” And, should I happen to find the email address of the country’s leading expert on exceptionally large yams, he’s always out of the office until Monday.

What? I’m supposed to just leave my hero and heroine in the Sweet Potato parking lot for a couple of days? Um, I’m on a deadline, people.

But Pantsing through a book has its charms, too. Because I don’t have everything plotted out, I never get bored of the story or feel it’s getting predictable. Because I don’t have a plan set in stone, I’m fine with adding interesting details and side trips and just weaving them into the book as I go along. So my characters stop at the Giant Sweet Potato. The heroine has a soft spot in her heart for sweet potatoes because her mother used to make them for her. (Go back and stick that in chapter 2). But her mother is dead now (quick trip back to chapter one), so this is an emotional and healing moment for her. Later, in chapter twelve, when I need the hero to make a grand romantic gesture, he’ll cook her a sweet potato casserole from his mother’s recipe. Ooh, when he asks his mother for the recipe, they are able to break down that estrangement barrier that I will go back right now and add in chapter five, and then reconcile in a way that makes him realize he’s not his father – run back to chapter three -- and can therefore commit to the heroine in a satisfying HEA. And they’ll get married at Graceland!

Plotters reading this just dropped dead from a heart attack – and it wasn’t from the butter and marshmallows in the casserole.

Road trip and sweet potato metaphors aside, this is exactly how I write books. Ask the Playfriends – they have to listen to me whine and argue my way through every single book because my people have gone off chasing giant yams and I don’t know how to get them back on the road to Graceland. It’s painful. For everyone. But eventually, it gets the job done.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go research giant balls of string. Ooh, and Elvis impersonators!


Maven Linda said...

Ah, the frustrating, exciting world of a Panster! I live there. I know it well. I'm always setting up crucial plot details without researching them first, only to later find out that these little details are hard to deal with, almost impossible to accomplish, and they cause a lot of trouble all along the way.

Take the newest book, BURN. The crucial plot detail is bombs onboard a cruise ship. Do you have any freaking idea how hard it is to get something like that past ship security?????? But the whole plot turns on that happening, so, by golly, there has to be a way. Somehow. Even though ship security is very, very good and all bags are x-rayed. Somehow, it has to work out, which means tons and tons of research and complicating the plot by adding in extra people that you hadn't intended to write about, but now they have to have a scene or two, which means you have to account for them later, and on and on and on.

On the other hand, if I plotted the book out beforehand, to me the story would already have been told and there wouldn't be any point in writing the book.

The devil truly is in the details, but it's a great feeling when it all works out in the end.

Darling Geek said...

Now I'm suddenly curious who the country’s leading expert on exceptionally large yams actually is...

Smarty Pants said...

I'm a plotter. I'm a flexible one, though, if that makes any sense. My outlines aren't necessarily what you'd expect - I decide that in this chapter, they kiss and end up fighting, but I don't set where or how it comes about. That way, if my characters end up pushing me towards the exit of the world's largest ball of string, that's fine. As long as they kiss, then end up fighting there.

Just keeps me on track...allows me enough slack to be creative without roaming off.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

AMEN! Can I get a hallelujah? This is SO me. It's painful, but it's the only way I roll. Like Maven Linda said, if I plot it out first, I've told the story and am no longer interested.

I have a hard time with synopses for my editor for this very reason -- but now that we both know I won't follow it and that it really doesn't resemble the final book in any way, I'm managing to work around that little hurdle.

Word verif: shape. Hmm, this seems quite Freudian somehow....

Christine said...

I plot and I pant... I tried this outlining method, very laborious, a few years ago based on a writing book. That got the job done, but I ignored my muse and the characters in my efforts to shape the story. Now I have a loose outline, flexible like SP, and use index cards. Often new ideas occur whilst showering--don't ask, I don't understand it either! I run around with post-its and index cards during first draft all the way through revision. One good thing about revision is I can skip around if I am stuck on a scene. And I plan to do exactly that today as I've battled one bit of a scene for 3 hours and I am still stuck.

Cut? Leave it alone? Who knows? But sitting in a chair for three hours and working on the same 10 sentences or third of a page is not working right now.

Perhaps a nice shower will set me free.

Sherry Werth said...

My home town was the site for the Georgia Sweet Potato Festival. Sorry, I know a zillion different ways to cook sweet taters, but I can't help with your research questions. But..if your hero needs assistance with a recipe... ; )

Great post BTW. I'm still trying to find my way so at this point I'm a little of both. I need the structure of a plotter but the freedom of a pantser. Maybe one day I'll figure it out. : )

Playground Monitor said...

I think I'm still trying to figure out what I am. I'm beginning to believe I should be more pantster because I had a detailed chapter by chapter outline of the book I sent to Special Edition. And for a while I felt like Maven Linda -- the book was done. So next time I'll have some things I want to happen and then figure out how and when and where they'll happen once I start writing.

I love sweet taters and would love some of those recipes. ::grin::

Instigator said...

I have much info on Elvis impersonators :-). And I think you just described my writing process...using wonderfully funny metaphors that I really needed this afternoon.

Can we plan a Playfriend trip the giant yam? I'm now hungry :-(


Sally said...

ROFL! This is me, too! Particularly the part about getting bored with the story after plotting. :( To me, plotting is a total buzz kill. Then, because I'm bored, I end up changing my mind about scenes 15,002 times, which creates waaaay more work than I'm in the mood for, so more than likely, I end up back-burnering the story. It's a vicious cycle of unproductivity!

Then again...if I don't at least look a *little* ahead, I end up in the toolies with a lot of work required to get me out, too.

So...this means I've gotta walk the tightrope between the two to get it just right. I've unfortunatley, yet to do this. :(