Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
On the scale of “plotters” versus “pantsers” – where plotters are those who rely on heavily outlining their stories before they proceed and pantsers are those that prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and see where the story takes them – I am confessed plotter. In fact, my tendency to plot (or is that overplot?) sometimes needlessly delays my projects because I want everything to fall neatly into place first. That is not to say I’m on the extreme end of the scale either. I don’t need to labour over every single plot point, and my short stories mostly get away with a mental roadmap to how it’s supposed to progress. But both the novels I’m working on have started as paragraph-long chapter outlines, and some works are in my version of “development hell” because I’m not comfortable with moving forward until more pieces have fallen into place.
Something needs to be said in favour of being a pantser though. Even with those novels that started as full outlines, both in the writing and editing stage there was significant divergence that perhaps could have been cultivated better with no outline. In fact, some of the newly “off the script” scenes have become some of my favourites, and at least one beta reader agrees with me. As another example, one of the short stories I’m currently finishing up was born as what I thought was a fully-baked idea, but some shower time musings have produced a twist on the ending that I then ended up weaving back through the entire story. Now I’m wondering what is even the point of that story without the new ending – that fully-baked idea seems at best half-baked.
All this makes me wonder if this propensity to outline is more useful or detrimental to my writing. Given the amount of time I spend in the editing phase reworking the plot, and adding and deleting major scenes, is the inordinate amount of time I spend on outlining those scenes in the first place a waste of time? Would I be better served if I just used that time to jump into the writing, let the story take care of itself, and then make the same investment in the editing process that I do now? All food for thought.
I don’t think I’ll ever be, nor do I want to be, a full-on pantser. I can’t just start writing only to discover that the story is going nowhere. It may take a different route, or change its intended destination along the way, but it can’t leave the house without knowing where it’s supposed to end up. I’ve heard of authors, well-established authors, who get a spark of an idea and then just set out to write a book. And then these authors, who’ve written plenty of books in the past, reach the approximate quarter-way mark, realize it’s going nowhere, and just dump the idea altogether. I mean, I get abandoning a project when you realize it’s not quite what you intended, but to have no intention at all and then drop it because it never formed, the thought makes me shudder.
Though the high-risk life of a full-time pantser is decidedly not for me, I’ve been slowly disavowing my overcommitment to plotting. Just last year I decided that if I go the full plotter route, the sci-fi story that had been forming in my head for over a decade would never see the light of day, and since I never intended to be exclusively a genre writer, I thought I’d start releasing here as a serial with a much thinner long-term outline than I’m usually comfortable with. I’m also loosening my restrictions as to how much I edit-as-I-go – prefer to fix plot-related changes in the editing stages instead of constantly rewriting the first draft.
Being able to relax about structure is already paying dividends in the sense that I feel like the writing is growing organically instead of being pushed into some kind of mold by me. It’s kind of weird to think about – I’m the writer, shouldn’t the story follow exactly what I say? I’ve been learning that it’s not exactly the case. If anything, it’s been a historic weakness of my writing – where I want my work to “say” something and I sacrifice quality for the message and come off being preachy. I’ve written a bit about this phenomenon in my post about writing dialogues.
Sometimes though, the story bucks against this original intention, or ends up arriving at the same intention but in more subtle ways.
Recently, I experienced this on a chapter-level as I set out to write Chapter 4 of The Bloodlet Sun. I had only the vaguest idea of what was “supposed” to happen in the chapter – something that could hardly fill a page of writing. But instead of overtly planning all the character movements and dialogues, I tried to imagine myself in the setting, digging deep into the POV character for that chapter. Then I tried to set him in motion, and observe. Some writers say that’s all they need for their writing process – just peek into the room and write down everything that happens. I don’t quite have their powers of being able to drift into alternate words, but it’s the closest I’ve come.
I still had to ask leading questions. What’s the character’s general perception of their situation? What’s their current mood? What’s their primary worry? What’s their short-term and long-term goals? Have they spent too long in this particular setting, so should they keep moving? And so on.
Sure, there’s was a little poking around in the dark involved and a few times the chapter stalled and I had to come away and do something else. But eventually, the chapter grew its own conflict – it told me what the character tensions would be instead of me deciding what the particular tension was going to be.
At the risk of a little hyperbole I have to say it was a weird and exhilarating feeling. Like watching your child take their first steps after you’ve been carrying them around for their entire life. Or better yet, having that child grab you by the hand and lead you somewhere.
I’ve gained a lot out of the experience. Not the least of which is a little bit of confidence that I can write myself out of a wet paper bag. Writing is an art, and by and large, art has no rules, and neither should artists themselves. If you catch yourself that you have certain rigid rules or habits as a writer, perhaps it’s time to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, and you may find yourself better off for it.
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.