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Approaching the blank page – part 4

August 16, 2009
Image via Wikimedia Commons
in the public domain.

By now you may well be itching to actually write something. I’ve made you wander off from the blank page, then get all your equipment sorted out, and consider the form and genre of your story.

Now, at long last, you are ready to tackle that blank page grasshopper!

Except now you have the new issue of actually telling a story, and that’s not as simple as you may think. Sure, you now know if you’re writing a short story, or a novel, you know the genre you want to write in, you understand the major themes of your story, but now we’re down to the nuts and bolts of storytelling.

Setting, character, names, locations, description, narrative, plot. This is the coal face of writing; welcome it, embrace it, because this is what it’s all about ladies and gentlemen.

At this point, you’ll find out what type of writer you are – a pantser, or a plotter.

Pantsers are those who write “by the seat of their pants”. They sit in front of the page and let the story flow out of them, they let the characters say what seems natural. For a pantser, the story grows organically, you seem to be pulling it from your subconscious – it’s like recording events as they happen, rather than deciding them in advance. In the main, I’m a pantser, I let the story happen, and I try to witness it. It can be a frightening experience. Characters often become more real than you might wish them, developing distinct personalities. Pantsers very often find themselves in conflict with their own character who have ceased to cooperate with the wrtier, and refuse to be told what to do.

It’s fun and scary, and can be frustrating – the story you thought you would write very often becomes something different. And for the main part you are largely unsure what’s going to happen next, leaving that, perversely, in the hands of protagonists that you have created yourself

If you are a pantser, then the best advice I can give you to help now is just get on with it. Check your ego at the door, move out of the way of the story, and let the characters do what seems natural to them. If you get stuck, or things don’t seem to be working, many times this is because characters are doing things that go against their character. Listen to the character as you have invented them, and don’t push them too hard or they push back. And if you do wind up in an insurmountable plot hole, then it is no sin to go back to an earlier point in your draft when things were going well, and move in a new direction.

For some of you, the idea of being a pantser might seem crazy, frightening, even abhorrent. Welcome my friend, to the world of the plotter. A plotter will world build, develop characters, their personal histories, create the storyline (often with a structure of what will happen on a chapter by chapter basis) in advance of actually writing the story. I confess, I’m not one of these people, and I’m not terribly good at doing it, but I can see the advantages. Plotters rarely have to deal with the plot holes that a pantser can write themselves into, as plotters have worked out such problems in advance.

There are varying degrees of being a plotter. Tolkien can be seen as the archetype, constructing languages, histories, location in exquisite detail for his Middle Earth. Indeed, the Lord of the Rings is merely an excuse for showing off Tokien’s true love of myth and language. I’m not suggesting that every plotter need go to the extremes of Tokien. Most are content with a page of character detail for their protagonists and antagonists, a three act structure detailing the major plot points and some notes on locations and necessary background.

I don’t plot much, but one tool that I did find useful, which gave me some structure to work with whilst still allowing me to be a pantser, was the Snowflake method. It takes a few weeks or so to complete, but it’s great for focusing your ideas. For those taking part in NaNoWriMo this year, I recommend using the Snowflake in October.

Whilst I’ve heard some grumbling between groups of plotters and pantsers accusing each other of not being “real” writers, I find that largely nonsense. If you write, you are a real writer. Whatever method of writing works best for you is nobody’s business but your own. I liken the difference between pantsing and plotting as similar to the differences between different schools of art. Each with their own adherents, but each equally valid.

I have taken up enough of your time. You have the ideas, you have the tools. Approach that blank page with no fear. It’s time to write.

Paul would like to wish a very happy birthday to his mum, without whom none of this would be possible!
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9 Comments
  1. August 16, 2009 8:05 am

    I wing it when it comes to putting things down on the page. HOWEVER and I noticed this among many of the writers who spoke at Byron Bay last weekend, I do spend a lot of time thinking things through in my head before I do write. But that does not necessarily transcend onto the page.

    I like to think a lot of the time as the characters telling me the story. I have to admit that if I plotted my stories and novels down to the enth degree I would be bored rotten and would give up writer. Having said that – I do respect those who use this as the modus operandi.

    Plus – I’m not sure if it is totally black and white. I think everyone would admit to having elements of plotting and winging it in their writing.

  2. August 16, 2009 8:18 am

    I am and always have been a pantser. This has been true no matter what type of writing I had to do, fiction, research papers, whatever. In fact, in high school, they often made us turn in an outline before writing the term papers; I would write the term paper and then outline it. The mere idea of pre-planning gives me a headache and knots in my stomach. It is really odd, given that in all other areas of my life I plan things out in a high amount of detail.

    I have done NaNoWriMo three times and won each time, never going in with anything more than a title, twice going in without even that. Two years ago I hadn’t even settled on a genre when I started — I just started writing and ended up with a Fantasy novel (I had never written even a single line of fantasy in my life, and had only read a small handful of books in the genre before that point). I think this fantasy novel draft is one of my best works.

    One of the things I like about being a pantser is that when I am writing, I really become part of the story. There have been times that I’ve been writing, say, a battle scene and have been so ‘possessed’ by it that I come out of the writing session shaking with an adrenaline rush. I assume that this happens to plotters, too, but since I have no real certainty of what the outcome of a battle, argument or awards ceremony might be I feel like extra nervousness and excitement builds up. (There have been some stories where the main character didn’t make it out of a battle in the middle of the story, which, of course, changed the story’s direction a fair bit.)

    That said, I wish I could be a plotter, at least sometimes. I think it would help me with editing second drafts because I could take what I’ve written and then plot it out so that I can build up the consistency more efficiently. I also think it would be a nice change of pace to go into a story knowing what it was going to be about without worrying that I might end up stuck in some plot corner that I can’t escape. I have never once been able to accomplish this with what I consider success, so I don’t even really try anymore.

    I wonder: do other pantsers wish they could be plotters, at least sometimes? How about plotters — do they wish they could be pantsers once in a while?

  3. August 16, 2009 6:59 pm

    I too get extended moments of being possessed by the story I am writing. It can be both terrifying and exhilerating.

    Does “plotting” qualify if it is vaguely sketched out in your head? I spend so much time in my head but not sure if it would qualify me as a plotter. I know if I even write down ideas in a book it kills them – almost instantly. Which makes for a rather raucous head at time.

  4. August 16, 2009 10:19 pm

    Hand held directly up as a “pantser” ( what an alarming word)

    This is in direct opposition of how I operate my life in general -which in itself is interesting. An avid spreadsheet fan for capturing everything from shopping lists to travel information, our home library is cataloged ( though not shelved in that manner… that will come when I have time), I operate directly from my large Franklin ( time management diary for want of a better word) and after being out of the corporate world for 6 years have only just given up on timetabling events in Outlook. I am a natural organiser and enjoy order and good preparation.

    I’d never really thought of it before – but its a bit weird that I would attack writing in such a different manner than I operate life… but then again; I believe that I am simply a tool for characters to express their stories.

    Thanks for sharing this- and for the link in the snowflake method. will have to check this thoroughly in prep for NanoWriMo

  5. August 16, 2009 10:24 pm

    To answer questions – yes I do wish I were a plotter at times – it seems to be a much more organised and sensible manner to write. However, my characters don’t tend to like it if I try to tell them what to do.

  6. August 17, 2009 12:39 am

    When you have characters Annie who also operate out of their Franklins and off their spreadsheets – perhaps then you can come together and plot out the story .. what a bizarre concept! But until then … the view and the exhilaration of flying by the seat of your pants is far too fun to go without – for both writers and characters.

  7. August 17, 2009 4:57 am

    I do a combination of both, at varying degrees at varying times depending on the story. I tend to outline more the longer the work.

    At the moment, my novella has some basic plot points, so I’m using that as a guide to ‘pants’ to details and work out the rest, where I’ll probably outline it again and write a second draft.

  8. anandserpi permalink
    August 18, 2009 5:16 am

    Aside from short stories and novels, I also write screenplays for living. With screenplays, I am a definite plotter, just because it needs to be done quickly and efficiently for the shoot next day.

    However, when it comes to novels/shorts, I’m more comfortable being a pantser, although I always form the story in my head (intro, middle, end) first before even begin writing first sentence. I agree with most of the comments, it makes you closer to the characters and on the plus side, you’ll never know where the story takes you, so it becomes unpredictable.

    But, my biggest fear with this method is you’ll find a hard time to find resolution. The probability of losing focus on the story and characters are highe. And when you re-read everything, sometimes it becomes a rambling, rather than a novel. It reminds me of the movie “the wonder boys” with Michael Douglas as a Professor who tried to write his second novel, only to find that he’s been writing for over a thousand pages and nowhere near finish.

    So I kind of agree with Benjamin here, doing a combination.

    Good luck!

  9. August 18, 2009 4:23 pm

    I am a pantser…no wait, a plotter. No, that’s not right, I am a pantser….but then again…..
    Oh I don’t know what I am :)

    I am a visual person. I can see my story in my imagination as if it were a movie, complete with sound and dialog. I let the movie play and I edit scenes that don’t work as I go along – developing the plot, adding new characters, changing dialog and scenes and reordering the scenes until my “movie” looks like something I would want to watch. Then I sit down and write what I saw in my head, often closing my eyes to recall the scene and dialog so my fingers can put into words what my imagination can so easily see and hear.

    In my current project I am on my second draft so the story is all worked out and I’m just tweaking it. I knew exactly HOW and WHEN a certain character dies but while I was tweaking that scene the weirdest thing happened: One of my other characters died! Nobody told me! I didn’t know he was going to die – now I have to write that guy out of future scenes because he up and died on me with out telling me. How rude!

    Just the other night I had a dream about my novel, and in it a scene went into a completely different direction then what I had carefully constructed and committed to paper. I also learned in my dream that one of my characters spoke with an Australian accent. Who knew? :)

    In short, it doesn’t matter how much I carefully plot my story, whether in my head or on paper, things happen along the way that I don’t expect and I just go with it. So I guess I am a pantser despite the amount of plotting that I do.

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