Plotter |ˈplätər| noun: 1. Someone who makes plans; a writer who maps out her story before she begins. 2. A sensible, logical person.
Pantser |pants*er| noun: 1. A person who works by the seat of her pants, esp. a writer. 2. Said person who writes dozens, maybe hundreds, of pages only to delete them. 3. Someone who will, in the wee small hours of the morning, weep into her computer keyboard because she realizes this %^&@ story is boring, the characters have no purpose, and the plot is going nowhere.
I confess. I am a pantser. I know. I can hear all you plotters out there. Life is easier when you’re a plotter. If you’re a plotter, the story would have a road map, a rough outline. You can avoid writing your characters into a metaphorical corner, where the only way out is to dump hundreds (yes, hundreds) of pages. When you’re stuck, you can go back to your outline and get unstuck. You know What Happens Next. I know all this. It’s exactly what I tell my writing students.
Yet something kept me from writing an outline. In the first flush of excitement for a new story, I don’t want to pull momentum away from development. I like having the spark of an idea and exploring, seeing what the story is about, who the characters are. It unfolds for me as it appears on the page. There’s something magical in that.
Plotting uses a different part of the brain. It’s like fitting puzzle pieces together or playing a game of Tetris. It requires focus and planning. Plotting feels like someone asking me what I want for dinner next Tuesday.
Some authors are devoted plotters. John Grisham: “I’ve learned that the more time I spend on the outline, the easier the book is to write.” Katherine Anne Porter: “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.” And this is what J.K. Rowling calls her “basic plot outline.” I’m starting to get hives.
But I understand that you can’t write a series of books as complex as Harry Potter without keeping track of the subplots and characters’ relationships to each other, and I also get that suspense/thrillers like the ones Grisham writes need to have a certain plot progression. Outlines help with both of those things.
A few months ago, I gave it a shot. I had come to a point in my novel in progress that I needed to know how the main conflict was going to play out so I could start leading my characters there. I went old school and did the whole Roman numeral style thing with little indentations and everything. It was a long, tedious mess. If the characters could come to life from the page, even they would complain how bored they were.
Fast forward to last week. I had to write a novel synopsis for a workshop I’ll be attending this summer. I wrote a paragraph and a (muse/bolt of lightning/demi-god) gave me some inspiration to keep writing. Before I knew it, I was writing an outline. But it didn’t look like an outline, it was a stream-of-consciousness, free-form paragraph that went on for a page.
It needs some tinkering and a change of focus, but now I have a much better idea of where the story is going and how to get my characters from point A to point B. Dare I say it, I am now officially a plotter.
Let me know if you outline. I’d love some suggestions.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
A little plug: I’ll be teaching my popular creative writing class this summer through The Loft Literary Center, beginning June 15. It’s eight weeks, all online.