Plantser…

There are two standard ways to write a novel: the “Planner” method and the “Pantser” method.

Planners have (or claim to have) everything planned out. They figure out everything first, outline every detail, and then write the book. This method will work because it creates a pile of text with sufficient words and all the parts of a story. But, there is no Ah-hah moment. It‘s all laid out. Where’s the joy?

These books are often plot driven. Too often I see characters bent to fit a preconceived idea even though the author might feel the character would do something else.

Pantsers “just write”. Real Pantsers don’t have a plan… Writing this way is possible, but you at least need an idea!
Steven King is a Pantser done right. He starts with an idea or interesting concept, finds a starting group of characters, and then allows them to behave realistically.

This method can work. But, you need to have a good concept, and a handle on your characters (a handle… not a complete plan (please skip the second grade report card!)). You can succeed if you have the right skills and mindset.

But, people think the Pantser method is easy, “you jump in and write”. What they miss is that people like Steven King have had a lot of practice and an idea or concept in mind. Without those your story has a good chance of acting like a cow that finds a hole in the fence.

Being a Pantser takes work, it’s just different work. But, I like the freedom for surprises (that’s part of the fun).

Unless you‘re willing to put in the work; all I can say is “MOOO!”

When writing, I try to hold the middle ground. I have a situation and some big challenges planned. I have a handle on my characters and key events thought out (“fixed points in time” for you Doctor Who fans…). But, I don’t plan everything.

In one spot I may say, “Here my characters move out of their comfort zone into their adventure.” In another I may ask, “If my characters do this, how does the government react?”

I have a plan; however, I also allow things to move and grow as I learn about my characters and story.

This is the “Plantser” method. You plan (you know won’t happen), but you also leave yourself some freedom for the spontaneity and surprises that can make those great moments of literature.

Starting on the first, I’m once again doing NANOWRIMO dear reader. You might not hear much from me until December. My plan is here. And, I’m looking forward to having my questions answered!

I invite you to join us in the fun and madness of trying to write a 50,000+ word book in a month dear reader.

The choice is yours. And, I’ll see you next post!

Keyboards and pruning shears

Some people might not see how yard work ties in with the writing process, but it does. It’s not just in some strange scene or subgenre, and it’s not because I’m more or less always thinking about writing.

Step one planning and prep.

Sometimes you get really really lucky and a plant or story grows where you want it to without you having to do anything. But, in a lot of those case the ‘volunteer’ plant or story happens a side effect of what you or some other living creature has already done.

It happens but it’s not something that can be counted on to happen as often as we might like.

Usually we have to do some planning, to decide what we want to plant (or write) and how we want to go about it, both step wise and organization wise. This can include sketches, story boards, outlines, or whatever other planning tools you see fit. What matters is you figure out what you want to put where and have a plan that makes it possible.

It is also a good idea to do some fertilization. In the yard that means getting needed nutrients into the ground. In writing it means doing some reading and research. In either case it means you’re making sure your seed (story or plant) has what it needs to grow.

Sometimes you get lucky and a cool plant or story ‘just happens’. Most of the time you have to put in the initial work before the ‘magic’ really happens.

Step two growth

Hopefully our prework has gone well and our little seed starts to take off. The job at this point has a lot to do with making sure our seedling continues to have what it needs. In this first phase of growth (that’s a first draft for your fiction and nonfiction writing) a lot of what we are doing is trying to get the seedling to grow big and strong enough that we can start shaping it the way we want it, shaping it so that it can grow into what we want and start producing for us.

Usually we don’t’ want to do too much tinkering at this point, but the time is coming!

Step three training and pruning

And then the day comes that our first draft is finished. Our seedling story or plant is ready to start the process of being shaped and managed into what it needs to be in order to achieve the maximal, most beautiful and productive, success.

There is a lot going on at this point. We need to be filling holes caused by pesky gophers or plot points we missed; adding more fertilizer, protective chemicals, and other needed things (researching that one arcane point that’s suddenly important); and, possibly most scary, pruning.

Pruning isn’t a whole lot of fun. My roses have thorns that just love to stick me when I’m trimming. It hurts just as bad to accept that I need to trim out that bit of text or side character that I really like.

The truth is, if the bit doesn’t belong there or is going to cause problems it is best to cut it. Pruning helps get rid of sick, dying or otherwise problematic material that hinders the growth and productivity of our plants and our stories.

But, we don’t want to just trim willy-nilly. We need to put real thought into what to cut and what to keep. We don’t want to kill the best growth to get at one wonky stick…

Often when you’re working on the roses you need to get near and far views before you cut. This applies in writing as well: there comes a point where you need distance. Often in writing this distance comes from someone on the outside, someone who isn’t the writer (or even the main editor), someone who can read the thing and give you feedback to help you know if you are achieving the effect you want.

A bountiful harvest

Hopefully the plants and stories we nurture will reward us for our labors. They may do this with beauty, fruits and veggies, prestige, or even good old cash money. If this is what we want (and you know it is…) we have to put in work before the seed hits the soil or the pen hits the paper. And then we have to continue the process right up to the moment of harvest (and even do the finish work after…).

We can do this, but it takes time and effort. With plants and pages we need to develop our skills: our ‘eye’ to see; our understanding of techniques and subject matter; our ability to do the work; and all the things that are needed for success. Developing these things is what separates the winners from the losers at the state fair and the best seller list.

We can do this dear reader. It takes effort. It takes study and thought. But, we can do this.

Now get out there and do! (and I’ll see you next post)

Outlines: It is written! But not really…

Outlines are one of those tools that people like to push on writers, students, and others who work with ideas and symbols. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. There seems to be two main factors that will significantly predict the successful use of outlines: the project and the person or persons doing the writing.

I have to admit sometimes for some projects outlines have helped me. But, that’s depended on the project in question and how I have used the outline. For a really ‘good’ outline (the kind my high school teachers liked) the best procedure seems to be: take something already written; read it; and then write the outline based on what you read. That’s what we did in my AP computer class and occasionally in English… Writing things first and then doing the outline.

It really does work, if your purpose is for someone to grade you based on your outline. If you’re actually going to use your outline as a writing tool, then you’re probably going to want to do things the other way around (unless you’re doing a rewrite…). And, you’re probably going to want to understand what an outline really is.

But we already know what an outline is…

You might. People who read this blog are usually pretty smart. If you have some good ideas on using outlines then how about leaving a comment?  Of course you might also want to know a little more about outlines and how to use them. And that’s why we’re here today…

The simple, simple definition is that an outline is a frame or skeleton around which you write what you’re planning to write. A better definition states that an outline is a theoretical framework or structure around which you write what you’re planning to write. I stress that it is a theoretical structure because many a time the outline you create in the beginning has changed, or needs to be changed, by the time you’re done.

When you are creating an outline for something you intend to write (or rewrite) you are thinking about what you intend to write, and creating the framework for it as you think it will go. It can help you get started and stay on course. It can help you to make sure not to forget anything. It can also lead you astray.

As you are doing the actual writing you may learn things about what you are writing. If you’re writing fiction you learn about your characters. Occasionally you realize your hero (or villain, or sidekick, or…) would do thing in a different way than you had planned in the outline. If you’re writing nonfiction you occasionally realize that you need to add something else, or to change the order of things in the text. When you find yourself in a place where you need to change things (usually between page 50 and 2xx…) you have two choices: plug along by our original outline even though you know it’s wrong, or you can rethink your outline.

Some might argue that you should throw out the outline entirely. Often those folks are the same ones that didn’t want to do an outline in the first place. I encourage you to modify the outline (or build a new one), but don’t just throw it out and ‘wing it’. The point of an outline (like a business plan or budget) is to get you to think about what you’re doing. If you revise the outline, and look at what the change will impact elsewhere in the outline, you have a real chance to stay on course and create a superior product. If you plug along with an obviously flawed plan you will end up with an obviously flawed product (if you finish at all…). If you toss the outline without replacing who knows where you’ll end up (‘pantser’ games is another post).

The key is to stay flexible

There isn’t anyone who is going to grade you on how you stuck to your initial outline (unless this is a class project maybe). The point is to create a good product. Often that means changing your outline along the way. You’re still thinking about what you’re doing, but you’re also reacting to your increased knowledge and understanding. If something needs to be changed change it.

Often people that dislike outlines, and those who blame a writing failure on the outline, are those who consider the outline a carved in stone, law of the land, fact. In practice if you understand that the outline is only a tool, a guideline and thought experiment, it can be really helpful.

So, yes, I do recommend outlines. And, I recommend revising them as needed.

That’s it for this one dear reader. Planning tools are here to help you, use them! See you next post.