Sunday, April 20, 2014

Of Plotters and Discovery Writers aka Pantser

There has already a lot been written about Plotters and Discovery Writers, for example there is this awesome guest post from Karen Henderson on The Struggling Writer or several episodes of Writing Excuses took care of the topic.

So what can I add to it? A lot, well, at least my humble opinion and the way I approach it. 

What is What?

First, some definitions. The plotter is a type of writer who outlines his story before he starts to actually write it, using writing tools, such as Scrivener, Storyist or simply excel or index cards. The discovery writer aka pantser sits down and writes, letting himself be surprised where the story takes him. The word pantser seems to have its origin from somebody who sits down on his pants and writes. What an ugly word. This must have been invented by somebody who hates discovery writing, I'm actually glad they haven't called it something like Butter. I haven't heard any Discovery Writer calling himself Pantser. Out of respect for colleague writers, I'll call it discovery writing going forward.

Second, these two forms hardly exist, at least not in their purest form - just like the long tail of normal distribution. Extreme plotting would mean write the novel before writing the novel and an extreme Discovery Writer would sit down and start with the first word without knowing anything about the story. The truth is in between, from plotting chapter and scenes, having all character sheets ready and lots of background material saved, to knowing only very little like what is the topic of the story or who is the main character. I've also heard from Plotters, that they would have two outlines, if they had two possible ways the story could go. Just in case.

I am an Inbetweener

I can plot and for business papers I'm the perfect plotter. Usually I write 3rd to 4th level outlines with keywords for each point, before I even start the paper. I can't do this with my creative writing. I tried it, I really did. I got stuck in the middle with an immense urge to write the scenes. And the worst thing was: I lost some of the great scenes that emerged in my head, simply because of the fact I didn't write them while plotting.

After having written for a while now, I found my optimal writing approach:

  1. The vague story: In order to sit down, I need an initial idea of the story. That can be as little as the topic "fear" and its different shades or the personality of the protagonist, who tries to solve his dating issues by applying the strategies and techniques he learned during his MBA.
  2. The very high level outline: With the vague story in my head, I do a very rough outline, something like: Main character had only unsuccessful relationships in past. Led by the idea, that he is a successful manager, he tries to apply the techniques learned during his MBA. He meets somebody, but is not able to overcome the manager and getting real. The ending, however, might not be defined yet. Either he is successful if there should be a happy end or not. The focus should be on the main character and his developments, rather than the story being a romantic novel. 
  3. Sit down and write
  4. Plotting/re-plotting: After having reached the first third of the story, I know enough about the characters to do the character sheets. This is important to remain consistent. At that point, I also know enough to do the plotting in deeper granularity, including a re-plotting of what I've written so far. Sometimes I have to add another chapter or scene in the part I've already written.
  5. Keep on writing
  6. Plotting/re-plotting: After two third of the story I need to repeat the re-plotting. It is healthy to make a step back in order to not loose the big picture of the story.  Step six can be repeated if necessary several times.
  7. Write the rest

The Risk of Being Me and How to Mitigate

Even though I feel comfortable with my approach, it doesn't prevent me from the various pitfalls of discovery writing. 

Writers block as sword of Damocles to be named first. This could happen when I the vague story idea and the arising conflicts are not strong enough or when the plotting/re-plotting wasn't done thoroughly. If it is the plotting/re-plotting the solution is simple: Do it again, but better, and don't hesitate to cut out parts already written if they don't fit anymore. In case it is the conflict, try to add more or different layers of conflict. However, if additional conflict doesn't solve it you might come to the conclusion, that the conflict serves only a short story. 

Lost in your own story, doing circles with your characters or writing chapter over chapter without real progress. If this happens to you, the solution is to get back into plotting/re-plotting. I've also heart some other advice which I have tried once and it worked: Cut everything back to the last place you've been excited about your story.

Increased revising and editing efforts. Yes, that comes with it. Live with it.

Other issues, I deal with them when they come up. Or rather when I discover them.

Happy discovering
Your writer in a foreign land

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