Disclaimer: This came out more of a rant than an advice article. However, feel free to quote me if you find yourself in a similar situation.
If you’re new to online writing communities, you may soon find yourself embroiled in a debate about “plotters” and “pantsers.”
A Plotter is someone who does a lot of planning before she sits down to write. This person may outline, create charts, do character and setting profiles, and even do maps and blueprints for a story before she starts.
A Pantser can also be called a “discovery writer” and prefers to start writing as soon as possible. She figures out her characters, plot, and storyline as she goes and will generally be bored she knows if too much of the story.
Everybody insists you must be one or the other.
There’s also a common myth that experienced writers learn to “control” their stories and characters by planning more and using self-discipline to stick to their outlines. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have regurgitated this phrase at me:
“You need to control your story instead of letting it control you.”
I think the plotter vs. pantser debate is really about the same thing: How much control can or should you exert over your story. My answer is, control the plot. Not the story.
Let me back up a bit and I’ll explain. The control debate has cost me more wasted years, anguish, guilt, and frustration than anything else I can think of. In the first place, I spent upwards of 20 years bouncing back and forth between plotter and pantser methods, thinking the only way to work was to be in one camp or the other. Then, if I talked about pantsing or said anything to indicate that I wasn’t planning every aspect of my story, I would be lectured and talked down to by teachers who were, at that time, the only people I knew that might be able to help me work through some of the problems that I encountered.
I’ve written five books and am building a serial publication schedule. I still have people who feel compelled to give me the “You need to control your story” speech on a regular basis because I’m not a linear writer and I don’t write in chronological order. I am also pretty open about the fact that my characters have their own desires and will act however the fuck they want.
So, whenever I run into trouble, instead of trying to help me find ways to work within my own method, people deliver speeches about how if I “just tried” I could learn to control the story and do it the “regular” way and it would be a lot easier.
My uncensored mental response is: Fuck off.
My verbal response is usually to sputter and try to explain that “lack of control” is not the issue. I rarely succeed, because non-writers, especially teachers (unless they are also authors), don’t have a clue how the creative process ACTUALLY WORKS.
Now I’m going to attempt a written response.
Writing is my job, not my playpen. I know how to do my job. Would you try to tell someone with 20 +years of experience as a chef that you knew better than she did how her specialty meal is supposed to be made? No? I didn’t think so. That’s what you’re doing when you imply that changing to a method I’ve ALREADY tried and found ineffective will fix all my problems as an author.
(Note to new writers: Try it. It may work. There’s nothing wrong with trying it. Just don’t let anyone convince you it’s the only way to work.)
When I am designing or moving the plot, I keep control of the events, because the plot is the action that my characters need to react to. The plot, essentially, is me screwing up my characters’ comfortable existences. The plot is different from the story. The story is my characters’ emotions and responses. I don’t control those, and I don’t want to. I can usually predict them–but I value the times when I’m surprised. If I lose that element of surprise, my characters become puppets. If I try to dictate how they feel and react, the story will rarely work. Most often, it will dry up and die.
When I loose the reigns and let my characters take the story where it needs to go, I am doing it on purpose. I’m making a choice. It is fully within my power to change EVENTS or exert my influence to nudge things back on track. I do that by tweaking or altering the plot events. I rarely need to, because my characters exist as part of my subconscious, and my subconscious knows what the fuck it’s doing. If I DO need to change something, I still find that the detour I took gave me important insights and information that I couldn’t have planned for or gotten another way. That’s what happens when you practice accessing and using your creative abilities through your subconscious for a long time.
Sometimes it takes longer than I expect, and I usually end up with more stuff happening then I realized was going to. Here’s the thing. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know to plan for that. There’s absolutely no difference in the amount of time I spend that way than a plotter might spend pre-writing.
Writers and other creators need to be encouraged to work with their subconscious minds and use that part of themselves intentionally. The deepest part of our work comes from that place, and Western culture treats it like superstitious nonsense. I’ve learned ways to train and work with my subconscious, just like I’ve learned ways to improve my intellectual writing skills.
Now I’m learning ways for discovery writers to get better at figuring out what comes next, improve their structuring skills and create on a schedule without sacrificing that element of spontaneity they value.
If you’re interested, or if this article helped you, check out the followup, 2 Ways to Write AROUND Writer’s Block. And, naturally, feel free to follow the blog for more.
I’m participating in several blog challenges and activities this month.
This post is part of Blogher’s Writing Lab, #Postaday and Zero to Hero on WordPress, and BloggingFreedom.org’s 30 Day Challenge.