Honore de Balzac writing. [Image source: http://www.collinpiprell.com/category/writing/page/3/]
Part #1: The Concept, and My Story
Advice is everywhere. Advice on writing is everywhere.
If you’re starting out writing – or if like me you’ve been writing a while, but are starting out submitting and publishing – then at some time you’ll search for advice. Should you write short stories or novels? How do you find your voice while remaining readable? You must evaluate your writing in cold blood to know if it’s good for anything – so how long you’d wait between getting an idea and deciding it’s worth a story; or between ‘finishing’ a story and deciding it’s worth sending to magazines? How long should a pitch be? How you’d make time to network, blog, and do social media?
It’s all overwhelming. You need help. You’ll look for advice. You’ll find it.
By the wagonload.
Writers’ blogs. Writers’ resource sites. YouTube channels. Literary agencies offering to edit your manuscript, or to look at your portfolio and suggest magazines that might publish you. Any number of intensive workshops at vacation spots, free webinars, and paid online courses. You’ll get all kinds of advice. Often contradictory.
‘Start a blog,’ says one bestseller novelist. ‘And a vlog and a fully-featured website. Become a social media star. You’ve got to put yourself out there.’
‘Forget blogging,’ says another. ‘I don’t even do interviews. My books sell themselves.’
‘Write novels: they sell better than short-story collections.’
‘Write short stories: they’re easier to write, and easier to publish individually. And you’ll feel a sense of achievement putting out several finished pieces.’
Even if you focus on advice from highly successful writers in your genre; and even if you’ve decided to only ever write mystery novels, and to target popular rather than critical success, and are now looking for ‘how to write a popular mystery novel’ – there’ll still be contradiction in the advice you find. At some point, you’ll confront the meta-question about advice:
How do I decide which advice to take to become a better writer?
Struggling with this question, here’s one concept I’ve found useful: the pantser vs. the plotter.
This taxonomy of writers has been articulated by several writers over the years. I’ve heard both Stephen King and Jarry Jenkins discuss pantsers vs. plotters: writers who write by-the-seat-of-their-pants vs. writers who plot everything before they write a word. First I’ll tell you how my writing has benefited from understanding this dichotomy and identifying where I stand. Then, in part #2 of this article, I’ll suggest how, once you’ve identified which kind of writer you are – you can, at every stage of the writing process, select the advice that’ll work for you.
Jack Kerouac writing.
[Image Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/sep/16/jack-kerouac-ex-girlfriend]
By nature I’m a plotter. Defining ‘nature’ as Orwell did: “the state a man has attained when he reaches adulthood.” Clearly, people can change their nature. As we move through adulthood, events shape us against your will; our decisions to acquire new skills shape us in positive ways. We’re always changing our ‘nature.’ We can change it deliberately in ways that further our aims, in writing or on life. But we can’t change unless we learn, first, who we are.
I’m an extreme plotter.
I spent most of my 20s working on a series of epic novels. I plotted the novels from start to finish. Drafted character arcs. Wrote chapter plans. Drew ideograms illustrating relationships between themes, and their progression. Scribbled and organised an obscene quantum of notes. Then I began writing. And I didn’t finish. For, when I’d finished the nth draft of Chapter One, I didn’t progress to Chapter Two. I stayed on Chapter One. I’d spent all that time plotting: for all that time to have been worthwhile, my Chapter One couldn’t just be decent – it had to be perfect! So I reread Chapter One. Redrafted, inventorised, edited, rewrote. And repeat and rinse, and rinse and repeat, until I was fit to go mad. Every time I revisited a piece that I’d thought I’d finished, I was driven to make it grander. So I kept stuffing it more full of detail and complexity. Every new detail I added made the whole structure imperfect again: bits things sticking out, bits missing. So back I went. Editing the whole to make it smooth again. Planing the edges.
I was stuck in a mire of perfectionism, obsessiveness, and anxiety. Things that can visit anyone. In my case, they came from overplotting. From being an extreme plotter.
I learned a lot. Discipline. Persisting against all odds – working away at one thing even when I myself could no longer see the end. Perseverance. I learned how to plan a novel, a chapter, a segment of a chapter (see above re: epic novel) keeping in mind several things the segment had to achieve. I learned to love editing and rewriting: indispensable to the writing process even of seasoned writers. I fully alienated that love of one’s own first draft that every writer starts out with.
I learned a lot. But I could’ve learned a lot more. Most importantly, I might’ve finished the novels. Might’ve written a set of competent short stories. That would’ve been delightful. And useful. I’d have had something to show for thousands of lonely hours playing the tormented genius.
You learn to be a better writing just by writing. No matter what. But how quickly and effectively you learn – and how many pieces you produce along the way, and how satisfactory the process feels – all this depends on what you write. How you write. I learned a lot spending my 20s as an extreme plotter. But I could’ve learned a whole lot more, had I balanced my natural plotting with some acquired pantsing. For years, though I kept writing from habit, I felt that writing was an impossible task. I almost accepted that I’d never finish any damned thing. I kept writing as a form of selfish, self-punitive penance.
Looking back, I can laugh at myself. Living through those years was dispiriting. By plotting myself into writing paralysis, I’d worked myself into a ridiculous state of mind.
Origin notwithstanding, perfectionism is insidious. Perfectionism cripples and frustrates. My perfectionism originated from my plotting. My insistence on plotting down to the last detail, then planing away the last trace of roughness – and then on fitting in every last planned detail into the text, whether the detail fit the text or not. I spent more time plotting than actually writing. Replotting and revising. Writing detailed chapter plans. Then writing detailed inventories of what each chapter had. Then writing a plan for how to bridge the gap.
Now I’m on my way to finishing a novel. I’ve finished many short stories, flash stories, microstories, and articles. None of them is perfect. But they’re finished. Published. And each finished piece has taught me how to write my next story better. I’ve learned to move on. Learning to pants was key for me to become a happier writer and a better person.
I began finishing things only when I broke myself out of being an extreme plotter.
I’m not saying it’s bad to plot. I’m saying that if you spend all your time plotting, you won’t write. If you spend all your time rereading and replotting, you won’t finish anything. You’ll lose your motivation. You’ll develop a late-hate relationship with writing. You’ll wonder why writing is so hard for you, when so many people are finishing and publishing books. You’ll torture yourself all your waking hours, and in your sleep too – thinking you ought to be writing, plotting to write – and not writing. Because, by plotting yourself into a ditch, you’ve made writing too hard.
I’ve also flirted with the other side. With extreme pantsing. When you’re sick of being one thing, and it’s got you nowhere – you react by trying its obverse. Last year I spent a few months spinning off stories with little plotting, or none. Some of those spontaneous pieces were good. Others were shit. Looking back, the pattern is clear. Short pieces, with one sound central idea that I’ve got clear in my head, I can write well spontaneously. Anything longer – and I need to make a note or two for it to work.
How can you use the concept of pantser vs. plotter to become a better writer? My argument is simple: once you’ve identified which you are, you should seek out advice on how to shift towards the other end. I’m arguing for this not because I believe that “Balance is its own end.” No. I’m arguing for this because some things come easy to you: so, to develop as a writer, it’s the other things you need to work more on. Nobody has to advise you to do what comes naturally. The advice you seek should, then, be like your other half: it should remind you and teach you to do what you wouldn’t do if left alone.
Plotting is not hell. Pantsing is not a magic bullet. The point is that writing well requires both plotting and spontaneity. Some of us are more inclined to plot, and must push ourselves to let go. Some of us are predisposed to wing it, and would benefit from chalking out a plot outline first. If an extreme plotter never finishes potentially perfect pieces – an extreme pantser churns out shit. First-draft, never-revised, unconsidered drivel. I’ve done both.
Every writer can benefit from every piece of advice. But advice is overabundant. So, as you comb the internet for advice on writing, here’s a first step: Identify whether you’re a pantser or a plotter. Things that you find easy, and things you struggle with – may then possibly fall into a pattern and help you prioritise your skill-building.
Writing is a complex task. Some aspects of writing (character development) are better done spontaneously; others aspects (plot) favour a planned approach. A competent writer has developed both sets of muscles, and can switch modes depending on the size of a piece – and its format and deadline.
Are you a pantser or a plotter? End of part #1.
End of part #1.
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