Friday, 19 November 2010

Plotter or Pantser?

Plotter /ˈplɒtər/
-noun
  1. A writer who focuses primarily on plot to drive a narrative, with the hope that the characters will come along for the ride. Has been known to indulge in exhaustive planning and complex diagrams that look like one of Pete Frame's Rock Family Trees.

Pantser /pænt zər/
-noun
  1. A writer who focuses primarily on character to drive a narrative, with the hope that the plot will just make itself up and look like they meant it to be that way all along. Has been known to plunge recklessly into a new book without even knowing when or where it's set. Flies by the seat of their pants, hence the name.

One of the great/scary things about writing is how much you discover about yourself along the way. I used to think that I was a plotter, I really did. My first drafts were plotted to the nth degree, full of complex interwoven story arcs and clever twists. But there was one twist that was withheld even from me.

I am rubbish at plotting.

Seriously, when I get a manuscript back from my agent, 90% of the comments are about plot. Very rarely does she criticise the voice or the dialogue or the characterisation - except when it impedes the direction of the plot.

It pains me how long I laboured under the assumption that I was great at plotting, but I simply didn't realise there was a problem. There's a really interesting series of articles by documentarian Errol Morris about what Donald Rumsfeld famously called "unknown unknowns" - the things we don't realise we don't know. And that absolutely sums up plotting for me.

In the agonising gap between Back from the Dead going out for submission and attracting the interest of a publisher, I started a new book. It was to be another funny horror novel, all about evil children's books and body swaps and some unorthodox demon worship. After the success of the second draft planning I had done for BFTD, I decided to plot everything scrupulously in advance. Cue four weeks labouring over a word document full of bullet points while rejections flowed in on an almost daily basis. It's fair to say that this didn't put me in the best frame of mind, so with the first act plotted in detail, I decided to make a start on the book proper.

And I didn't want to write it.

I had scoffed at all of those things that other writers had said to me about the dangers of plotting too carefully. That it drains the story of interest by removing the element of surprise. After all, hadn't I painstakingly plotted BFTD from the second draft onwards? And hadn't that worked?

The key word here is second. Perhaps after the first draft I can get myself into the mindset of a plotter. Perhaps I need to as well, because that is the point where I'm likely to get feedback from someone about how crap the plot is! But for the first draft?

I'm pantsing for England.

Nick.

13 comments:

  1. I seem to do most of my plotting in my head, so I do sympathise with this. Every writer seems to do it differently, so we can all learn from each other I suppose.

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  2. I loosely plot in my head as well and tend to let the story develop as I write the first draft. I'm doing NaNoWriMo and for the first time I've actually written some of the ending before filling in all of the middle.
    I think you're right though Miriam, everyone's different and we should do what suits us best while picking up hints and tips from others along the way.

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  3. "But there was one twist that was withheld even from me. I am rubbish at plotting." Oh, how funny!

    Actually, I am a plotter. Right from the start. I plot away until I feel I'm ready to start the first draft. I have a lovely synopsis from which to work - and then I largely ignore it. Oh, I start off following the well-constructed plot, but then it takes on a life of its own and does what it fancies. I think you're right. Real plotting starts after the first draft has been poured onto the page.

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  4. Yes Yes Yes!!!!!! United we stand :O)

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  5. Pantser here...but I do mean to start plotting properly someday.

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  6. I'm not claiming I have no plan at all, but I'm definitely finding it works better for me having a looser framework, at least when there's no-one to please but me. Though, I do like to know how it's going to end, at least by the time I'm halfway through ;-)

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  7. "Pantsing for England." That made me lol. =)

    My story's very similar to your own, Nick. I thought I was a plotter, but turns out I'm rubbish at plotting and much happier when I just follow my character down their twisty path and see where they end up.

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  8. i am a plotter but always end up pantsing along the way!

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  9. Me too! Then I have to plot all over again - d'oh!

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  10. Always wanted to be a plotter, but I can't fight my true nature. I'm a pantser through and through!

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  11. Great post, Nick. I am a plotter in my day job at WP and a pantser extraordinaire in my own writing. Go figure! LOVE the word pantser.

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  12. I'm sure England appreciates it Nick! I'm more of a pantser, but still manage to have plot. Pantser on first draft and then revise with the eye of a plotter! that's my take on it!

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  13. I'm a pantser. I am really bad at plotting - the reason being I am normally happy with the characters I create, but the plot sort of has to unravel from the interaction of the characters...

    That's my excuse, at least...

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