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Pantsing the Plotter (Many Darlings Were Harmed in the Making of This Post)

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I am thrilled to co-post today with John Robin [2], a faithful and generous WU reader and commenter. While I have not officially met Mr. Robin, and while he is Canadian and mysterious, and while he doggedly hides behind Leo Tolstoy’s profile photo, he and I have become good pals via the magic of email and Facebook. John is dedicated to honing his own fiction, using Author Accelerator (check out Lisa Cron’s post [3] for details about this editorial coaching service) to help him get the most out of the drafting process. With his current manuscript BLOOD DAWN well underway, John is building both a community and a following on Inkshares [4], a hybrid crowdfunding-based publisher (think traditional publishing meets Kickstarter). Welcome, my bearded Canadian friend!

Sarah: Let’s dig right in. You used the term, “pantsing the plotter” in one of your WU comments. I loved the image of the unsuspecting Plotter losing his pants at the hands of the mischievous Pantser. But as a Plotter myself, I’m not jazzed about getting pantsed. Will you explain this phrase and share how that process unfolds as you write a novel?

John: I spend a lot of time plotting. I don’t plot in a normal way, either. A lot of the plotting I do happens in my head, a habit which comes from playing chess. This means that my plotting is never fixed. It’s dynamic–just like in a chess game. Instead of seeing fixed plot points, I see a tree of possibilities, and I always question how things can be done better. Creativity, to me, is like shuffling a deck of cards; there are always new arrangements and surprises, things you overlook if you fixate on one particular aspect you are attached to.

So when I say my writing method is one of “pantsing the plotter,” I’m talking about that freedom which leads to surprises, consideration of novel structure before writing, but willingness to discover better things–be those changes in the plan that come to me when I’m stuck in rush hour traffic (the best time to plot), or discoveries that come to me when I’m in a scene and my characters tell me they need something that I would never have guessed they need.

Sarah: Sure, but writers like to identify as Plotters or Pantsers, often debating whose way is right. Wouldn’t it be grand if assembling a novel were like assembling an IKEA Mökelby drop-leaf table? A page of instructions, with pretty black and white diagrams to explain steps 1-20, only a lot less confusing and no Allen wrench required. I was recently on a writing retreat during which I had time to wonder, How did Author X write her book? How did Author Y write his book? Are they Pantsers or Plotters, and, since they are considered successful, can I copy their method? Sure, I am a Plotter by nature. But I can change! I can pants my Plotter if Author $Z$ indicates I should. Isn’t it OK to change for the publishing industry?  

John: Sarah, I can definitely relate to this struggle! I’m sure WU readers can too. Is there a Holy Grail of writing methods? I don’t think so. I like to think of it like the development of a science–in this case, the science of self-discovery. It will be different for all of us. And for me, just like my “pantsing the plotter” approach to writing, I’m forever reconsidering how I write and am willing to ask, “How can I do this better?” And I just love learning from other writers. I don’t copy anyone, but I find there’s often a little something I pick up that changes how I do things in a big way.

Sarah: Right, right. I don’t copy anyone either. Never. Not once. I will say that over time, I notice I do have an inner, under Pantser, and without her help, my over-plotted story is a floppy, dead snake. But Stephen King said something that makes me feel I should abandon my inner Plotter altogether:

I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.

Not compatible? Is creativity only born of spontaneity? Are Plotters not creative? Indeed, artists are supposed to be wild and daring! Free and unpredictable! But there I am with my map, GPS, a flashlight, snacks and a change of socks in case I get lost between point A and B. I must not be a true creative. And King is right: a story does need an element of spontaneity. A spark. A pulse.

John: I just love Mr. King’s statement (henceforth called Stephen’s Axiom). For me it hangs in the air like a piano chord. But I don’t think it means Plotters aren’t creative. I think, if anything, it speaks to the complexity of Story, and how the act of plotting can eclipse the true possibilities of Story if you rely on it entirely. In your case, Sarah, you have embraced your inner, under Panster, bringing her out to give those floppy snakes just enough vigor and venom.

We all do what we must to capture this ethereal reality called Story, and regardless of our approach, the need for spontaneity–the willingness to abandon our plans, no matter how radical–in favor of finding just what the Story needs must trump all else. The free, spontaneous discovery of the story is an act of living Story itself, something which cannot be appreciated in its fullness while sitting with an outline. The outline, like a reconnaissance mission plan, will prepare you, but until you’re on the shore of Dieppe staring into gunfire, you don’t know what it really means to live and breathe the reality of it. Lisa Cron [5] puts it brilliantly with her concept of Story anesthetizing the part of our brain that tells us This is not really happening. Story takes us to another dimension, makes it real; in my opinion, more than real, because I truly believe that the Story world is a higher plane of reality, and we as storytellers are like shamans, going in and bringing truth out into this world for our fellow human beings that they may grow in it.

Sarah: Pansting the Plotter then is discovering that spontaneity. Let’s say we’re hiking in a forest; we generally follow the trail map, but we also remain on the lookout for off-trail adventures. We watch for unplotted bears, chipmunks, hawks or . . . I don’t know, a barracuda–something totally unexpected–waiting around the next bend. Or we hope there’s a barracuda waiting around the next bend, yes, just up ahead, beyond the IKEA Mökelby drop-leaf table, snacking on a plate of köttbullar because perhaps the story needs a köttbullar-eating barracuda that was not part of our original outline.

John: Mmm! Sounds like my kind of picnic. And that’s a great way to look at it. The real work for a writer is navigating that forest, watching out for quicksand or attacking snakes, or meeting up with hungry köttbullar-eating barracudas who will leave you profoundly altered. Structure cannot be ignored–be it something you think about beforehand, during, or after when you rewrite–but the need to be spontaneous is critical, a key to accessing Story in its deepest, richest form.

Sarah: Beautiful. Thank you, my friend, for sharing yourself and your ideas with the WU community.  Please do keep WU posted about your Inkshares adventures . . . and let’s keep on pantsing our way to publication!

Your turn, WU’ers! Do you enjoy when your Plotter gets pantsed, or does this make you nervous and chilly? How have you seen your plotting vs. pantsing approach evolve over time? Do you agree with Stephen’s Axiom or do you affirm another axiom? Do you think John should ditch the Tolstoy photo? Thank you for sharing!

About Sarah Callender [6]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.