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Plotting vs Pantsing (Part 2)

Updated: Apr 16

As Abigail mentioned in her previous blog post, I’m going to be taking over her blog for a bit while she is on maternity leave. Before I get started, I thought I’d take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Maddy and I write science fiction and poetry. Abigail and I met at our MFA program and have become writing survival buddies and I am so honored that she trusts me enough to write some posts. Something I love about our friendship is how we are both incredibly similar and different at the same time. I look forward to taking some of her thoughtful blog posts and adding to the conversation in ways that I hope you find useful in your writing journey.

Two weeks ago, Abigail talked about the two schools of thought when it comes to writing a first draft: plotter vs pantser. This idea is also referred to as a gardener vs an architect. Gardeners plant their seeds and watch their garden grow, letting the wild beauty blossom of its own accord. Whereas architects work from a blueprint with exact measurements and set angles. No matter what step they are on, they always have their blueprint to refer to. As an architect when it comes to writing, I have spreadsheets and maps for everything related to my novel. There are a lot of merits to being an architect but there are downfalls that you should watch out for as well.

Friendly reminder that there is no right or wrong way to craft your story. You should do whatever feels natural for you as long as you are willing to find ways to work around roadblocks as the come up. Being an architect means that I always have a sense of direction. No matter how lost or discouraged I might feel, I can look back at the plan and re-set my focus. Gardeners can get lost because they don’t always know where they want the story to go. As their garden grows wild and beautiful, there are so many different directions they could go that it may be hard to find an ending that makes sense. Take the infamous ending of Game of Thrones for example. George R. R. Martin says himself that he is a gardener and since we still don’t have the next book, I bet he’s struggling to find a way to make it all make sense in the end. The ending of the show felt wrong to a lot of viewers because even the author didn’t know exactly how it would end and the writers of the show had to tie a bunch of loose ends together to make what they had hoped would be a satisfying ending (it wasn’t). When there was no set plan for how all these loose ends were to be resolved, it felt forced when the writers tried to tame a wild garden into nice neat rows.

To start to plan a novel, I start off with what I know. This can be simple as in a theme, a setting, imagery, a character, or a piece of technology or society that I want to explore. Then, I start to sketch out a little further and get a general story together, such as let’s say this story will follow the traditional hero’s journey. With a general story in mind, I try to imagine what the main story beats are such as where we start, what is the inciting action, what is the climax, the falling action, and of course, how does it resolve. Initially, I like to keep this vague. Working backwards from here, I start to ask questions. What type of person would be on this journey? What sort of society would they be living in that would compel them to go on this journey? What themes are we wanting to explore? Think of a detective gathering clues and putting them on a cork board trying to piece together what happened based on what they know. You can’t know everything before starting so sometimes, like a detective, you may have to make educated guesses based on the evidence you have and sometimes those assumptions turn out to be wrong.

That’s where being an architect can go wrong. You can get caught up in the sketch you made before you started writing that you are afraid to veer of course. It’s important to acknowledge that you can’t know everything ahead of time. Drafting becomes your worst nightmare because you realize that you don’t know everything and that though you know your character ends up somewhere in the future, maybe you didn’t initially understand their motivations or the things that happened in their past that led them to that conclusion. Your plans should keep your foundation strong but know that there will be plans you have to let go of. Have you ever watched HGTV and they had to make a course correction to their renovations due to circumstances beyond their control? Being an architect is like that because even the most carefully plotted plan can’t account for the hiccups along the way.

Drafting can be terrifying for me and frustrating but there are wonderful surprises along the way. One character in my story is one that always throws me for a loop. I know where he starts and where he needs to be at the end of a chapter but his path to get there is always a surprise. As Abigail mentioned last week, sometimes the characters take over and tell us the story. I am never more pleasantly surprised than when I leave room between strict plans for things to awry. Abigail compared planning and pantsing to putting a puzzle together but I see it as you are sailing on an ocean of creativity. You can either drift in the breeze and let the current take you where it will or you can set your sails towards a specific direction. Though, it is always easier to have the wind set your sails than to fight against it. So before you set your sails, give space to drifting in the breeze, meaning take the time to let your writing surprise you and even mess up your well-laid plans.

Both techniques have their quirks and benefits. It’s important that you find a method that makes sense for what you are writing but also what feels most natural to you. Writing is a messy and strange process so there are no set rules on how to be successful. Take the time to explore what works for you and find your own course.

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