The Plot-Pant Continuum

Crossposted to Deadline Dames. So you want to know how the Dames got started? Stay tuned…

Someone once said, “You don’t know how to write novels. You only know how to write the novel you’re writing NOW.”

Wise words.

Writers fall on a continuum. You have your pantsers, who tend to store things in their head and blithely run through a novel; then you have your plotters, who have a variety of strategies for deciding on what happens in a novel before they write it. (Strategies like outlining, 3X5 cards, mapping a novel on butcher or kraft paper, Post-Its, you name it.) Anywhere you land in that process is fine as long as you come up with a workable product at the end.

I’ve been an inveterate pantser for most of my writing life. I generally work hot and fast after a protracted period of getting the book clear inside my skull, led on from point to point by the Muse, halting only for those places where I have to feel out what happens next like a woman with a plug in one hand searching for a socket in a dark room. (While artillery goes off all around and rats are trying to eat me…) Sometimes (as we discussed last night on Twitter) I stick inessential or don’t-have-it parts in [square brackets] and flail onward while the momentum is hot. Things like [big fight goes here, yadda yadda, get gun kicked away in struggle and wound to hip]. You get the idea.

Then there comes a book to change all that.

I’ve actually outlined the rest of the book I’m working on, in square bracket chunks.

This upsets me a little. I tend not to “plot” so much because the few times I’ve tried it, I’ve ended up feeling confined by the strictures and throwing them out anyway. It’s like someone peering over my shoulder as I write, which is the kiss of death for any kind of peace of mind for me.

Part of having a sustainable writing career is learning to take these sorts of changes with a minimum of flailing. Or, at least, scheduling in the flailing so you can meet your deadline.

So now I’m forced to take a deep breath and repeat to myself, Be mellow. It’s another way of doing the book. As long as the book gets done, we’re OK with however we get there. Just do what the novel needs now, and don’t worry so much about it. You’ve done this thirty-odd times, and each time it’s been different. You finished the other books, you can do this one, outline or not.

So my message for this Friday? Relax. Each book, short story, poem, what-have-you, is unique. Some won’t get finished. Others need different preparations along the plotter-pantser continuum to come to fruition. If this was easy, or if one size fit every novel, well, this would be a lot easier.

But it isn’t. Just ride the pony you’ve got for now.

Now, when I start losing my mind in another twenty thousand words, can someone point me back at this and thwap me on the head until I chill out?


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