Pants, plots, join the dots

Everyone’s talking about plotting and pantsing lately, which at first glance makes it sound like a discussion of the script for Animal House or Drunk Co-Eds Gone Wild. But no, it’s the perennial question about whether you should jump right into a book and start writing, carried along by inspiration and sheer velocity (the Stephen King method) or whether to plan the skeleton or maybe even the entire endocrine system of your narrative and write it all out before actually getting to work on the book proper (the James Ellroy method).

Both approaches have their fans and their detractors, and over the last few months frenzied (but largely polite) discussions have been happening around the traps about which is best (including a debate at last month’s GenreCon, which apparently was a great success and something I should try to attend next time). Other bloggers have written posts on why a particular approach (i.e. their own) is best, and they all make good arguments.

Me? What’s my approach? What am I advocating?

Well, as usual, I’m advocating that you make up your own mind and do what works for you. Every writer has their own system that works for them – except when it doesn’t, which is when they should try something different – and you’re better off listening to the instincts of your typing fingers. The knuckles know the way.

But if I was going to give you advice, it’d be this – who says you can only do one or the other?

As I continue working all-too-slowly on Raven’s Blood, I’ve been using a hybrid approach of pre-planning some elements and making other bits up as I go. Before I started I knew how the story would begin and how it would end, and I’d mapped out a couple of scenes in the middle; I knew a fair bit about my major characters and I had some very firm plans for how they would grow. And that initial planning has been enough for me to start pantsing my way through scenes and chapters, guided by the signposts I’ve put in place. It also allows me to pre-plan in short bursts, running just ahead of where I am at the moment to plan the next target, or indeed a set of alternative targets that I can decide between as things progress.

Pantsing doesn’t have to mean pure impro jazz; plotting doesn’t have to be lockstep adherence to The Plan. It’s a continuum, and there’s lots of room in the middle of the bar to find your sweet spot.

The other thing about plotting versus pantsing is that it puts all the weight of your narrative on story, assuming (at least to some extent) that writers decide what to write next based solely on the logical progression of what-happens-next, whether decided in the moment or beforehand.

Is that the only important thing, though? I don’t think so. Narratives have many masters, and story is only one of them. Character development, structure, theme, premise, a chance to show off motifs or stick in a really bitchin’ fight scene – all of these are important factors too, and just as liable to guide your decisions about where to point the word-guns. If you feel that the most pressing need is to get inside your character’s heart for a page, do it, even if it isn’t advancing your predetermined or spur-of-the-moment plot. If it works, it works; if it doesn’t, well, that’s what second drafts are for.

Pantsing, plotting, plotzing, planing, manscaping… do what you gotta do. Work with whatever work. Maybe try it differently on the next project to be sure. Float like a hummerbird. Sting like a jalapeño in the eye.

PS – This is me trying to write a shorter, pithier post. Hope it works.

PPS – if you’re in Melbourne, and particularly the northern bits of Melbourne, keep an eye out for the new Inscribe arts journal, with two stories of mine and a variety of poems, articles and prose. It’s free, it’s illustrated and it’s worth the read.

PPPS – So far Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue is insanely fucking good.

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