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  • Writer's pictureRick

Plotting, Pantsing, and Fine Distinctions

Characterize yourself as you’d like. Identifying as a plotter or a pantser is just an expression of priority.

I am a traditional "pantser." I write starting with a grain of an idea and keep going until the end. The character evolves. The story evolves. And I feel that I’m milking my artistic abilities at each writing session so that the story stays fresh at each of its beats.

But that’s not the end of the effort. An 80,000 page manuscript is too freaking complex for me not to go back and do something to it. I go back and perform developmental edits throughout, add things, remove things, and fix plot holes. I might change the entire story if it ended up not making sense. I have re-written a 40,000 word manuscript that was broken in The Light in Darkness (and plan to do another). I have abandoned other that are shorter.

Did I pants-it along the way? Yes. BUT, in doing that I didn’t abandon the organizational aspects of writing.

I deferred them.

As you might learn as you go on the writing journey, it is in some way – no matter what you are writing – about encapsulating a sequence of events. That sequence must make sense to the reader. The sequence must also be interesting, of course, but at its core, it follows a logical progression, forwards or backwards, through time.

Take a look at “Save the Cat” – an organizational guide to writing. That well-regarded book espouses fifteen beats to a standard novel. Fifteen. That means that a story, by one objective standard, must wind in and out of these beats in order to convey something to the reader. Progression drives character transformation in those beats. A book is thus, in part, an exposition of the order of things.

So why the hell would you write by the seat of your pants then when books require order? There are very good reasons. Writing is an art. It requires form and flow, excitement and calm, power and finesse. These are things that are not necessarily encouraged by or connected to a focus on order.

So when I sit down and write as a pantser, it doesn’t mean that I have abandoned order. I just prioritize other things. I choose to conceive of the flow of the book on the fly so that I favor whatever artistic ability I have over whatever organizational ability I have, and do it while writing. I worry about the rest later.

But even that has caveats. If I’m losing track of what’s happening, I go ahead and make a list. My novels (particularly those above 40k words) can be so damned complex they can’t be done without some sort of organizational effort. I otherwise breakdown my chapters as headers in Word’s “navigation” section, and make overly descriptive titles so that I have a list of beats to follow. I’m at least giving a nod to the organizational part of the process during my writing.

And after, I expect to send the manuscript to someone else so that they think it makes sense (edits coming back Friday for The Light in Darkness). I will apply those edits. I will then query the book. That will result in further feedback and editing. All of that will impact the organization of the book on the back end.

Plotters are forced through that same crucible themselves, no doubt. Particularly those who are traditionally published. Even in favoring pre-plotting, they must do the same things I do after their first draft is complete. Good practice cautions that an editor, beta reader, agent, friend, and/or spouse look at a piece before the world sees it.

So I don’t place too much objectively in the distinction between plotters and pantsers.

As this writing suggest, the distinction is not very helpful. Both must be stylize. Both must plot. Both must develop characters. A writer’s job appears to be finding the balance for their particular style of writing. Everything will happen that needs to happen to your manuscript, be it creative drafting, outlining, and organizing.

You just get to pick the order.

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