Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Writer's Wednesday - Plotter or Pantser?

Presents author Kimberly Lang joins us to talk about plotting, pantsing, and how every book is (kind of) like a trip to Graceland.

I’m often asked if I’m a Plotter or a Pantser. Then I’m always asked to explain how that process works for me and why it does. I understand why people ask – after all, writing is hard and we’re all looking for ways to make this easier and less stressful. But I’m not really sure I’m the person you should be asking for advice on process…

So, you really want to know how this particular Pantser works…? All righty, then. Buckle up.
For me, every book is like a college road trip with two brand-new friends I think are really cool and interesting. We’re not really close, but that’s what road trips are for: bonding. I just know we’ll bond on the way and be BFFs by the time it’s over. I know they have some problems they haven’t told me about yet, but that’s okay. They’ll share when they’re ready. And they’re really cool and fun.
But where shall we go… Ummmm. Graceland! Of course! Sounds like a plan, right? I don’t know why we’re going there, but why not? So we’re off.

Now, plotters would have a map, a GPS, estimated times of arrival and planned places to stop for meals and gas. Not me. I have a general idea: I’m going to Graceland, and it’s East-ish of here. I’m pretty sure I want to See Rock City, stop at the outlet mall in Nashville, and do some bar-hopping on Beale Street on the way. That’s a plan, right?

With that plan in place, we head off for Graceland… but then I see that sign for the Giant Ball of String or The World’s Biggest Sweet Potato, and I have to turn because it sounds like it might be fun. The plan goes right out the window, but that’s okay. We’ll get to Graceland eventually. It’s all about the ride, not the destination anyway, right?

Right. And because I’m with new friends, I enjoy the ride. Except when I don’t. They fight when I really just need them to get along. They get stubborn when I ask them to do things. They have baggage I didn’t know about and it’s dragging the whole thing down. And they keep forgetting that it’s MY car, and that I’m the BOSS, and DON’T MAKE ME STOP THIS CAR! I’LL TURN THIS CAR AROUND, I SWEAR I WILL. After a while, I’m wondering why I ever thought I liked these people in the first place and contemplating ditching them at the next rest area (where, if I’m really lucky, a serial killer will find them).

Know what I mean?

Now, when I get stuck, I’m stuck. That general road map is kinda helpful – I know I’m at Rock City, and the next stop is Nashville, but I don’t know how to get back to the interstate. And it’s not like I can skip ahead and write that great scene that takes place on Beale Street. I don’t know what happens between here and there, so there’s a good chance that conversation won’t work by the time I catch up. Maybe my characters will have already had that moment by then – in a rest area on the side of I-24.And, of course, there’s an equally good chance they won’t make it to Beale Street at all. Hell, they might not make it to Nashville because I will turn this car around if they don’t start acting right.
Because they’re not helping, either.

Another problem with Pantsers (or at least this Pantser) is that we end up writing ourselves into scenes we don’t have any research on. All of a sudden, we’re pulling into the parking lot at the World’s Biggest Sweet Potato, and I don’t know how big the sweet potato is, who grew it, who decided it was the World’s Biggest, what purpose it serves in the tourist industry of the surrounding area, or even how much it costs to get in to see it. (In particularly exciting circumstances, I’m not even sure exactly why we’re here or what I hope to accomplish with this little side trip.) Everything has to come to a grinding halt while I frantically start Googling “giant sweet potatoes.” And, should I happen to find the email address of the country’s leading expert on exceptionally large yams, he’s always out of the office until Monday.

What? I’m supposed to just leave my hero and heroine in the Sweet Potato parking lot for a couple of days? Um, I’m on a deadline, people.

But Pantsing through a book has its charms, too. Because I don’t have everything plotted out, I never get bored of the story or feel it’s getting predictable. Because I don’t have a plan set in stone, I’m fine with adding interesting details and side trips and just weaving them into the book as I go along. So my characters stop at the Giant Sweet Potato. The heroine has a soft spot in her heart for sweet potatoes because her mother used to make them for her. (Go back and stick that in chapter 2). But her mother is dead now (that’s why her baggage is so heavy) so this is an emotional and healing moment for her. Later, in chapter twelve, when I need the hero to make a grand romantic gesture, he’ll cook her a sweet potato casserole from his mother’s recipe. Ooh, when he asks his mother for the recipe, they are able to break down that estrangement barrier that I will go back right now and add in chapter five, and then reconcile in a way that makes him realize he’s not his father – run back to chapter three -- and can therefore commit to the heroine in a satisfying HEA once I get all these threads tied together. And they’ll get married at Graceland! That’s why we were going there! It’s perfect!

Plotters reading this just dropped dead from a heart attack – and it wasn’t from the butter and marshmallows in the casserole.

Road trip and sweet potato metaphors aside, this is exactly how I write books. I can’t say whether it’s good or bad or whatever, because that’s just my process. It gets the job done – for me. It might not work for you. In fact, it probably won’t, because it’s my process.

I don’t question the process. I’m a big fan of respecting the process, whatever it may be. If you’re getting words on the page and they make a good story, does it really matter how they got there? Be a Plotter or a Pantser or something in the middle (a “Planter”?). You do what you need to do to write, and whether that involves Giant Sweet Potatoes and or intricately drawn maps, more power to you my friend. I’m sure the book will be fabulous.


Kimberly’s newest book is The Privileged and the Damned and there are no sweet potatoes anywhere. Promise.
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1 comment:

  1. That's a great analogy, Kimberly. I've been to Graceland!