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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

To Plot Or Not To Plot, That Is The Question

There is a great debate among writers and if you pay close enough attention to websites where authors share their process, you will run across it from time to time. I'm talking about plotting. Or not plotting, as the case may be. There are two factions of writers out there - those who do and those who don't plot - and nary shall the twain meet. It is part of their ritual, part of their identities as writers; the key element to the "how" of their writing. Some writers are more comfortable diagramming their stories ahead of time, mapping out every key element, every rise and fall of action, every little nuance of silent communication between their main characters. And then there are others who just wing it. They sit down at the computer with a vague idea of what they are going to write about and then just let the words flow. They are affectionately known as the "pantsers" because they tend to create their stories by the seat of their pants.

It is no secret that I fall into the first group; I've written about my process in various venues, whether as a post or a response in an online discussion. I even joke that my outlines are so detailed that I often refer to them as my first draft. Not only do they contain descriptions of scenes, but they often include the actual dialogue and notes to myself of things to remember when I sit down to actually write the story. I have tried a few different methods for outlining, such as the bulleted list in a notebook, but the system that seems to work best for me is to block out scenes on index cards. So instead of chapters, I have numbered scenes. Believe it or not, this method actually moves along faster for me than the notebook method even though my index cards are far more detailed than my notebook pages. Why this is so is a mystery to me.

Needless to say, I like my method for creating my stories. It works well for me, it's satisfying, and I don't have that blank page syndrome when I sit down at the computer to write. But sometimes I like to shake things up, stir the creative pot, try something new. So, in that spirit, I've crossed over to the other side...well, for at least one project (among the many stewing in my head!) that is currently in progress. As many of you might be aware if you read my post this past Sunday, I started a new novel on I won't re-hash the reasons here, so if you want to refresh your memory, you can jump to the post called America's Next Best Celler Contest - And Me! But for the purpose of this article, I mention it only to show how I deviated from my usual process.

Rather than write this new story armed with a box of scenes on index cards and pages of biographical information on my characters, I am writing it as it comes to me. I am letting the story flow from me to the page in an organic sort of manner, growing from the little seed in my imagination to the fertile garden of a full story. At least I hope so. Here are the two things I have learned about this process: It is at once creatively stimulating and absolutely terrifying. And both for the same reason. You see, when I first decided to take this on, I made a condition with myself that I am trying desperately to keep. That condition is that I must add to the story every day. This is the only way I can see that I will keep the momentum going until the story is done. So far, this is working for me. I just started the story over the weekend and already, I have posted five chapters of the story. Not that this has been easy. The first three chapters came easily enough, but then I stumbled a little with the fourth and nearly gave up on my self-imposed condition of adding to it every day with the fifth. But I am nothing if not stubborn and I muscled my way through it and managed to meet my goal of posting every day in both cases. I had to stay up until one-thirty in the morning working on chapter five to do it, but I'm happy to say that I succeeded! You see, this is where that stubbornness worked out for me.

You might be wondering at this point why I would put myself through this and if the end result is worth the cost. Isn't it stressful? Yes, it can be. Is it a crazy idea? Maybe. Is it worth it? Yes. Because every time we try someting new, step away from the familiar to embrace the unfamiliar, we expand ourselves not just in a creative manner, but in a personal one, as well. If we always do what is comfortable, stay in a protected zone, and never venture out beyond it, then we are doing ourselves a disservice. Not only are we limiting our knowledge and experience, but we are cheating ourselves out of things we can then write about. Take this article, for example. If I didn't step out of my comfort zone to try a new way of writing, then I woudn't have had a topic for today's blog post. Isn't it amazing how things work out sometimes?

So what do you think? Where do you stand on the plotter/pantser debate? I would love to read your thoughts on the process, reasons why you would - or wouldn't - try a different method for creating your stories, whatever you like. Feel free to pick my brain on this whole process - I love to talk shop! And if you're curious to know how the experience is going for me, feel free to check my story out, leave a question or comment there on whatever strikes you about the story. I welcome all feedback. And if you've taken the plunge and written something for yourself, let me know about that, too. Give yourself a little plug! Writing is hard work; putting it out there for everyone to see is frightening. So I like to show my respect for everyone who takes the step to venture into this mystical, magical world we call writing. ~ Margay

The Jane Austen Society Pages

7 Moonbeams (comments):

Molly Daniels said...

I do both. If a story comes to me, fully formed, I'll write down the vague outline...what happens in ch 1, ch 2, etc, or a timeline...this month, this will happen; next month, this...and so forth. But I'm also comfortable pantsing, and letting the characters tell me what to write next.

Margay Leah Justice said...

Molly, thanks for sharing. I'm not sure yet if I will ever feel comfortable with the pantsing approach, but I'm going to keep doing it - at least until this book is done. After that, I don't know.

Sheila Deeth said...

My textnovel entry's about the closest I've ever come to plotting before writing, and also about the closest I've come to being organized about writing every day. The plotting bit is 'cause they had space for a synopsis, and I naively thought I couldn't write one without first knowing the story. Of course, the story's got a bit more involved as it went on...

Anyway, thank you for your encouragement with "Obituaries," and I'm really enjoying following "The Jane Austen Society Pages"

KylieBrant said...

I'm stunned that you are able to do both processes. Although I prefer the term 'organic writer', LOL, I am so not a plotter. But I'm *incapable* of plotting. I couldn't decide, as you did, to do a book, say by sitting down and plotting it out first. I can't. If I force myself to start outlining, I'm just lying to myself, LOL.

But I agree, doing it this way is both liberating and terrifying. I like to be surprised throughout the story and I bore easily, so I don't especially want to know all the twists and turns along the way. But when that blank page stares at me so accusingly, there are definitely days when I'd dearly love to be a plotter. If I had a choice!

Margay Leah Justice said...

Sheila, thank you, I appreciate the support. I think it's kind of funny that we are taking the opposite approach to the experience than we usually do!

Margay Leah Justice said...

Kylie, if you want to do the plot thing, start slow. Just plot out a scene at a time - this could help you over the blank page syndrome. And believe me, with the way that I plot out my stories, I am just as surprised by what happens as if I didn't plot, lol!

Molly Daniels said...

Where did my witty comment go? I can't even remember what I wrote!