They are wrong. There’s only one way for each of us to write and that method is as personal as your underwear.
I am a classic pantser. I don’t plan anything and my good friend Christine Lashinski is the ultimate plotter. Reams of paper are dedicated to her pre-writing. It’s mind boggling to me, but we both get the job done.
We thought it would be fun to pit the plotter against the pantser and answer a few questions about our process. Maybe we can dispel the myth of one right process and start the healing between our two factions.
1) How do you start a book?
Pantser: Usually I get a spark of a story idea somewhere (I don’t really know where – the creative ether) and then the voices in my head start talking, and I start writing.
Plotter: For me, every book starts with a character. I have to get to know them before I can begin their story. What’s their name? What do they look like? When is their birthday? Then the character needs a goal and someone to get and under their skin?
2) Is it okay to not know how the book will end?
Pantser: Sure. I hardly ever know how my stories will end. I once thought I knew how a book was going to end and then I ended up killing my heroine. I sat in my office staring at the screen thinking, “Huh, I didn’t see that coming.” It really makes life interesting when stuff like that happens.
Plotter: Yes. Even though I start out with an idea of what will happen, once the characters come alive there is no telling what trouble they will get themselves into. The end is built on each decision they make along the way and the consequences of those decisions.
3) How technically accurate do you have to be?
Pantser: I try to be as accurate as possible on things like weapons and wounds, but only after I write the whole book do I go in to figure that stuff out. I once heard of a writer who timed a trip from one place to another in traffic just so it would be right in her book when she wrote “45 minutes in traffic” that level of detail is insane to me. I just estimate stuff like that and I probably would have come up with the same 45 minutes.
Plotter: I love research. Facts are cool, and great story fodder, but learning can be addictive for me and there comes a point where I have to put away the research and write. If there is something I’m unsure of while I’m writing, instead of stopping, I highlight it in the manuscript and come back to it on the re-write.
4) How do you decide what time period to set your book in?
Pantser: The story dictates that. If the idea I have is contemporary (which most of mine are) then that’s what I go with. However if the suddenly the voices in my head start yammering about an 1880’s showdown I’d go with it and see where they take me.
Plotter: For me, this comes back to character. What is the best setting to tell his/her story. Or, a cool fact popped up in my research, and it relates to a specific time period.
5) How do you know when its time to stop writing?
Pantser: There’s always a logical ending. A point where the story lines just tie themselves up neatly so I stop writing.
Plotter: When the pen runs out of ink. I re-write up until the moment the book is taken out of my hands, and then I still think of things I could have changed. The book is never going to be perfect, not like the original pure concept I began with in my mind. Acknowledging this involves pouting and chocolate.
6) How do you know when the book is not working?
Pantser: When I take all the pages out to the back yard and burn them. I’m pretty much sure it’s not working then. The extraordinary thing is when I go back after some time away and re-read what I’ve written (thankfully my computer hard drive ignores the manuscript pyres and saves the work anyway) it usually turns out that I am on track and I was panicking for nothing.
Plotter: When I would rather clean the toilet than write. This happens every book when I’m not quite half way through the rough draft. Then its back to basics. Did I lose track of the original character goal, motivation, or conflict? Am I forcing the characters to act out of character to serve the plot? Does the scene have a purpose and do the stakes continue to rise throughout the story?
7) Do you write with a theme in mind?
Pantser: Nope. I write brain candy. I want to entertain you not make you write a thesis. I realize when I say that it makes a lot of writers mad (like completely psychotic) because THERE’S ALWAYS A THEME! But I don’t sit down and say hmm what will the theme of this book be? What’s amusing to me is people always find one regardless if I intended one or not. But it’s unconscious on my part.
Plotter: Some writers start with a theme, but I re-write with a theme in mind. I find the elements of the theme are in my first draft, and I just need to tweak and expand upon them. I tend to come back again and again to the same few themes. Identity is a big one of mine.
8) How do you tie all the subplots together?
Pantser: There’s a natural progression and they just come together. If I finish and re-read everything and notice I’ve dropped a thread I can either resolve it or completely remove it if that story line didn’t serve a purpose, which is usually the case if I dropped it during the writing process.
Plotter: When I revise I use a white board to graph out the subplots. I also print out the subplots and spread them out on my floor to make sure they make sense on their own and then weave them throughout the story. Subplots need to support and advance the main plot. A great example is Holes. Holes used the subplot of Kate Barlow and Sam in the past to give information and further the main plot of Stanley Yalnats.
9) How do you keep your facts straight?
Pantser: If I give someone a certain color eye or hair I will jot a note on a post-it. Other than that I don’t know. I guess sometimes I don’t and I have to fix it later.
Plotter: I have a 3-ring binder where I keep my character facts, like the color of their eyes, hair, etc.… The time line of events. Research. It usually ends up as thick as the actual book.
10) What do you do when you’re stuck?
Pantser: I cry. I tell my husband I’m going to become a chicken plucker because I clearly have no talent and I never will! Then I drink myself silly and go to bed. The next day things usually look brighter. I re-read the pages I’ve written so far. Sometimes you need to cut away some dead flesh and sometimes you’re stuck just because you ran out of creative juices for the day.
Plotter: I get stuck a lot. My house is never as clean as when I’m stuck. I put on an old movie that I’ve watched a hundred times. I do a load of laundry. Clean. Take a walk. Do some research. Do a timed writing exercise that has nothing to do with the current story I’m working on. I do something that takes creativity. I get together with other writers for some brainstorming. I switch from writing on the computer to using a notebook and a pen. I put on music. I light a candle. Take a nap. Take a shower. Spin around in my chair.
11) How do you name characters?
Pantser: If I’m in writing flow I’ve been known to name all the character’s Bob 1, Bob 2, Bob 3 until I finish a scene and then I figure out who’s who later. But if I’m not trying to catch all the words rolling out of my head then I look around the room and see if a name strikes my fancy from some CD covers or book spines.
Plotter: I use a baby naming book and use what the name means to create character traits. I also try to watch that no two characters have a similar name.
12) How do you find information?
Pantser: Depends on what I’m looking for. I’ll Google some. Sometimes I call people. I have a huge reference library.
Plotter: I use a combination of the library, internet, interviews, and travel. My family is always happy to go on a road trip, and there is nothing better than getting first hand knowledge in getting the nitty-gritty details that will add realism to the story.
13) How do you avoid predictability?
Pantser: I’m not sure you can. What are there only 20 plots? So if you’re writing a romance they’re going to fall in love. If you’re writing a mystery the killer will be caught eventually. Sorry if I just ruined those stories for you. The only thing you can do is make the journey to the inevitable original. Or as original as you can.
Plotter: I come up with 10 or 15 possibilities to a scene and avoid using any of the first 5 I come up with. I also have a critique group that helps to catch my mistakes.