Monday, March 4, 2013

Planning versus Pantsing

There are two types of writers when it comes to creating a new piece of work: There are the “planners,” who outline and summarize and plot out the entire piece before getting into the actual writing, and there are the “pantsers” who write by “the seat of their pants,” just sitting down with a general idea and letting the muse flow out of them. These latter writers often claim that their characters talk to them directly, telling them where the story should go, and sometimes they are basically just taking dictation. I hate these writers. And I’ve always wanted to be one. Yet with my current work in progress, it’s not going well at all.

Before I wrote my novel “Keeping Score,” I had written screenplays for over ten years. Writing a screenplay pretty much requires you to be a planner. Every screenwriting guru out there – Blake Snyder, John Truby, Michael Hauge – breaks down scripts into 22 or 15 or 10 major scenes, and screenwriters are encouraged to figure out those plot points before writing the script. After that comes the white board, where notecard descriptions of each scene leading up to those plot points are supposed to be organized, pinned, rearranged, etc., until the writer has every last detail figured out. Then, and only then, is the actual writing of the script supposed to start. (That isn’t to say that nothing changes during the actual writing process.)

That system worked pretty well for me. I liked to start at the beginning, come up with my ending, then fill in the major plot points. Only when I had a 60-scene beat sheet that laid out the entire story did I open up my Movie Magic Screenwriter software and begin the script.

The only thing that didn’t work was the whole “selling the thing when you’re done with it” part. After a while, I realized the stories I wanted to tell weren’t the stories that Hollywood wanted to buy. And I had no interest in making my own movie. So a novel seemed the logical next step.

“Keeping Score” took about two years to write, edit and rewrite. (and I’ve hired a professional editor to help me do one more pass, so technically I’m not done yet.) While I didn’t do a formal outline or beat sheet, I knew the inciting incident and I knew the story would end after the last baseball game of the summer season (what I didn’t know is that it would take me 106K words to get there; a little long for women’s fiction). I wrote by the seat of my pants, but since I knew all the major plot points would center around the summer tournament games, I always knew what was coming next.

My current Work In Progress (WIP) has no such natural milestones. What’s worse, I’m struggling to find my protagonist’s purpose. It’s one of those novels where the inciting incident is an extreme upheaval in my main character’s life, and the book is about everything that happens as a result of that incident. I know this is a common type of plot in women’s fiction, but I’m having trouble making sure the plot points all build on each other. The story feels episodic to me; a series of events happening without any obvious link between them. I find myself thinking in terms of discrete scenes rather than story points as a line of dominos, with the inciting incident being that first felled rectangle. And yet, I know how the novel ends, and I’ve planted set ups to help me get there. It’s just that all the stuff in the middle isn’t necessarily all that relevant to the ending.

I blame all this angst on the fact that I “pantsed” this WIP. I completely pantsed it. I had an idea for the beginning, sat down and wrote it, and fell in love with the words. This is probably not a good sign. Falling in love with your writing too soon keeps you from killing your babies. Already I know I have a long sequence about Christmas that doesn’t do anything but establish what I’ve already established and I could kill it without anyone in the book noticing. But I loved writing it, so getting rid of those pages will be very hard.

I’ve thought about going back to the drawing board and creating an outline based on the scenes I’ve written and the ending I want, but I’m scared that will leave me with a lot of scenes that can be cut and very little that actually drives the novel forward. After all, a story isn’t “This happened, and then that happened.” A story is “Because this happened, then that happened.”

For writers out there who are “pantsers,” what do you do when you realize your characters have left you with a series of episodic events that don’t flow the way a story should?

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