If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve heard the terms plotter and pantser. For the non-writers: those terms refer to opposites in how much a writer prepares before he begins a work. Pantser comes from an aviation saying, “Fly by the seat of his pants.” meaning to fly on instinct alone, without instruments. (Finally looked that up.)
I’ve confessed to being a pantser, but the truth is, often my method is more like ultimate pantsing. I take the bare bones of a story idea and explore it—not before I write, but as I write. At first, I didn’t realize there was any other way to write. Then I decided to become a SERIOUS writer and bought book after book promising to teach me how to work like a real writer. Uh-oh.
I learned many useful things from these books, but some of the advice stymied my Muse. I hadn’t pre-written outlines, synopses, plot points charts, etc. for my many stories and one novel. And because I hadn’t followed those rules, I feared none of my work could possibly be any good. My hope for publication faded.
Then, a little over three years ago, I put my fingers to keyboard to elaborate on a dream I’d had and write it as a story. But the characters kept talking to me and the story grew. My dream turned into a novel. Some new writer friends thought it was a good novel. But I doubted their judgment because, again, I’d written mostly on instinct. In fact, most of the time, it felt as though I was only taking dictation. So how could it be good?
I’ve mentioned in a few recent posts that I was reading Ray Bradbury’s collection of essays on writing, Zen in the Art of Writing. I finally reached the last chapter and read something that, for me, surpassed all the bon mots I’d selected before. Mr. Bradbury didn’t know it, but he wrote the following part just for me:
The time will come when your characters will write your stories for you, when your emotions, free of literary cant and commercial bias, will blast the page and tell the truth.
Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be. It is human desire let run, running, and reaching a goal. It cannot be mechanical. It can only be dynamic.
So, stand aside, forget targets, let the characters, your fingers, body, blood, and heart do.
Sha-zam! A celebrated writer had validated my method. It may not be every writer’s way, but it’s right for me. I no longer have to doubt the value of a story just because it seemed to write itself. Of course, not everything I write will work, but if it fails, it won’t be because I flew without instruments. It will be because I didn’t “stand aside” enough to let my “fingers, body, blood, and heart do”.
What say ye? Does Bradbury’s advice make your heart sing or shudder?
Photo credits: Anne Burgess – Creative Commons License
39 thoughts on “Ray Bradbury wrote this just for me!”
Linda, This is a book I haven’t read yet, but I certainly love the quote. I often think of myself as a panster, but on some days I wonder if there isn’t an outliner hidden in there somewhere. Right now, I’m reading James Scott Bell’s book on Plot and Structure, which is offering insight in a different way — not suggestions on strict outlining, but certainly a bit of pre-planning. Not sure how it will fit into future attempts at noveling, but it has given me a little more confidence in the draft of the novel I’m working with now.
A draft written initially by the seat of my pants.
Christi, looking for the plot after you write the initial draft is what Bradbury was talking about. But clearly, many authors need, and write well, with plotting before writing that first word. Writer know thyself. 🙂
Hi Linda, I fancy myself as an aspiring writer.. but clearly, i am not even close since i didn’t know either of those 2 terms !!
Your posts make me want to read to the finish. I am glad i subscribed.
Thank you for subscribing, Thinker. 🙂 You don’t really need to know those terms. You just need to figure out what writing method works best for you and stick with it, no matter what other writers do.
I needed to read this today, especially after a recent somewhat jarring experience with a new critique group. It really was my fault for thinking I could work through a new novel with a critique group. The novel is not ready for that yet. Anyway, I’m definitely a “pantser.”
I’m glad it helped you, Cristina. I don’t know if your novel was a complete draft, but I learned that I cannot submit chapters of an incomplete novel for critique. Feedback at that stage totally threw me off course. I wish you well on your novel.
Love this quote~Great post!
I remember a variation of this quotation. I believe it introduced a group of Bradbury’s stories. I went looking, but can’t find it. Somehow, it communicated the feeling that footprints in snow didn’t appear or disappear until the writer took a step…it sustained me for years. At the time I read it, I was an artist — it allowed me to trust myself even when I arrived at the studio without an idea.
I’m not sure how I feel about characters running by…they might have another agenda, Robin