Advice, Books, Craft, Doubt, Fiction, Writing

Ray Bradbury wrote this just for me!

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

Craft, Fiction, Novel, Writing

When is a writer not a pantser?

Novel writers often divide themselves into two camps: Plotters and Pantsers. As I wrote a reply to a comment on my last blog post, I realized something about myself. I don’t think I’m a true pantser. I’ve always identified myself as one because I don’t write a detailed outline, or make a colored-coded story chart, or any of those other traditional methods of writing the story before you write the story.

But if a true pantser is a writer who sits down at the keyboard with only a vague story idea, some character names, a location or two, and hopes some entity known as The Muse will take over, then I’m not a pantser.

It’s true that as I’m writing, I’m often surprised by what a character says or does, at how a plot point veers in a direction I hadn’t expected. I start with a single file. In that, I might sketch out character “bios”, but mainly so I can keep names and ages straight. I also record bits of dialogue that come to me,  and the proposed opening and ending sentences, or maybe even paragraphs. And eventually I write a detailed scene list, but not until after I’ve written the scenes.

I guess that sounds like a pantser, but the truth is I’ve lived with the story for months—at least—before I begin to write it. I’ve mentally processed the basic plot, key scenes, and details of each character. And I’ve revised all of those, sometimes more than once. Essentially, before I ever start writing the book, I’ve seen the movie played out in my mind.

I don’t know why I never related this to the more tangible actions of a plotter. Maybe it’s because I’ve tried the formal outline, the index cards, the organizing software and it always seemed more trouble than it was worth. I felt it killed the thrill of writing, but maybe it was just that it seemed redundant.

So yes, I plan, but I’m “open to suggestion” also. Does that mean I’m a plotser? Or maybe I’m just a normal writer.

Your turn: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you ever tried to change your stripes?

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