A Wannabe Writer or a Wannabe World Traveler?

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by Larry Brooks on November 29, 2012

A Guest Post by Nann Dunne

For just a few minutes, instead of thinking of yourself as a wannabe writer, think of yourself as a wannabe world traveler. You’re standing in your hometown, smack-dab in the middle of Kansas City, Missouri, with a map in hand. You must decide which way to go to achieve your goal of traveling the world. Perhaps these thoughts pass through your mind:

• If I go east, I’ll have to travel through the crowded eastern corridor and then to Europe or Africa. Those are large continents where people speak different languages from mine and I won’t be able to understand them. Not sure I want to start that way. Maybe do it later.
• If I go west, I have to travel through deserts and high mountains. From there, I’ll have to take a ship, go across a number of islands, and then hit the oriental countries whose customs are so different from mine. I’m not sure I’m ready to try that route.
• If I go north, I’ll go through Canada and have to cross over the Arctic Circle and the North Pole before I land in civilization. That sounds pretty difficult to set out with.
• If I go south, I have to go all the way through Mexico and South America, and like north, I have to cross Antarctica and the South Pole before I get on real land again. I think that way’s too cold to put at the beginning of my journey.

Too Many Choices?

So there you are, map in hand, with plenty of choices and directions on how to get there. But you know what? Too many choices have stymied you. Suppose you narrow it down and decide to first go to New York City. Your map shows you hundreds of ways to get there, and still you hesitate. The choice of routes is overwhelming. You decide not to move until you know exactly WHERE you want to go and exactly WHICH streets on the map to follow to get there. So you sit in your hometown and puzzle over the answers, hoping somehow they’ll be revealed to you.

Suppose, instead of sitting there thinking about it, you get moving and keep heading due east. Eventually, you’ll near New York City and then you can aim directly toward it. You might take a wrong turn or two, but as long as you recover your direction and keep traveling toward the general area of your destination, you stand a good chance of getting there. Doesn’t that sound better than sitting there waiting for answers that might never come?

Now Switch to Writing

Let’s look at you now as a wannabe author. You’ve read tons of books on writing, plotting, theme, characterization, setting, pacing, revision, etc. You’re overwhelmed with information. You keep hearing that before you begin to write, you should know your characters intimately; you should choose a memorable setting; you should know your beginning, middle, and ending; you should know your First Plot Point, Midpoint, Second Plot Point, and Pinch Points; in fact, you should know the end of your story before you begin it. And the only way to achieve all this is to outline your story ahead of time.

That’s what all the outliners say.  (Larry’s note: well, not ALL of them, and certainly not me, someone who does advocate outlining in some form; while I may have sounded like that’s what I was saying in the past — pantsers are a very sensitive lot — that’s NOT what I mean, then or now… find your story HOWEVER you need to find it, that’s what I mean, and on that count, Nann and I are on the same page.)

And you know why they say it with such authority? Because that’s what works for them. They don’t seem to fully comprehend that any other way of writing could be as efficient or as rewarding. The big flea/ flaw in that ointment/argument is that the wannabe writer who doesn’t have all those answers in hand and doesn’t know how to puzzle them out ahead of time is in danger of giving up in frustration.

Maybe You’re a Pantser

I believe most writers are pantsers. Outliners tell us that pantsers wander all over the place in search of their stories. Maybe that’s true of some pantsers, but by no means is it true of all of them. I know many pantsers who have written tight, concisely written, well-plotted stories—perhaps while outliners were still searching for answers to put in their outlines. And no one will convince me that many outliners don’t also write and delete parts of their stories that wander beyond the outline. Some admit they change their outline as they go, sometimes even their ending—and doesn’t that sound similar to pantsing?

I’m not putting down outliners. My point is that if you’ve tried outlining and can’t make it work for you, DON’T GIVE UP. Maybe you’re a pantser at heart, and your story will unfold as you write it. Maybe using parts of each method will work for you.

A long time ago, a writer whose work I respected, and still do, had words similar to these to say about writing. “You want to write a story? Pick one or two characters, put them in a setting, and start writing.” (Larry’s note: be careful here, this is a viable way to SEARCH for your story… not a way to write a draft that works; that ONLY happens — to ANYONE — after you’ve FOUND your story.)

I tried that simple advice, and it has worked for me. In the processes of choosing a character and deciding on a specific setting, my brain swirled with many ideas of conflicts—and other characters—she might run into. The more I wrote, the more ideas that came to mind. I kept all the scenes connected to either the plot or related subplots that occurred to me along the way. About halfway through each story, a possible ending came to me and I aimed all the threads toward that end.

I still write that way. But I believe writing is a constant learning process, and so I tried outlining my current Work In Progress. When I finished, I had lost interest in the story and couldn’t write it. I kind of felt I had already told it—only to myself, of course. But to me, part of the joy of writing is “discovering” the story as I write it. I literally deleted that outline and have been writing the story from scratch. But that’s me, not necessarily you.

Either Method Can Work

My method suits me. I currently have five works of fiction published. They’re not Pulitzer Prize winners, but a lot of readers have told me they enjoyed them, and all of them, including the first two that were published eleven and twelve years ago, are still selling at a regular pace.

Pantsing works. Outlining works. Whichever method feeds your need, write, write, write. Don’t just sit there over-thinking it. You can’t finish if you never start.

About Nann Dunne

Author of: Dunne With Editing: A Last Look At Your Manuscript
Check it out at www.nanndunnebooks.com.
See Nann’s fiction at www.nanndunne.com.
Nann’s blog: www.justaboutwrite.com/blog

*****

From Larry…

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve November 29, 2012 at 7:56 pm

I have never believed in pantsing. In my opinion, writers who “pants” are simply writers who have some semblance of story structure already bouncing around inside their heads.

They may not think they’re creating stories via formula (a la Joseph Campbell), but in reality, they are.

It’s a sad fact of life, but not everyone can be a writer. I don’t think writers can be fashioned, only enhanced.

I’m a good basketball player, but no matter how much I practice, or how many basketball camps I attend, I will never be Kobe Bryant.

Kobe is a natural basketball player. There’s no competing with inborn talent.

He reached his pinnacle and became a professional player because he was coached and trained by people familiar with the structure of professional basketball. They made him the athlete he is today.

Without this guidance, he would have never reached his potential.

I just completed my first book and believe me, following the structure I learned in STORY ENGINEERING (and this website), has made my book much more readable and fluid.

There is no substitute for story structure.

Nann Dunne November 30, 2012 at 6:49 am

Steve, I agree there’s no substitute for story structure. I also agree that many pantsers already have “some semblance of story structure already bouncing around inside their heads.” Most of us have read books and/or watched movies for a large part of our lives. We would have to live in a cave to avoid absorbing some sense of story structure. Does that make pantsing any less worthy? Pantsing doesn’t have to mean the writer has no sense of structure. To me, pantsing only means the writer doesn’t have the full story plotted out ahead of time.

It sounds as though outlining works for you. But it doesn’t work for everyone. It didn’t work for me.

What I’m trying to stress is that outlining ahead of time isn’t the ONLY way to find your story. I have a friend who has taught story-writing for more than 15 years, and when I asked her the outliner-pantser breakdown, she said about 90% of the people she worked with were pantsers who couldn’t seem to get the knack of outlining. But they still wanted to tell their stories.

When newbies attempt to write their stories and struggle to write an outline before they start, I don’t want them to quit because they think outlining is the only path to follow. Pantsing is a tried-and-true way to find a story for many writers, and some have written remarkable ones. I have five books of fiction published, and they’re each readable and fluid.

In a bow to Larry’s teaching, I can see the value of a pantser outlining his/her story after it’s finished in order to make sure the plot points are in there and to see spots that could be enhanced. I intend to do that from now on. But I don’t see the value of never writing your story because you can’t seem to outline it first. I don’t want people to be discouraged because they think that’s a necessity.

An afterthought: Millions of people watch all levels of basketball games. Not everyone on the court is a Kobe Bryant, but the games can still be vastly entertaining.

Patricia L Morris November 30, 2012 at 7:11 am

I love this post it helped me to understand my traveling process even though that is not what you intended.
I am traveling in Chile right now, next month Peru. Each day I decide how to explore. Yesterday I thought I would follow a friend’s advice and go to the Cemetario General. I decided to go by bike and followed my hunches to discover bike paths. Had a great day and ended up finally falling in love with the map.
You convinced me that I need a map for my next writing project, no matter how sketchy.

Heather November 30, 2012 at 7:30 am

I think I’m a cross between the two, as I think most writers are. I write like I used to travel home for my vacations. I used to schedule it all so I could visit everyone that was really important to see. Then, during my 1-2 week vacation, things would happen, and I’d reshuffle my schedule, but what made it easy was knowing in my schedule what could be dropped and what couldn’t, and I could work around it.

That’s my view on outlining. I usually have a rough idea of a story floating around for so long in my head, scenes are clear as day, so I outline where I’m going to get the ideas out and cohesive. But sometimes in the creative writing process, something unique happens, better than you thought it would, and it forces you to rethink. That’s when I look back at my outline, and refine, redo, replace, as required. But, it’s the outline that helps me think through all the ramifications of my changes, and see now, whether this new idea is better or worse than before.

But I agree with Nann, I’ve tried starting with a few scenes. I’ve even let them sit for years. Then when the story was ready, I’d rewrite them as needed. Once I had my outline in place.

Nann Dunne November 30, 2012 at 8:00 am

Patricia: LOL! Glad I could be of assistance. May you continue to enjoy your journey.

Heather: I think most of us are a cross, too, or a blend. I don’t start with an outline, but one seems to grow in my mind as I write. When I get a broad view of what might lie ahead, I jot down notes about it. But those notes are always flexible, and they often change as the story twists and turns. I’m one of those sneered at writers who believes the characters help me write the story. But I do try to keep them on contiguous roads. Thank you for your input.

Q. Kelly November 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I think “pantsing” may be a misleading term. So-called “pantsers” don’t write willy nilly (I don’t–usually!). But nor do we write outline after outline. I bought Larry’s book a while ago and tried to follow it. I really did. I did what I was supposed to do, then sat down to write and realized this wasn’t what I wanted. I got nowhere. I know what works for me, so I’ll stick with that. It may kind of be like being gay vs. straight (forgive me if this isn’t the best comparison). Straights have a hard time understanding how gays can be attracted to the same sex and vice versa. But as long as respect is there, who cares?

Nann Dunne November 30, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Q. Kelly: That’s similar to what happened to me. ::sigh:: I think “respect” is the key word in what you say. When I ask authors whether they’re pantsers or outliners, many pantsers tend to look apologetic when they answer, while most of the outliners state their method proudly. I think there should be three categories: outliners, pantsers, and disorganized writers. I don’t think it’s fair to lump pantsers and disorganized writers together. But some writers still do.

Thanks, Larry. I appreciate that you’ve given us the chance to discuss this sometimes touchy subject.

Tony McFadden November 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm

While it is a matter of preference (I’ve been a practicing engineer for – gasp – 27 years, structure is my very good buddy), there is NO way I could have finished an 85k novel in 31 days without structure and planning and more planning. I’m finishing off the last chapter, today, Dec 1st. I started the first draft on November 1st. I need that outline.

Nann Dunne November 30, 2012 at 9:18 pm

Tony: Congratulations on finishing the story! That’s always a good experience.

I wrote a book, 67,500 words in 28 days, that I never used an outline for. It’s a Nancy Drew type thriller set in a college town. All I knew ahead of time was that I wanted to write about a girl who wasn’t what she seemed to be, and I would set the story in a college where she played softball.

I started on page one and kept writing it every day. Most mornings, I had no preconceived idea of what would happen next. Ideas came to me as I wrote–or, occasionally in the middle of the night. I finished the first draft, spent a week editing it (I’m a professional freelance editor), and sent it to a publisher, who accepted it. At a writing conference, I spoke with five publishers who said they turned down more than 95% of the manuscripts sent to them, so I had some fierce competition.

I even wrote a poem at the beginning of it–maybe the most difficult part. :) The book’s called Staying in the Game, and it is structurally sound. I’ve learned more about writing from Larry’s book, Story Engineering, and I’m sure my future books will be even stronger.

The point of my guest post is this: Not everyone writes to an outline. You did, and it works for you. That’s good. I’m a pantser, and that works for me. That’s good, too. We find our stories in different ways, but as long as our search results in a strong story, we’re well on the way to accomplishing our goals.

I want people to understand that being a pantser isn’t a handicap. HOW we find our story isn’t always through an outline, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from writing.

Cynthia M. Dagnal-Myron November 30, 2012 at 10:20 pm

Brilliant post! I get your newsletter, but I’m a newbie to Story ix, and never felt like commenting until I read this post. I was a personal friend of the late Blake Snyder, called himself my “mentor for life,” his life ended so suddenly and too soon. And I was one of the few who could not use Save the Cat or any “formula” for writing, even with the master talking me through it. Still can’t. And I’m an oft-published writer and former journalist for one of the “big metropolitan dailies,” so I’ve managed to do quite well without that for a long, long time.

Some of us are non-linear and what learning style theorists tend to call “random,” which means we do indeed lose interest if we’ve done too much preliminary preparation. Blake lamented that he could hear the life draining out of my story over the weeks of work–an idea that had made my eyes twinkle was now…just…work. It confounded him, but I understood and could explain the phenomenon very clearly.

The person who said that we all have a kind of structure in our heads even if we claim we don’t is…partly correct. I’m aware that there’s always a sort of “organic” structure there. I know where I’m going, but how I get there and…whether I go where I thought I would…that’s another story entirely. And sometimes actually does become another story entirely. Most of my best writing begins with a sketchy ending in mind…and then wanders in circles a bit before I either get there, or find a much better ending along the way. I’ve learned to trust that journey over the years, and to stand up for it when necessary.

I call myself a “drafter,” actually. My “outline” is a first, very rough draft, where the pieces begin to come together rather loosely. From there, I keep rewriting until it tightens up and feels solid enough to be sold or to fit the assignment. The constant morphing–even if I go back to the first idea in the end–is what keeps me going. I learn from that, too, and often use what I learned in future work.

And though it drove Blake bonkers, he remained fascinated enough to have me begin reading some of the scripts he was pondering for production or to work on with other promising writers. And he also began to realize that for some of us, structure slavishly followed is like a straitjacket. And bless him, his second book contains a few ideas he came up with to “speak” more clearly to people like me. So he learned something, too!

rahnia December 1, 2012 at 5:47 am

I found this post very relevent to me. I’ve always been a panster who didn’t know what was going wrong wth my stories, till I bought my copy of Larry’s ‘Story Engineering’. All the lights went on! Now I knew why I was writing and writing and being incredibly creative, and never getting past the ‘yeah that’s quite nice’ point with my readers.

My structure was off. (And a few other things, but let’s stay on track)

And, I knew myself: I know that the most inspired ideas come as I go along. Correct myself here: I am not a panster, I am an active imporviser.

I LOVE impromptu/interactive/improv, used to be a slam poet, and that’s the way my juice flows. I really get high on not knowing where i’m going, that’s my way to find new places in real life and in writing.

So, as a first experiment, I tried this:

I took Larry’s outline of hook, 1st pp, pinchpoints, etc, and decided on a word count. Then, I knew exactly what page I was on, and knew that these things must happen in the right place, without a clue what they would actually be.

I threw the story open to other totally random people (whom I’d never met) to direct, at the start, but when I reached these places in my word count, I knew that I must help that milestone to gel right there.

I can’t say the result is everything I’d wish for, but I think that’s largely due to my still heading for my ceiling, and hey, it’s a novella which limits things too.

What I found is, for me, that really worked. I loved the writing process AND, the end result was more coherent than most of what I’ve previously produced. Given that I have three LOOOOONG novels gathering dust due to their deficiencies, I really consider this little novella a gem of a graduation project.

Thanks Nann, and a MILLION thanks, Larry! (Ps. If anyone is curious, you can see the result at pyqwyq.wordpress.com)

I’d be curious to know if any other writers try this and find this way of working useful.

rahnia December 1, 2012 at 6:37 am

… to borrow Nann’s metaphor and send it sideways, it’s like hitch-hiking, but knowing that you need to find lunch at mid-day, and a place to sleep come nightfall, and otherwise the journey’s not going to be much fun

Robert Jones December 1, 2012 at 11:18 am

Hi Nann,

I completely agree with what you’re saying as far as experimenting and finding what works best for the individual writer. As Steve pointed out, it takes a certain personality, or maybe a better them might be “a profound love,” of writing (or any craft) to walk the path from idea to publishing. Like a novice painter, faced with an array of brushes, paints, etc., experimenting with various tools and techniques will help the artist find which might best suits their needs, style, and even personality.

I think where some wannabe writers become confused is that all the tools and techniques are mental instead of physical objects in this particular craft. Sure, you could look for a nice computer, or word processing program, go by an old type writer, or even just scrawl your tale on legal pads…but the tools are still pretty limited. And none of these things are going to make you a better writer.

I think we learn from each other, both our mistakes and successes. We pass on techniques that have been around longer than most writers today, giving them a fresh take, or even expanding on them…if some of us are intelligent enough. For the novice, it’s about learning the techniques that are available, so they don’t have to reinvent those wheels themselves. But should you wait around absorbing all that information before diving in? I don’t think so. The quicker you start applying what you’re learning, the faster you’ll begin to get a feeling for what works for you, as well as what doesn’t.

Just remember that even the best painters made a mess on a great many canvases until they perfected their craft. In other words, don’t expect to get it right the first time. Give yourself time. Everything has a learning curve. Respect your craft and try to have some fun along the way.

Flashback to my fist attempt at writing a novel:

I read the books, got myself psyched up to write my masterpiece…I even had my ending in mind as the point on the horizon to move toward, not to mention good chunks of my story percolating in my head.

I decided to write my first draft on legal pads, then tighten the narrative and fix mistakes as I typed the second draft on my word processor. And so I was off and running, my story pouring out of me faster than I could write it down. Several chapters went by, then a brilliant discovery popped into my head that I hadn’t thought of before. It was so much better than my previous ideas, but it changed everything I had already written…or at least a good deal of it.

Question: Do I go back and make changes in what I had already written, or do I just move forward, implementing my new direction?

All the books said do not stop to edit your story. Keep moving in that first draft. So like a good student, I did just that. Several chapters into that new direction, another grand idea hit. This one worked with my new direction, but still changed a lot of what I had written.

In short, by the time I neared the end of that first draft, I didn’t even want to write that story any longer. It was a total mess. But the good news is that I learned some things along the way. I learned about some of the techniques I implemented early on. I also learned that wanted to write a different kind if story altogether. In short, I was developing a taste in a different direction just by getting my hands dirty. I wasn’t just finding my story, I was finding myself.

I also learned that I needed to plan more, and allow my story to grow a bit before plunging into the next one. A wise teacher told me an outline doesn’t have to be overly formal, or tell your entire story before you start writing it. But a brief line, or two, about the immediate action taking place in each scene will at least tell you where your story is heading. And by the time I finished this rough sketch of a scene-by-scene plot outline, I saw several things that could be cut right away. And implementing new ideas that occurred along the way was now quick and easy adjustments without a ton of rewrites. This process saved me at least one entire draft, maybe more.

Certainly new ideas come during the process of writing anything. That’s part of the joy of spontaneity that pantsers love. And my brief outline didn’t take away from that. However, having gone through two drafts of that outline in advance, my story was indeed found. I didn’t make a huge mess the second time around.

Hopefully this will be helpful to someone out there searching for their own means of getting their story down, or pressuring themselves because so many writers in the self publishing trade are blasting out stories faster than baby bunnies from a rabbit factory.

Find your own rhythm. Craft comes before publication. If you do it right, you won’t be sorry. Because I guarantee you that most if those rabbit-writers will have fallen off the flat earth they are creating for themselves in a very short time. Those who hold their ground will be the writers with a little learning under their belts.

MFA Writer Guy December 1, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Courageous of Larry to put this post up, since Larry is really a story engineer, and that’s about as far from pantsing as one can get. After most of my first semester in a respected MFA program (which I’m blogging about over at my site), I can say that the program does not seem to advocate entirely for pantsing. While we have had many guest lecturers who have said that they write one sentence at a time, and other lecturers who have said they create a character and follow “where he or she leads,” some lip service has been paid to outlining and to many of the principles Larry teaches. Just not as well, or as deeply. As for me, I’ve written five novels. I outlined the first one on my own (meaning I hadn’t yet discovered Larry or any of the other story planning gurus), wrote the second with no outline, and wrote the other three during and after I’d given myself an education in Larry’s methods and numerous others. None of my work has been published yet (and I remain for the time being opposed to self-publishing). Only my first book has ever brought in a contract for representation, and that agent failed to sell that book and eventually released me from our contract. Where I’m at today is that I do some story planning, and also do some pantsing. I plan and pants simultaneously. And when I think a story is broken, one of the ways I try to fix it is by rigorously comparing it to all that Larry has to say. Maybe some mix of both works for a great many writers. It seems to work for me in terms of finishing my projects…as far as publishing, wealth, fame, or even just a little recognition…only time will tell. But I agree with one point that everyone seems to agree on: You must finish. If you don’t, or find you can’t, then you need to look to a method. A quarter of a novel now abandoned is worth less than the toilet paper I just discarded in the lovely Barnes & Noble bathroom I recently visited. Thanks to Larry and Nann Dunne for a great guest post.

Nann Dunne December 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm

I got a huge amount of enjoyment from reading about each person’s way of writing. I suspected there had to be some closeted pantsers on this list.  Larry is a remarkable Story Engineer, and most people who make themselves aware of his teachings can surely learn from him. I know I have.

I came to this list when I was searching for a site that deconstructed stories. I wanted to learn more about how stories are built, piece-by-piece, particularly because I wanted to improve my ability to advise my editing clients on how to “fix” their stories. Larry’s site was the only one I found! (Yes, that surprised me.) I checked out the whole site, read everything about deconstruction, and bought Larry’s books. I wasn’t here long before I got the impression that Larry was – at that time – firm in his advice that outlining was necessary to write a strong story. He almost lost me then.

I could see his point, but it bothered me that not much allowance was made for people who wrote in a different way – many successfully, as Cynthia M. Dagnal-Myron, above, attests. Well, I hung around, and I saw that Larry occasionally mentioned that people use different ways to “find” their story and that was okay as long as they paid attention to the Six Core Competencies. THAT I agreed with and still do.

Larry was kind enough to let me present my side of how being a pantser still allows an author to write strong stories. We both agree that structure is extremely important. We agree on the fundamentals. We agree that he and I have diverse ways of finding our story, not opposing ones. We agree you should follow whichever way works for you, whether it’s outlining, pantsing, or a combination of the two. Larry assures me he covers some of this in his upcoming book on writing.

Thank you all for sharing your experiences. Let us learn from each other and understand that our way isn’t the only valid way.

Happy holidays!

Curtis December 3, 2012 at 1:02 pm

A story about my grandmother who lived happily ever after in Topeka Kansas.
What if she was orphaned at the age of ten in Iowa. What if she ran away from that home when she was seventeen. What if she survived four years “in the system.” What if she found her way to a boarder town in TX. hoping to find a diamond ring in the lost and found. What if she married the man with the diamond ring? What if he was shot six weeks after the wedding. ( Close to if not the first plot point. Her response launches her story or does it?) What if She takes Holy Orders and enters a Convent. ( Oops. Is this going to be my grandmothers response?) What if in the still of the night the Convent is robbed. What if she recognizes the thief as the man who shot her husband. What if the Habit comes off and the pistol is strapped on?

I might call it, “From Holstering up to Happily ever After” Or, “The Day my Grandmother got mad at Quanah Parker.”

I’m thinking you can actually “pants” your way to a story outline this way. This sure beats writing ever last scene etc before you even decided “when” the story happened.

Another neat thing. I could junk the whole “this is a story about my grandmother” and let it roll into a character based on my grandmother who was a character.

@Larry
Thanks. The “What if…” game is the way to go..

Nann Dunne December 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Curtis: Thanks for the laugh! I would like to have met your grandmother. If she was anything like you, she must have been fun to know. Your post sounds a little tongue-in-cheek, but it’s very close to the actual way I write my stories. I start with a few what-ifs in mind and develop others as I go along. Even during serious parts of a stoy, the act of discovery and feeling of astonished enlightenment that come as results of the what ifs are FUN!

Write on…

Nann

Athena Grayson December 4, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Nann, great post. I’m coming to terms with my writing process, which is, I think, one of the signs of a dedicated writer no matter how you write. It’s that you acknowledge that you have a process as unique as your fingerprints, and you honor that process. I am a total pantser and I have no problem making Story Engineering work within my process.

Writing is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Plotters can sift through pieces and seek out the specific next piece to the one they just placed. Plotters find the corner pieces, then seek out the next straight edge that fits to that corner, and so on. They have different ways of understanding and finding the next piece in the puzzle.

Pantsers need to spread the pieces out, and flip each piece right side up, find all the pieces with straight edges and corners, then separate the pieces by color, and push all the little color piles around, and *then* start fitting them together based on the ones we happen to encounter.

We need to know everything we can potentially work with before fitting together the ones that make sense to each other. We find a few green grass pieces that fit together in a blob, or the red pieces that make up the bicycle, but aren’t really sure where they go right away.

We can use Story Engineering as guideposts that tell us the blue sky pieces all belong somewhere in the top right, and the yellow haystack pieces belong in the bottom left quadrant.

Joanna Aislinn December 7, 2012 at 7:37 am

Getting caught up with this awesome post–thanks so much to both of you! I’m thinking I’m one of those pantsters whose first three stories were already fairly solidified in her head. Writing them helped the story journeys evolve to what they were intended to be. Having said that, I REALLY like the idea of going back and outlining the finished product. Since I have such a hard time pinpointing exactly what plot-points, etc are, this might be an excellent exercise for this pantster who understands the value of some type of outline. Perhaps, for me, one a little less structured. And great analogy to the traveler too!

B.D. Knight December 10, 2012 at 5:39 am

Developing skills in basketball or a sport is one thing and totally different from developing writing skills. Your physical skills or abilities limit just how good you can actually get in a sport. There’s no such limitations when trying to developing your writing skills.

I see analogies like that all the time and I think they may stop some would be writers in their track. Personally I think you learn how to write a story including story structure. Then you develop your own style. If I had to outline, I wouldn’t write. Plain and simple. Everyone is different and what works for one doesn’t work for another.

But you can learn to write just like you can learn to paint or drive a car. Yes, you can learn to shoot a basketball but maybe never learn to be a star but that and writing have nothing in common.

Llewellin RG Jegels December 10, 2012 at 1:40 pm

After reading and researching for almost 5 years, now I feel I am ready to write my story. Some aspects are still not entirely clear-cut but I feel READY, if that makes any kind of sense. I have tried to synthesise the elements of story from story itself by reading as widely as possible yet finding myself no closer to what constitutes “story” because, in my opinion, story accommodates so many forms.

I think eventually I began to grasp more clearly what some of the important elements are, or perhaps should be, particularly after also reading some decent books on the craft. The risk, in my opinion, is when teachers try to create a “theory of everything” in writing (a Dramatica fault in my opinion.) I think there is good writing and just plain bad writing (in teaching books as well) and I can spot the difference. I think there is a tipping point of sorts in story elements. By that, I mean if one blends, at the barest minimum, certain universal story elements in a certain way one gets a “readable” book. Readable, in the sense that it is satisfying to most readers. And, the certain way of blending is of course the writer’s style, which one can’t teach.

I think here Larry’s book has helped me crystallise critical story elements and story junctures.

Therefore, we try to incorporate what we consider to be good, and what writing teachers consider to be good, story elements. Yet no one can write the story for us no matter how well acquainted we may be with the story elements. In that sense, we have to go on our OWN hero’s journey and let the chips fall as they may.

I understand why pantsers sometimes fear planning: the risk of killing off the story before they’ve even started writing it. The desire to write the story sometimes diminishes in an inverse ratio to the amount of information one uncovers about the story, perhaps to the point where one says f..k it, what’s the point of writing this story-I know too much about it in my discovery process that I have no more driving NEED to tell the story! Exactly WHEN one reaches that point is HARD to say. I suspect it differs from person to person.

So, in my opinion, we have to find that happy medium between discovering enough about our story to write coherently and structurally sound stories, driven by a compelling desire to WANT to tell the story but not know SO much about the story before we write that we lose the desire to write it…

I think many of my stories will not be written simply because I don’t feel THAT strongly about the story even though my story concept, theme etc may be quite sound. I just don’t have the compelling drive to WANT to tell the story anymore. The desire has left me. I don’t feel guilt about that. Perhaps a sense of loss.

The desire to tell my current story is my fuel to complete it. I am ready to tell this story…

MikeR March 23, 2013 at 4:19 pm

It always struck me that the creative process is, inevitably, “a little of both,” not an either/or conflict between the two approaches.

If you’re going to New York City, especially for the first time, you’d better have a tour guide, a plan and a good route worked out ahead of time. Of course you’ll depart from it. Of course your story will be written in part in the telling of it. But, know before you go, nonetheless. It’s a wonderful city to explore; an awful place to be lost in.

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