Guest Post: Pantsing the Planners or Planting the Pansies

A guest post from Tim Baker

Author of “Living the Dream”
Now available at Amazon.com
www.blindoggbooks.com

Being a subscriber to your emails for quite some time now, I have followed the “debate” on pantsing vs. planning with keen interest.

Mainly because I don’t know into which category I fall.

Your articles have caused me to put a great deal of thought into my methods, which is, more than likely, your intent, so in that regard you have succeeded. However, I remain unable to place myself squarely on either side of the fence.

I know that I am most assuredly not a planner, because I simply don’t plan my stories out completely before I start writing; the operative word being “completely.” I do start off with a general plan, a core group of characters, their individual contributions and a quasi-firm ending. Other than that, there is very little conscious planning.

Then again, I don’t think I’m 100% pantser either, because, as I said, I always have a general idea of where the story is going as I am writing it. I know what the conflict is, how it will affect each character, what sub-plots and back stories need to be created and I usually have most of the key plot-points in mind. I always know each character’s role in the story and I usually have a fairly good idea of how the story will end.

I suppose one reason for my method, or lack thereof, is that I became a writer by accident. My true profession, since 1980, has been in the Architectural field, and your recent installment about pace struck a chord with me since you used Architecture as an analogy for planning (definitely not a stretch).

I’m one of those guys who has always had a love of “the story” and one day I got tired of reading them and decided to write some of my own.

If it’s possible, I may have picked up some “tips” on writing by osmosis from the authors I read, but I have never had any formal training in crafting a story (your articles notwithstanding).

That being said, I’ve written four novels and have two in progress. The first was released in July of 2009; the second will be released in October of this year. I may not be a household name, yet, but my first novel, “Living the Dream,” has been very well received and the beta-readers who have read my second book, “Water Hazard” have been very pleased with it.

Ironically, despite my life-long love of Architecture, which includes the meticulous planning and attention to detail, I don’t apply much of it to my writing.

At least not consciously.

I approach story writing as if it were a long road trip with a general destination and a semi-established route. Along the way there are stops to make, with various priority levels attached to each. If I happen to discover an alternate route that will be more enjoyable, I’ll take it. Most importantly, there is always the chance that the trip will not unfold the way I had envisioned it, in which case I may alter some or all of the stops or even the destination itself. Other times I may just turn around, go home and think about another trip altogether.

To hard-core planners this may seem like a waste of time and energy, but I can’t seem to get comfortable doing it any other way. I guess it doesn’t hurt that I enjoy the “re-write” process almost as much as I enjoy the initial writing.

Also ironic, is that I attribute my approach to writing directly to my Architectural training.

To make a long story short, I had a professor for “Architectural Detailing” in college by the name of Gordon Andersen.

Professor Andersen had a very difficult task. Teaching a bunch of “know-nothing” kids how to anticipate and resolve construction problems months before the first shovelful of dirt was even moved.

Suffice to say that he was greeted by many blank expressions – deer in headlights would be an understatement.

His advice; Draw something. After you draw it, take a look at it and see what’s wrong with it, because there will always be something wrong with it. Then figure out how to make it better. Then do it again.

This method got me through college and it worked for me in nearly thirty years of “real-world” application. It also seems to work for me in my writing.

So my point, should anybody care, is that I would like to suggest a third category of writer.

The “plantser.”

Part planner/part pantser.

It is where I fall, and I would hate to think that I am alone there. If I am, I’ll be establishing a copy-right and applying for a patent!

15 Comments

Filed under Guest Bloggers

15 Responses to Guest Post: Pantsing the Planners or Planting the Pansies

  1. Elizabeth

    Nice to see an alternate view in this space. 🙂 My question(s) with your method is how do you know when to quit? How many re-write drafts do you allow yourself? How do you make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be in the story – not just in the plot, but with your writing schedule? How do you keep from getting lost in the minutiae of writing? And my big one – how do you keep yourself from revising it to death?

    Don’t mean to be dumping. I like hearing these varying viewpoints, as I sometimes tend to rethink and over-analyze until I’m afraid to write a word.

  2. I too like to think of myself as an in-between writer.

    I think that all writers are different and we all have a way that “works” for us. As Larry is trying so hard to cement in our heads, a firm understanding of story structure is definitely needed–but we should also be able to deviate from the original structure ideas, should something better come our way 🙂

    I think the two differing styles should come together, shake hands, and realize that they can offer each other a great deal.

  3. I too am a hybrid writer, despite being very logic-oriented in the rest of my life. As I work toward figuring out my own method, I become better at preplanning, but too much takes the fun out of it for me. Thanks for sharing your way, and know that you’re not alone.

  4. @Tim, Good write.

    I believe you are more of a planner than your Leissez-faire attitude toward it makes you think. You may not type out your directions, but you do have them and you’ve bounced them around your brain before leaving. Sure, you’re not Clark Griswold having to see each tourist spot you’ve highlighted on your map, but map you have.

    Regards,
    Shane

  5. Having only started writing my first novel this past winter, I’m just discovering what kind of writer I am – planner or panster. At this point, I believe I’m right there where you are Tim – planster.

    I’ve written short stories, flash, and articles for a while, but there is obviously a great difference in that process and novel writing, (albeit we do usually stick to the same structure). When I finally gave in [to the pressure of writing a novel from many writer friends] it took no time for me to realize I had no idea how to construct a novel.

    Fortunately, I had found storyfix around the same time, so while I was pantsing it from the get go, I have learned to at least try to plan as I write various scenes, do character interviews, etc. In fact, I could probably track my progress of “how I write” simply by reading my comments on Larry’s site.

    To get to the point and stop rambling – I’m right there with you Tim. Plantsting right along.

  6. Sandra S. Richardson

    All very well said, Tim.
    I am also a Plantser. I have written several novel length stories (all fanfiction that is unable to be published commercially) and I plantsed everyone of them. They were all a mix of writing what game into my head from my muse and knowing much of the story right from the start, including the end.

    I have tried planning a couple of longer short stories since taking a writing course and and especially since diving into Larry’s most excellent blog. Everytime I’ll get it all planned out and duly noted only to find that the life spark of the story has died somewhere in the process. Those stories never got beyond the planning. I think, for me, part of it is that by the time I’m done with all the outlining and planning every little moment I feel like the story has been told and I’m finished with it even though it is not in an actual story form.

    So add me to the growing list of Plantsers! 🙂

  7. I must say that it is really nice to know that I’m not the only “Plantser” out there (although I was sort of looking forward to the money my patent was going to net!)

    @ Elizabeth – I know when the story is done when I’m happy with what it says and where it goes.
    As for the number of re-writes, Living the Dream went through three complete re-writes (not counting editing for spelling, punctuation, etc.) but the third one was more of a polishing than a re-write. Tying up lose ends, making sure the details agreed throughout…things like that.
    Water Hazard was easier because the story was less complex, it was written, then re-written to tighten it up and then edited for style, spelling and punctuation. Of course – Living the Dream is character driven and Water Hazard is plot driven so that probably had something to do with it.
    I don’t get lost in minutiae because I avoid it to begin with. I tend to emulate the styles of Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiassen and Tim Dorsey in that regard. I use words and details sparingly in order to keep the pace up.
    Revising it to death? Like I said – I stop when I have a book that I would enjoy reading.

    @ Shane – You’re right…I’m not Clark Griswold but I do have a map…it’s just a very flexible one! In fact, the original “map” of Water Hazard was revised so much that the original route ended up becoming another book (which will only be released as an E-Book with 100% of the proceeds going to charity).

    I thank all of you for responding and letting me know that I’m not alone in my methods and I thank Larry again for sharing my thoughts with you.

  8. Hear, hear! Larry had a post here on finding your own drummer (http://storyfix.com/get-published-part-7-%E2%80%93-write-to-the-beat-of-your-own-drummer).

    The pantser/blueprinter choice isn’t an either/or. They are not mutually exclusive. They lie on a gradient scale with pants on one end on blueprint on the other.

    My work started out way towards the pants end and gradually shifted towards the blueprint end. It probably ended up right in the middle. I knew nothing about story structure or any of that stuff when I was doing this.

    Also, you can shift back and forth along that scale as you’re working on any one particular thing, such as a scene.

    “Truth” is what works for you. Even if you’ve blueprinted your novel before you wrote the first line of the work itself, you might find yourself veering off. You might find a couple more what-ifs as your artistic creativity comes to the front.

    Nothing wrong with that at all. You can and should see if these newly-created ideas fit into your plan. No? Well, what would happen if you revise your plan a bit? Do they still fit?

    Writing fiction is an iterative process. Design, write, design, write, etc. Find out where you work best on that scale and what results it gets. The results are what count.

    Somewhere you’ll find “right” place on the gradient. It might change as you gain more experience — change is a good thing if it makes your results better.

  9. Debbie Burke

    Tim, great job of articulating the hybrid writer. Like you, I use the road map approach, a known starting point, a known destination, a few firm stops along the way, but otherwise veering off to follow more interesting side roads rather than sticking strictly to the interstate.

    You speak of “osmosis,” which I believe has more effect than we realize. When you’ve followed a discipline (like architecture) for many years, some structural thought processes become so automatic, they’re no longer part of conscious planning. They sink down into the subconscious realm, which is also the font of imaginative thought. There, your underlying knowledge of structure meets your creativity (pantsing). Creativity sees opportunities to adapt the structure, making it more exciting and surprising than the original plan.

    That said, for my eighth novel, I’m closely following Larry’s plotting structure (@Larry, that’s a testament to your considerable persuasive powers since I was a diehard pantser before). The writing is flowing easily and I’m not getting stuck in the dead ends I used to.

    As Bruce said, plotting and pantsing are not mutally exclusive. I’m enjoying the best of both worlds and having fun writing. That can’t be bad.

  10. Curtis

    I’ve been fascinated by our non-debate/debate. I’m thinking it exists only to the extent that life has to be black or white, them or us. Break that code and the world becomes a treasure trove.

    Help with much of anything is where you find it. If today a derelict poet hands me an insight, I’m grateful. If today a production writer lost in technique and drowning in commercial dictates hands me an insight, I’m grateful.
    Help for me is where I find it.

    What I have found more productive is replacing time thinking about, talking about, reading about writing with yep, butt-in-chair writing.

    P.S. Larry has ruined about ever movie I have watched since finding his blog and reading his book 🙂 He h-a-s helped with timing refrigerator breaks as well as my writing.

    Knowing when something is going to happen frees you from the worry of missing something.

    Thank you

  11. Tim’s post and every comment on it had something wonderfully thought-provoking for me–thanks! I too plot and plan, get some kind of structure, and then start pantsing along. Meanwhile fussing over where the plot points fall, are they too feeble, etc. So, back to structure again.
    Curtis is so right: knowing when something’s going to happen frees you from the fear of missing something. Fear is extremely unwelcome and not part of the joy of writing.
    Now I’m going to look for Tim’s novel(s).

  12. I think I’d like to be a plantster too!

    Thanks Tim. 🙂

  13. Tim, you’re not alone.

  14. It’s really good to know that plantsing is not as uncommon as I thought it was.
    I guess the reality of it is, like Shane said, even if your plan is not etched in stone…it is, nevertheless, a plan ( although I prefer to say guidelines).
    Sort of like the old Rush song…”If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
    Whatever your method – best wishes to all of you and keep writing!

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