Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Planner Manifesto

There was an ancient despot named Procrustes who had a bed. All of his guests were compelled to lie in this bed. If they were too tall, he'd cut off their feet. If they were too short to fit on the bed, he'd put them on the rack and stretch them until they did.

In writing there are two warring camps, the "pantsers" and the "plotter." The former believe that writing is best done by the seat of the pants. You sit down, the story comes to you and you write it. Conversely, the latter school says you must create an outline of your work before you can begin to write.

When I call this a "Planner Manifesto" I'm not mandating a procrustrean formula for writing. In fact, I think I would not do very well if I were forced to exclusively lie in either a "pantser" or a "planner" bed.

My primary concern is pragmatics. You can be a pantser and certain benefits will attend your approach and your writing will face some risks you must overcome. You can be a planner and different benefits and different risks will accompany that approach. There is only one "wrong way" and that's the way that does not yield a completed manuscript.

When I began my first novel I did not know any better. So, I wrote up a complete outline--a fairly detailed one in fact. And I supplemented it with a fair amount of scaffolding. Subsequent writing projects have been done either by the seat of my pants or carefully planned with mixed results.

Without any regard to what approach you take, you'll have times when writing is just a matter of moving your fingers across the keys fast enough to get the words out. And there'll be times when you stare at the blank page and blinking cursor. I had both experiences with my first novel.

After I finished my outline, I started writing and my fingers flew like I just described. I wrote without any concerns whatsoever. In particular, I wrote without taking any heed of my complete outline. It was glorious and I thought that perhaps that outline business wasn't necessary.

The only trouble is that after writing about one third of my novel I finished a chapter and thought, "now what?" My mind was completely blank. I had no idea what to write next. And I panicked. But because it was my first writing project, I did not abandon the work. Instead, I read the now dusty outline. "Oh, it doesn't go like that at all," I thought to myself as I read the first third of the outline.

But the overall story arc in the outline still made sense and the end was solid. Just the middle had this jump discontinuity between what I'd planned to write and what I'd actually written. What do do? I started revising the outline, I took the first third and changed it to make it look like the work as written.

And then I looked at the middle and figured out how to revise the middle to link up between the first third and the last third. After I was satisfied with the revised outline, I noticed that I knew for certain "now what?"

I backed up a scene, rewrote that, and set about to writing the middle third based on that clear mental image of where I was going. Did I look at the outline? No. I just wrote until I got to "now what?" again. And I repeated the steps above.

About 75% into the work, I caught fire and started writing thousands of words per night. It was glorious and I was done a short while later.

For my next three writing projects I thought I didn't need no steenking outline, so I just wrote as the spirit moved. And the spirit moved me into three cul-de-sacs. I had three failed, abandoned projects. It was like hitting the wall at 10,000 feet and I had no where to go and no vision how far to backtrack to get to a satisfactory story arc.

That taught me that an outline isn't as much an engineering blueprint for a story, but an insurance policy against getting lost and wandering in the wilderness for forty years. The outline does tend to keep your mind on what the story is about and that can be helpful when you're called upon to make a synopsis.

In the world of business startups there's the notion of an "elevator talk" which is a brief description you can give of your business idea in the time it takes to share an elevator ride with a potential investor.

You need an "elevator talk" for your work in process. It needn't be a synopsis, but it has to convey your  vision for the work and why you are the person to tell this story. Can a pantser come up with an "elevator talk" for his or her work in progress? Probably. It's less straightforward than if you're a planner. If you are a pantser-fundamentalist, set me right on this point in the comments.

The reason why you need an elevator talk is that while you're working on your project you'll still have a life where you meet and talk to people and build your author's platform. And when you are meeting and talking, you should try to learn two things: how can I reach my book's audience? and how can I win this person over to the idea of reading my work? Bonus points: how can I get this person's help to spread the word about my work? The best way you'll learn this from the people you talk to is when you've got a clear vision of what your project is about.

I'm told that 90% of the work happens AFTER you finish your project. Why not get started on that at the very beginning? In fact, if you listen to the Lean Startup guys, you shouldn't even start on a project until you know you've got an audience you know you can reach who wants to read your project. I'm not sure how you can do that if you're a pantser, but if you're a planner, all you need are the rudiments of an outline.

But the main thing you have to remember is whether you believe in being a pantser or a planner, or something in between, remember Robert Heinlein's advice and be a finisher.

1 comment:

  1. This is very cool. I'm a planner, but I have had my pantser moments. My best work is when I allow myself to have a fluid outline but be willing to dance when the spirit moves me.

    Thanks for such a great post.:)


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