Writing Wednesday: Plotting or Pantsing

A book usually starts in my head with a scene. One minute I’ll be minding my own business, doing whatever it is the day job requires, or listening to the kids take over the known monkey universe on some game system, and the next minute, I’m seeing two people I’ve never met in some scene.

And presto, I’m going to write a book.

If only the rest of the book was as easy as that first scene.

I have a confession. I used to be a Pantser. They say you’re either a Plotter or a Seat of Your Pants writer. I’m a living breathing example of someone who made the switch. When I started writing, I was a seat of your pants writer. I sat down each day at the keys and I had no idea what was going to happen next. Which was great, unless I sat down and really had no idea what to type. Every day was an adventure, although it could be terrifying if the words weren’t flowing.

I joined Romance Writers of America and went to a conference, where by chance (I didn’t know anybody in RWA), I sat down for breakfast with a woman who turned out to be Cait London. Yeah, I know. Too cool. That’s conference.

We were talking and we got on to the subject of query letters. Those joyous letters that you have to send to pitch your book in order for an editor to buy your book.

“Why would you write a book before you knew if it was going to sell? I mean once you’re published, wouldn’t you like to know the editor liked your book before you spent months writing it?”

“Well, yes. But I have to write the book before I write the proposal. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

I think I missed the first workshop session as Ms. London kindly explained how she plotted out a book so she could write a proposal for her editor before she wrote a word. The way she explained it made complete sense, and it’s the method I still use today. I don’t know if she actually suggested index cards, but it’s what works for me.

That doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Snarky Daughter was working on her Novelist Girl Scout badge recently and interviewed Regan Black about how she plotted her books. I think I heard Regan burst out laughing before asking, “Can you define ‘plot’ please?”

Right. She recently told me about a scene in her current book where the heroine screams. So, she screams and Regan realizes she has to go to a meeting. Which was apparently good because she didn’t know why the heroine screamed. Came back from the meeting, sat down and found out why (and it’s really good!).

I used to write that way, but I can’t now. Well, I can, but not to the level she does. My index cards aren’t really detailed, just enough to know what I need to sit down and work on each day.

And that’s key because otherwise I’ll go strip wallpaper instead of writing. Actually, I need to do that today anyway, but not before I get one of my index cards worked out.

The nice thing about index cards? I can take one with me when I’m waiting for Snarky Daughter or Scout Son somewhere and work on the scene for the day.

Given the fact that I was once a Pantser, you’d think I’d be able to write the scenes out of order, but I don’t work that way. I can, but it’s harder because I have to make things line up. If a bit of dialog comes to me, I’ll add it at the end of the file to write towards, but overall, I write the timeline of the book as it happens.

I guess what I’m saying here is, it doesn’t matter how you get the words on the page. It only matters that you get them there. It’s easy to go to conferences and hear professional writers share their process and think, “that’s the way it has to be done. I’m a hack.”

But that’s not the way it has to be done. It’s one way it can be done.

Process and muse go hand in hand. We can give them different tools to play with, but at the end of the day, you have to do what works for you. Even if it involves colored pencils, a pack of index cards, a bottle of wine, and a deck of Tarot cards. Don’t fight the process.


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