Monday, July 29, 2013

Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?


By Erin Cashman

I am a pretty organized person. I love my to-do lists. Sometimes I write things on my to-do lists that I’ve already done just to cross them off! I love the immediate feeling of accomplishment. I also make to-do lists for my husband and children, which largely go ignored. In high school, college, and law school I was the queen of outlines. I felt in control, knowing what I needed to know. Everything was boiled down nice and neat, with bullets, highlighting, and Roman numerals.

So when it comes to writing, I want, no I yearn, to be a plotter. Each time that a new story idea pops into my head and won’t go away, filling my mind with dialogue and settings and characters, I sit down with a crisp, clean pad of paper, and start my outline. I make a list of characters with brief descriptions, and I write not one, but two outlines -- one of the entire book, and then I outline the first five or six chapters in detail. I keep this notebook next to my laptop, and then I start to write.

And then I never look at the outline again. The characters hijack my brain, and I follow them down dark and twisty paths that lead me into unchartered territory. My villain is actually just a bit of a rogue. The nice, milk-commercial cute guy has a dark side.  My main character isn’t flawed in the way I thought. And secondary characters evaporate. New ones pop up. I dream about these characters, their voices fill my head during quiet moments, and months later I have a draft. A terrible, awful, messy draft. I have not followed my neat outline, or even glanced at it. My story arc is more of a zigzag.  But I know my characters better.  I know what their deepest desires are, and what they are trying to hide from me.

So I revise, and revise and revise some more. I write huge amount of back story that I cut. I write tangents that I cut. I write endings that I cut. I write and write and write, and I cut and cut and cut. But with each draft my characters reveal more of themselves, and I learn what makes them tick. Right now I am actually on my eleventh draft of a novel! But I’m not sick of it yet, and with each pass I like it better. By the time I’m finished I am pretty sure I will have cut as many words as I’ve saved. It is a very time consuming, inefficient, torturously painful way to write a novel. But it’s the only way I can.

So, I have come to realize that in most areas of my life I’m a plotter. And I really want to be a plotter when it comes to writing. I love the orderliness of it. I love starting on page one and knowing where I’m going to end. But try as I may, I’m not a plotter.  I’m a pantser.  The only way I can really know my characters is by writing about them. It’s everything I don’t like – messy, unorganized and chaotic. But it’s just how I write.

What are you?


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Erin Cashman is a YA author. Her debut fantasy novel, THE EXCEPTIONALS, was published by Holiday House in 2012 and named a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year. You can find her at the group blogs The Enchanted InkpotBookPregnant Blog, and on Twitter,Facebook, and her Website


4 comments:

  1. Like you, I dream of being a plotter, but I can't seem to make that happen. When I get an idea for a story, I run with it until I have what I feel is a viable draft. Of course, I haven't written a single word in two months now, but when I did write, I was definitely a pantser.

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    1. Oh to dream! One of my friends outlines the book, and then every single chapter. She says the outlining is the hard part, but the writing is easy. I told her I was very jealous! (And hid my messy dog-eared draft!)

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  2. Erin - so strange, I too am an organized person. Before I got married, and the chaos of the universe moved in, I could lay my hands on anything In owned, in the dark. My books and albums are organized by author and title.

    Writing? I have serious plotting envy, but I'm a total pantser. I have a theory that because I'm using the other side of my brain to create, it's giving the finger to the organized side.

    Oh well, whatever works, right?

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    1. I like your theory! Yes, as long as we are able to finish that draft (and then the next one) I guess it doesn't matter in the long run.

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