Writerly Habits 4: Plotter Addicts and the Pantsers Who Love Them

Hi, my name is Amanda Rudd and I am an addict.  A Plotter Addict.  There, I said it.  I am addicted to character sheets, bullet-pointed lists, timelines, researching, drawing diagrams and maps, writing thousands of words of history and backstory and world-building descriptions (plenty of which never makes it into the actual story).  I do not, like some writers I’ve met, plot out every single scene for every single chapter (okay, SOMETIMES I do…), but I DO always have all major plot points mapped out (leaving it up to the first draft to figure out how all those plot points proceed, one to the next and so on).  I have all of my major characters as fully fleshed-out as I can manage before I begin.  I generally know how the story will end (though there are a few excepts to this rule).

This is not to say that I always end up FOLLOWING everything I planned out.  I believe that carving your plot plans in stone and never allowing yourself to color outside the lines is a very dangerous habit.  I imagine it would be stifling, leading to complete frustration and/or boredom with the story, and completely remove any sense of adventure or discovery in the writing itself.  And that sense of adventure and discovery is, for me, one of the main attractions of writing.  So, I plan and diagram and map-out to my heart’s content, and for the most part I stick to the major points as I write, but I never hand-cuff myself to the plan.

This has led to some very interesting circumstances.  For instance, as I mentioned above, I generally know how a story will end.  That is often one of the first things that comes to mind (and sometimes it’s the only thing that comes to mind, and I have no idea how I’m going to get to that ending).  However, I have a few stories where I know everything EXCEPT the ending.  This is generally because the direction of the plot and the natures of the characters lend themselves to several possibilities of how the story could end, all of which would be equally plausible but of different tones with different reactions from the reader.  And so all I can do is write the story and see where it leads me, hoping that something within the writing itself, in the way the characters evolve, or in the ways I do or do not change the plot, lead me to the RIGHT ending for the story.

I have also written myself into a number of corners, especially when I deviate from the plot plan I had originally devised.  This can be frustrating, but it can also be fun and even illuminating.  It is thrilling when I find ways of working myself out of the corner I’ve backed myself into, without having to change anything fundamental about what had led me to that point.  And it is also thrilling to see how these situations and my working-out of them, changes the plot from then on (or not).  However, there are still many times when I’ve simply had to go back and re-write whole scenes in order to insure that I simply don’t end up in that corner to begin with.

In the mean time, pantsers have simply jumped into the writing, and occasionally throw a pitying glance and shake of the head in my direction.  “Poor Amanda,” they say, “she’s spent days, maybe even weeks, planning all this stuff out, only to discover she won’t end up following more than half of it.  Why doesn’t she just quit the foreplay and get down to it?”  I’m sure they have a point (though pantsers are in just as much danger of getting stuck as I am), but I’m afraid it’s too late for me to change.

There is much more I could say about plotting vs. pantsing, but far wiser bloggers have written on the subject before, and I now defer you to them.

Chuck Wendig’s “Pantser versus Plotter: The Hoedown Throwdown Shakedown Takedown” is a fantastic article advocating for plotting in Chuck Wendig’s imminently “calm and balanced manner” (or rather, the opposite).

Cid Tyer discusses “The Novel Notebook” – a brainstorming/planning template created by Lynn Viehl.

And here, paranormal romance author Kait Nolan compiles a collection of resources/templates to help in the planning process.

You’ll notice that these links tend more toward the plotting side because plotters like to share the methods of planning that they have found to work for them, while pantsers just get to pantsing it.

So, writers, which are you?  Plotter or pantser?  Or perhaps a little of both?

Writerly Habits 3: What Came First, the Chicken or the Egg (Character or Plot?)

What do you need for a story?  Going down to the very basics, you need a character or two, and a plot.  Right?  So, which comes first?  When you first start a new story, do you begin with a character who has nothing to do, or a plot with no one to enact it?  I suppose the simple answer is that it depends.  I’ve known some people who almost always start with plot first, and some who tend to get an idea for a character that they then have to build a plot around.

I can go both ways.

Sometimes I suddenly see a new character in my head so clearly.  I know what they look like, what the sound like, their life stories, how they might respond in certain situations.  I become very attached to them very quickly.  But I have no idea what the character’s story is going to be.  I actually keep a file specifically for such vacuum-grown characters.  Sometimes I can sit down for a few days and hammer out a viable plot for the character, based partly on what I know of the character’s background, and partly by just generating as many “what if” scenarios I can think of.  Sometimes I place these characters in worlds I have already built for other stories (which is why so many of my ideas keep turning into long series), but sometimes I find that the back-story or the nature of the character is not conducive to those worlds and have to create a new one just for them.  But sometimes the poor character just sits in my file, waiting for me to have an epiphany and suddenly realize what the story is supposed to be.

On many occasions, however, the premise comes first.  I have some seedling of an idea, a “what if,” a conflict, a plot point that makes itself at home in my head and doesn’t let go.  This is not to say, of course, that I suddenly have the entire plot emerging fully formed in my head.  I always still have to work out all sorts of details, thinking “I know I want this to happen, but how do I get there?” or “here’s how it starts, but what conclusion does that lead us to?” etc.  But my seedling premises usually give me a clear sense of conflict and direction.  And I’ll be honest, I generally like this better.

Now, I am a firm believer in character-driven plot.  However, I generally find it easier to brainstorm and generate characters that are believable within a certain plot idea and then flesh out both the characters and the plot accordingly, rather than creating tailor-made plots for already fully-formed characters (which usually requires that I end up changing the character, at least a little).

For just a couple ideas on character and plot, and how the two relate, even in the brainstorming stages, I direct you to a few past posts by Jenni Holbrook-Talty and Anna DeStefano, whose “How We Write Wednesdays” are truly indispensable kernels of wisdom for writers.

“How We Write Wednesdays: Character Chart Time” by Anna DeStefano

“How We Write: Even The Best of the Characters Need A Little Plot” by Jenni Holbrook-Talty

So, what do you start with?  Character idea or plot idea?  Or are you one of those awesome people who can wake up one day and suddenly know what the entire story is going to be, character, plot, ending, and all?

(All this talk about character and plot is inextricably linked to the always-repeated question: plotter or pantser?  But we’ll get to that next time.)

Writerly Habits 2: The Playlists Keep Coming (or the marriage of music and writing)

(I had this post all done and ready to go last night, so all I’d have to do in the morning was press ‘Publish.’  And then I forgot to.  Can you say “fail”? Oh well, anyway, enjoy.)

Here’s a habit I’ve noticed to be fairly common among writers: the use of music to help focus, inspire, associate with specific scenes or characters, etc.  I’ve been known to do this, and many of my writerly friends do the same.  When I was in high school I used to create playlists for different stories; sometimes I’d have entire playlists just for one or two main characters.  These playlist got… interesting… to say the least.  I look back at some of them now, and I’m not really sure what I was thinking.  However, it still holds true that I absolutely have to have music playing to write effectively.

It really is just the perfect marriage of arts: music and writing, together forever.

I’ve learned through experimentation which artists/albums/genres will distract me, cutting through my thoughts so that all I can think about are the lyrics or melodies I’m listen to, and which ones will create a background.  I think of this background like a wall of sound that helps to block out unwanted noises and thoughts and keeps me focused on the task at hand – a little like blinders on a horse.  For such purposes I’ve found that Vivaldi and Bach are fantastic.  I also tend to listen to the Sherlock Holmes soundtrack quite a lot it, because its energetic and invigorating without being distracting (and completely awesome).

I also still associate certain genres or artists with certain stories or scenes.  For instance, one of my WIPs is a high fantasy with dark overtones and a strong, somber female main character.  While working on this story, I tend to listen to female-fronted metal bands: Within Temptation, Nightwish, Flyleaf, Evanescence.  And for a few scenes, I find that Mozart’s Requiem Mass in D Minor is the PERFECT soundtrack.  For another one of my WIPs, an urban fantasy about a demon hunter, I listen to The Killers (let me admit right now, I’m not entirely sure HOW The Killers became associated with this story, it doesn’t make much sense when I think about it, but there ya go…).

Those are just a few examples to give you some idea how my mind works.  But I’d love to hear what others listen to.  Specific artists or songs?  Do you make playlists?  Do you look for music that is quiet and good for background music, rather than songs that are associated with stories or characters?  All of the above?

Inquiring minds want to know!

(Also, I am ALWAYS on the look out for new music suggestions.  I am VORACIOUS when it comes to music, and I’ll listen to almost any genre.  Send them my way!)