Monday, October 24, 2016

Panster vs Plotter: the Definitive Answer

Annamaria on Monday


“No one can write a book without an outline,” the New York Times #1 Bestselling author said to the assembled audience of mystery/thriller novelists, aspiring writers, and fans.  There was not the slightest provisional hint in his tone.  He was speaking ex cathedra.  This was the first line of his papal encyclical on how to write a novel.

The interviewer tended to agree with him.   Said that one could never get anywhere unless he (sic) knew his destination. 

“And had a map to get there,” Mr. Smug Bestseller added.

 

I have seventeen years of Catholic school education and an upbringing of excellent lessons in politeness from my parents and grandparents.  I flew in the face of it all.  I could not stay in my seat.  From the last row in the auditorium, I stood, looking as good natured as ever, and striking a jocular, arms-akimbo pose,  I called out the names E. L. Doctorow and John Fowles. And retook my seat.


That little red gizmo says "John Fowles."


Mr. Bestseller looked confused.  Mr. Interviewer offered that E. L. Doctorow had said something about writing being like driving at night.   I held my tongue while they continued to insist that no one could write a novel without a very detailed outline.  They both accused “pantsers” of secretly writing outlines and just not admitting it. 

That’s what inspired my crusading blog today.  How dare they accuse us pantsers of being either incapable or lying about not using outlines?


For those of you who don’t know the terms:  In mystery writing circles, a plotter is an author who writes an outline of the story before beginning to draft the scenes of the book.  A pantser starts with a few ideas or characters and jumps right into telling the story without knowing exactly what is going to happen.


Outliners, not always with the above self-satisfied attitude, often say that their way is the right way.  I have never heard a pantser say such a thing.  At that conference, I did not shout out more than the two author names above.  But I have been ruminating about this off and on ever since.  Here is what I would have said had I been in a position to do so.


Okay, Mr. Interviewer and Mr. Smug Bestseller.  You plotters need a map.  We pantsers are the explorers, the mapmakers.  We journey forth and draw the map as we go along.  We trust that some of those dark alleys we wind up in have the potential of leading us to the most creative ideas we ever have.

 


Here is how I think we can put this subject to rest forever.  The overriding most basic fact: Unless an author is telling the same old story, all novelists are pantsers when they start a book.  How else could the plotters write an outline, except by pantsing their way to the end of the story?  Answer me that!    Plotters begin by writing down, in shorthand, the story they are pantsing.  When they are done, they use the result of their pantsing as an outline for fleshing out the story and making it into a book.  Pansters do the same thing, except that we write in longhand from the beginning, so that when we are done, so is the book.  One way is NOT better than the other.  All writers have to find their own way to a process that yields a good book.


AMEN!



18 comments:

  1. I was planning to make the same argument you did in your conclusion, only to find that you went ahead and made it just a couple of sentences later. Great minds. :-) Total agreement. It's all exploration of unknown territory, otherwise it's just a rehash.

    Go to a concert at Madison Square Gardens. Ask everyone how many got there by walking. Then ask how many got there by driving. Then ask how many got there by taking a cab. Then ask how many took the subway. Somehow, they all managed to get there. Which way was best?

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    1. EvKa, you can see, I am sure, that what miffed me was the man's insistence, not only that writing and outline is the only right way, but that people who say they write without one can't be telling the truth. What?? At the end of the interview, he said that when he got to the end of his just-released thriller, he drastically changed his planned ending. I harrumphed very quietly. The woman next to me sniggered. I guess eventually in that book any way, he saw the light and threw away his map. But I bet he still believes that no one could write a novel without an outline. Harrumph.

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    2. That's funny. It's similar to what blocks scientific progress for long stretches of time until there's a sudden 'breakthrough' that changes everything: people get locked into seeing the world through ONE set of lenses and thinking, "This is RIGHT. This is the ONLY way it can be!" Sort of like religion. :-) Until one day someone trips and smashes their glasses, and when they look up, they realize the world is a different color, and that the new color is okay.

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  2. I love your idea of being an explorer and a map maker! I will certainly use that in future discussions on this topic. (Another saying is that every author steals what's needed from other authors.) It also explains why sometimes we find ourselves at the bottom of a canyon with no way to get out!

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    1. Michael, at the bottom of a canyon with no way out is the desperate condition that forces me to come up with something new and fresh and vivid. Necessity is still the mother of invention, yes?

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  3. I am a plotzer ( not panzer, that's something completely different!), I am kind of half and half. Or neither. Then last week Editor wanted outline of next two books for negotiations of the financial variety. So How does a pantzer deal with that? I stuck something down, like making soup - a bit of this, a bit of that.... we see what it tastes like in the due course of time. But I think the subconscious has already written it, the writer just hasn't realised it yet.

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    1. Caro, I could not agree more. When I am immersed in the story I am writing, I feel like it is coming to me whole, and all I have to do is type out what my characters are saying and doing. The result needs a LOT of sprucing up, but at first the story, for me, seems to be coming from a place just above my head and flowing down my arms and onto the keyboard. Don't I sound like a complete nut job???

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    2. "Don't I sound like a complete nut job???"

      Not at all. That's Jeff's job...

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    3. We once had to write an outline over two days for a contract. And it worked! The book was more or less based on that road map. We thought we finally knew how to write efficiently. Until the next book. ..

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    4. I've read other authors say that they've written nonsense for a "next book proposal" that the publisher accepted, and then the publisher didn't say a word about it when the delivered book bore NO resemblance to the proposal.

      I suspect there are cases where that wouldn't be the case, but I also suspect that it's generally true.

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    5. I had to write a "treatment" to sell Blood Tango as part of a two-book contract. I wrote three paragraphs which gave only the period and place, the fact that the dead body was an Evita lookalike, and that Evita would be a character in the story. All this turned out to be true, and it was ALL I knew at the time. That was enough to seal the deal. WHEW!

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  4. But Annamaria, why aren't you naming names? I want to know who the writer was! :-) More seriously, I agree and it was well said. I end every book saying, "Never again1 all that wandering around. So inefficient. An outline next time." That lasts about 5 minutes. Faulkner, by the way, said (approximately) he begins every book the same way: two people are walking down an imaginary road and he follows, listening to what they say."

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    1. Triss, thanks for that!!! What's good enough for Faulkner, and Doctorow, and John Fowles is more than good enough for me!

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  5. How nice of EvKa not to call you a nut job. It gives me hope for civilization.

    On the subject of plotters v. pantsers, virtually everyone I know leans toward the panster side...just check out "Making Story," but I think the coup de grâce is administered by perhaps the most admired of all writers on writing. And I'm talking about the author of "On Writing," a book virtually all writers list among the two or three best of its ilk, Stephen King. He is a pantser par excellence who cannot understand how the plotters do it...though your final few lines may explain it.

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    1. Bro, thank YOU!! more ammunition for our side. It's I good thing I did not know all these names that afternoon, or I would have been sorely tempted to answer Mr. Bestseller's papal encyclical with a litany of literary saints.

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  6. Amen, my sister. I start out with a destination in mind, but thus far have always ended up somewhere totally different and infinitely more imaginative. p.s. I'm stealing your arguments for use at a later date.

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    1. Oh, Donis, you are welcome to them. If those guys hadn't made me so mad, I would not have dug under their smug arguments until I got to the heart of the matter. Ah the energy that comes to a woman with her back up!!

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