Pants on fire

This started as a reply to the question that comes up every so often in writing forums: “Plotter versus pantser.” The question is usually raised by someone who’s recently moved from the second camp to the first and is aflame with the evangelical zeal of the newly-converted. It’s a thinly-veiled (if it’s veiled at all) cry to embrace the joys of plotting.

I have thoughts on this. First, calling the split plotting vs pantsing judgmentally ignores the reality that pantsers do plot. The real split in process is whether the plot is fully planned prior to writing the narrative or discovered during writing the first draft. Even that split isn’t an absolute. Ask anyone who’s had a grand outline crash and burn when a new creative idea appears like a supernova in the middle of building their story.

I emphatically disagree with the idea that prior plotting requires more thought than pantsing straight out. It requires different thought. Just as ballet differs from gymnastics, pantsing and planning are both approaches to artistic creation that use many of the same basic tools in different ways.

Some people start their writing career as planners, some gravitate to it with experience or training (especially since creative workshops push its development) and some have no *need* for it. And all those paths are equally good if they lead to a result the author loves.

My (moderately complicated) novels can be outlined. The standard narrative structures are visible to anyone who wants to analyze them. But they develop that way straight to the page. Pantsed all the way. It’s the easiest way for me to write.

It’s a rough fight these days to remain a pantser because that approach doesn’t mesh well with production schedules and regular release dates. Discovery and punctuality don’t play well. Those truths do NOT make planning a better approach. Planning is a more commercially-friendly one. Not the same thing as better, except in one particular sense: financially.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that financial success is an invalid measure of writing goodness where goodness applies to ideas and wordcraft.

I am so tired of typing that point. It seems so damned obvious to me, but it gets lost in the shuffle every day.   Lots of lip service gets paid to “great writing gets overlooked every day” but the proof of disrespect is in the inability to join the SFWA, the science fiction writer’s trade organization, until you’ve achieved specific and arcane sales thresholds. (the blatant bias for short fiction and deliberate marginalization of independent novelists continue to irk me, but that’s a whole ‘nother post. And I acknowledge this is an SF thing.

The trade organizations for mystery/thrillers and for romance writing (for example) do not treat active membership like a private cool-kids-only club.

Anyway. Sales are great. I want all the sales ever. But I want to tell the stories in my heart even more, even if those stories do not fit into tidy categories or grow according to a tidy timetable. Which, so far, they have not. Thus I pants along producing my quirky, skewed tales. But I digress.

Back to the bigger the wider picture,  how should writers decide which method works best?

First we have to decide on our goals. Then we gan write start whichever method is most comfortable, and explore the others when–or if– it feels right, and in line with our changing, evolving goals and lives.

That last part is another oft-overlooked point. Developing a distinctive personal approach–finding a comfortable balance between mapping and discovery–is not a one-time choice, nor an irrevocable decision. It isn’t an us vs them issue. They’re both tools.

Analogy time again. Some people prefer hammers, some people love nail guns. And some people get great results with mallets. I like to play with ALL the tools, but to say any one of them is always the right one?  I reject that idea. Would we tell a woodworker who builds with dowels and glue they’ll never be successful/aren’t professional  unless they use a power drill and steel screws so they can make a certain number of cabinets a year? Nope.

All writers deserve the same artistic respect of being judged on quality results, not quantity or process.  That’s my cranky, contrarian take on the subject.  Again.


2 responses to “Pants on fire”

  1. lenaheiner Avatar

    I completely agree with you. The two whole novels I have managed to write, have been pantsed. I played around with the idea of plotting…but my brain simply refused. So, I just started writing and that is what has worked for e. 😀

  2. acflory Avatar

    Well said. 🙂 I’m a pantster who plots when necessary, so like you, I recognize that we need all the tools we can lay our hands on. Why we [humans] have to constantly set up these rigid dichotomies is beyond me. Give me a nice continuum any day.