Thursday, November 8, 2018

Measure Twice, Cut Once

From Jim

Because I’ve been struggling to finish my latest project, I’ve decided to go off script this week and talk about outlining.

I’m trying to finish off book 7 in my Ellie Stone series. TURN TO STONE is due out June 4, 2019, and it has turned into a nightmare of false starts, redos, and takeovers. And why is that? Because for the first time in my professional writing career, I began working on a novel without an outline or a clear plan. Okay, I confess, I’ve also been busy moving from Seattle to Boston and writing several short stories. But the outline is a big part of my struggle to finish.

Now we all know the writing world is divided into two camps: the plotters and the pantsers, those who plan out their books before they write them and those who fly by the seat of their pants. I have always been a planner. At least I have always known the ending of my books and a lot of the plot turns before I start. Of course new ideas come as I write, and I am happy to make changes to the story to accommodate them. Nothing is WRITTEN IN STONE, after all. I find that having a plan reduces the time spent staring off into space, trying to find a new direction to take the story, when a new day of writing begins. It also eliminates a lot of the tearing down, reworking, and correcting made necessary when you improvise.

Ever heard the old carpenter’s saw, “Measure twice, cut once”? (See how I used “saw” there?) I don’t like to paint myself into a corner.

I often hear proponents of the pantser method say that it gives them the freedom to be more creative than when they are tied down to an outline. Some have likened the pantser method to driving a car in the dark with only the throw of the headlights as a plan. I assume plotters would rather use Waze and Google Maps.

I won’t say which method is better, but I’ll give an analogy to support my way.

Imagine Tom Brady and the New England Patriots huddling up before the snap.

Number 12 looks his charges in the eye and tells them, “Okay, fellas, we’re gonna wing it.” They break the huddle and rumble up to the line of scrimmage, ready for action. Yes, they might pull off a brilliant, creative play, but chances are, they’ll just be spinning around in circles like the players in those old electric football games. By the way, I’m pretty sure Coach Belichick is a plotter.

Everyone works differently. I would never suggest we all do it the same way. There are advantages to both styles, and, depending on the way you like to work, one or the other will be right for you.

Plotters. Pro: Less work at the end. Con: More work up front.

Pantsers. Pro: No work up front. Con: More work at the end.

Now back to fixing the book that I should have outlined...

How about you? Which are you, a plotter or a pantser?


Ann said...

Hells bells, I never write anything more complicated than a grocery list. But if I were a writer, I'd be a planner, can't imagine otherwise. Two of my favorite writers fall in different camps. Ann Cleeves just starts to write. And she does very well. Deb Crombie outlines, plans, and scriveners all over the place! And then there is you, Jim, a genetic planner who all of a sudden is planless? All goes to show nothing is written in stone. :)

However, I'm also not a proponent of letting the air out of the football.

James W. Ziskin said...

I agree, Ann. But I’d wager that letting the air out of the football was not a spur of the moment decision...

I’m not a great planner by nature. I had to do it to write books. Now I’m regretting lapsing back into a bad habit.


RJ Harlick said...

I'm a pantser pure and simple. Though I know outling before hand would make the novel writing much easier, because I do do a lot head scratching in front of the screen trying to figure out what Meg should do next, I've tried and failed miserably. What I do find, though, is that my subconsious must have a plan, because at the end I find all the balls I threw into the air with no idea of where they will land, do end up landing exactly where the story needs them. Good luck, Jim.

Cathy Ace said...

Oh you poor thing...nope, I can never start until I have seen the entire movie in my head, and have it all written down and outlined. I tend to work with complex plots, and everything I write is driven by the psychology of the characters...until I know them (their life "now", their backgrounds, their parents' backgrounds etc etc) I can't begin to work out how they might act and react in any given situation - so I start with the people, the plot, the "acts" of the book, the "scenes" of the book all written up...THEN I begin to write. Good luck with getting back on not hit a STONE WALL ;-)

Susan C Shea said...

I'm a blend, I guess, although for one of the the current WIPs, I have an entire 2 page synopsis because my agent wanted to have that in her selling kit. I know I'll veer off the center white line as it moves along, but not onto a dirt road going nowhere!

Susan Courtright said...

I'm a pantsed who has plotted, planned and outlined in my head long before I lay it down on the computer. When I get there, there will be thousands of words of descriptions, interviews, photographs and other research for me to access at the flick of a finger. I owe this procedure to writing years of newspaper columns. Thanks always for your input, Jim!