Progress Report Number 2: “Plantsing” My Way Through This Writing Journey
Some authors are “Plotters.” They are what my eleventh grade lit teacher wanted every student to be: they outline their entire book before they sit down to write it, right down to the number of chapters and the specifics of what happens in each, and then they follow that outline from beginning to end without deviating from it. They fill in the details, establish rich characters, and craft images and scenes out of perfectly chosen words, but the entire story itself is already written before they draft. They are the Oracles, the Mystics, the Chosen Ones.
Other authors, however, are “Pantsers,” so called because they write by the seat of their pants. They have no outline, only a story idea, and they write their way from beginning to end while making discoveries and developing characters as they go. Some have no idea how the story is going to end until they get there, and once they have finished drafting, they go back and revise to ensure that there are no plot holes or continuity errors as a result of constantly inventing ideas to propel the narrative. These are the Mavericks, the Renegades, and the Mad Geniuses.
Finally, there are those like me, or what I like to call a “Plantser.” I am a hybrid of the two. Truth be told, I’m inherently a pantser, but that process got me nowhere in my early writing. In fact, I spent four years drafting an epic fantasy, and I only got as far as arbitrarily choosing a point in which to end the “first book” of what I decided to make a trilogy because the novel I was writing was becoming too long. Then the “second book” ran into the same issue, and I eventually shelved the entire thing.
For my next literary effort, I decided to be a plotter.
That went about as well as my multi-stage research paper assignment for the lit teacher mentioned earlier, a project that resulted in the only “C” I ever received—and knocked me down from being salutatorian of my graduating class to the nameless third place spot. Did I deserve such a low grade? I’m still bitter about it, but the truth is, when it comes to outlining, I’m like Captain Barbossa from Pirates of the Caribbean. To paraphrase, I view the outline as more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules, and the more detail in my outline, the more likely I am to struggle with the actual writing of the draft. In the case of that research paper, I lost points for every time I veered slightly off my outline, and then my follow-up efforts to stick to it rendered my writing lifeless and uninspired.
Alas, the same thing happened when I tried to stick to a plot outline for what was eventually to become The Sword and the Spark, so I ditched those early attempts to stick to the plan within the first few chapters. I was Captain Cold from The Flash: “Make the plan, execute the plan, expect the plan to go off the rails. . . throw away the plan.” In essence, I became a plantser, and that seems to be working out for me. Instead of a full outline, I jotted down the five defining moments in the five-act structure of the tragedy that had inspired my story, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and then I fiddled with those moments until I had my very own story-specific five-act arc, although the specific characters had yet to be defined when I began writing. For instance, I had no idea who one of my most important characters was going to be until they showed up. I knew the role they would have to play in the story as related to my version of the novel’s prophecy, which was the only real detail that survived from my original outline, but as for appearance, personality, and overall characteristics, I became a casting director holding auditions for a key player. Thankfully, they did. And I had no idea that my favorite relationship in the entire novel would be a result of that character’s natural chemistry with another whose storyline was intimately connected but who was only initially meant to be an ally. Honestly, it might even be the strongest relationship in the entire book, even rivaling the primary romance between my main character and the woman he loves, which leads to murder and violence and all the other fun stuff in the tragic hero story I decided to tell.
And right up until the very end, I wasn’t even sure how many characters would survive the final battle. How’s that for plantsing?
So here I am, plantsing my way through The Sword and the Spark’s sequel. It’s fun, but the discoveries I make along the way often force me to go back and revise even as I’m moving forward. I know there are writers out there who shout that you should never, ever revise as you’re drafting, but I see the process as a lot like trying to find a way out of a labyrinth. Occasionally, I find myself wandering down a cool tunnel that ultimately leads to a dead end, which forces me to backtrack rather than try to bulldoze my way through the wall. On the bright side, however, I never view the journey down the wrong tunnel as a wasted effort because I always learn something and gather important clues along the way that I missed the first time. In other words, the closer I get to the end, the more discarded wrong-way tunnels I leave behind, but the clearer the path to the exit becomes.
Besides, all those abandoned tunnels are still there. Just because they didn’t lead to the exit doesn’t make them useless; instead, I see them as temporary distractions that give the finished novel depth. Those scenes that didn’t make it into The Sword and the Spark strengthened the ones that did, and the same is holding true this time around.
So, for those who have been eagerly awaiting the sequel, it’s progressing very nicely, but it’s still not quite done. Yes, the journey is a messy and complicated one, and five acts make for a long book, no matter how hard I try to keep it short, but I promise that the survivors of Book One will be returning for more adventures, drama, romance, and of course, tragedy.
So much tragedy.
Stars light your way!