Are you a plotter or a pantser?
It’s a question you hear at every fiction writing conference or workshop or writing forum. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, ‘pantser’ is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. No outline. No plot points. You start writing with little more than an idea or character and make it up as you go. Nora Roberts writes this way. So does Stephen King.
I’m in good company. Cool.
I’ll have a basic idea for the main problem of the book, a little bit about the characters, and maybe the opening scene. That’s it. I just start writing and see what happens. I might think a story is going to be a short romantic comedy, and it’ll turn into a long angsty drama.
Sounds fun, right? Sounds exciting, right?
No! It’s horrible. It’s hugely messy. Very painful. You’ve heard of shitty first drafts? My drafts take the cake. No, they take the whole bakery.
With every book I write, my process seems to get uglier. I get halfway through and realize my words read like something a young child would write, and that I’ve forgotten how to be a writer (a good one anyway). I become convinced I’d have better luck being the next World’s Top Model (if a middle-aged woman with cellulite and sag could be the next big thing, I think I’ve got a chance).
I hate my process.
Every time I start a new book, I decide to plot it out beforehand. That’ll make it easier, right?
Here’s a quirk about me. I LOVE to read plotting books. Love to attend plotting workshops. Love, love, love to plot out books. But… (you knew there was a ‘but,’ didn’t you?) I HATE, HATE, HATE to write the books I’ve plotted. They have no heart. They have no soul. The characters don’t speak to me. They refuse to do what I’ve planned for them. They just sit around and do dumb things. Sometimes they sit around and do absolutely nothing. They stare out at me from that screen and taunt, “You’re an idiot. You’re an idiot. You’re an idiot,” in time with the blinking cursor.
I’ll get a quarter or so into the book I’ve plotted and end up trashing the whole thing because it’s ridiculously awful and no fun to write. I always end up going back to writing by the seat of my pants, and somehow I manage to end up with a decent book when all is said and done.
I’m trying to embrace and accept the fact that I’ll never ever be able to write a clean first draft. I’ll probably never ever be able to write a clean second draft. Maybe not even a third. Sad, but true.
Here’s my ugly process: I write the first draft just as fast as I can. I don’t go back and re-read or edit. I just keep plowing through to the end. Sometimes my plot completely changes mid-book, but I keep going. In my current book, when I was halfway through the first draft, the heroine told me she’s pregnant, which means I need to figure out how that happened. I mean, I know “how” but…
My shitty first drafts (thank you, Anne Lamott, for putting a name to my drivel) are more like discovery drafts. I call mine “talking drafts” because I talk to myself as I write. I will literally argue with myself on the page as I try to figure out what my character will do next. Sometimes, I’ll just write gibberish or my grocery list or To-Do list until my muse takes over.
There’s usually something I don’t know about my hero (I write romances) that messes everything up. I’ll try to figure him out before I start writing and I’ll think I know him, but it never fails that I’ll get two-thirds through the first draft and my muse will whack me over the head with a nail-studded 2×4 and I’ll go, “Ohhh! So that’s what his problem is.”
I’m now two-thirds done with the first draft of my current book, but my muse has yet to tell me what’s going on with my hero. I won’t give up. I’m going to trust that my muse will show up any page now (fingers crossed).
You can probably guess that my books are a huge challenge to revise. Once I’m done with this draft, I’ll sit on it for a week or two, let the story and characters stew in my head, then I’ll tackle revisions. I shouldn’t call myself a “writer” but a “rewriter,” because I love the revision process, where I create a less ugly second draft (and third, and maybe fourth). That’s where the magic happens for me.
I just have to get there first.