Podcast No. 1.23
Plotting pantser, Never Finished, Toy Soldiers
I get asked quite often whether I’m a plotter or a pantser. Folks want clarification on the distinction between someone who builds an outline for their story versus someone who is a discovery writer, someone who has a character or theme or setting in mind and simply starts writing, the story unfolding as they go. Stephen King is famously a pantser; Terry Brooks, a stodgy plotter.
I’m not convinced that any writer is completely either.
I think that this whole idea is a spectrum and that every writer falls somewhere along the spectrum, with none of them being at either extreme. Now, a Pure Pantser™ or Pure Plotter™ (two terms I may someday trademark) can certainly correct me by responding that, “Hey, that’s not true: I don’t have even a thought before I sit down to write, nor do I think while writing or in between writing sessions,” or say, “I outline every single moment of every single scene and write with my outline hanging on the wall and never deviate.” I think the chances of that are unlikely, if not impossible.
Even if you fall on the pantser end of the spectrum, you cannot help but have an idea of what you are going to write about before you sit down to write. And your mind continues to run wild in the background when you go to smash your daily exercise or have a coffee break or sleep at night. It’s just how the brain works. And the same on the plotter end of the spectrum: stories invariably morph and expand or contract in ways we don’t expect when we build our meticulous outline or snowflake model. That’s how story works.
For the pantser, something sparked your imagination and created the kernel of your story. Something you read, or something you heard, or something you saw planted a seed that germinated in your mind until the idea sprouted and compelled you to sit down and write. So, a lot has been going on in your mind before you actually sat down to write. You may not have a plot mapped out or any characters formed or the ending sussed, but you have an idea that your mind has been mulling over and that is a sort of mental outline, as broad-brushed as it may be.
For the plotter, like warfare, no outline survives contact with your story, no matter how hard you try. There is a lot of discovery going one while you write and in the spaces between writing sessions. Even though you’ve written out a pretty detailed outline (and you understand the character arcs and the ending), things shift and squirm as you navigate the unfolding story. It’s still a journey of discovery, especially when characters do things that surprise you.
When I wrote Advisor, my outline was pretty simple. It’s an approximation of my Standard Writing Procedure (SWP™). Usually, I write an opening page in full panster mode (I have a ton of single-paged panster detritus on my Drive) and if that story moves forward, I write out ten or twelve chapter headings followed by two or three sentences describing what needs to happen in the chapter. That’s my outline. The rest of the story comes together like that. I’ve found that I am often very good about writing the beginning and the ending, but get bogged down in the middle. What’s nice about outlining is that I know what’s coming and what has happened, so I don’t have to write linearly. I simply jump around and write what feels best that day. Eventually, the draft is done and it’s a coherent story ready for revisions.
Speaking of revisions, sometimes things can change dramatically—no matter how hard you outlined. In Vodou Princess, the first draft was missing what was to become a vital character (and even became part of the title)! Yes, Lovelie LeRoi was born in the revisions. I never thought about her or the role of mambo in the story. But I knew something was missing. I had a trite romance written for Jack while he was in North Carolina, but ended up chopping that. Instead, I built a much more realistic and richer relationship between Jack and Lovelie that will endure.
All of that to say, I’m not sure where pantsing ends and plotting begins. But my estimation is that we’re all somewhere along the spectrum.
I picked up a second book by David Goggins called Never Finished. It’s a follow-on book to Can’t Hurt Me and it is just as powerful. The story picks up a little ways after the first book, and David is in rough shape. He has slacked off and started to enjoy the good life, just like the rest of us. But he decides that he still has more improvement to make and proceeds to take us on a journey to greatness.
David writes from the heart and the gut. He doesn’t hold punches, because he knows that without facing our demons (all the things we don’t like about ourselves and our lives), we will never be free (from worry, stress, shame, anger, sadness). His style is simple without being basic. And there is a lot of entertainment value sprinkled throughout.
I would give it a score of ten out of ten. Besides the quality of his writing, David Goggins is an inspiration and has begun to change my life in fundamental ways.
When I was a kid, stories held all the promise of the adventurous life I hoped someday to live. There’s a cynical realization that happens as we age: life is never like the books (or movies). I’ve lived a pretty storied life so far, but nothing as wild and crazy as what I’ve written. And nothing like what I imagined as a child.
I’m going to read the opening pages of a story I’m in the middle of writing. It’s called Toy Soldiers and it embodies the struggle between fantasy and reality we all faced as children (and sometimes still do as adults). And it highlights the absurdity of both childhood and war. I’m curious what you think.