Thursday, November 14, 2013

Writing as Play

Years ago when I first started writing I read something that stayed with me. A well known writer—I no longer remember who—said you shouldn’t tell other people about your stories because if you talked them all out you’d never write them. I certainly followed that advice as I began my career.

As time went on, though, I began to hear about “plotters,” those writers who meticulously plan out stories and novels before they put the first word on screen. That seemed to me to be much the same as “talking a story out.” I didn’t think I’d like it and I just didn’t do it. I often commented on the issue with, “that would take all the fun out of it.” So, I continued my life as a “pantser,” a writer who prefers to discover what is going to happen in his or her story as they write it.

To be completely clear, however, I’m not 100 percent a pantser. I don’t commit to a novel, for example, until I know about where it’s going to end. I often have a good ending in mind even for short stories, although such endings are more likely to change as the tale weaves on. In novels, I will generally know some trends and some high points in the book well before I begin writing those sections. But I don’t meticulously plan and outline and I always leave lots of room for ‘discovery’ as the tale unfolds.

As more time passed, however, I discovered that—many times, but not always—plotters got bigger contracts and made more sales than pantsers. I also discovered that plotters often spoke of writing two or three thousand words a day (or more), and sometimes of writing 1000 words in an hour. I was flabbergasted. I generally averaged about 250 an hour and seldom made more than a thousand in a good writing day. Finally, one plotter told me they could write so fast because they knew exactly what they were going to write when they sat down. They knew what the scene was about, where it was going and what was going to happen.

An epiphany! The scales fell from my eyes. I suppose I should have easily realized this but I’d not actually made the connection between writing speed and complete scene knowledge. Maybe this was the secret to producing more, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.

So, a few days ago, I set down to play the plotter role. I’d already written an opening scene for a story in my usual way, but decided now to carefully plot out the rest. By the end of an hour or so, I knew every plot turn and twist in the tale. I knew all the characters and had the setting firmly in mind. I began to write. The words flowed swiftly—500, 800, 1000, 1250. In less than two hours. I was pleased.

Then came day 2. I found myself not very eager to get back to the story. It took quite a bit of motivation to do so, but I got started. 500 words, 600. I began to slow down, paused to check email, 700, paused to watch a sit-com, 800, 850, stopped. Still, a respectable showing, and I’d been working on the tale less than an hour.

Day 3. Again, very tough to get myself motivated. I waited until an hour before bed but I knew I could do a good amount in an hour. I rolled to 400 very quick but then started looking for breaks. I fought that urge, made it to 800 in about 30 minutes and quit for the night.  And I realized one important thing. I was bored as hell with the story. I’d enjoyed the ideas during the plotting phase. I thought the story had a good concept and could have some very nice elements of suspense. But I was not enjoying the writing at all. It felt like paint by the numbers to me.

I’m going to finish the story, read through it again, and see if it is worth anything. Not having done this before, maybe it will be just fine. I can’t tell until I see the finished product. But one thing I know.  For me, writing is very much a form of play. And when I know precisely how a game is going to turn out, I don’t enjoy it nearly as much.


Tom Doolan said...

Oh, my. I thought I was the only one who felt this way. I'm a pantser too. Maybe even more than you are. I have tried plotting, but have never gtten anywhere with it. It could be that from pantser to plotter is akin to getting a job doing something you used to do for fun. You have to have the right mentality to keep enjoying it when it becomes a "job." And I don't think I have that mentality. Good post!

Angie said...

About plotters writing faster, I'm a pantser and write about a thousand words per hour. Sometimes I go wandering off to check mail or play solitaire or whatever, in between pages or paragraphs, depending. Sometimes a story just grabs me and I'll actually do more than a thousand words in an hour. (I did just over 3000 last night in about 2.5 hours, and that was with a couple of mail/solitaire breaks.)

Dean Wesley Smith wrote a novel in ten days a few months ago, and he's a pure pantser. He got like 80% of the way through and still had no clue how it was going to end; that's pretty much how he works. He's blogging another novel, and this one is taking longer, but he has a lot of other stuff going on at the same time. He was grouching just this morning that if he didn't hurry up, this book was going to take him a whole month to write, which is a snail's pace for him. [wry smile] He hasn't had as much time to work on it, but when he does, he goes pretty fast.

I don't think speed is a matter of pantsing versus plotting. I think it just depends on the writer. Some people prefer to have everything set out in advance, chapter by chapter and scene by scene and plot point by plot point, before they write word one. Others are like Dean and prefer writing "into the void," starting with a title or a character name and just completely winging it. I'm more like you -- I usually have a general idea of where I'm going, or what the main conflict is, or a key scene in my head, whatever cool thing drew me to write the story in the first place. And like you, that can change as I write. But I like having something to shoot for, even if the target shifts sometimes.

It's how you're wired to write. Trying something new is always a good idea, since you don't know what will or won't work for you until you try. But if it were as clean cut as "plotters write faster" then we'd all be doing it, right? :)


Cloudia said...

Yours is the most useful and concrete and right on writing advice I've ever heard (and I'm old!).

Nice work, Charles

ALOHA from Honolulu
Comfort Spiral
=^..^= <3

Chris said...

I'm a hybrid myself. I usually have a start, maybe an end, and as I go things will come up that I want to have happen that I'll make note of to get to. Kind of like this quote from Rebecca Solnit:

Part of what makes roads, trails, and paths so unique as built structures is that they cannot be perceived as a whole all at once by a sedentary onlooker. They unfold in time as one travels along them, just as a story does as one listens or reads, and a hairpin turn is like a plot twist, a steep ascent a building of suspense to the view at the summit, a fork in the road an introduction of a new storyline, arrival the end of the story. Just as writing allows one to read the words of someone who is absent, so roads make it possible to trace the route of the absent.

So maybe I can see the top of a hill I'm climbing (writing) toward, and I get to the top and might expect to see a perfect downhill to the river and home. Or, like Lewis and Clark, I realize there are unexpected mountaintops stretching into the distance, and to get over and around them may take more than I anticipated. . . .

Sarah Hina said...


Randy Johnson said...

Each writes to their strengths. What works for one won't for another.

I remember reading a novel years ago by Frederick Pohl and Lester del Rey. Pohl was a meticulous plotter and del Rey a pantser. The way they worked was Pohl plotted, wrote the first chapter, then sent it all to del Rey. Who promptly tossed the plot and wrote what flowed from his mind. Before Pohl could write the next chapter, he had to lay out a whole book from what had come before.

They went back and forth like that for the whole book, PREFERRED RISK I believe, and it turned out surprisingly well. But they didn't work together again if I remember.

Charles Gramlich said...

Tom, I think we all do some outlining but pantsers do it all in their heads while plotters are more methodical. I kind of fall between the two.

Angie, I know that I do write faster when I know what is going to happen. a lot of time in the early part of a story I'm slowed down by fooling around with tacks that don't take me anywhere. I'm probably not gonna be a thousand words an hour person I'm guessing, though.

Cloudia, thankee. Glad you enjoyed.

Chris, I like the analogy with geography here. I know that for me writing is like being on the trail itself and feeling its dips and rises while reading is more like flying over it.

Sarah, thumbs up!

Randy, I've met a few writers I've felt I might be able to write with, and many, many that I know I never could. I'd think a plotter and a pantser together would kill each other. :)

Ty said...

Funny, we write in almost the exact same fashion, though like Angie above, I can get out about a thousand words an hour.

However, I rarely sit and write straight through an hour. More like 20 minutes to a half hour at most. Sometimes I'll sit and just type out a hundred words or so, the next few paragraphs that have hit me. Then I'll go and do something else and come back later.

On rare occasions, I do manage to sit straight through a couple of thousand words, but usually that's a dialogue-heavy scene.

Riot Kitty said...

I never knew there was a term for us (I am a pantser as well)! If you're not enjoying it, there's no point, right?

I also never knew characters could be so stubborn. I mean, I plan the rough outline in my head and they just get carried away.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Lots of food for thought here, Charles. Your experience with writing are tips for my own — many thanks.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, the only time I really churn out words is occassionally when I'm rough drafting a scene where I pretty much know what is happening. That always needs quite a lot of rewriting though. Well, it always needs rewriting.

Riot Kitty, I've learned to enjoy my character's moment's of rebellion, although if they go too far I remind them that they could die with the click of a key. They usually straighten up after that.

Prashant, no problem. Glad you enjoyed.

BernardL said...

The only axiom for writers I believe in is we write alone, and in a manner suited only to the voices in our own heads. I let the writing gurus do it their way, and I do it my way - so far, it's a hell of a lot of fun. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Bernard, I like to experiment but as I generally find, I have my way of doing it and it works best for me. Perhaps for no one else. As you say.

G. B. Miller said...

I'm pretty much a "pantser" when it comes to writing. Even with my first novel, I basically went where it unfolded.

About the only time I would even remotely plot something (and this is true for my novel as well as the novellas that I have completed and waiting for the next step) is when I happen to get completely lost within the story. And I don't mean lost as totally immersing myself and become one with it, but actually being lost, like not knowing where I am.

When that happens, I'll do a very brief plot/character outline, which usually does the trick and I soon find myself back on track.

ivan said...

Was it Somerset Maugham who had a character saying, "How do I know what I mean until I write it down?"
Presumably, that's thinking like grandmother.
Well, for me it's largely go, Granny, go.

Comes to plots though, I seem to steal a lot from old TV and movies.
Hitchcock will pull you through.

David Cranmer said...

Pantser at heart too, Charles. I like to outline a story and have an ending in sight but allow the characters to fill it in themselves.

Ron Scheer said...

Les Edgerton once advised in a class not to start a story until you have an ending in mind. The "play" then becomes the process of finding a way to that ending that is both unpredictable and inevitable.

As a reader, I often sense when a writer has lost interest in what they're writing. It's almost as much work to read then as it must have been to write. I like to think I can also tell when someone is just churning out words; the writing seems plodding and lifeless.

Charles Gramlich said...

G. B., sometimes planning a piece out on a detailed level will get you lost in those details. you get so caught up in the little picture that you can't see the forest for the trees so to speak.

Ivan, I'm that way about stuff. I really have to write it down before I understand it fully. And not always then.

David C., yes, that seems just about the best way to me, and what I typically do these days.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's like seeing a movie I have read the plot of for me. I write to find out what's going to happen. It I know, it loses a lot for me. And I secretly believe my subconsious minf is a plotter and my conscious mind a pantser. Does that make sense?

Charles Gramlich said...

Patti, I know my own plotting comes from the subconscious most of the time so it does make sense

the walking man said...

Pantser---when I did my first long work 21 days 85,000 words and a very unexpected ending. A year later did a sequel so i could kill off everyone and not have to get stuck in that genre. 85,000 words 2 weeks.
I've got 6-8 full length mss on my hard drive *shrug* all done the same way. Of course edits are hell but that's true with everything, the second guessing yesterdays thoughts today.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, wow! That's a lot of words man.

Spy Scribbler said...

I've tried plotting, and I do wish I were a plotter, but if I plot it out, I'm done. It never gets written.

I'm not sure it's related to speed though... I can write pretty fast if I give in to my nonlinear, jumping around process. It's a mess for a long time... and I have to clean it up afterward by outlining and plotting it after the fact, LOL!

Definitely to each his own!

Erik Donald France said...

Like paint by numbers -- that's a perfect analogy. Right on, man! If it ain't got that swing, it don't mean a thing as far as satisfaction. . . Here's to play-as-work and work-as-play.

Charles Gramlich said...

Natasha, I've always written nonfiction faster than fiction and I have tended to think it was due to the fact that I knew where I was going better. I guess different folks are different, though. As you say.

Erik, amen, brother.

jodi said...

Charles-I love when you explain methods and then aren't afraid to stretch yourself and try them! It's interesting, but don't you think it's all personal?

Vesper said...

I completely agree with you! I've tried plotting a few times but it never worked. Plot details that I cannot hold in my head will be lost if put on paper anyway because I probably won't re-read them. I scribble scenes, or ideas for scenes... the rest is just the pleasure of "discovering" my story... :-)

Charles Gramlich said...

Jodi, I'm not sure what you mean by personal. Every writer has their own personal approach, I'm sure, but one can change one's writing habits. I've done it before.

Vesper, and therein lies the joy!