Plotting and Discovery
Since I’ve been distracting myself from the urge to write my NaNo novel with building my next project, I’ve had the subject of plotting on my mind a lot. Also, there have been a number of posts over the past month about pantsing vs plotting, and this has led to some thoughts of my own. A quick recap, for those who aren’t familiar with the terms (and this is really my understanding of them): Pantsers are those who make up a story as they go, Plotters are those who tend to work out at least the major points of the story before they set fingers to keyboard.
Anyone who reads this blog knows that I’m a hardcore plotter. I can’t function without an outline. I get lost in the middle and meander badly even when I’m not totally lost. I’ve said it before, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first novel I ever finished was also the first one I outlined. I’m now on the cusp of writing my 6th novel, all of them outlined. The ones that have been seen by test readers have been quite well received thus far. All of this proves to me that plotting is what works for me. It’s what I need to function creatively.
There are other terms I’ve seen people use though, beyond plotter and pantser. One of them, which has stuck with me lately, is the term “discovery writer” as an alternative to pantser. I guess the idea is that the panster discovers their story as they write it, but the implication I often draw from this phrase (and maybe I’ve been a bit sensitive to it) is that plotters like me don’t engage in discovery. Some have gone so far as to suggest that plotting is un-creative, yet I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I can’t speak for all other plotters, but I can tell you that for me, I definitely engage in “discovery writing,” but I do it in a different part of the process and in a different way. Let me assure you though, that breathless race of exploration happens for me every time.
I’ve spoken before about my process and the biggest thing about what I’ve said on a number of occasions is to remember that my writing process is very layered. Why am I bringing it up here? Because each of those layers involve a lot of discovery, each on a different level, depending on what I’m doing at that point.
When I first start working on an idea, and I’m making notes, I’m discovering the world and the characters. I ask myself and the characters all sorts of questions. I can’t tell you how often the answers have surprised me or taken things in a direction I wasn’t expecting
During the second layer of the process, as I move into OmniOutliner and make detailed, organized notes, I’m discovering the way those two things interact. I’m learning how they shape each other, and how those things lead to events in the story. This is where the major events of the story lay themselves out for me. This part is often somewhat chaotic as ideas come from all directions, some leading forward, some backward. The important part is getting it all down and exploring how they affect each other and the characters.
When I write the outline of the book, I explore these events further and how they relate to each other, how A will lead to B, and the way D is affected by the outcome of C. Also, I lay all of these insights and elements of the story into a coherent order that shapes into a story people can follow. This is where I get into the details of the story, where I crawl inside it and look for plot holes, by the way. It’s not the final say on the story, but acts as a sort of detailed guide when it’s time to take that last step to having a manuscript.
Finally, when I write that first draft, I find all the nuances, the words and the shadings that transform it into a full fledged story. Sometimes I’ll deviate from my outline, or add things into the story as they naturally develop from the telling itself, but really, I’m exploring the expression of the story here.
To me, editing is the act of perfecting all that, as well as adding the grace notes to the story. Here, it becomes about discovering that right sentence, the best way to have dialogue between characters unfold. Because of how layered my process is, I’m finding that there just aren’t as many structural edits needed when I come to this point, though that doesn’t mean I never have any. I suppose it’s just that the story has been explored and deeply thought out at every step of the process that gets me to writing “The End.”
What’s the point of this post? I guess that the thing I want to leave everyone with is the idea that plotting doesn’t actually suck the magic out of the writing process, despite what some people say, that you can still discover your story. I’m mostly afraid that people will avoid plotting because they think it leads to lesser creativity or impact. And I know that can be a thought in people’s heads because it was the one in mine when I broke down and decided to try outlining after a number of failed attempts to write a novel. Yet it was the best thing I did for myself, and it’s made writing a joy again for me.
I’m not saying that everyone should be a plotter, because there are probably as many people who would be as unsuccessful at it as I was at pantsing. Some people can’t function as a plotter, some can’t as a pantser and there’s room for both, as well as shades in between. You can plot loosely then pants the details, if that’s what works for you, or pants your first draft, then create a plot and rewrite it for better clarity. I’m saying not to turn away from plotting if you’re struggling, purely on the basis that a real writer should be pantsing. As always, my belief is that we all need to find for ourselves the method that reliably gets us to “The End.” Just do it with an open mind. You’ll thank yourself for it later, whatever that process turns out to be.