by Jeffe Kennedy
I never heard this debate before I started hanging with genre writers.
When I first began writing, in classes I took in grad school, whether you plotted your short story or essay ahead of time simply wasn't a question. Now, keep in mind that I was in grad school for science, not creative writing, so these were lower level classes. I was exploring. Testing the waters.
Over time, I graduated to higher level writers' workshops, often with visiting writers. None of them ever said anything about pantsing vs. plotting either. Essays became a journey of discovery for me. I'd start out writing about some particular event, what I thought of as an emotional toothache, and explore it. Where I ended up enlightened me. The process of writing helped me understand why certain memories stuck with me, like a sore tooth I couldn't help touching with my tongue.
When I switched to novel-writing, that became a new kind of journey for me. I had been in the habit of stewing over an essay for a space of time, then sitting down and spewing it out in one session. I did my entire book of essays this way. But a novel? No, I couldn't hold the whole thing in my head at a time. I was forced to work on it incrementally.
It was really hard.
But I wasn't around anyone who wrote genre, so it never occurred to me that I could plan the story out ahead of time, outline it, and not have to hold any of it in my head at all. I knew, in a vague way, that my friend, mystery writer CJ Box, did elaborate outlines. I was not in the least tempted. Even writing research papers, I never outlined first. When teachers required outlines, I'd write the paper, then make an outline from what I'd written. It was simply how my brain worked. Writing showed me the way.
So, when I finished my first novel and went to my very first RWA convention, at which I knew not one person, and people I sat next to at lunch asked me if I was a pantser or a plotter, I had no idea how to answer. Pantsers, they told me, are writers who "fly by the seat of their pants." This kind of behavior was certainly frowned upon.
My first novel didn't quite sell. Many lovely industry folks read it and said nice things about the writing and the premise, but that it didn't fit any market they could think of. Aha! I thought. This is part of why the genre-writers plot. To make sure what happens in the story fits.
So I tried.
I really did.
I took a couple of classes even. One promised to "convert" the worst pantser into a plotter.
The thing is, I get the concepts. I understand story arc. I get planning motivations, goals and obstacles. But I simply cannot imagine what the story is without writing it. I sit there with my brainstorming sheets and my outlines and index cards and I think about my characters and what they want and what happens next and.... I have no freaking idea!
It's like some writers can park their cars at the top of the cliff, look over the valley and see it all. For me, I have to drive around and see what I see. Only when I drive down the road, pushing slowly ahead, do the headlights show me what the story is.
That's part of why I like calling it Misting better. Writing never feels like flying to me. It feels like plunging into a foggy valley. I ride on my characters' shoulders and discover what happens to them as they do. I can no more predict their future than I can my own. Oh sure, I know pretty well where I'll be next month and next year, because I make plans and life follows certain patterns. But the surprises along the way? Impossible to predict.
And that's the real story, to me.