Sunday, March 20, 2011

Play Misty for Me

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!

Nothing comes.

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.


  1. Oh, I do love the concept of misting. Interesting about your research papers - I used to do the same thing. Get it written, and if an outline was required, create it from the finished product. I think it's possible the reason I'm struggling so much with the current WIP is because I'm trying to plan more. And I keep coming up against that opaque wall of fog. I guess it's time to just start walking through it again, one step at a time, holding onto the shirt tails of my characters.

  2. I'm there with you, Kerry. Trying to plan just kills everything. They all sit there, staring at me...

  3. I must say I do both.
    Some stories I got all lined up in my head and I write from one event I got plotted to the next until I reach the pre thought out ending.

    Other stories start with just a vague idea and unfold while I'm writing them.

    With both kinds of writing I get stuck from time to time.

    With the plotting I usually get stuck on how to get from one plot point to the next in a natural, unforced way.

    With pantsing I get stuck on not knowing what will happen next.

  4. The only time to frown upon a Pantser -- or any style of writer -- is when they refuse to revise. I wholly agree there's a sense of wonder when you ride the currents with your characters, but not every experience is meant to be relayed to the audience. They're secrets the characters have shared with the author, a sort of thank you for spending time together.

  5. I love that idea, KAK - that those bits (chunks) that need to be shaved out of the manuscript are really shared secrets with the story.

  6. Interesting, Sullivan. I don't really get stuck if I'm misting, but sometimes I go down the wrong path.

    It's true, KAK - revision is the professional thing to do. And I agree with Kerry, it makes it easier to dismiss those yummy parts that aren't needed if you think of them as special between you and the characters. I expect that plotters plan out all kinds of things that never make it into the final story.

  7. "The only time to frown upon a Pantser -- or any style of writer -- is when they refuse to revise."

    This. Exactly. I'm a plotter, but a story is not finished until it's printed. There will always be changes.

  8. Yes, Alayna/Laura, and there has to be time figured in for the revisions - no matter the drafting process.

  9. The thing I dislike about the pantser vs. plotter debate is how pantsing is almost always framed as some kind of disorder, something which needs to be cured or overcome.

    It's not a disorder, a disease, an affliction. It's a process. It works. Not for everyone, but then plotting doesn't work for everyone either. In the end, it doesn't even matter. Does a reader make a decision about a book based on whether or not the author pantsed or plotted? Hardly.

    Now that I have that off my chest, I'd like to add that I do like the term misting. Makes sense to me. Probably serves as an apt description of my own process, though at times I've outlined as well.

    And, of course, revisions are crucial. We have to be willing to hack, slash, re-cast, re-create. Besides, as I like to say, revisions are when you get to move the darts onto the bullseye while no one is looking.

  10. "Revisions are when you get to move the darts onto the bullseye while no one is looking."

    I love that, Bill! That is *exactly* how I feel about my revising. ~fiddle with early bit to make it look like I totally planned that chicken in the clown suit that appears at the end~

  11. Although I do all sorts of plotting and planning these days, a lot of it can go out the window when writing. For me writing will always be part improv with things popping out that I wasn't expecting and every now and then a little magic happening. That's the part that makes it fun!

  12. We can never forget the fun part, Sue! Without that, what's the point??

  13. I have a keen appreciation for the way you pulled out the lines "it was hard" and "nothing comes."

    Also, I said "pulled out."


  14. Pure pantser here. I like the term "misting," though -- that really describes it well.

    I was exactly the same way with my research papers in school, too. Backwards. I wrote the final draft, then scribbled a rough draft, after which I wrote the outline. Teachers were always amazed at how closely my final product stuck to my outline. ;)

    Of course, with my books, I revise like mad once I'm done with the first draft. Not all of my pantsing paths are sustainable. The thing is, if I hadn't gone down them, I would have never found the RIGHT paths. :)

  15. Tawna? Heh heh heh

    That's exactly how it is for me, Linda. The revising is all about taking out those non-sustainable paths. It can be annoying, like me taking out an entire POV, but now those are all things I know. KAK's secrets.

  16. Misting is a perfect way to describe my process. I sit up on the top of the hill, looking over the fog shrouded town in the valley below, and I'll see a church steeple here, a water tower there, the top of a tall tree across the river. Once I drive down into the fog I find landmarks that tell me where I am and how navigate to that steeple, and then to the water tower. Along the way I discover who- and what- else is wandering around in the fog as well. It's the journey of discovery along the way.

    Plotting very much lets me know the story too far ahead of time, and I find I'm less inclined to write it then. I already know what's going to happen. There's no sense of discovery.

  17. Great post. Love the picture, too. The only type of "planning" I do for a novel is a bit of thinking and a rough "mind map." Just random thoughts that come to mind. And then I write until it's all out. Love the twists and turns that present themselves as my characters develop on the pages before me!!

  18. Yes - the sense of discovery is important to a mister. It's the same sensation that terrifies a plotter, I suspect!

    That sounds very similar to my process, Lynn. Love that phrase: "a mind map."

  19. I love this! I actually had a professor who used me as an example of how to write a paper by following an outline. I had a hard time not laughing, especially since about half the class knew I had written the paper first.
    I tried outlining for this book. I wrote a ten-plus-page outline, but I have already strayed far from it (and I am only on Chapter 4). Oops. I guess I am just not meant to write from an outline, especially since I like the new direction of the story much better. :-)

  20. I really do think it's like being right-handed or left-handed, or whether you're good at algebra or geometry. Congrats on your perfect outline! ;-)

    I do worry about when I have a contract and they ask me for an outline or synopsis. Maybe I'll have to cheat and write ahead, *then* do the outline?