Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Talk to me!

Almost exactly a year ago today I found myself at a cocktail party at RWA. In case you wonder what professional writers talk about when they get together, it goes like this: Money; taxes; weird contracts; how do you do *this*; books. More or less in that order.

The first time I heard this from a pro writer, when I was a wanna be I thought “Taxes?” but of course, if you assume that everyone has already made it in, and if you know that taxes for any creative artist are a mess not likely to be covered by accountants, you see the importance of this.

However, since this party was with total strangers – you don’t normally plunge into the money on introduction – it became the second to last topic. I.e., “how do you work.” Or in this case “Are you a plotter or a pantser?”

Since – pace Robert A. Heinlein – only a fool or a sadist tells the unvarnished truth on social occasions, I normally answer that with whatever I think will let me off easier. If it’s a working crowd, I say “Plotter” while if it’s a more sensitive, literary crowd, I say “pantser.”

However this day I had been drinking for something like 10 hours straight, and when I drink I don’t play around. It started with whiskey at nine in the morning... (It was my agent’s fault, I swear. The woman did tempt me and I did drink, Lord.) So by seven in the afternoon, I had reached that place of terrible and compulsive honesty where I tell the truth. In this case, “Both.”

Unfortunately this is not something that lets you off easy, so you have to explain. I do bizarrely detailed outlines to begin with. But it’s sort of like doing an exact road map of an eight hour trip. Once you get under way, you find there’s construction blocking a road you planned to use; another area the road has washed out in floods and yet another the map has nothing to do with what’s on the ground. So there is this tendency to get ten chapters in, discard my outline and make a new one. If I am under pressure, then I often end up with the beginning of a book, the middle of another, and the end of yet another, which I then have to change into a cohesive whole.

By the time I was done explaining, I swear people were edging away from me and contemplating calling the men in white coats on their cell phones. But to me it’s the only thing that works.

And while I would like to tell you that all my plotting is absolutely rational... well, a lot isn’t. Something comes alive. Or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, usually it means I’ve done something wrong. The book goes silent. The plot I have doesn’t work, but I don’t know what to do. This is when I start drawing. Or listening to the right music. Or playing with the directions and seeing where it goes. It’s rather like trying all the little back roads looking for a way back to the highway.

I just had a book go silent like that, and it took me a month to realize the “fork” I’d taken led to a lot of “business meeting” situations, instead of developing the plot through things people DO. So I’ve eliminated eighty pages and taken a different fork. And now the book is talking and flowing.

So, how do you do it? How do you think it should be done, and why? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you have guesses about your favorite authors? Do you work differently for different stories? And does anyone out there discard as vast an amount of text as I do?


Dave Freer said...

um. I'm a retsnalp who obsesses about problem and settings and character. I think I'd better shut up now before I incriminate myself.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL. I obsess about all of them too. and I'd like to point out that if I don't get comments, the threat to sing is still up. The bump on head might have made me draw better, but not sing. Not noticeably. If anything I'm deafer.

Anonymous said...

Do you see what's happened down in John Lambshead's last post? That's what happens with most of my stuff.

Something sparks a scene. I write it. The scene leads to World building. The World implies all sorts of other character types, and something specific leaps out at you. Some times several. In this case, Whorehounds, Genetic Hackers and Cavalier Rats.

Then I slam the brakes on my over clocked creating, and force myself to produce a semi-outline showing what's happened, what will happen and where it will all wind up. If this looks like it's going to work, I'll get specific (must try three things, then commit to the final battle).

And I'll try to get some sense of the wrapup. OK, the Bad Guys are in Jail/dead/hospital morphing into something awful. But what about the Good Guys? Did the Cavalier Rats escape? Have they and the Brownies petitioned the Government for recognition and the protection of law? Or is that just their plan? Has Serjeant Ruff fallen for one of the Whorehounds? Is the Hacker Girl marching around town with a sign "We aren't reproducing, so let them!"

_Detailed_ outlines are done before during and after writing scenes that need the organized framework. The big, confused climatic battle would be outlined, the various POV parts planned and coordinated. Other scenes that aren't going where they need to, again I'll stop, outline the scene and then start writing again.

I've tried a more formal approach, all it did was slow progress to a really mundane crawl.

Anonymous said...

I go with a rough outline of the key points, then seat-of-the-pants it. I want to have some structure so I don't go completely off the rails, but I also want some flexibility.

I usually have a firm destination in mind, but I want to have some alternate routes just in case I hit a road block or a dead-end. Plus, it's sometimes fun to take the back-roads and make note of places I'd like to spend more time visiting when I have a chance to stay longer...

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, it isn't nice to blame your agent. She wasn't the only one tempting you and you know it. She was just the facilitator. And that's only because you would have been hiding under the table if she hadn't grabbed your hand and pulled you along. [VBG]

As for whether I'm a plotter or a pantser, I have to say I'm a bit of both. I usually have a general outline before I start. Usually, it's nothing more than knowing the main high points of the book and where I want it to end. From there on, I usually pants it and see where it goes.

But there is a caveat. When I get hung up or the book starts taking too many left turns on me, I'll sit down and plot out where it's going. It helps me refocus and make sure I haven't gone completely off-track.

The problem I have with detailed outlines before I start writing is that I feel some weird obligation to follow it instead of letting the story just flow. As a result, I find myself fighting the thing and, all too often, just walking away from the project for awhile until some sort of perspective returns.

John Lambshead said...

Whisky at nine in the morning?????

Are you sure you don't have North European genes, Sarah?

I have started to adopt the South European little and often principle when it comes to alcohol. That has the added advantage of never being completely sober and keeping reality at a reasonable distance.


KylieQ said...

My rule for when I'm on holidays is that alcohol emerges from the cupboard no earlier than 3pm :) However I am also very open to being enticed to begin earlier.

As for plotting, I'm still trying to figure it out. My last two books were very well planned out. The first one ended up being utter trash so let's just disregard that one. The next went in a completely different direction and, as Amanda said, I kept trying to force it back in line with my plans. When I just let go, it did its own thing and was all the better for it.

This time I'm attempting to write with no plan at all. I may have gone too far the other way now :) I'm about 100 pages in and have discovered that what I've written is actually the middle of the book, not the start which would have been a far better place to begin. This is book 2 in a series so initially I went back to book 1 and tried to change the end so that it finished up where book 2 started (hey, it sounded like a good idea!). I ended up having to rewrite it all back to the original ending (and thus learnt the value of keeping copies of various versions rather than just saving over the top!) and now am trying to figure out how on earth book 2 actually starts!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


That's how I used to work, but I've found the more "detailed" road map, even if it has to be changed adds depth to the thing. It's still gosh and golly, of course. Apparently -- and this annoys me no end -- writing fiction is not a straightforward rational endeavor.

I once took a personality test and it said I should be a scientist... shows you what it knows.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Robert -- yeah, but it helps me (at least) if I do ten chapter-by chapter (about a page a chapter) outline ahead of time. I guess it tells me when I'm going wrong. Also makes writing faster.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Lucienne is an evil, evil, evil woman and she knows I love her to pieces. And she absolutely did tempt me to single malt. I believe the words were "It's past noon SOMEWHERE."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I'd be surprised if I didn't have Northern European genes, considering a) that Portugal was the genetic welcome mat of Europe. b) two branches of the family have a disturbing incidence of blue eyed blonds.

For all that Whiskey at nine am was a fluke. I'm not going to say I haven't crawled into the bottle at times, but they are usually times when I just have to get through something and it will be better on the other side. Not continuous pain -- when it's best to face it and get over it -- but pain that's highly concentrated into a week or two. I've never done it for over two weeks, and when it's over, it's over and I don't feel a need for it.

Yeah, aware I'm playing with fire, at least according to the newfangled rules, but I have a feeling humans have used alcohol that way for centuries with no ill effects. My periods of high-use are separated by years, and other than that my alcohol consumption is maybe a beer a week, if that and maybe a day of high drinking at the major cons. (Not so much at the small cons, where I might have a drink or two if an editor is buying :) )OTOH I'm rather looking forward to vacation in Portugal, with freely-flowing table wine and the occasional glass of port.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It is absolutely possible to write without plotting in advance. It just takes forever. I got in the habit of plotting when I had small children and only an hour or so a day to write. The danger, there, of course, is the temptation to make the book fit a facile pattern. I think I gave in to it more often than I should have, and only defeated it in my last three books -- which were also very difficult to write, because of the internal struggle.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, and John, keeping reality at bay is never my problem. Remembering it exists is much more difficult. This is why I live in an area where people walk around because it's good to look out the window and know there are people I DIDN'T make up.

Kate said...

Planning? What's that?

Seriously, I usually have a pretty good idea where a book is going to end up, a starting point, and characters. The rest... I get it when the characters feel like letting me know about it.

Weirdly, it seems to work. At some level I apparently do know what I'm doing because a recognizable plot does emerge from the chaos, and the tangled threads and subthreads do end up being related to the whole in some way.

I've tried to outline, and it... well... My detours have detours. The minor local color turns into a key piece of the plot. My subconscious clearly knows what it's doing, but I do wish it would let me in on the deal occasionally. Having every character dribble out important stuff on a need-to-know basis - and I don't need to know - gets old after a while.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

I'm a panster.

Like Kylie, I'll discover I've written the middle of the book and have to go back and write another 200 pages at the beginning, or worse, the middle of book 2!

And I save different versions.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


This is happening with the book I'm fighting. You'd think "which of you was kidnapped" was something they'd let me know in time for the outline, or the first draft. Gah.

I empathize

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


and I thought a part of three different books was bad!

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, why get upset over something as trivial as your characters telling you which of them gets kidnapped? The characters in Russian Nights take extreme pleasure in ruining all my nice plans. First there's the character who was going to be in one scene, ONE! Now he's muscled his way into being one of the main characters. Then there's the other who was supposed to die. Is that going to happen? Oh no. Not at all. They are a bunch of stubborn, inconsiderate characters who demand on doing things their way.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the one act character who won't go away. Yeah. Even naming him Mortimer didn't shut him up. He insisted I write his back story and include him in all subsequent work in this universe.

And the Bad Guy who decided to reform. Let's not even go there.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Marlowe, in my Shakespeare's series. Tom's dad in Draw One In The Dark (stuck around. Reformed -- he was supposed to be BAD -- and is now series character.)

You do realize most people hearing us talk about these critters as if they were self-willed, would have us carted away, right?

Anonymous said...


They wouldn't dare. There are too many of us, several of us would end up in each "establishment." Reinforcing each other. Much, much too dangerous. Safer to leave us well separated.

I think we'd be an interesting study for psychologists. Sort of free-floating, come-and-go sub-conscious multi-personality disorder.