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?