Back in June of 2005, I wrote a blog post called To Plot or Not to Plot (it’s reposted below for your convenience). Almost six years ago, lots of discussions I was involved in revolved around different methods of writing.
And today? Well, I can report that today these same types of discussions continue. We have two sides here–call them the “seat-of-your-pants” and the “safety nets”. Team Pants believes writing by the seat of your pants is the most fun, visceral, exciting way to write–no real upfront plotting, you just have an idea and sit down and run with it.
Team Safety Net believes in doing your homework up front–there are just some things you’re going to have to know to get a whole story on paper. So do those things first, then sit down and have at it.
Almost six years ago I reported that I have written both ways. At that time though, I was finding myself more on Team Safety Net than Team Pants.
And today? Well, today I can report that I am pretty firmly entrenched in Team Safety Net. I do see the value of just sitting down and writing for specific uses, like exercises. But for “real” writing, no question. Team Safety Net, hands down.
There are a couple reasons. First, if you’re anything like me, a whole lot of the things you just sat down and started writing didn’t turn out. Mostly they are abandoned. There just isn’t enough there to carry that story to the end. That’s the kind of problem that turns up a lot earlier if you’re doing your homework at the outset.
Second, it is my firm belief that writing something solid takes less time if you do the back-work upfront. You may remember that The Music Mage started out with a vague concept and seat-of-the-pants writing. And it certainly worked out. But it took a long time to get there. Revising Music Mage was interesting–I had a book where the first half was written seat-of-the-pants, and the second half was written with a more complete understanding of the story I was telling, and why I was telling it.
That first half was a lot harder to revise. It included a lot of material that wasn’t relevant to the plot–because, at the point that I wrote it, I had no idea what the plot really was. It included material that did matter, but was written from the point of view of non-viewpoint characters–because, at the point that I wrote it, I did not know whose viewpoints would matter. The second half, by comparison, was a breeze.
Okay, but couldn’t that be because a book always starts to fall together better in the second half? Maybe the difference didn’t have anything to do with how much background material was available when I wrote it.
I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not ready to start revision on Redeemer of the Realm yet–I’m still working on the first draft–but I can already see this book does not have that problem. Before I ever wrote a word on this book I knew where it was headed and why, and it shows.
The next question is always: “But doesn’t that take all the fun out of writing?”
Well, no. See, here’s the thing. What I have when I start out writing is a general, high-view road map. I know I am going to go from Point A to Point B, and I have a general idea what the road is going to look like along the way. I have a few specific scenes in mind that I know I want to put in there, and I have a few specific scenes in mind that I know must happen to get me from here to there. But a lot of material is only discovered as you are writing. You never plan every little thing that will happen in a book, and you’ll find out things–sometimes big things–as you are actually writing. That never changes. The difference in doing it this way is that all of that discovery and exploration happens in an established framework. And that framework helps you to know which detours are worth exploring, and which ones are headed in directions you don’t want to go.