Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Plotter vs Pantser: A Specious Distinction

Winner of the NaNoWriMo Novel-to-Write-in-November Contest:
Potluck, book three in the “Dinner is Served” series, won the readers’ contest for which book Sharon Arthur Moore will write for National Novel Writing Month. Wahoo! The publisher will be delighted that this one won’t take as long to get to her as book two has!

As a long-time literacy educator in the regular classroom, with “rotten readers”, as a school district administrator, and as a professor preparing future teachers over a thirty-nine year career, one issue brought my blood to the boiling point faster than any other.

Some of you may remember “The Reading Wars” in which vociferous arguments dominated the educational landscape for years. At issue: “whole language” vs. “phonics”. It was a specious argument largely dominated by people who had never taught a child to read. People who didn’t understand that phonics and whole language methodology were on different metrics. An apples and oranges thing.

I won’t go into it more than to say the current good-spirited debate around whether ‘tis better to plot or fly by the seat of the pants is another false dichotomy. And I’m getting a little tired of the debate.

At least with this particular argument you have folks on the same metric. The difference is on a continuum this time, so it’s a fairer debate.

Still. Really? This is worth the energy to argue? Certainly no one should expect to change someone else’s mind. So why so defensive that YOURS is the right way to write a novel? Each side surely sounds defensive.

Here’s the deal. How much prep goes into writing a novel is the author’s choice. Period. There is no one best way to write a novel. Not yours. Not theirs. If there were the one best way, we would have found it and everyone would be doing it.

Now I would argue that it is only a matter of degree of planning. Not whether there should be none or maxed out planning. The most avid pantsers I know started with an idea, a scene, a character, something and then wondered how that might play out. They may not have written it on note cards to pin to a board in chronological order, but they don’t sit down each day and say, “Gee, what will I write today? Hmm. I wonder.”

Nope. The brain, that miraculous organ, works even while you are not. Those synapses are synapping. You may not think you’re a plotter, but your brain is working, working, working.

And plotters! Stop being so holier than thou, shoving a million file cards and character interviews into others’ faces to prove you are better prepared to write than they are. If you aren’t open to the discovery your characters put out there and run with it, you aren’t much of a novelist. Each of us should find surprises that pop up even after extensive plotting, and those deserve exploration.

Where do I come down in the debate? Yes.

I have written two books I plotted up the wazoo. I have written two books where a character totally took over the book (Streetwalker is one), and I felt like the character wrote the book not I. Then, too, I have written books with some plotting and some pantsing, sort of that middle ground.

It is not at all a matter of which is better, plotting or pantsing. Rather it is a matter of what the author has to do to comfortably sustain 75K words (or whatever) to finish the damn book. You do what you gotta do. And ain’t nobody, no way, no how got the right to say your way is the wrong way. 


  1. Thanks for being the one to say it! I get so tired of hearing people tell me how I ought to write - or that there are only two ways in which to get it done! Aren't we supposed to be creative, people? I'll plot or pants where I want, when I want. Period. Just try to stop me! ;)

  2. Yay, Lori! Why do people always try to dichotomize everything? Politics, religion, and now writing! Thanks for your support. Maybe the movement to stop this begins here! lol

  3. Great article!

    1. Thanks, Sylvia. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks so much for stopping by. I hope to see you here again.