Plotting V.S. Pantsing

You know how at the beginning of each how-to post the author tells you why you should listen to them? Why they are uniquely qualified to speak to you on this subject? Well. Here is a short version of that.

In the plotting and pantsing world I am not exactly in either camp. Nor am I one of those enlightened people who sit squarely in the middle of the line with their novels. I am a metronome. Sometimes I swing all the way to the pantsing side of writing, sometimes I swing the other way. It really depends on the day.

So do I know what I am talking about when I say plotting or pantsing? Yup. Been there done both. Whether that makes me qualified to write about this is another matter altogether. I will leave it for you to judge.

Lest you become confuzzled, let me define these terms. Ones that are bandied back and forth in the writing world all of the time. Sometimes sparking an interesting discussion, sometimes a heated debate.

In simple terms, plotters plan out their story before the first draft. Pantsers plot it out while they are writing the first draft. Plotters figure out their characters, plot, and setting waaay ahead of time. They are the ones with multiple notebooks dedicated to different elements of their story. Pantsers sit down with the germ of a story idea, a pen, and a piece of paper, and figure it out as they go along. Plot outlines? Character worksheets? What are those?!

The most heated debates come when writers begin to discuss which one is better. To plot first, or to plot later, that is the question. To which I say, depends on the day?

Pantsing Strengths

At this particular moment, the novel I am working on has been completely pantsed. When I began writing it I had a phrase, and half of a character. As I wrote I found more characters, and eventually figured out what on earth was going on with this story. That is the magic of pantsing. It is like a movie going on underneath your fingers. No one knows what is going to happen next. Least of all yourself. Everything is a surprise, and the magic that keeps us writing is everywhere. It is the first blush of that story, untainted by planning, that gets you through that first draft.

Also in pantsings favor is the fact that you can start right away. No waiting until every plot point is filled and every character question answered. You don’t even need to know the theme before you write those first words. I love that. I love that I can sit down and begin, and somehow that first bit of a story idea becomes a full story.

Plotting Strengths

Now while my current WIP is being pantsed, I have many many many plotted stories in progress. Ones that were plotted withing an inch of their life before I even started the first chapter.

As with pantsing, I start with the first blush of an idea. And then I figure out what on earth I am going to do with this idea. Which means all the worksheets, all the character questionnaires, and all the theme wonderings. What I love about this method is that I get to answer all of my questions before hand. There is something breathtaking about creating a character arc and watching it unfold before your eyes. I don’t have to wait for the end of the book to find out what is going to happen to all of my characters. I can figure it out right now! Then there is writing out each and every plot point and deciding what happens when. My organized self gets a thrill out of that part! When each character arc connects to the plot points, and it is all tied together by the theme, that there is pure magic.

I must say that the actual writing of the story goes much smoother when you have it all planned out before hand. There are less writing block moments and way fewer times that your characters have backed you into the corner with less than no ways out.

Pantsing Weaknesses

What, did you think I was going to let you leave without telling you the dangers of each method? Nope! Prepare to be overwhelmed.

If you absolutely hate writers block, if even the mention of it wants to make you hide under your bed with chocolate, then don’t pants. Trust me. When you barely an idea with where you are going to go with your story, writers block springs up often. Yelling ‘surprise!’ and then wondering why you are running away screaming.

It is easier to write yourself into a corner with pantsing. You eagerly follow each and every rabbit trail, and then wonder how on earth your characters ended up on the edge of a cliff with no ways of rescue. Hm, maybe I should write in a flock of eagles?

Also, you will have to edit many many times. There is no first then second then finished draft with pantsing. Unless you are a writing genius of course. You will have to do way more after the first draft to make sure that it all goes smoothly. And that includes refining character arcs, filling in plot holes, and foreshadowing. Things that you would have already done if you had plotted. So if you hate editing, try to have some of the planning and questioning done before hand.

Plotting Weaknesses

Even with your mega plans and color coded plot your novel still might fall flat on its face. Or never get written in the first place.

The greatest weakness I have found in plotting is the fact that you are never done planning. There are always more questions to answer about your character, always more bits to find out about your world, and always more research to do. You may find yourself always plotting and planning and never getting to the first draft. And if you don’t get to the first draft, you don’t have a novel. Only a well planned project that you will get to, someday.

Also, if you have created a multi faceted plot that has planned for every eventuality and filled every plot hole and put every character in a firmly defined box, your characters will grab the reins and run away with the whole story. It seems to be the rule of all plots. The more you tack them down, the smallest thing will upset them. If I don’t make sense, I apologize.

You see, writing is a creative process. Which means you are using the creative side of your brain most of the time. You know, the side that wakes you up at 2:00 AM with a great idea. That side will refused to be tamped down, and when you least expect it will pop up with this great idea that will send your perfect plot careening off course.

Pantsing Ideas

I thought this post was long enough, but I didn’t want to leave you with all of this dismal news. My hope is that these how-to posts are useful, and so I want to give you a few ideas to make each side easier to write. To avoid each pitfall and tap into the strengths.

I have found that pantsing becomes more manageable when you take notes while you are writing. Whether those notes are in a different color within your draft, or in a different notebook, or even at the end of each chapter, write ’em. Notes will save you from wondering where your characters went, and keep you from hours of finding where you wrote down what color your MC’s eyes are.

If you are writing notes, you have a quick look at what you will have to edit later. Possibly saving you a draft, or at least a bunch of time.

This idea is to keep writers block in the corner. Keep the ending in mind. No, this isn’t me trying to finagle you into plotting. Know where you are going with your story, at the very least you will know when you need to end it. Chances are, you already have an idea of where your story is going, just fine tune it a bit. What is the goal of the characters? Are the characters going to get their goal? Or not? Figure that out, and your pantsed novel will end right on time.

Plotting Ideas

Don’t plan too much. That about sums up my advice for this side of the question. If you plan too much, your novel won’t be written. Which isn’t quite what you want, is it? We all want to finish our stories, so do yourself a favor and stop planning. Find a point that you can stop, and stop. Decide beforehand what that point will be. Are you going to plan until you have a basic idea? Until you have the whole plot finished? Answer that question, and when you have hit that point. Stop. Don’t let yourself plan any more.

Again, if you plan too much and too tightly, one small thing will make it all crash off course. Okay okay. I might be exaggerating. Your plot will probably not go crashing into a mountainside and shatter into smithereens.

However, when you are plotting, leave breathing room. Room for your characters to do unexpected things, and for unexpected people to show up. And if the unexpected happens, don’t sweat it, or try to erase it. It will be easier to put toothpaste back into a bottle than to stuff your idea back into your brain. Play with idea a bit, let it percolate. Maybe it will make your story better, even if it means that your plot will have to be adjusted a bit.

Phew. If you made it to the end of this ridiculously looong post. Congratulations! Take some chocolate strawberries. I hope it was helpful, at least a little. So go out, finish those stories! I will be over here trying to end my pantsed novel. I need to take my own advice and figure out what the ending is for this thing…

Shaina Merrick

What a surprise, it wasn’t accurate.

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Who here has listened to Hamilton? Ya know, the Broadway show about one of our Founding Fathers that every one was obsessing over a few years back. Well, I am still obsessing over it. Slightly.

It was the music that inspired me to go find a biography of Hamilton, and one of Hamilton’s wife. Let me just say that her biography was the more interesting of the two. It could have been author differences, style differences, or that she was a more interesting person even though he changed America. It is still a toss up in my mind.

Now, any time Disney does a ‘historical’ movie. You just assume that they messed up something. It seems to be almost against the rules to keep any history they tell (or any story for that matter) intact and without alterations. However, this wasn’t Disney, and I was willing to give the writers of Hamilton a chance.

News flash, they got some things wrong. Surprise surprise.

For the most part, it hasn’t bothered me much. The main events are still correct, the stream of things just the same as it actually happened. There are just a few things off. And of course, I am going to tell you what they are.

For the most part, the ‘errors’ (most likely on purpose for the stories sake) all involve the love story between Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Hamilton.

In the Broadway show they are engaged within two weeks of meeting each other. Two weeks. Seems a little short don’t you think? Even for that era. If you happened to think that, you are correct.

Alexander and Eliza’s courtship was short, especially in comparison to modern standards. A few months to get to know each other before he popped the question.

And that Winters Ball? That was where he proposed, not where they met. In fact, in preparation for that ball Eliza’s sister Angelica and a family friend wasted no effort on making Eliza as beautiful as possible. Basically they were trying to make this match happen. Aren’t sisters wonderful?

Another big piece of the Broadway show is the idea that Angelica liked Alexander first, and may have married him if not for the fact that her beloved sister had not fallen head over heels with him.

While this made for some great tension and my favorite song (‘Satisfied’). It isn’t quite true to how it happened.

Angelica was married and had a toddler son in tow when she met Alexander. Not exactly marriage material. Also, the first time she met Alexander he was courting her sister and completely off limits. Less a love triangle and more a helpful sister who became great friends with her brother-in-law.

Yes, there were wild rumors at the time of who Alexander was actually in love with. But let me remind you that rumors are not necessarily true, and that Alexander had many enemies who would say and do anything to pull him down.

In short, he was in love with one woman. And that woman happened to be his wife. Novel idea, isn’t it?

The last thing I wanted to point out was that his whole scandal with the infamous Mrs. Reynolds may have in fact been a cover up for something else entirely.

The statesmen had come to Alexander to accuse him of misusing his position to make other family members financially well off. His defense? He was having an affair. He proved his story by providing letters. We have never been able to find the original copies of those letters. They were burned, along with any other evidence that may have proved or disproved his story.

There were people at the time who did not believe his story of an affair, and were convinced that he was hiding something else. What they neglected to see was that Eliza Hamilton herself said nothing. Only that she despised the men who seemed obsessed with ruining her husbands reputation.

So either she was a fool, or there was something else going. Yet, how could the wife of a statesman, beloved mother to 8 children, and wise homemaker, be such a fool over love?

When the whole affair became public she neither railed upon her husband nor left him. In fact from the surviving letters we have of the period they seemed as much in love as ever.

History also seems to forget that the Mrs. Reynolds in question denied the affair until her death. In fact she divorced her husband after the affair become public. In tears, she told whoever would listen that she had been wrongly accused. Some people believed her, some did not.

What truly was the Reynolds affair? In truth, we will never know. Everything that could have pointed up to the right answer was burned after Alexanders death. Historians have pondered this question for years, and we are no closer to the answer. Perhaps he did have an affair and was able to patch things up with his wife. Perhaps it was all an elaborate story to hide abuse of his position. We will never know.

Regardless of wrong facts, I would still recommend the show. It’s a Broadway show about one of the most fascinating periods in history. What is there not to love?

Shaina Merrick

Book Review: The Old Man and the Sea

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Welcome to the latest edition of book reviews. Where I talk about a book that broke a bunch of writing rules and still ended up becoming a classic. Without further ado, let me introduce you to ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway.

The last novel Ernest Hemingway saw published, The Old Man and the Sea has proved itself to be one of the enduring works of American fiction. (as in people actually know it exists after the author died? Or that people sort of know the plot so many years later?) It is the story of an old Cuban fisherman and his supreme ordeal: a relentless, agonizing battle with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream. (you are being dramatic, it was only agonizing at the end and it wasn’t that far out in the gulf stream.) Using the simple, powerful language of a fable, (best part) Hemingway takes the timeless themes of courage in the face of defeat and personal triumph won from loss and transforms them into a magnificent twentieth-century classic.

Note: I apologize for the terrible summary, but they were all terrible and this was the best I could find without having to write one myself.

One of the best parts about this book is that it is short. I was able to read it in an afternoon. Yay! Though I have a feeling that I would have read it even if it was a thousand pages long. You kind of get sucked in…

Yes, the book really is about an old man. And that is what he is called for the entire book, the old man. The only other character who makes multiple appearances is called the boy. They do have names, Hemingway just didn’t bother to use them. As a writer who tends to forget to name her characters until half way through the novel, I appreciated that part.

Please don’t think that because the novella is about an old man that you won’t be interested, that it will be boring, and that it won’t be relatable. To that I say, Ha! I am neither old, or a man, and I was sucked into Santiago’s story from chapter one. I found myself hoping that he would be able to get his hand un-cramped in time. Cheering him on during his battle against the sharks.

Santiago is more than your average grandfather puttering around his house. He is strong, strong enough to keep fishing even though he hasn’t eaten anything all day. He is also stubborn, and willing to keep going even though the odds are against him. In a younger man those two character traits would be coupled with pride. But you get the idea that he lost his pride long ago. It was burned out by the hot tropical sun and washed away with the waves. The boy does so much for him, and he doesn’t complain. He is grateful for the boys help, and misses him when he is gone.

If Santiago is the heart beat of the story, the sea is the body. I don’t know the author very well, but I have a good guess that he was familiar with the ocean. He knew its colors and its moods, he knew which fish liked what depth of water and what it felt like to lose sight of land.

The whole story was there for Hemingway to describe the ocean. Any narrative pieces were quickly got out of the way so that he could get back to his favorite topic. Which is where he broke the rules.

All writers are told this over and over and over again to ‘show, don’t tell’. Show the characters emotions, show the world, show the characters, don’t tell unless you absolutely have to. It is great advice, but I present to you an entire book that took that advice and put it on its head.

If Santiago was hungry, Hemingway said he was hungry. If he was scared, that was told to you to. No, the author never sat down and sketched out exactly what he looked like and what his character was, he let you figure that out yourself. He kept all his telling to the narrative bits, the bits that he got out of the way as soon as possible so that he could get back to showing you the ocean.

Which isn’t to say that the whole book was a disguised essay on ocean life. There was plenty going on, he just didn’t waste a bunch of words on it. Even though I would think it is a big deal when Santiago finally gets that fish, Hemingway just lets you know it happened, then moves on with what is happening next. It isn’t a breakneck pace, but it isn’t slow either. The pace is a steady walk through the story, ending when you suddenly turn a corner and realize that you have arrived at your destination.

If you are interested in reading something that takes the conventional way of novel writing and bends them, give it a try! At least its short, and if you hate it you won’t have spent an entire day on it. But I don’t think you will hate it.

It is clean as far as content goes, and I would be happy to recommend it to an age.

I think ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ deserves its five stars: * * * * *

Shaina Merrick

The Tales of Lunnoor

What if the faeries were evil? What if dryads pulled you to a watery grave while pixies led you off a cliff. Brownies lived to be a thorn in your side (and to mess up your house), and naiads took over trees to use them to poison other living beings.

The world is dangerous, and it has become more so now that the Kings closest advisor has turned on him, sparking a civil war that has swept the whole country up in its battle. Some men want what they think is freedom, some want wealth, some want nothing more than to serve their King.

Welcome to the world of Lunnoor, the setting for my collection of short stories. Once a month you will read about faeries, rebellions, battles, and men and women who are willing to do anything for what they believe in. Some of the stories will be connected by characters or events, some only by the same world. However when you take them all together they will create a patchwork quilt that tells the story of the war against the King.

Until next time!

Shaina Merrick