One of the most frequent questions that I am asked about writing, both from my high school students and from those that have read my novel, is “how do you get started writing”? It’s a good question (and a very personal question) since if you asked forty authors, you’d probably get thirty-eight responses. There are two basic schools of thought: planning and “pantsing”. Me, personally? I’m a plantser. Let me explain.
Most of the people who know me think I’d be a planner. I like things to be organized and in their place. I use color coordination in my classroom (each class is assigned a color, and their turn-in tray, their returned work, their folders, their paper clips, etc. are all that color). I once had my closet organized by length of sleeve, style, and color of garment, although I’ve relaxed on that somewhat.
However, I’ve found that for me, obsessively planning the plot of a novel is actually rather destructive. Characters won’t behave themselves and do what I want. They have minds of their own, and when I try to write them into a situation it just doesn’t work.
Author JK Rowling revealed that once she had a major issue with the planning of a novel, as seen in this excerpt from a 2000 interview with Entertainment Weekly:
Was this the hardest book you’ve had to write so far?
JKR: The first three books, my plan never failed me. But I should have put that plot under a microscope. I wrote what I thought was half the book, and “Ack!” – huge gaping hole in the middle of the plot. I missed my deadline by two months. And the whole profile of the books got so much higher since the third book; there was an edge of external pressure.
And what exactly was that gaping hole all about?
JKR: I had to pull a character. There you go: “the phantom character of Harry Potter.” She was a Weasley cousin [related to Ron Weasley, Harry’s best friend]. She served the same function that Rita Skeeter [a sleazy investigative journalist] now serves. Rita was always going to be in the book, but I built her up, because I needed a kind of conduit for information outside the school. Originally, this girl fulfilled this purpose.
Of course, that’s more likely to happen to those who write in the other major writing style, “pantsing”, so called for the author’s tendency to write “by the seat of their pants”, so to speak.
Pantsing, quite frankly, terrifies me. It’s like getting in the car for a road trip and just pointing the car down the driveway with nary a destination in mind, just ambling along until something interesting happens. However, there’s something to be said for letting a story develop organically.
That’s why I do a combination of the two (and honestly, I think most writers are the same). When I start a manuscript, I write out a document that ends up being anywhere from five to ten pages in length and I generally tell the story as if I were summarizing it. Then, I take that summary and chunk it up. Can I get 25 – 30 chapters out of it? If not, I go back and dream up another plot twist (or two).
When I have the chunks identified, I create a Google Doc for each chapter and paste the sentences for that chunk at the top. I use those four to five sentences as an inspiration for the chapter, a general destination, but the actual chapter happens pretty fluidly.
What I like about writing in this style is the ease with which I can come back to the manuscript. I’m a full-time teacher and a mom of three kids. Life is busy. I don’t often have hours or days to devote to writing, but this way, I can drop in on a chapter, write it, and move on. Later, when the chapters are finished, I paste them in one document and start working on continuity and flow.
Are you an author? How do you create your work?