Once again, author and author consultant Joel D Canfield made an intriguing comment, this time on the question of Who Gets More Creative Flow: Planners or Pantsers, so I invited him to expand his comment into this guest post. Joel is the author of fourteen books and the Someday Box blog for those who want to get a book out of the someday box and into the world. You can find more of Joel’s insights at www.somedaybox.com.
Yesterday my novel in progress came to a screeching halt. I was convinced, having reached the first plot point 25% of the way in, that the story I wanted to create was broken beyond repair.
Wait; after 25,000 words about the clinical environment and militaristic rigidity of the Agency for the Prevention of Historically Anomalous Events, we’re jumping to an ancient jungle? Who’s going to follow that? What do I even write? And if I write that, what comes next?
What was I thinking when I planned this?
That last question was my answer. Because I had planned this.
Here’s why that matters so very much.
I Am Pantser, Hear Me Whimper
My first work of long fiction was pantsed. I sat down every day for a month and wrote an average of 1,667 words, every single day. I never knew, when my fingers hit the keys, what was going to happen next. As a result, every day was somewhere on the spectrum between intense excitement and abject terror.
Can you say “dopamine fix”?
It was so much fun, I started another. A touching coming-of-age story came to a grinding halt when abject terror crushed intense excitement in the dust.
Knowing I’d succeeded once, I tried again. This one became a 40,000-word draft, a complete story. But not a very good one. It was soft, confusing, disjointed, vague, and ultimately unsatisfying. That went in the metaphorical drawer along with the coming-of-age story.
I’d done it once. What would it take to do it again?
The one I’d finished had been a story I was deeply passionate about and I was driven by clear deadlines. Obviously, I just needed to find the right story, put myself on the clock, and type like the wind.
After 10,000 words, my light mystery with a female protagonist faltered because I didn’t have a clue where to go or what to write. This time, it wasn’t so much fear as despair that went into the drawer with a book I badly wanted to write—but which I didn’t want to write badly.
My Construction Background Rises from the Ashes
Fortunately, my LBW (Life Before Writing) saved me. I’d studied architecture and worked in construction for quite a few years. Much of my work in the architectural field was writing technical specifications for construction projects. I knew that creating a building without extensive plans would be irrational, dangerous, expensive, and futile.
Planning prevents problems. But how could I possibly plan art?
That’s when I discovered story structure. And it saved my life as a writer.
Story Has Structure — Who Knew?
Story is part of our mental and emotional engineering. The structure of story is hardwired into our brains.
Familiarity with that structure gives me a framework to start with, allowing me greater freedom to wax creative as I move through the writing process.
Over the next three years I blended pieces I learned from Larry Brook’s Story Engineering and Story Physics, Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid, and Robert McKee’s Story to create a planning process that puts all the hard work of figuring stuff out up front, when I’m still fired up about the story and at peak creative energy regarding the project.
The planning process I’ve adopted allows me to skip back and forth at will between analytical structural planning and intuitive storytelling creativity during the early stages. Flashes of insight can be worked into a loose framework before it’s set in stone.
And then, once the framework is solid, sensible, structurally sound, I can dive in every day, pantsing my way in a frenzy of emotional outpouring through each segment the plan calls for.
Trusting My Own Blueprints
When construction workers aren’t sure why there’s a cutout in the sheetrock here or a bit of unusual framing there, they don’t have to worry about it. They trust the reason for the apparent anomaly is detailed into the plans.
When we are of two minds, plotter in advance and pantser in the fray, the creative mind (aka construction worker) sometimes forgets what the analytical mind (aka architect) put in place and why. Hence my inner wail yesterday, What was I thinking when I planned this?
I remembered that as long as the construction workers trust the blueprint, as long as the creative mind trusts the plan, it works.
So I trusted the process, ignored the self-doubt du jour, and wrote what the plan told me I needed to write. Today, it’s beginning to make sense. I’m going to trust my process because the story made sense when I created all the critical elements. When I review them now, it’s still a ripping yarn.
Even after yesterday’s panic, I’m writing today. And will be tomorrow. And every day until my scifi adventure is finished.
In the next post, I’ll describe my life-saving planning process in more detail.
Joel D Canfield writes literary noir mysteries he calls Chandleresque introspectives. He recently started experimenting with writing his first reading love, scifi adventure. Read about his books at http://JoelDCanfield.com and his indie author consulting at http://SomedayBox.com.