From Pantser To Planner: How I Changed My Writing Style by Victoria Strauss
I'm the original pantser. I hate planning and preparing. I'd rather just dive into whatever it is and learn as I go. This has gotten me into some messes, as you can imagine. Deciding to refinish a table and realizing halfway through that you really ought to know how to work with furniture stripper is not a recipe for a happy outcome.
Once upon a time, that was also how I wrote.
Nearly all my books require some degree of preliminary research. But after investing that initial effort, I just want to get on with the actual creation. When I first began writing, I'd start out with a premise, a setting, a compelling image for the beginning, and a definite plan for the end. The rest was a blank canvas that I couldn't wait to fill, discovering the bones of the story as I wrote it.
The problem was that the story never fell organically into place. I'd get interesting ideas for characters and scenes and plot points that sometimes worked, but often took me down irrelevant byways or banged me up against dead ends. Somewhere around the middle of the book (which never turned out to match any of the hazy ideas I might have had at the outset), I would realize that I’d gotten to a place that didn't fit either my planned ending or my already-written beginning, and be faced with the choice of throwing out a lot of material or making major changes to my basic concept. You'd think, since my concept was so nebulous, I wouldn't have a problem tossing it; but those strong beginning and ending images were (and still are) the essence of the book for me, what made me want to write it in the first place. I could never bring myself to abandon them.
In the end I always managed to pull it together. But it was exhausting and frustrating to do so much backtracking and re-writing, and with each book the process seemed to become messier. By my third novel, I felt that I was doing more fixing than creating--and if you do too much fixing, the seams start to show. Writing by the seat of my pants clearly wasn't working for me. I realized that if I wanted to continue with my writing career, something had to change.
So I decided to turn myself into a planner. No more pantsing. No more blank canvas. I'd discipline myself to craft my plot in advance, creating a road map to guide me all the way from A to Z.
But how to plan, exactly? Books on how to write offer a plethora of methods. Index cards. Whiteboards. Timelines. Checklists. Worksheets. Character questionnaires. Three-act structure. The Snowflake Method. Yikes.
Outlining (the kind of conventional I.A.1.a. outlining I learned in school) seemed most familiar. So for my fourth novel, that's what I decided to try. It totally did not work for me. It was too terse, too cold, too structured. Too boring.
Next I attempted a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. But that felt too arbitrary--how could I lock myself into a chapter structure before I knew the rhythm of the narrative?--and too choppy. I didn't want to jump from chapter to chapter like hopping across a series of rocks. I wanted the story to be all of a piece: to simply flow.
So I decided just to tell the story from start to finish, imagining myself speaking to a rapt audience in the warm glow of a blazing campfire, with darkness pressing all around. This approach fit me much better. It felt creative; it had flow. I still took wrong turns and stumbled down blind alleys--but it's a lot easier to fix those in a synopsis than in a manuscript. And when I was done, I had a clear path from my blazing beginning image to the ending I was dying to write.
For reasons that had nothing to do with planning, I never did finish that fourth novel. But I've used this basic method ever since. First I figure out the core of the book: premise, setting, opening and conclusion. Then I build a bare-bones road map in my head, establishing the story arc and the main characters, making sure I can travel all the way to the end without getting lost in the middle. Then I write a synopsis, fleshing out the story bones and adding detail to plot and characters, but not drilling down to the level of individual scenes (unless an image really grabs me). For a 100,000-word book, my synopses generally run about 10-12 single-spaced pages. I also do brief character sketches as I go along.*
Once I'm done with all this preparation, I file it away and never look at it again. This may seem like a waste of effort. But writing from memory, without paying slavish attention to a plan, gives my pantser's soul the flexibility it needs, allowing room for change and inspiration, for those "aha" moments that, for me, are the most exciting part of writing. Because I do have a plan, however--because I've fallen into most of the holes and backtracked out of most of the dead ends in advance--I don't veer off track the way I used to; and where I do diverge, it's productive rather than destructive. My finished books nearly always differ in significant ways from my initial road map. But the important plot turns don't change.
This melding of planning and improvisation is the best balance I've found between the creative license I crave and the structure I need.
Changing my approach to writing has also taught me something important about writing itself: there is no "correct" or "best" way of doing things--only what's best for you. I can't count the number of times I've heard that planning destroys inspiration, or that only hack writers plan, or that real creativity is letting the story find you, not the other way around. Conversely, most of the highly-recommended planning techniques I tried felt too constraining or too boring.
Trial and error is the key. Don't be afraid to experiment. If something isn't working for you, don't be afraid to abandon it and try something new. It took me a long time, and many mistakes, to figure out my ideal method. But eventually I found my way.
You will too.
* If worldbuilding is needed, as with my fantasy novels, I work that out in between the in-my-head planning and the written synopsis (I've written about my worldbuilding method here: http://www.victoriastrauss.com/advice/world-building/).
About The Author
Victoria is the co-founder, with Ann Crispin, of Writer Beware, a publishing industry watchdog group that provides information and warnings about the many scams and schemes that threaten writers. She received the Service to SFWA Award in 2009 for my work with Writer Beware.
Victoria lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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ABOUT THE BOOK
by Victoria Strauss
By the author of the acclaimed "Passion Blue," a "Kirkus Reviews" Best Teen Book of 2012 and "a rare, rewarding, sumptuous exploration of artistic passion," comes a fascinating companion novel.
Artistically brilliant, Giulia is blessed?or cursed?with a spirit's gift: she can hear the mysterious singing of the colors as she creates them in the convent workshop of Maestra Humilit?. It's here that Giulia, forced into the convent against her will, has found unexpected happiness and rekindled her passion to become a painter?an impossible dream for any woman in 15th century Italy.
But when a dying Humilit? bequeaths Giulia her most prized possession?the secret formula for the luminously beautiful paint called Passion blue?Giulia realizes she's in danger from those who have long coveted the famous color. Faced with the prospect of a life in the convent barred from painting as punishment for keeping Humilit s secret, Giulia is struck by a desperate idea: What if she disguises herself as a boy? Could she make her way to Venice and find work as an artist's apprentice?
Along with the truth of who she is, Giulia carries more dangerous secrets: the exquisite voices of her paint colors and the formula for Humilit s Passion blue. And Venice, she discovers, with its gilded palazzos and masked balls, has secrets of its own. Trapped in her false identity in this dream-like place where reality and reflection are easily confused, and where art and ambition, love and deception hover like dense fog, can Giulia find her way?
This stunning, compelling novel explores timeless themes of love and illusion, gender and identity as it asks the question: what does it mean to risk everything to pursue your passion?
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