Write It Now, part 20: keeping the fun in writing

The debate between ‘pantsing’ – seat of the pants free-form writing – and ‘plotting’ is one of the bigger arguments among writing groups and across the internet.

It shouldn’t be.

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdWhen I was learning the craft as a teenager – formally, through writing courses at what’s since become the Eastern Institute of Technology – stories poured out of my fingers into the typewriter. Totally without plan or care. The joy of following my imagination was as much entertainment as TV. It meant I could think of myself as a ‘writer’. My skills were unconsciously incompetent – I was doing courses, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and that meant I thought I knew it all.

Sounds harsh? I discovered the next steps the hard way. The process involved critically looking at what had to be done to improve, understanding what constituted quality, and doing it. For hours, days, weeks and months. Then years.

Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.
Writing got me some interesting places. This is me in Tom Clancy mode on a submarine hunt, Exercise Fincastle, 1994.

That was a hard row to hoe, but it led to some exciting places; and after thirty years of hands-on work, forays into freelance journalism and over fifty published books (most of them with Penguin and Random House), I haven’t stopped learning. The lesson from that experience is that pure free-form writing doesn’t work.

So why do some authors – I’m thinking Stephen King – do it? As we saw last time, when we delve into the way top authors write their stuff, it’s clear they are not pouring out an undiluted stream of consciousness.

They are working from experience, and they usually know the beginning and end of the story along with the structures needed to make it work. In other words, they did some planning. That leaves them free to create the filling. Their skill with writing is automatic; they have unconscious competence.

It’s possible for an experienced author to keep the structure of their book in their head – to know the word count needed to maintain that structural balance, and write coherent text. I do myself. But it took many years to learn how it was done, and only through practise.

Planning is vital to a successful book – fiction and non-fiction. Especially while working towards the ten-thousand hour point of unconscious competence. The next few posts will cover  how this can be done – without sacrificing the freedom of ‘seat-of-the-pants’ creation.

In other words – keeping the fun in writing. And I want to share the technique with you.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


10 thoughts on “Write It Now, part 20: keeping the fun in writing

  1. I’ve found that planning out the major turning points in a story gives me the freedom to bring the characters and their voices to life. Some people can play music by ear from the time they are born. Others have to study and practice to reach that same level. I’m the second one. And I don’t regret the hard work or diligence it takes. In so many ways, the journey is the reward.

    1. I’m in the same camp as you. And I think that those who do appear to ‘just do stuff’ – and often do it well – frequently lack the depth that long hours of practise give. We knew someone once who could play a particular TV theme song on piano – perfectly. But that was all she could do musically. In writing, I think there is a difference between those who flash in and flash out, apparently effortlessly, and those who are in for the long haul. The act of learning to write is as valuable as writing; it teaches depth, it teaches wisdom, and it also creates experience which inevitably stands authors in good stead.

  2. I think it’s a matter of finding the right balance between the two. My approach is to give myself a 2-3 paragraph summary of what I want to write, if I’m writing a chapter or a scene. I keep the summary loose, so as to allow myself the flexibility to fill in the gaps where necessary and follow the rabbit holes. I don’t like plotting things down to a granular level; I like being surprised, which is something I feel outlining from beginning to end completely robs you of.

  3. Great post! I think finding the balance and being able to stay creative but still make sense out of your writing and have enough structure takes more work than most people think it does! When it works, it’s the best possible experience for the writer and the reader!

  4. Plotting doesn’t always work. I just posted something similar on my blog yesterday – how I thought I had carefully planned out my story, only to find that half way through it didn’t work because a character had ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and really needed to be somewhere else! When you have a number of characters moving around, then it is hard to keep up with them all.
    My way out of this was to draw a map and put markers on it to visualise where everyone was, and when they were there. The result? A much better storyline has emerged! Wonderful. My original plot has changed a bit, but so what if the end result is better!

    1. Sounds good. Plotting often involves re-;plotting – also launching into planning sessions with various tools such as cards and spreadsheets. Physically drawing things out on a map sounds brilliant.

      We are all in company of a master when this happens – Tolkien ended up with similar conundrums – resolved, in part,by writing out where and when characters did things on planning sheets.

  5. I did not think I plotted till I realised that with Hold the Faith I knew where I wanted to go with the entire series. The bits in between – some were decided, to get to those points were often a pleasant surprise. But yes, the basic here to there was plotted. Just finishes, in book 2 (unpublished but working on) mapping out the table at the first century guest table.
    Thank you. Had not realised how much I planned.

  6. Yet another wonderful post, Matthew! I agree that this plotting vs. pantsing rage is unnecessary. Most writers probably lean more toward one camp than the other but regardless, unless one is writing regularly, a manuscript suffers. For me, that means meeting that story every day for at least two hours–mandatory for the first hundred pages. I did not decide on the page number arbitrarily, it has just always worked out that way. .

    As an experiment, I tried various plotting approaches because I am quite comfortable pantsing my way through any manuscript, too comfortable. I learned some valuable techniques but in all honesty, I find your writing tips most helpful because they remind me of certain techniques as well as give me new questions to ask my manuscript.

    Thanks again, Matthew.


  7. Writing should be fun. If you want to make a career of it then you need to plan your book and work at it to be the best book you can write, but still keeping the fun in it.
    I love writing. I love using words, playing word games, and creating novels. I just can’t write fast enough to get all the novels in my head onto paper.

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