Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Does It Really Matter?: Plotters, Pantsers, Outlines, or No Outlines

Brent Smith

Outline person or no outline person? Plotter or a pantser? These are pretty important questions in all walks of writing, as it determines literally everything about style, structure, and how long one spends actually constructing their story.  I’d posit that the terms themselves don’t even matter. As writers, we all crave the best and most efficient way to tell our stories. No two people work the same however. This is the great thing about working in a classroom with fourteen other writers. I’ve been able to see first hand, and talk to others in a small, controlled environment about process and it’s pretty easy to determine that writing process might as well be as deeply infused and unique as the very DNA they possess.
The Pantser's bookcase/computer chair
            “Well, where do you sit on this line?” you may be asking (I hope, because I’m telling you anyway!). I personally believe I have a pretty unique approach to the process as I do a unique mix of plotting, pantsing, outlining, and not. It’s easy to begin with how well I organize my own life. Let’s just say that my method of organizing is…unique to say the least. This isn’t to say I don’t know where anything is. My delicate filing system usually just begins at my floor and ends on my coffee table. This behavior used to concern me as burgeoning writer, because I assume all writers were hyper-organized people who had their stuff together. Then I met a few of them. While a lot of them are those hyper-organized types, there are plenty of us who aren’t and produce equally tangible work. I like to begin any large piece a free write, exercising my characters, their wants, and needs. I like my characters to meet at the bar, like actors before a big movie. They grow familiar with each other, and understand what makes each other tick. I then save those free writes to a very dark place at the bottom of my Dropbox folder hidden within ten other Dropbox folders, and the show begins.
Okay, so I'm not totally chaotic. I still plan a little.
            I’m not completely lawless though, when undergoing large projects I will sketch very rough outlines but these usually consist of one or two sentences. My notes on my iPhone are about as packed as can be with one or two word descriptions of things I’ve observed. I do this so when I read these things later, I have an excuse to break away and reinterpret my own thoughts. I can break this back down to process being different for everyone. Due to growing up in a family that deeply infused micromanaging smaller situations for the better of the bigger picture, I’ve developed a sense for how the smallest ripples can foretell a tsunami. I think in these terms on the fly, and it’s very easy for me to establish elements in my work.
            One of the most prolific poets of recent memory, Charles Bukowksi, was also questionably organized. According to his almost four hours of interview footage in The Bukowski Tapes he did not identify as a worker because he didn't want people to assume he was doing another 9-5 to job. He considered the process much more chaotic than that, and many people called him a bum. He also famously said during the tapes that he wrote as the words came because he wanted to "write down the words the way they were supposed to be". This is a pretty important lesson. This isn't to say that organization is by any means the devil, but  in my, and Bukowski's experience, it can ultimately stifle the initial message.
            What all of this really goes to show you is that if you feel like you can’t be a writer because you don’t hyper-organize your life, or you feel like your process is just too unkempt comparable to others, I’d suggest you just shut up and write. Plot it, pants it, outline it, or don’t. While it’s good to analyze and accept what kind of writer you are, these terms don’t really matter. It’s just as good as anyone else, because there is no wrong way to plan. To try and subvert that is stifling your voice. Embrace the chaos, let it come out in your work, and keep writing.

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