Every once in a while, I come across a blog post or a workshop description that makes me want to warn newbie writers away. The problem usually lies with the author/presenter’s insistence that their way is the best way, or in some cases, the only way.
The truth is that we all have to find what works best for us. We each have a unique brain (er, mine is possibly unique-slash-insane *smile*), and just because someone’s method works for them doesn’t guarantee it’ll work for us. There is no one right way.
Those of us who have been writing for a while usually know this truth already. But new writers don’t.
The Danger for New Writers
New writers are often desperate for advice that will guide them through the learning curve. I know I was. That makes them vulnerable to those who insist that there is a One Right Way—their way.
I’ve seen multi-published authors who plot their story insist that pantsing (writing by the seat of our pants) is asking for a mess of a story that will have to be deleted. In fact, one of my favorite writing books (Story Engineering by Larry Brooks) takes this attitude.
I’m experienced enough to ignore those sections as “you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about” blather, and I love Larry’s advice about story structure enough that I’m willing to overlook those sections. But when I recommend the book, I often include a caution about his anti-pantsing bias.
Bias Is Not Fact
New writers don’t know what’s a fact and what’s a bias. I fell into that trap myself. When I first became serious about writing, I thought I had to plot because that’s what all the advice said. Plotting was what Serious Writers did. Period.
So even though I’d successfully pantsed my Harry Potter fan fiction story, I plotted and completed my first original novel. Great! But it had no voice, emotions, motivations, etc. The story was a puppet to my outline. My experiment didn’t fail in a fireball of burning words, but the story wasn’t what it could have been either.
Then my muse took over and I successfully pantsed the next story. This one had a glorious voice and worked in all respects. Ta-da! Now I knew that pantsing works for me and was not a guarantee of failure.
In other words, Larry’s attitude toward pantsing is a bias—not a fact. Will pantsing work for everyone? No. Just as much as plotting won’t work for everyone. But will pantsing work for some? Absolutely.
(I’m sorry for picking on plotters about this, but I can’t think of a single time I’ve seen a pantser take this “my way or the highway” attitude. However, I’ve seen it from plotters more times than I can count. Maybe the offenses from the “other side” just stand out to me more? *grin*)
What Should New Writers Do?
New writers (or heck, experienced writers—what works for us on one story might not work on another) should experiment. We won’t know what methods will work for us until we try.
Then, once we know something works for us, we shouldn’t doubt our methods just because someone says theirs is “better” or the “right way.” Sometimes ignoring our self-doubt is easier said than done, but maybe reminding ourselves that there is no one right way will help.
Just looking at the pantser-plotter continuum, there are several methods we can adjust from story to story. Other writing endeavors like editing, synopsis writing, query writing, marketing, social media, etc. will all have multiple approaches as well.
To give you an idea of the variety of methods we should feel allowed to experiment with, I can think of the following elements we might know at the start of a first draft along the pantser-plotter continuum and still successfully complete a story:
- Only a first line (not even a premise)
- A hook
- A brief character description and a mannerism or quirk
- A character’s backstory
- In-depth character descriptions (with or without a plot)
- An opening scene/situation
- A theme
- A core conflict
- The “point of no return”
- The Climax (related to premise)
- Character arc
- A back-cover blurb
- The big four plot turning points (story arc)
- All the main plot/character turning points (beat sheet)
- A brief (2-5 page) synopsis
- A chapter outline
- A scene-by-scene outline
- A detailed (20+ pages) synopsis
- Scene cards with a summary, information about setting, POV, scene arc, goal, motivation, etc.
That doesn’t even count the methods for how to write:
- in the morning
- in the evening
- use NaNo, #1K1hr, and support from other writers
- while waiting between errands vs. only in big chunks
- x number of pages/words/hours a day
- linearly vs. non-linearly, etc.
I hope new writers reading this get the idea that there’s too much variety—with too much evidence of success all around (I’ve used about half of the first list and tried everything on the second)—to accept that one way is better than the rest. One way might be better for us, but not better for every writer and every story.
What Can Experienced Writers Do?
Those of us with experience can watch our messaging. We can make sure we’re not advocating a “this way is better” attitude. We can share our varied experiences to add to the advice available. We can suggest “if this way doesn’t work for you, feel free to try x too” when we see new writers listening to others with that attitude.
When we’re experienced enough to know what works for us, it’s easy to overlook or ignore advice that we know doesn’t apply to us. It’s even easy to be a bit too strident with the advice we give. (I’m sure I’ve made this mistake myself, so I’m not looking to place blame, but rather I’m reminding us all of the power we have to influence others.)
I try to embrace the nuances in situations. My stories often explore the gray areas between good and evil. My editing and beta reading comments try to focus on information and suggestions rather than rules. My “Lost Your Pants?” workshop is built to work with many of those drafting methods above and is filled with “only do this step if it helps you” disclaimers.
It’s easy to think in black-and-white, good-and-bad, or pantser-and-plotter terms. Reality is more often somewhere in the middle. Let’s help new writers realize that this truth applies to writing too. *smile*
Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)
Have you seen blog posts or workshops with advice you know to be misleading? Have you ever been led astray by bad advice? Have you experimented with different writing methods? How did you figure out what worked for you? Do you have other suggestions for how we can overcome “this is the best way” messages?Pin It