Thursday, September 3, 2009

Plotter vs Pantser vs Top-Down Design

And no, the title doesn’t refer to articles of clothing.

I frequently get struck by the fear that I’m not doing things right. Over the last two years that I've been writing, I've read a handful of books, talked to an armful of authors, and read a stadiumful of blogs. (No, I don't think stadiumful is a word...maybe it ought to be...)

And the consensus is that there are two main types of writers: plotters and pantsers. I can't write an outline before I write a book. In fact, I don't know that I have ever written an outline before writing a paper of any sort that wasn't a technical manual. Those are basically outlines anyway, because in the world of computers, we assume that no one reads paragraphs, just bullet points. Even when I'm writing an outline-style technical document or presentation, I can't do it linearly. I jump around, starting with what my brain considers the most important points to be.

So, I have always assumed that makes me a pantser.

But, I'm not so sure. I do plan what happens in my books. I know the general direction that the action is going, and have a pretty good idea of the character arcs. But if I outlined my book ahead of time, it would be about half a page long. Or 90,000 words. There doesn't seem to be an in-between.

And then, when I write, I can't work linearly. I cannot start at the beginning and progress toward the end in order. Just can't. In small doses, I can. But I'm better at hopping from major point to major point, and then filling in the details in between.

I am not a plotter or a pantser. I write the way I program: top-down, object-oriented, designing individual components and their interfaces, and writing the implementation details later, and changing them when I find a pattern that works better.

My brain has been wired and trained to work this way. When you design a software program--anything longer than the simplest script--you simply cannot start at "Go" and write one long program until you hit "exit". That's not the way software works. Think of a web page or a blog (things that most writers are familiar with): you could write a single HTML document that lays out every graphic, every link, every word. And tomorrow, when you want to update it or write a new entry, you would have to re-write most of it. That's not the way we design websites. We have templates and style sheets and "gadgets" and databases full of blog entries that you can plug in or switch around as the need arises.

That's the kind of thinking that I do. I see the overall frame of the book: The characters, the primary conflicts, the setting if its important. Then I begin filling in the blanks: how they meet, when each first realizes that they're in love, black moments. And then I keep filling in the blanks, with secondary plots, dialogue. Sometimes my brain gets carried away with a series of scenes and I'll write 10,000 words in order. And sometimes I have to write "insert xyz scene here" and skip ahead.

I can't write a successful beginning to my novel until I have finished the end, even if I know exactly where the book starts and what happens in the first few pages. I have, with some success, written both my contemporary and then my sci fi almost exclusively from one character's perspective first. And then gone back to add the flip side, and to adjust the original ideas to match. And then I go back and tweak some more: re-configuring, smoothing, dividing scenes, combining scenes, swapping out new ones to replace something that is buggy. And yes, writing can be buggy.

I have got to stop fighting this tendency by comparing myself to people who think differently. I have got to start working with my strengths.

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