Despite what the title might suggest, I honestly have no idea about brain surgery. I am convinced, however, that there are only a select few different ways to perform a particular procedure. To take another example: if you’re planting a tree, there really is only one sensible way of doing it: pick a spot, dig a whole, put the tree in it, pour in water and fill up with soil. Not much leeway to do it differently.
But when it comes to writing a novel, the field is wide open. There is no set way how to go about it, and approaches are as different as the personalities of writers. Broadly speaking, however, there are two main categories of writers, with lots of shades and transitions in between: the plotters and the pantsers. And understanding the two will help you make an informed decision about how to approach your next writing project and see it all the way through to its fruition.
The plotters are those, who lay the plot out meticulously even before writing a single line of prose. Plot and subplots, timelines, locations, character development, everything you can think of, is already worked out in great detail before the pen first hits the paper. They know exactly, how many chapters the novel will comprise and what is going to happen in each one of them.
If you tell that to a pantser, he will shake his head in disbelief: how can anyone possibly start writing a book like this? Pantsersare all for free-flowing creativity, spontaneity and fluidity. They know where to start, and most even have a general idea of where they want to end up. Everything in between is dealt with by “the seat of their pants” — hence their nickname: pantser.
Each one has pros and cons:
Writing flows easily because all the structural questions have been worked out before, and the plot is less likely to head into a cul-de-sac.
The first draft is usually already pretty clean, less time spent patching up holes in the flow or dealing with unforeseen problems.
Their advantage is also their disadvantage. Planning everything in advance, makes them more rigid and less likely to adopt new ideas that arise during writing.
The time spent planning before the actual writing is usually made up for by a more efficient writing process and less time spent editing the first draft.
Flying by the seat of their pants, they spend less time planning beforehand and start writing right away. What may seem like a strong point,can easily turn to their disadvantage, though: they get stuck more easily and spend more time retracing their steps and finding new ways to advance the story.
Writing may be more exciting because the story unfolds while it is being written.
Pantsers are, however, more likely to suffer from writer’s block, as they are facing unforeseen obstacles along the way which may cause them to lose their momentum.
In real life, these stereotypes rarely occur in a clean and unadulterated form. Take me, for example. I am a pantser with a good portion of plotter in my writer’s soul. I like to have a rough outline of my plot which I am, however, not afraid to change as I’m writing. The outline is detailed enough to give me the confidence that the plot will work in the end, but with enough leeway and uncharted territory that I don’t feel confined in my spontaneity.
Advice for beginning writers:
Start as a plotter and see what it feels like. In reality, there always is some advance planning needed for a novel-length book project, and it is safer to err on the side of too much planning than to little. Give yourself time to lay the groundwork, plan the timeline, the character development, the locations, etc. There are tools and methods to help you. They go by fancy names like “Snowflake Technique”, “Three Act Method”, “Five Act Method”, “The Hero’s Journey”, and many more. I will tell you about those in a later post. But who is going to stop you from firing up Google now?
Having some structure to work with in the beginning, you’ll discover quickly how much of it is right for you. You can dial it back if you feel hemmed in or just keep plotting and planning if it gets you to your goal faster.