22 June 2010

What Surprised Me: Plotting, Pantsing and Puzzling

By Anna C. Bowling

When I first started creating my own stories, I didn't know any techniques. Then as I started to learn more about writing, I learned about plotting. A character's journey is from wanting something to either getting it or knowing they will never get it. How do they get there? Lots of options. There's the snowflake plot, the W plot, Goal, Motivation and Conflict. Rising action. Falling action. Plateaus. Arcs. Augh! Getting characters from point A to point Z, precisely pinpointing exactly where points B, C, and D through Y are along the way can be too confusing for many a new writer, and anyway, don't real writers run on pure creativity?

At one point I thought so, and it sure seems to work for authors like Jo Beverly. Her Flying into the Mist talk originally given at an RWA conference in 1999 has helped many pansting writers accept that, for them, writing isn't something that can be captured in index cards or character charts. So I tried flying through the mist, hither and yon as the day took me, only to find that for me, flying through the mist more often turned into a belly flop on the rocks. I needed more order than that.

So if plotting wasn't working and pantsing wasn't working, what was there left? Hopeless, utterly hopeless. I threw my (metaphorical) hands in the air and decided that all I could do was all I could do and if I was going to tell my stories, it would have to be my way. I knew where my story started and I knew where it had to end, so what if I tried working both ends toward the middle? What if I worked on what I knew and prodded, poked and even bribed those headstrong characters until they coughed up the information I needed to see where things were headed? What did I have to lose?

Sure enough, things came. A little bit here, a little bit there. Things didn't come in order, but who cared? I wrote things as they came, labeled each new section and figured I'd put them together later. I didn't know this was a technique of its own, or that it had a name, but when I read Emily Bryan's "Only One Right Way to Write a Novel" blog post, "puzzling" did seem to fit the bill. Puzzling with a bit of layering, to be more specific. Different bits from different methods fit together, often over a few different passes through the manuscript.

I never thought that I'd wind up with notebooks full of color coded sticky notes, numbered scenes and a rainbow of highlighted passages, song lists, images and the like, but so far, so good. All of that gives me the picture I'm working toward as I fit the puzzle together. Your mileage may vary. The way that works is the way that works for you.