Every time I think that I have a firm hold on the steering wheel of my life, a set of unforeseen circumstances jumps into the road and jars my hands away from my ten- and-two death grip, knocking me uncomfortably back to this unarguable reality: We are never really in total control.
In the course of preparing for my inaugural plunge into National Novel Writing Month—that insane challenge that compels throngs of aspiring novelists to write at least 50,000 words every November—I recently read a couple of articles discussing the pros and cons of detailed outlining and planning. These articles placed fiction writers into two distinct camps labeled plotters and pantsers (as in “operate by the seat of your pants”). As you can probably guess from the names, one group is given to meticulously mapping out every character, chapter, setting, and development before even crafting a single sentence of prose, and the other group is a mystical collection of romantics who allow their stories to develop organically within the bliss of writing sessions.
Before I go any further, I’ll ask a question: Which approach appeals to you? Even if you aren’t a writer, you most likely feel greater affection for one of these groups than you do for the other, because the plotter or pantser debate isn’t reserved for fiction writing only—it’s really about life at large. Should we plan our days out or take them as they come? And what do we do when unforeseen developments remind us that our best planning will always need endless revision anyway?
I’ll admit that I’m somewhat of a planner. I even recently, for the first time, went through the exercise of crafting a five-year plan. In both writing and in life, I like to have an idea of where I’m going or it can feel as if I’m freefalling or spinning my wheels. I like to know that my days (and words) are building on each other, constructing a greater intention rather than just blowing in the winds until some random destiny (good or heartbreaking) collides with them by happenstance.
However, I also couldn’t live—or write—without allowing myself the freedom to deviate from outlines when the magic of the moment illuminates inspiration. Many times, I actually feel a certain disdain for my careful plotting because I realize that it will ultimately be at best a framework anyway. While planning is useful and necessary to keep us pointed in the right direction, I believe that the development of compelling character and scenes (both in writing and personal life) is ultimately what will matter most anyway.
So, I guess I’m both a plotter and a pantser, which is good, because as I said at the beginning this post, life always seems to hit you with unpredictable challenges no matter how tightly you are clinging to control.
For me, 2017 has been a series of unforeseen challenges, a virtual master class in the spontaneous and often cantankerous nature of life’s daily unfolding. In January, my wife came home from work one morning complaining of stomach pains. The next day a scan revealed a mass on her left ovary, and soon we were cloistered in our bedroom for a cloudy week, waiting nervously for the results of a cancer detection test. Suddenly my plans for the new year, writing and otherwise, seemed silly. “Cancer or not cancer” was all that mattered.
When cancer was (mostly) ruled out and surgery was scheduled, my wife and I had plans for an in-and-out hospital visit and a speedy recovery. Instead, complications arose, additional surgeons were called in, and a lengthy hospital stay—one that almost killed my wife with a morphine overdose administered by hospital staff—ensued. Then a drawn-out and painful recovery followed us into the next season. Springtime consisted of doctor’s visits and calls to the clueless disability-insurance representatives.
Summertime: We had plans for a much-needed vacation. A week at a lakeside cottage to decompress and forget about surgeries, sicknesses, her stressful health-care job, and my unstable writing grind. As we merrily prepped for a week of restoration, we discovered that several plumbing problems had been causing water damage at our house for some time. We got insurance involved and then tried to forget about our problems as best we could until after the week’s vacation.
Then my wife got terribly sick at the cottage—residual fallout from February’s surgery—and when we got back home, the contractors we had hired to fix our water damage (our foolproof plan to put the water damage behind us) gave us more problems than they did solutions: damaged property, shoddy work, and overbilling. More phone calls, e-mails, worries, and sleepless nights.
So what about plans? Are they even worth it?
On the topic of planning and plotting when it comes to writing, Stephen King has the following to say: “I rely more heavily on intuition, because my books tend to be based on situations rather than story. . . . I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe that plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible.”
That is a pretty compelling argument for pantsing. We ought to take life, and writing, as it comes—at least half of the time. The other half we can spend planning if we want, but even then we should be wary because it might get in the way of real creation. Planning might very well make it difficult to live in the moment and realize or create true beauty.
So maybe we should, at most, spend ten percent of our time planning and the rest committed to exploring/living life without rigid blueprints? I guess we all have to find our own best plotting-to-planning ratio.
As for me, I’ll keep making plans—to a certain extent. When it comes to November’s 50,000 words of fiction, participants in National Novel Writing Month aren’t technically supposed to begin actual writing until the first of the month, so I really have no choice but to keep mapping out characters, towns, and developments for another week or so.
And when it comes to life, I guess you could say that I’m a cautiously optimistic and inherently romantic dreamer who needs to keep pointed in the direction of his plans so that life doesn’t break his heart or his will to craft the next set of dreams.
Bottom line: planning and pantsing aren’t mutually exclusive, so start mapping out your best story, but keep a loose grip on the day-to-day specifics of how it will unfold. Life will never be static, but our commitment to our dreams and happiness needs to be as close to unmovable as we can make it.