February 11th, 2011


In Which We Go For A Spin

Or, A Planting Guide for Planners AND Pansters

There is much debate lately the dire interwebz regarding whether it is better to be a Panster, footloose and fancy-free, or a Planner,  methodical and precise.

What if there were a compromise between the two? Believe it or not, there just might be.

I suspect most of us are compromising more in practice than we’re letting on in theory.   Pansters have at least some idea of where they’re headed, even if the route remains firmly lodged in their minds rather than written down, no matter how abstract. Planners may have a highly detailed outline before they start a draft but are more than willing, when they’re writing good and hot, to see where a side tangent takes them.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I like to jot down ideas for my key scenes so I can break down the writing in manageable bits and have milestone destinations in mind. But I tend to discover more interesting things by turning off the Infernal Editor and brainstorming or simply letting the writing take me where it wants to go—always remembering where we have to end up , regardless.

Thanks to The Weekend Novelist, I found a way to do both, without losing sight of the prize. And boy howdy did it make the writing go fast. No more dread Blinking Cursor of Death. No more Writer’s Block. No more “where to begin?” It was like trading up from a plodding, practical station wagon or SUV to a Ferrari. And who in their right mind wouldn’t try out a Ferrari if they got the chance?

It’s called Spinning Down The Page, and it’s a screenwriting technique that has become a regular part of my writing process. It involves snippets of action and dialogue and a lot of white space and NO punctuation. By forcing yourself to write thus, you effectively kick the Infernal Editor out the passenger door, slam it shut after, and burn rubber as you peal down the road, leaving IE standing in your dust, shaking their fist at you. The Infernal Editor will catch up eventually, but when it does, it’ll be too exhausted to do anything except what it’s told.

There are two ways to go about this, one for the Pansters in our audience, another for the Planners. Each are a marvelous way of discovering character and plot.

Planners: Action and Image

Each line in the left-hand margin begins with either Action or Image. Think of camera angles or shots in a movie. You can add Dialogue if you like. This appeases the Infernal Editor by putting it either in the back seat or the side car. Now alternate between the two as you jot down short snippets for a scene or scene ideas. It doesn’t matter what order they’re in, or if you have three images in a row or something. Since we’re at the beginning of the plotting stage, we’re going to do this for an overhead view of the story itself.  By categorizing each snippet, you're distracting the IE from what's really happening.

Pantsers: Let ‘Er Rip

This is my favorite method. I start with a single image or action (without the tags) and write snippets line by line until I have a decent frame work and line drawing for the story. I may do this two or three times until I squeeze out every last drop of story that I can. Again, no punctuation or grammar needed. Thumb your nose at spelling. Who cares? This is only brainstorming or note taking at this point.

The beginning of my first rip for this novel looks something like this:

This is a story about
a fallen knight
seeks redemption
Dispirited, disillusioned
About to be disinherited
Dad’s perfect knight
So’s his perfect brother
The girl he left behind
engaged to another
He could really use
some friends

And so on, covering about five pages worth of material that may or may not be used. It’s essentially a mind dump and a process of discovery all rolled into one. You’re moving so fast, never stopping, keeping the hand moving, that it all comes out. In addition to discovering character and plot, it’s also a perfect time to unearth symbols, objects and what TWN calls The Spine—what I think of as a theme conflict that generates plot, subplots, motivations, symbolism. Cinderella’s spine would be, for example, rich/poor.   It’s the theme at the heart of the story. The spine to my novel would be redemption/failure.

I now do this at the beginning a new section of writing. From plot overview you can drill down to milestone brackets (Set up to Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1 to Midpoint), for each chapter, each scene sequence or scene if necessary.   It’s amazing how the writing comes together in a soaring choir of angels by doing this. Simply engage butt to chair, start with “This is a story/milestone/chapter/scene about . . .” and go until you’ve got everything. When you’re ready to actually write, refer to the spin. Everything comes to the surface then. While the Infernal Editor is running to catch up you’re already done writing and it’s too late to put the kibosh on it. And the writing is good. Or, at the very least, alive.  Which is even better.

Next Week: What Characters They Are