A Writer’s View: Plotting, Pantsing, And Agile

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

So this week I finished the plot outline of my book. I’ve been expanding it iteratively, from one-sentence summaries to full character profiles, based on the Snowflake method. The method itself works great with Agile – and brings up a very important point about writing.

Writing, it is said, is often divided into “pantsers” (seat-of-my-pants writers) and “plotters (organized writers like yours truly). As a plotter, I’d like to note that you do end up “pantsing” anyway, just on a finer-grained level. At some point in writing you can only plan so much before you have to write – it’s a matter of degree.

This truth can frustrate some plotters, because you can only define so much before there’s nothing left to do. Your ideas may be totally wrong, your plan may be horrible, your plot awful – but you won’t know until you start writing.

This is the same thing one faces in software, where Agile methods continue to hold more and more sway – you can only design so much before you have to write code to see if it works. It’s the same with writing.

So now that I have a plot, how will I confront my inevitable discovery of all my horrible mistakes?

First, I won’t be afraid. As I like to note, Eat Your Failure.

Secondly, I plan to do reviews:

  1. I will write a chapter at a time and share it with people for feedback.
  2. I will review my full plot outline every chapter completed to make notes and see what changed or what I want to modify or what I want to add.

I know my plot outline (all 8 pages in a spreadsheet) is only so good. But it’s good enough to get moving with an idea of where I’m going, and good enough to improve when I find mistakes or get new ideas. It also is stable enough that it probably won’t fall apart and deep enough it’s not shallow.

Two notes:

  1. I have trouble seeing how “pantsing” can work for complex stories, but perhaps I have something to learn there, no? Maybe I should “pants” a short story sometime.
  2. Based on my own experiences and what I’ve seen in the market you can in theory plot a novel pretty finely, and its very easy if you’re using tropes or taking a “light” approach. Not sure how good it’d be, but it seems doable.So what have you found?

(Oh and if you need some other creative boosts, check out my book on Creative Paths!)

– Steve

A Writer’s View: Timey-Wimey

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr)

Plotting stories, and indeed writing them, is a process of discovery.  A discovery at the end of your tale changes what you think of the beginning.  Closing a scene helps you find a theme that alters the scene.  A character you thought you new surprises you.

Writing, in the words of a certain madman with a blue box is Timey-Wimey.  You finds things out about your world out of order.

We’re frustrated with this because our work feels unreliable, unpredictable, almost as if it’ll betray us.  Ever encounter someone who treated their stories and characters with suspicion?  Yeah, you probably have – it may have been you.

I’ve found that we have to accept this.  Simply put, writing encompasses such breadth of possibilities there’s always a bit of unpredictability, of discovery.  If it’s too predictable, it’s not a creative act.

What we can do is embrace this timey-wimey, acknowledge it, minimize the negative effects, and maximize the positive.

First, be open to the timey-wimey.  Accept that things change, that you’ll have these amazing insights, and that the act of plotting and writing reveals new depths.  This back-and-forth  of do-find-redo makes your work alive.

Secondly, learn to use these insights.  Figure the best way to find them, embrace them, and apply them.  Maybe you keep timelines, maybe you iteratively improve things.  Maybe you have to accept some rewriting.  Maybe you keep extensive notes.  Find a way to make the timey-wimey issues a tool.

Third, don’t fight it.  This is just part of the creative process.  You may have great onslaughts of ideas, or have to accept you can’t tweak a story anymore.  Run with it and make good work first, don’t get lost in frustration or fiddly bits.

Fourth, accept imperfection.  At some point it’ll be good enough to be as good as it needs to be.  Don’t run with the timey-wimey aspects of work so long you’re revising forever.

I’ve found a huge key to using the timey-wimey creativity, and writing in particular is:

  • To improve iteratively.  Engage in gradual review of your work.
  • Gradually deepen your work.  Start with simple ideas and improve them over time, going deeper, adding detail.
  • Every time you go a bit deeper into your work, review the big picture a bit more.
  • Work out a system to do these reviews and do them regularly.
  • Practice!

A lot of this is like Agile practices – which I’ve also been working with.  Agile is about iterative improvements, and is a good mindset for a writer.

– Steve