Pantser or Plotter: 4 Steps to Writing Organically (and the Science Behind Why You Should) – Part 1 « Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

Pantser or Plotter: 4 Steps to Writing Organically (and the Science Behind Why You Should) – Part 1

Pencil tree writing organically

After my last blog post on the four things you must know before starting a novel, in which I suggested not inventing a character, kingdom or creature until the story calls for it, a number of readers wrote in to ask, should nothing be planned?

My answer is absolutely plan the four points on the list I gave you last week. But my list didn’t explain how to write when you’ve got so little planned out beforehand. How do you just wander off into the great unknown without any sort of map?

There’s a fundamental reason why a story written organically feels less formulaic than its counterpart (and not just for the obvious reason that it is less formulaic). The answer actually lies in fundamentals observed in quantum mechanics.

There is causation, and there are the mechanics that follow—prime cause, and consequence. You decide (prime cause), then you act (mechanics). If you act without deciding first, you get chaos. Decision, prime causation, is senior to all action.

So how in the world does this relate to writing?

Simply: when you operate primarily in the mechanics of a subject, you’re operating below the level of prime cause. Creation is prime cause. Mechanics are the observable effects of prime cause. They fall below prime cause on the scale of causation. When you’re writing (and especially when writing fiction), you need to be thinking, imagining, devising and designing from that higher creative plane, not slugging through ground-level mechanics. Imagine if an airline pilot was charging through the bowels of the airplane moving levers and opening and closing electrical circuits and doing all of the mechanical things that actually keep the aircraft aloft? Who would be flying it?

Prime cause is where the magic happens. Prime cause is the pinnacle of creativity. Prime cause is where the god of inspiration dwells.

When I say to stay out of the mechanics, I’m not talking about grammar or basics of craft such as ‘show don’t tell.' The rules of grammar and style are like musical scales; you practice each one until you know them all instinctively.

What mechanics of writing am I talking about then?

Drawing up comprehensive lists of character descriptions or detailed charts illustrating the rise and fall of your plot; spending hours determining what kind of character arc fits your protagonist, classifying characters into primary, secondary, tertiary… (don’t ask me what you’re supposed to do with them once they’ve been properly sorted). Spending hours detailing world maps, kingdoms, languages, without having written a single word.

You know the irony in all of these writing methods for creating worlds and characters? Few of them entail actually writing.

I don't want to seem critical of other processes (I know writing organically isn't for everyone, and ultimately, the best method is what works for you—whatever is resulting in words on the page and a story you're happy about), but I do want to raise my hand for giving this method a try. There is real magic in it.

Assuming any of this makes sense to you, how to do you apply this practically? Here are some ideas to help you (this week I’m covering the first two ideas. I’ll cover two more next week):

1. Use milestones.

A milestone is a scene you’ve envisioned. It can be as little as a piece of dialogue between characters or even just a snippet of story that happens in some future chapter. But you know it’s a milestone for your journey because it has importance to the overall story or is essential in a character’s development. Milestones are scenes to be inserted into the story at some future point. You write towards them. They act as landmarks that guide you through the great story unknown.

Your conflict could itself be a milestone. My conflict spans five novels, and while I know what will happen in the final resolution (the world will be saved), I have no idea how that resolution will ultimately come about. (How can I predict so far ahead, when my characters are still growing, learning and changing?)

I write from milestone to milestone. Once I finish one scene, I focus on the next milestone along that character's path. Sometimes it is still many chapters distant, but it orients my thought process, as I know I’ve got to get a certain character to the point where that milestone scene can occur. Because I write from multiple viewpoint characters, I have multiple milestones moments plotted along each character’s path.

2. Capture scenes for any point in the story, but write them in linear sequence.

Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Some become milestones, others flesh out the path between each point. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to jump out of the shower to record some complicated bit of dialogue I've just come up with on my phone, and I’m constantly devising scenes and conversations while driving—it’s my most productive plotting time.

Often a scene will be so vivid in your head, you'll want to write it then and there. But here’s the caveat when writing organically: you can’t write the scene until you reach its place in the story.

There’s an old law about storytelling: you always tell it best the first time, so you never talk about any parts of your story that you haven’t yet written. Not writing the scene until you reach it in the story is a similar law.

There’s a sort of creative spark captured in each imagined scene. Talking about it before you've written it drains that magic from the moment. It’s a similar thing with writing a scene before its time. Not only can the story change dramatically by the time you actually reach the scene (making it obsolete), but also the synergy that’s created through writing each scene in sequence—a sort of building, budding energy and momentum—is often lost. There is true magic found when writing at the level of prime cause (and not referring to exhaustive lists or charts to tell you what your character needs to do next.) Pure creation is glorious and unanticipated and an adventure every time.

So make notes of those imagined scenes; keep all of what you’ve envisioned, the dialogue, the description—whatever it is that has come to you—but don’t write the scene until its time has come.

An added benefit to this linear approach is that these captured scenes become the fuel you use to keep writing—because you just can’t wait to write that scene! I still recall the moment I finally wrote a milestone scene in the second book in my series three years after I first envisioned it. It felt sublime.

Are you an organic writer? I'm interested in your thoughts and experiences. Or if you have questions, share them below. Next week I'll cover a few more ideas, including assuming viewpoints and observation and mimicry.

17 Responses to “Pantser or Plotter: 4 Steps to Writing Organically (and the Science Behind Why You Should) – Part 1”

  1. Heidi Kemp says:

    I’m inspired! As a super-organized (I prefer that to “anal”) person, I’ve spent my life subjugating my creativity to an overblown sense of orderly progression. Several terrifying English teachers only further reinforced this weighty rule. How liberating your advice is! I can’t promise to embrace it fully right away, because it’s a whole new look. But for starters, I will appreciate your next novel that much more (CAN’T WAIT!!!) and I may just dip my toe into some actual prime cause creativity… I do have one question: how do you keep track of everything that’s happened when the process is such a creative flow?? Ok, maybe “anal” is an apt word for me, but so much chaos scares me. What if you forget something???

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      That’s a good question, Heidi. Keeping track of all of your scenes and notes, especially when involved in a multiple book series, is definitely a challenge. There are tools such as Scrivener that help organize a writer’s thoughts, notes and chapters, but I still prefer the old-fashioned way: copious notes in a Word file. There is something rewarding in seeing the notes growing, scene by scene, and then disappearing as each scene is moved from the note pile into the “written” pile. Ultimately it has to be whatever form of organization works best for you – whatever you can actually think and work with.

  2. Heidi Kemp says:

    I like the sound of that growing and shrinking Word file, yes! Melissa, thanks so much for sharing these intimate details of your creative process. Apart from their practical value, it’s such a treat to have this insight into the workings of the universe of the god of Alorin. 😉

  3. Ed Godwin says:

    Great article. I particularly relate to what you said about milestones. I always had the ending scene in my mind as I wrote my novel, as it represented the main theme so closely. Keeping those key scenes in your head allows for organic writing while at the same time providing enough structure to keep that process from straying too far.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thanks, Ed. I’m so glad the milestones approach works for you as well. You’re so right about how it provides structure to what could otherwise seem formless. A nice example.

  4. Melissa Bowling says:

    I have killed more stories by violating #2…. You’re so right. Even telling someone what you’re planning to do can suck the life right out of it! But do you ever just run vaguely-worded ideas by someone else? Or do you do your creative thing TOTALLY solo??

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      It is amazing how keeping in the point of not talking about the scene until it’s written protects the muse in the moment. There have been times when I’ve gone as far as to say “I have this scene to write between two characters, and it’s going to be amazing,” but I’m disciplined about not talking about things before they’re written. Usually it’s even harder to abstain after the scene is written (because now I really want to talk about it!). I suppose building discipline for the latter helps with the former.

  5. Ed Godwin says:

    Everything you wrote here precisely mirrors my creative approach. I’ve had milestones in my head, too, but I think the most important one is the ending scene. It is there that you wrap up the story on a thematic level, providing the maximum satisfaction possible on an emotional level. It should leave the reader with the thought, “I’m glad I took this journey.”

  6. Rachel Thompson says:

    I’m glad that works for you, and on some level I use some of it too. But your process isn’t universal and doesn’t translate into what works for me. Sure, exactly how a scene plays out is fluid. However, I see no problem writing scenes ahead, especially milestones. If it doesn’t work I fix it. I plan, lay out every scene and know why, even if they don’t gel as planned due nuanced progression. I use a step sheet, kind of like a beat sheet but more detailed. Working from a cover blurb is also helpful. I know what the story is about, plot concept, theme and premise before writing. This prevents endless re-writing. And I do psychological profiles, back story, all kind of prep work before I start, most of it never meets the reader. Why? I don’t stop to think about it , work it out, once I start working–the right stuff comes out creatively. Planning doesn’t stop creativity, planning directs it. Here is my advice–load the left brain with info and it will come out naturally as needed Restated; stuff your left brain and then let the right brain rip. Based on loading up, new stuff will hatch along the way as well.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your perspective and your process, Rachel. I find it fascinating how very different the creative process can be – we’re nearly polar opposites in terms of approach – yet obviously these varied methods are quite workable. I loved learning about your process. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.

  7. Rob Preisser says:

    First of all, thank you for taking the time to blog about your writing process and to provide excellent advice! I also find it interesting the very different ways people approach writing. Joseph Heller had detailed graphs and plots of the overall timeline laid out first so that he could write Catch 22 in what appears to be more of a stream of consciousness approach instead of chronological, without completely contradicting himself along the way.

    I tend to relate more to your approach of writing organically, though. I will have a specific theme I intend to explore in mind first, but must let the creative juices flow.

    I probably am the most oxymoronic writer, in that although I’ve written a few short stories, I have written more poems. And for some reason, the stricter the form, the more I appreciate the challenge involved in writing it. But, although I work within strict structures and rules, I simply can’t force the poem to develop. I must be inspired.

    The first poem I ever wrote was a sestina, simply because it is one of the most inflexible and difficult formats to write within. But you know what I found? Although I set out writing it with a specific idea for what it would be about, having to force the peon to use the same six ending words in a set order ended up driving the writing, and took it to places I didn’t initially intend. It ended up being almost as much of a surprise to me as the poem developed as if I were merely reading it.

    I found that a fun surprise, and made me enjoy the creative process more as a result.

    Have you ever surprised yourself along the way as you’ve written a book or scene?

    By the way, in case you’re interested, here’s that Sestina I mentioned:

    Their Final Hour

    I sit silently on the dark
    dirt of the courtyard, tall stone walls
    encircling me, shutting out light
    from the sunset fading distant.
    The patch of sky above me grows
    dimmer and darker by the hour.

    The shadows of this twilit hour
    take shape, begin to form strong dark
    soldiers–armies–whose power grows
    with the death of the day. The walls
    begin to press in, their distant
    menace kept at bay by my light.

    The night is now bereft of light,
    the empty silence tells the hour.
    My thoughts escape to the distant
    safety of home, where the cold dark
    night was driven out of the walls
    by the love which daily there grows.

    The night marches on, my fear grows
    greater with the approach of light.
    The silent sentries on the walls
    begin to stir, marking the hour,
    groaning, then polishing the dark
    iron cannons now aimed far distant.

    The dawn now is not far distant.
    Anticipation nearly grows
    unbearable. The deathly dark
    shroud of the night tears as the light
    grows stronger in this mourning hour…
    and muskets glisten on the walls.

    The boys that lie along the walls
    peer out eagerly at distant,
    unseen enemies (the next hour
    holds no fear, for they think Youth grows
    into Manhood through war), with light
    laughter mocking the coming dark.

    Poor fools. Nothing grows on these walls…
    The light will show only distant,
    dark graves; their certain final hour.

    Copyright 1991 by Robert Preisser

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I can see the joyful challenge in meeting strict poetic rules, Rob. Thanks for sharing your experience and your lovely poem.

  8. Imam says:

    I was wondering how you did you apply using milestones?
    Do you envision these scenes or milestones before you start writing or do they come to you as you start writing without any idea where it leads to?

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Hi Imam,

      Milestones for me work both ways. Sometimes I’ll have a scene pop into my head far in front of the story. These wait out there until I figure a way to take the story to them. Other times I’ll be in the middle of writing the book and will picture future scenes that are more easily plotted into a timeline of some fashion. In either instance, I don’t write the scene until I get to its segment in the story. That way, the desire to get to that scene and write it remains strong, acting as an impetus to drive me to finish whatever needs to happen in the middle. If you only ever write the scenes you’re most excited about, you won’t learn the discipline of how to finish a book, or work out ways to make every scene exciting and interesting to yourself and thereby (hopefully) the reader.

      • Imam says:

        Do you wait for these milestones before you write? Or do you write anyways regardless if you have a milestone or not?

        • Melissa McPhail says:

          It’s definitely easier for me to write towards scenes I’ve already envisioned. I don’t think I’ve ever headed into a new book without at least a few scenes figured out. Without question, I have to know at least what mountain I’m heading towards, it’s general direction and what it looks like.

          Writing organically is always a bit of a leap of faith, always slightly uncertain. You place a lot of trust in the muse. But it’s incredibly rewarding also. Good luck!

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