Are you a Plotter or a Panter? According to the tutors on a recent writing course, novelists fall roughly into one of these two camps.
Plotters (as you may have guessed) plot. And Panters fly by the seat of their pants.
It was interesting to watch these two tutors at work. The Plotter had a list of items to get through in each session, and was rigorous about timings. The Panter would say – ‘shall we just try and fit in a couple of tutorials during the teabreak?’
I’m a Plotter. We Plotters need to know what we’re doing before we start writing. We want a road-map of the territory we’re about to visit. We feel happier and more in control when we have an outline, a step-sheet or even (ahem) a grid. We may feel a sudden, intense need to buy a packet of coloured index cards or draw a complex graph. We feel safest during the preparing and the editing processes. We focus on structure, plan all the twists and turns of the book, pore over character arcs, break down chapters into scenes. Once we have a plot, we feel freer. Once we have a plot, we can breathe out and write. I suspect that Plotters are also those of us who need to ‘get our house in order’ (literally) before we feel able to begin to write. Ironing, washing and cleaning provide us with a clear, orderly environment in which to work. Anal, moi?
Panters are spontaneous. They discover their story as they travel. They may begin with an intriguing idea, place or character which propels them off on a journey into the unknown. They follow breadcrumb trails, listen to the whisper of their intuition. They embrace the concept of the ‘shitty first draft’ – letting it all flow freely, scribbling ‘don’t know about this bit’, leaping back and forth from scene to scene in the book with alacrity. They are not afraid to follow their story wherever it goes, just to find out what happens. As Patrick Gale says, they ‘keep it as loose as possible for as long as possible’. Only then do they begin to edit.
Both Plotting and Panting are valuable and, indeed, necessary during the writing of a novel. Rather like being right- or left-handed, we each have a natural inclination towards one or the other. And just as artists are encouraged to work with their non-dominant hand, it may be helpful for us to learn a bit about our less ‘natural’ resource.
As a natural Plotter, I’m trying a different way of working for my second novel. Yes, I still have a very clear storyline and character biogs, but instead of writing in a linear way, as I did with the first one, I’m experimenting with writing scenes from different points in the novel, and I’ve also tried four different opening chapters. I’m writing more in longhand, and keeping the pages in a loose-leaf binder. It’s strangely liberating, and unsettling too. But I think I’m learning more about my characters and their motivations this way, which can only be good.
Or I may just be losing the plot.
And the result may well be pants…