In a recent online forum, the plotters and the pantsers were at it again. Plotters insisting that you must, absolutely must have an outline. The pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants) insisted that an outline destroys the creative process. The plotter rant (several paragraphs in a social media post with indignant followups) went something like this. No pantser will ever finish a novel. Only someone who can dedicate themselves to creating an extensive outline (over a significant amount of time, because writing should be hard) will EVER succeed in fiction.
When questioned--and come on, of course he was challenged, because all-or-never statements are designed to attract dissent--the writer said his guru (I honestly had never heard of the guy who changed this writer's life), who was super famous and had such-and-such credentials, was absolutely right. Long paragraphs filled with his rules much like a religion.
And I get it. When a new idea changes our lives, we're all in. Sign me up for the Kool-Aid baby!
First, I gotta say...
I fall in the middle. I'm somewhere between a plotter and a pantser. I write using the three act structure and Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey, but I don't have an outline that fleshes out every action/reaction/chapter/scene. For me, the joy of writing is the unknown, When my subconscious makes a connection that is an obvious "duh," that moment is creative gold. For me (and that's the key), the writing process is a balance between reaching the plot points and finding the surprises. I fall in love with my characters and then build a plot around them. Again, that's all me. The Writer's Journey changed the way I think about writing, especially in the early stages of a project, but, big BUTT (Like "baby got back" butt), I don't expect everyone to drink the Kool-Aid. Vogler isn't for everyone.
FYI, Stephen King is a pantser and James Patterson is a plotter. Neither writer is wrong.
Who is your guru
Writers and other creatives are inherently insecure. When we find a process that works, we think, that's it. That's the only way. And then we seek out people with credentials to validate our position. And then we tout our new guru's "rules" as law and claim them as the only way to success. Because it worked for our guru, it must be right.
I get it. I'm working on my second masters degree, this time an MFA in Creative Writing. I'm learning more than I can possibly encompass in my writing, but the truth is, I didn't start the program because I love academics (although, truly, I enjoy school). No. I joined because I wanted validation. After years of studying the craft of writing, I still needed those initials after my name to validate my knowledge. It's no different than spouting the rules and laws of your favorite writing guru. In the end, that's not truth. An MFA doesn't make me a writer. Neither does following someone else's path.
Writing isn't a mathematical equation. Thank God, because I suck at math. We need to believe in a path to success, a corporate ladder to climb and steps that lead to ultimate writing nirvana (best selling land). But no matter how "perfect" your process, how it worked for Author X, there is no simple mathematical equation for creative success.
Reading and studying are always beneficial, they inform our writing and make us better at our craft, but no one has the perfect cure for creativity. Even your guru.
Friends, we are on our own
Friends, we are on our own, and that's a wonderful place!
In the gospel according to me (and I'm as faulty as any other writer), the path to success isn't in someone else's "seven secrets to writing success," but rather, the path to success is embracing who you are and accepting that not everyone is on the same path. We're driving different cars and hauling different baggage. We cannot follow the same path to the same results, because we're starting with different equipment and in different locations.
Several times a week, I meet up with friends from my publishing house. We all follow different paths (plotter, pantser, and middle of the road), but we're all creating works of fiction for publication. As in, someone pays us to write. None of us are wholly right or wholly wrong. We can only be "right" and truthful as it relates to our personal writing process. The danger of a guru is that we're following someone else's path and not trusting our internal compass.
Part of that is the learning process. We need to learn about the writing craft and the industry and the process, but after filling our head with more ideas than can possibly take root in our brains, it's time to decide. What is our process? It may be similar to our mentor, our favorite teacher, or our guru, but it may be a radical departure. And that's cool.
Embracing someone else's rules means we're not confident in our own abilities yet. That's okay. We'll get there. The plotter who insisted his way was the only way should be commended for his passion, but his insistence in it being "the only way" is tragic.
Chart your own path. You might make mistakes, but that's where you learn the most.
Have a wonderful writing week, my friends, and embrace who you are as a writer and a creative. If you're so inclined, let me know your process in the comments. It helps to define it for yourself.
And enjoy this 1 minute video: "That's it. That's the reason." How we feel when someone validates our opinion.
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Writer, college professor, lover of story, fan of all things bookish. Plus chocolate, because who doesn't love chocolate.