Writing Habits Revisited

One of my first blog posts was about the habits of a writer. Do you like it quiet? Can you work in the middle of a three-ring circus? Do you drink water? Tea? Something stronger? What time of day do you do your best writing?

Today’s post is a bit like that early post, but with an emphasis on a writer’s writing habits, rather than his or her surroundings and physical environment.

I’ve read a lot recently about the discussion going on among writers about the differences between being “plotter” or a “pantster.” So I’m going to jump in and add my two cents.

For those of you who may not be familiar with those words, a plotter, as you might expect, is a writer who plots out the details of her story before writing. A pantster, by contrast, is a writer who writes without plotting first; in other words, one who flies by the seat of her pants.

Which are you?

I am a card-carrying plotter. I outline a story to within an inch of its life. I’ve tried flying by the seat of my pants, and I find that I experience much more writer’s block and frustration when I don’t have an outline to follow.

There is one book that was instrumental in helping me to organize my thoughts and ideas into a coherent story. That book is Phyllis A. Whitney’s Guide to Fiction Writing. For anyone who is unfamiliar with Ms. Whitney, she was a prolific writer who wrote for many of her 100-plus years. She is my favorite romantic suspense writer, and I aspire to be half as good as she was. She was a plotter. She kept a notebook for each story, which she outlines beautifully in the book, containing all her notes, outlines, plotting ideas, character sketches, chronological information, research, and so on. Her reasoning for such a notebook, in part, is that it helps keep a writer organized and it helps one avoid writer’s block. I found that to be true. When I wrote my first novel, I kept a notebook religiously and I rarely dealt with writer’s block.

But I’m a plotter in real life, too. Maybe that helps explain why I’m a plotter as a writer. I like to know what’s going to happen. And when. To the minute. If I try to go to the grocery store without a list, trying to remember what I need by the seat of my pants, I’m a complete mess. When I have my list, I’m like a grocery-shopping machine. I’m in and out in a matter of minutes. I plan weekly menus, too. Without a menu, I never know from one day to the next what I’m making for dinner. Or whether my kids will have something edible for lunch. Making a menu helps me plan my week. And as long as we’re on the subject of menus, you may as well know that I follow recipes to the letter. “A pinch of this, a dash of that” is so not me. I’ve been known to visit four stores in search of lemongrass rather than doing without it if the recipe calls for lemongrass.

I’m not suggesting that being a pantster is bad. It’s just not for me. There are writers who can write amazing, cogent stories without an outline. They’re my heroes. They are the same people who can probably go to the grocery store without having a list that looks like it was generated by NASA.

The important thing for plotters to keep in mind is that there are times when a writer has to listen to her characters and be willing to deviate from the outline if it’s necessary to the development of the story. It happens. In the novel I’m currently working on, it took me quite a while to realize that I was missing a character. Once I was willing to admit that the story had to change to accommodate a new character, it got much easier to write.

So what do you think? Are you a plotter? A pantster? Are you like that in real life, too? I’d love to know.

Until next week,


Words to Live By

I follow a lot of writing blogs, and I like to comment on them, either to let the blogger know that I enjoyed reading their words or to join the conversation with other commenters.  The writing blogs I like best are the ones that give writing advice that can be equally applied to things other than writing.  For example, I recently read a blog in which the blogger gave advice on getting famous authors to review a debut author’s book.  One of his recommendations boiled down to, simply, don’t be a jerk.  I commented, saying that I liked the advice because “don’t be a jerk” will get a person far in most pursuits, not just writing. 

“Don’t be a jerk” are words to live by.

Which brings me to today’s topic, which is Taking a Step Back.  I normally try to write six days a week, but this past weekend I was too tired to write, plus there was a book I really wanted to finish reading.  At first I felt guilty about not sitting down at the computer, but before long I realized that I needed a short break from writing.  I needed to take a step back.  I sat down on Monday morning with a renewed energy for writing, and with a renewed interest in my story.  Taking a step back gave me a fresh perspective, and I was glad I had taken the weekend off.

Taking a step back can be a great way to find new solutions to old problems.  It can force us to take a slow, deep breath when we’re about to hyperventilate.  And it doesn’t have to be for a whole weekend.  It can be for twenty minutes or an hour or the time it takes to eat a whole package of Oreos.  The point is, stepping back from a task or a problem allows us to refresh, renew, and refocus.  Anyone who’s ever been on vacation knows this. 

Taking a step back works for my daughter’s math problems.  It works when I feel offended or angry and my instinct is to say something snarky.  It works when I’m too tired to keep my eyes open another minute.  It works when I feel like I’m going to scream if I have to fold just one more piece of laundry. 

It can feel unnatural to take a step back sometimes.  It can feel like the best solution is to force my way through something until it’s done.  And don’t get me wrong:  there are times when that’s true.  But I find that when I take a step back, it’s almost always easier to regain my focus and energy and complete my task, whatever that may be. 

So here are today’s words to live by:  Take a Step Back.

Until next week,