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,


The Write Atmosphere

I love to read about other authors’ writing habits.  What’s your writing routine?  Do you write early in the morning?  Late at night?  In the middle of the day?  Do you sit and talk to the computer?  To yourself?  To your dog?  Do you listen to music?  Other people’s voices?  The sound of silence?

I think parts of your routine are generational and rooted in your own past.  It can be hard to leave them behind.  For example, I need silence.  Try as I might, I can’t work without it.  If it’s noisy, or if other people are around, I find that I am less focused.  Less productive.  I grew up doing homework in silence.  I studied at the library.  The classrooms of my childhood were quiet places.  When I practiced law, I always worked best when my office door was closed.

My kids, on the other hand, can work with music playing or the tv on, or other voices babbling, and constant activity in the room where they’re studying.  They even prefer it this way.  It took me a long time to come to grips with this bizarre reality, but I have learned to accept it and even marvel at it.  But that’s the way it is in their schools.  The teachers often have music playing, there are kids in small groups talking and interacting, and computers are everywhere and always on.

My work day takes a hiatus when the kids get home from school.  I work until the first child comes home, then when Kid #1 goes upstairs to do homework (with the iPad on and the texting in full swing), I work until the second child comes home.  It is at this point that writing usually becomes a useless pursuit.  Kid #2 has a lot to say after school.  When Kid #3 finally comes through the door, forget it.  I’m then prepping for whatever the evening will bring, and I put my writing aside until everyone is in bed.  Or at least ensconced in his or her own room.

Likewise, you may not believe this, but (gasp!) I work with pencil and paper until I’m ready to draft my novel.  All the research, the ideas, the outline, almost everything, is handwritten for months before sentences come together on a screen.  This habit of mine comes from school- elementary school, high school, college, and law school.  All I ever had to work with was a word processor, and I had to sign up for time to use the word processor lab at school.  Everything had to be written before I could get on the machines, because my time was limited.  Old habits die hard.

I have a few other “musts” while I write.  They’re not generational or rooted in my past- they’re just the way I am.  First, I always have tea next to me.  On my right side.  This time of year, it’s hot tea.  In the summer, cold.  Second, when I’m not on the computer I like to work in one of two places:  the kitchen table or my eldest child’s desk.  The light is perfect in her room.  Third, I write more productively after I’ve put in my time at the Pilates studio.  Finally, since the tea is on my right side, on my left is J.L. Rodale’s Synonym Finder.  It was a gift many years ago, and I can’t work without it.

What are your habits and routines?

Until next week,