William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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Going From Pantser To Plotter

When I first began writing, I was a pantser. That is, I flew by the seat of my pants. I wrote as the will of the winds took me; I wafted on the zephirs of pure inspiration, letting the story take me wherever it wanted to go, allowing the narrative to grow organically from the seeds of the idea into a writhing mass of vines and branches that would, often, get out of control and need to be trimmed back a bit like an unruly rose bush. I had a lot of fun that way. It was often exciting to see a story bloom out of control, its buds opening to the rays of my imagination and intellect, flowering and blossoming and coming into its fullness over time as I watered it and gradually let it become its own thing. Every story I wrote was unique, too. No too were alike. I liked doing things this way, because it always seemed I was surprised by what I created. And, I always told myself, if I didn't know where the hell the story was going, then by gods, the reader sure as hell didn't know, and that made it exciting for both of us! I figured that this was the only good way to write. I didn't need outlines — no sir, I didn't need a carefully synopsized plot, or an organized plan of attack. I didn't need a story structure set in stone ahead of time. Where was the fun in that? Where was the spontaneity? Where was all the gooey deliciousness of seeing where the story went next, of seeing what surprises lay in store around the very next corner?

And then I tried to write my first "real" novel, The Reality Engineers. I finished it within a couple of years, and I hit the "publish" button on CreateSpace, and dutifully waited for the praise to roll in from the no-doubt-glowing Amazon reviews to come. And I waited. And waited. And then, finally, the reviews started to trickle in. Trouble was, they weren't all glowing. Some of them were downright awful. Mean, even. Even some of my friends didn't like the book. They told me privately, of course, sparing me public humiliation. It was then that I knew I had screwed up. Big time. But where? How? How on Earth had I gone wrong? I honestly thought that I had written the best book I knew how to write. And I was correct in that thinking. But notice the fine print, there: That I knew how to write. It was the best book that I knew how to write, given the methods I had used to write it.

Then I bought a book called Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks. I got it at Half Price Books for only $8, and let me tell you, that's probably the best $8 I ever spent. In that book, Larry enlightened me and showed me what I had done wrong. He opened my eyes to the idea of story structure, the fact that a book, a story, like anything that exists in the physical world, has a set of rules that it operates by, a set of physics, if you will, that holds it together and makes it run, the same way that the laws of physics dictates how an atoms works, or how an engine runs in a car. He showed me that a story has to have a certain structure in order to work properly, in order to have its intended effect; showed me that in order for a story to achieve its goal — that of being emotionally satisfying and hitting all the right notes for the reader — it has to fire on certain cylinders at certain times and points, in certain places, and that it has to do things in a specific order. He showed me the importance of organizing a story into its constituent components, and of planning my story one piece at a time. Of organizing my novel into scenes, with each one building upon the next in order to achieve specific goals and set up specific ideas in certain and specific places. In short, he introduced me to the world of outlining my novel, of drawing up a blueprint before i began writing. Of becoming a plotter rather than a pantser. 

And to this day, I am a plotter. When I have an idea for a story, my first thought is to recall Brooks' argument of concepts versus ideas — the notion that a complete story concept involves a specific character in a specific situation, trying to achieve a specific goal, versus an idea, which is just a "what if" scenario or situation — and try to coalesce my thoughts around a character who's doing something versus just a nebulous "what if." Then my thoughts turn to the crucial inciting incident, the thing that gets the character going on his journey. Then I start thinking about structure. Do I want to use Larry's six-part structure, or do I want to use Joseph Campbell's "monomyth" structure, also known as the Hero's Journey? Do I want to "save the cat?" Do I want to use the most common structure, which is three acts? I think these thoughts now automatically; then I start outlining. I start with the inciting incident, and I always think in terms of characters now, in terms of what roles they might play, what duties in the story they might serve.

Of course, I would be lying my ass off if I said I still didn't let inspiration sweep me off my feet. Of course I do that. Of course there's room in the process for that. There has to be. That's why while I outline the overall structure of the work — writing an outline of which scenes go where and what role they play in the overall story — when it comes to writing the individual scenes themselves, I'm all about cutting loose and letting my imagination take over the keyboard. I let it all fly, then. Anything goes. I will imrpov-write the shit out of those scenes, and enjoy the hell out of myself as far as anything-goes  inspiration is concerned. And as far as the connective tissue between those scenes goes — the other scenes that glue the main scenes together — well, I improv those as well, totally pantsing the shit out of them like I never left the pantsing school to begin with. I have great fun with them; I liken them to the cartilage and tendons that hold muscle tissue together, and I am a god, designing whole new lifeforms. I have total berserker amounts of giggly fun doing it, too. Like a writer should. Because in the end, it's all about the fun you have with your craft. If you're not having fun with it, you're doing something seriously wrong.

So that's how I went from pantser to plotter. It was a revelatory journey for me, one that began with me wafting on the breezes of inspiration, but where the transformative moment came in the form of a rude awakening from dewy, creative bliss . . . and a subsequent moment of enlightenment given to me by an old master of the craft. Larry taught me a good set of lessons with his book (a book a highly recommend to anyone who's just getting started writing; I only caution that Larry can be a little full of himself and a bit overbearing at times; try to take his ego with a grain of salt . . . several grains, if you can). I don't recommend that everyone start out as a plotter, though. In fact, I caution against it. I think everyone should start out as a pantser, because you learn a lot of valuable lessons that way. You learn what works, and what doesn't. What's good, and what's not so good; what's effective, and what's not. You learn a lot about your own style as a writer, and you develop a sense of your own plotting abilities and your own sense of narrative development that way. Being a plotter from day one cheats you out of a lot of hard-won experience. So, I recommend that everyone go through at least a year or so of being a full-time pantser . . . and then make the transition to being a plotter. It will help you be a better writer, and you'll learn a greater appreciation of plotting's lessons.

And that's my writing advice for today: Pants first, then plot. But if you're a pantser now, please consider doing some plotting. It will, in the long run, save you frustration. Plotting is a wonderful tool that will open up whole new vistas of the writing world to you, whole new worlds of organized fun for you to play in and explore. So plot away. Boldly go where you haven't gone before!