I’ve always taken a middle road on the plotting versus pantsing spectrum. I would argue for both sides as I have friends who manage both ways to varying degrees of success. That is not to say that there is any correlation between the success of those who write with full plots versus those who write off the cuff, but that each writer has a different degree of success with the method s/he chooses.
Lately I think I’m shifting more into a plotter. Okay, there’s no doubt about it. And the more I figure out the difference between figuring out a plot, the more I like it. Yes, the only part I loved about those little outlines with roman numerals was how nicely they lined up – the nerd in me has a sick fascination with overly ordered things like lined up books (alphabetized by genre, author, and title) in a bookshelf.
I know there is more than one way to plot. I wonder if many of the writers who say they don’t plot (yet there are inklings that their instinctual way of feeling through a story might be started off with organizing thoughts in a writer’s head) actually work through some of those issues but don’t formally write them down. For the rest, sometimes it’s about asking the right questions.
These questions are not just about plot. They’re also about characters and settings and anything else that makes it into the novel. One of the character templates a friend of mine loaned me always had a couple gaps though the questions themselves were exhausting. I’d pick and choose, but often I skipped things like “what would be in X’s wallet?” What does it matter? I’m in a fantasy universe and they don’t have wallets.
Maybe the point I should have been chasing was something broader. A wallet is often one of the things we won’t leave home without. We put things in it like identification and money and sometimes photos of our kids. We also grab keys, cell phones, and other items and stow them in our pockets or purses. [Or voluminous diaper bags – but that’s a different character.]
I’ve been checking into these and backing up. It might be the easiest thing to set down what the character physically looks like. An appearance trait that might even be changed down the road if I decide something else fits better. But the internal parts are not so easy to lay out on paper, and they’re also not as easy to change in a book. “Oh, Lucy isn’t recovering from an overdose of her mother’s guilt trips anymore because I decided her mother needed to not be in this book and I killed the character off.” So every reference to the mother needs to be removed, but also every time Lucy reacted to that guilt trip by doing something without her mother entering the scene. That rewrite would take significant effort to realize the changes in Lucy.
Also, I need to remember to put things in context for cultures if I make them up. It’s simply part of the world building that sometimes doesn’t make it to the character level. It’s one of the fun things about writing nonhuman characters, but also one of the challenges. What is fashion like for a race that doesn’t have a strong sense of vision? They rely heavily on sense of smell, so it makes me wonder if there are trends in scents, rather than colors. “Dogbreath is in this year. I think I’ll hibernate for the winter.” It just opens so many possibilities that hadn’t existed before.
I love world building. I worry sometimes that my races are too much to add into the fabric of the story, but it’s just too much fun for me. There are authors who have done it well, and I’m sure many more who have not that I simply haven’t read yet. As long as I don’t stop the action for info dumps, I suppose I’m not doing too bad.
The world building leads me back to the plot and the characters and the setting and all the rest. And as I’m looking at my worlds, I’m trying to stretch myself so I can ask the right questions and get the right answers in the beginning stages when changes are easy. Like if the character had to leave his residence in the middle of the night for some catastrophe (something on the order of a house fire), what would be the thing he couldn’t leave without? And not forgetting to find the unique voice of that character as we go. Because it’s different if he says “my firstborn” versus “I couldn’t leave without my beloved daughter.” And it’s knowing the difference that will make the novel great.