by Jeffery J. Michaels
“Who,” as the caterpillar asked Alice, “are YOU?”
It is an apt question that we as writers often ask our characters. Sometimes we ask before the book begins to be written and sometimes we just write and learn who they are as we go along. What you do in this regard defines who YOU are as an author.
I am referring to the archetypes labeled “Pantsers” and “Plotters” and presenting primary differences betwixt the two. Perhaps we can discover something about ourselves as aspiring authors and move to the middle ground, where most of the action happens.
Pantsers are so called because they write their stories “by the seat of their pants,” which is an old aeronautical term essentially defined as doing something complicated without sufficient experience or ability. In other words, Pantsers have no idea what is coming next in their story, for it comes out of thin air, delivered pristine to the page by the elusive Muse. The Pantsers are mere scribes. And proud of it.
Plotters are called such because they are deeply organized prior to beginning a book or story project. They possess vast files of 3×5 cards (or the digital equivalent) delineating each character’s biography from conception to the moment they are introduced in the narrative, as well as a minute-by-minute timeline of the days, months, or years in which the action of their tale takes place.
Chaos Versus Control
Pantsers are agents of chaos. Plotters are control freaks. Pantsers are befriended by their Muse and await inspiration. Plotters are inspired every day at the same time when they sit down to work.
Pantsers are eloquent and poetic, weaving spells with their verbiage and inspired phraseology. Their writing possesses a transcendent beauty that translates the sizzling of bacon, and the steam from a whistling tea kettle, into the perfect emotional simile of crisp early autumn in a forgotten village in Vermont. Near a pristine lakeside, the morning mist rises and blurs the demarcation between the pond and the shore. The dew, heavy and deep, soaks all things equally, granting moist nourishment, sans judgement.
Plotters have a three-book contract with an advance and two more novels in the pipeline. It’s a series about a divorced sheriff living in rural Vermont where bodies float up from local lake on a semi-regular basis. He must solve the mystery while helping his young, precocious daughter cope with the old fashioned school marm, who is soon replaced (due to the inciting incident in Chapter Two) by the hip young red-head with green eyes, hailing from Manhattan, who recently graduated with a Masters in Special Education and Ancient Akkadian Cuneiform Writing. She takes the job teaching in a small rural school for mysterious reasons not revealed until Book Three of the series, when she and the rural sheriff (who once worked on the Chicago SWAT unit) consummate their romantic tension with a dramatic kiss as they believe they are about to perish at the hands of the diabolical logging company executive. HBO and Starz are bidding for the rights.
When confronted by an editor who wants the Pantser to tighten up the manuscript’s prose and make it more like Hemingway, the Pantser will recoil in Faulknerian agony, decrying the editor as a barbarian. He will then indignantly adjust his beret, scoop up his treasured prose and say, “It is experimental! How dare you seek to make such hallowed dialogue COMMON!” and sweep out of the room. (Or, at the very least, hit the send button with sharp indignation.)
To recover from the humiliation of having to deal with such an artistic infidel, the Pantser will retire to his local favorite Muse-summoning space, a dark bar that offers free baskets of peanuts and you throw the empty shells on the wooden floor, or an independent coffeehouse with an interior so dark the black-clad baristas appear and disappear like caffeinated ninjas after taking your order for the darkest roasts available to man (with room), or an off-the-beaten-path restaurant down a side alley where they serve thick soups in bread bowls and offer extra bread, hard and crusty, and dining is al fresco.
There, the Pantser will fume for a time and, in a show of disdain for societal convention, will, with stylistic flare, light up a Gauloises, casting defiant glances at any who dare frown at the thick, Turkish smoke that emanates from his artistic nostrils. The only other patron will be smoking a Gitanes. Their eyes will meet, and narrow. They will nod silently, knowingly, at one another. They will never see each other again, but will become a character in the other’s book about the new lost generation.
Elsewhere, the Plotter will embrace every change requested by that same editor. She will not only tighten the words and paragraphs, but also recognize that some of the excised material can be recycled into her new concept of a space-faring marshal who is raising a precocious daughter after his wife departs on a generational starship to colonize a distant planet, leaving him to patrol a backwater section of the solar system, which is boring until the arrival of a green-eyed red-haired teacher, no, FIGHTER PILOT! Well, the details can be worked out, but this has multi-book contract written all over it!
And with that shallow insight, the Plotter will feel that she has become inspired by her Muse, because the Plotter’s goals for writing are different than the Pantser’s.
But one day, the Pantser notes that he is stuck in a dead end job as a manager of a local indie bookstore that is in a perpetual state of going out of business, because…Amazon! He will find himself in a late night session of a Rogue Read and Critique at his favorite writers conference, where he will overhear the Plotter bemoaning the sameness of her own writing. She wishes she could break free of the tyranny of repetitive genre work, and write something worthy. Something like the Pantser’s Literary Romantic Coming of Age Autumnal Vermont Near Pond novel, that was published by a small independent press and is doing moderately well on the Amazon bestseller lists.
Later, in the hotel bar, they will sit near each other, privately contemplating their moderately middle-aged literary lives. The Pantser will nurse a Guinness or whatever dark-ish stout-like beer he can attain from the limited hotel stock. The Plotter, thinking about writing a Noir novel, will sip a nondescript red wine, (not quite the color of her dark ruby lipstick that now smears the lip of the once clean wine glass like blood from a cut lip). The house red is a vaguely unfulfilling replacement of the Plotter’s favorite Pinot Noir, acceptable solely because the young woman tending bar has never heard of Pinot anything, and failed to grasp the clever reference to the late night atmosphere and the term Noir. The Pantser will laugh wryly at the Plotter’s jest and their eyes will meet in the mirror.
The Pantser and the Plotter will hit it off, having similar writing issues, though coming at them from two extreme points. Over the coming years, they will strike emotional bargains with each other and argue their causes to and fro, eventually coming to mutual respect for one another’s achievements. They will read and critique each other’s work, and they will purposely attend conferences and book launches and library events for local published authors. They will offer one another emotional support. Separately, they will continue to eke out a living until, one evening when the conference hotel has screwed up their reservations forcing them to share a room, they will fall in love. (Whoa! I did not see THAT coming!)
Together, We Are Better
Soon, the Plotter will find she is writing expressively and more from her heart. She will uncover that elusive sense of fulfillment that her red-haired green-eyed love interests perpetually sought in the laconic, strong, gruff, but fair-minded protagonists who helmed all her mysterious romances, her adventurous romances, or her romantic science fictional space operas.
Meanwhile, the Pantser has let his artistic guard down enough to trust what the Plotter recommends and, realizing that she is not his enemy for counseling some streamlining of text, will discover that plotting the second act actually strengthens his story and allows him to make an understandable point to his tale. People will appreciate his subtle use of structure while still enjoying his prose and clever words. With her assistance, he will avoid the sophomore slump and actually gain praise for his second book, as well as the interest of an agent for his next work of high-concept literate art. He does not yet confide that he’s got nothing more to say.
Secretly, the Pantser and the Plotter will be writing together under a pseudonym, making a decent living churning out erotic romances that take place in the Old West, in Epic Viking days, in Merry Olde England, in Chivalrous France, and Renaissance Italy. They will travel the world together doing research and writing off the expenses on their taxes.
In time, a child will be born and they will have high hopes for their literate little one. She will grow up to be a mathematician.
In the end, the Pantser and the Plotter, like the King and the Pawn, will go into the same box after the game is complete.
Jeffrey J. Michaels is a Gemini. As such he is deeply involved in whatever interests him at the moment. His describes his book A Day at the Beach and Other Brief Diversions as “metaphyictional,” combining fantasy and humor with metaphysical elements. He is currently polishing a sweeping fantasy series of interconnected tales collectively known as The Mystical Histories. It is varied enough that he says he may even finish most of the stories. In his real life he is a well-respected creative and spiritual consultant. He does not like to talk about his award winning horror story. www.jeffreyjmichaels.com