Artistic Differences

Had an interesting email conversation a month or two ago.

It all started when I read Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering.

Like just about every other writer and wannabe writer in the English-speaking world, I subscribe to Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing e-zine; and in one issue, he highly recommended the book. Said it was the best explanation of plotting he’d ever read. Don’t know if the fact that he and Larry Brooks co-authored Writing Fiction for Dummies had anything to with his glowing recommendation. But, though Randy’s famous “Snowflake Method” goes against my natural grain, I do like his e-zine and usually find good stuff in it. I figured I’d buy the book, since he spoke so highly of it.

Well. As my mom always said, to each his own. Which is to say, it probably IS a good book, if you can make sense out of it. As for me, it was like reading something in a language I’m passingly familiar with, but in which I’m not quite fluent. Plainly, my mind and Mr. Brooks’ do not follow the same wavelengths.

But one thing I did understand – or thought I did – was his derisiveness toward seat-of-the-pants plotters.

It’s quite possible that he and I define the term “seat-of-the-pants” differently. But all the way through the book, I got the definite impression he had no concept of how pantsing works. Or at least, how it works for me.

I suppose if you sit down to write a book with no idea of what it’s about, you can expect to lose your way before long. But some of us pantsers have a general direction from the outset. Though we don’t arm ourselves with outlines, character sketches, note cards, synopses or the like, we manage to shape the story’s elements in more or less the proper proportions without having to make multiple false starts. And using a computer, as nearly all writers do these days, it’s a piece of cake to insert a scene or character, a foreshadowing element, or whatever is necessary, should we later realize we need it. In my experience, at least, it’s never been the utter chaos he seems to think.

It was a tough slog, but I finally finished the book, feeling a little frustrated that I’d spent good money on it, and a little irritated at his heavy-handed maligning of my writing style. Being a writer, I felt compelled to vent my feelings through the written word. So, after due consideration, I sent him an email in which I tried to be as neighborly as possible while still conveying my point.

Imagine my surprise when I got a response that very day. One that precipitated several more emails back and forth. A conversation that, from my point of view, was pleasant and civil on both sides.

During the course of the shuttling messages, he asked me if I’d be willing to do a guest post on his high-traffic blog, discussing plot construction from a pantser’s point of view. I was amazed that he’d ask – I am, after all, a nobody, and he’s made quite a name for himself over this plotting issue. I agreed to write something, asked for more details, and…

Never heard another word.

Looking back over our correspondence, it occurred to me that maybe he was being sarcastic the whole time but I was too dense to see it. Or, maybe he misunderstood something I said, and I’d unintentionally offended him. Or, maybe… who knows? I certainly don’t. I just know our conversations ended as abruptly as they began, and I was left more confused than when I started.

What’s the moral of this story? I guess simply that, like “normals” (i.e., people who aren’t writers), we wordsmiths are all put together differently. Though we all use words, our minds don’t necessarily process them the same way. An explanation or illustration that makes things crystal clear to one of us looks like mud to another. And there’s no point in taking it personally. That’s just the way it is.

So, Larry, if I offended you by something I said, I’m sorry.  But seriously, it is possible to write a well-crafted plot without going through the contortions you describe. And I still contend that, in the final analysis, when you read a good book, you can’t tell if the story was painstakingly plotted beforehand by a person who understands your method, or if the author started out with a vague idea and fleshed it out as he went. The basic elements of a good story are the same, however the creator approached the construction.

And that’s all I have to say on this subject.

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One thought on “Artistic Differences

  1. I like to think of myself as a plot-ser (half plotter and half seat-of-the-pantser) rather than either by itself. I, too, have a loose outline of my stories, but let the characters have their say as I go along, to a degree. I have rewritten much of my stories because the characters resisted my outlining, however.

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