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To plot or not to plot - why are we asking this question?

There's a rude and inaccurate phrase being spread in online writing groups, "Plotter or Pantser." It implies those who plot out a story in an outline first are professionals and those who don't are amateurishly flying by the seat of their pants. There are professionals who plot with outlines and professionals who don’t.

We who don’t are not flying by the seat of our pants. We start with characters and a situation. As we write, we place characters under pressure and see how they react. That reaction revels the characters true natures, moves the story forward and examines the themes presented, all of which we don’t know in the beginning because we’re discovering our own perspectives and the nature of the world as we uncover the story. The words plot and story are sometimes used interchangeably, yet are quite different. Plot consists of the incidents. Story consists of the incidents, world building and character development. People want to read stories, not plots.

James Patterson writes detailed, chapter by chapter outlines before he puts down a single word of prose. This obviously works for him because he’s a bestselling author and people love his well written books. He’s writing a particular type if book, a puzzle that he lays out, cuts up with a jigsaw and assembles in front of readers. He also works with collaborators He'll give the outline to another author who will write some chapters or the entire book. An outline makes this easier.

If plotting an outline works for you, that’s what you should do. Just don’t use rude terms like pantser for those who don’t. Stephen King, Salmon Rushdie and Margaret Atwood never create outlines or character sheets before putting down prose. None of them can be considered struggling armatures.

My approach to creating a book

There is no one process everyone must follow to write a book. All authors must find methods that works best for them. Some write plot outlines that range from general overviews to chapter by chapter details before they put down prose. There are writers who create descriptions of each main characters with their background, history and traits. As with outlines these vary from general to in depth. Others, like Salman Rushdie, David Mamet, Neil Gaiman, Stephen King Margaret Atwood and me don't write either.

Like the other authors mentioned above, I start with a concept I want to explore, place characters in a situation under pressure and see what happens. The way the characters react reveals their true natures and moves the story forward.

As I write, I learn more about the characters and story. New concepts come to mind. I may realize a setting is wrong. I may turn a hero into a villain. When these ideas come, I don’t go back and change previous martial. I make a note of them and continue from that point as if I had already made the changes.

I keep going until I finish the first draft. Before making any changes, I read the entire first draft. It will have grammar and spelling mistakes, dead ends, missing martial and inconsistencies. It will also have the core of the story and character development.

It’s then that I sit down, consult my notes and begin a second draft where I edit the manuscript and fix not just grammar and spelling, I make the adjustments I noted, alter character relationships, adjust scenes and so forth. I will find that some of the notes I made no longer apply to how the story or characters turned out. As I work, I’ll think of new story elements and characterizations that were not noted. Things shift and change. That’s good. The manuscript is taking on life and consistency.

When I finish the second draft, I read it without making changes, then start a third draft. You may be tempted to think only one pass is needed, yet you will be shocked at how many problems and mistakes you’ll find while writing the third draft; grammar mistakes, missing words, duplicated words, spelling errors, character development, story elements, etc. With the third draft complete, I start the fourth. I keep writing drafts until I’ve combed the manuscript to be the best I can produce. It will never be perfect. It is said a novel is a long piece of writing with mistakes. The stopping point for me is when I see the things I wanted to talk about, the representation of the characters, and the entertainment value express what I set out to deliver. For the final book of a fantasy trilogy, I wrote ten drafts because it had to tie up all the lose ends.

After I complete my drafts, the book goes to my editor. We than work together to improve it. This method has served me through five novels and an illustrated edition of one. Three of these books have won awards. Writing a novel is really rewriting until it sings.

Keep going through the first draft

A portfolio of William Shakespeare's plays
The first draft of a novel is the initial creation of the story. The result will produce a manuscript, not a publishable book. The manuscript must be rewritten several times to craft a book. There will be many false starts, weak writing and mistakes. That doesn’t matter. I never write outlines; I just begin with a situation, put characters in it under pleasure and see what happens. Not everyone works this way. If you do write outlines before starting a book, don’t feel you must constrain yourself to them. You don’t fully know the story you’re writing or the characters you’re creating until you work with the prose for a while.

As you write, concepts will come to mind that you hadn’t thought of. You will realize the true nature of relationship between characters and imagine new twists in the plot. Put these things down and let your imagination run free. If you start on a divergent path, follow it to see where it leads. You may eliminate it later, but explore it anyway. It might lead to something better than you originally envisioned. The final book may bear little resemblance to what you considered in the beginning.

Never go back and edit anything in the first draft as you write. If you realize something needs to change at the beginning, make a note on the side and continue as if that change had been made, then fix the beginning in subsequent drafts.
Now there's only one true rule in writing - you can do anything you can get away with, however the trick is in knowing what that is, and that requires a knowledge of writing guidelines. It also takes experience.

Practice good writing from the beginning. Watch grammar, avoid clichés and be selective with adverbs as you create the first draft. Don't fall back on sloppy writing. Build a story, don't just dump words. Train yourself to be a better writer with each sentence. This will allow you to grow as an author because writing is a life long learning experience. It also makes life easier with the second, third, fourth and subsequent drafts to craft a manuscript into a book, short story or article.

Don't Write to Trends

Don’t try to write to trends or opinion polls. These change too often. By the time your book is ready for publication, tastes can vanish.

Be bold. Sit down and write your book. It's all you can do.

The Lord of the Rings was a modest seller when it first appeared in the early 1950s. Nothing like it had been published before.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when college students discovered the books, that it became the hit we know today.

J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t write to please fans or media swings. He wrote from his heart. Write from yours. Tell your story. It has just as good a change of selling as trying to catch yesterday’s fad.

2001: A Space Odyssey Turns 55

55 years ago, a movie transformed science fiction films, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Written in collaboration with legendary science fiction author Arthur C. Clark, who has second billing for the screenplay and wrote the novelization, the movie is based on Clark’s short story “The Sentinel” in which an object is dug up on the moon and sends a signal to an unidentified alien world, leaving the main character to wonder who will receive the alarm that humans have left the Earth.

Other Sci-fi films have tackled serious questions such Forbidden Planet, with it’s exploration of the human mind and it’s powers, and The Day the Earth Stood Still, whose themes cover the human propensity for violence and war with a draconian solution.

2001 Delved into more than social warnings. It contemplated the existence, place and future of human beings. It also introduced HAL 9000, the artificial intelligent computer who speaks and acts as if human, and in the end succumbs to human foibles to tragic ends.

The meticulous detail Kubrick put into all his films produced ground breaking special effects that won an Oscar and continue to stand up to this day. There would have been no Star Wars, Silent Running or any other modern sci-fi movies without 2001. The measured pace of the spacecrafts contrast with whizzing space battles, yet create the reality of space travel as had never been seen before. Astronauts have said viewing 2001: A Space Odyssey is like being in space again.

I’ve viewed the film over two dozen times, first in Cinerama with its 180-degree screen that wraps around the audience and fills the peripheral vision with the illusion of three dimensions without glasses, then in standard theaters, drive-ins, scan-and-pan broadcast TV before wide screen, VHS, DVD and Blue-Ray, which I watched again this week.

It was one of the major influences on me as a youth and a reason I became a writer, a teller of stories that expand the imagination.