The Mutable OR

As a writer, one often gets the question, “Are you an Plotter or a Pantser?” Do you write from an outline or just go ahead and let the plot and characters come to life as they flow onto the page?

The question usually gets presented that way—as a binary choice—in the many books and articles on the subject, and the author goes on to explain the advantages and pitfalls of each approach. The Plotter approach can get detailed and complex … I have a book called Story Engineering that has spawned dozens of downloadable spreadsheets (see illustration). On the other hand, as a Pantser, one can end up pretty deeply in the plot weeds. I wrote my first book, Fatal Score, as a Pantser and published the thirteenth rewrite.

A Pantser at work

The whole damn issue is the definition of OR. If I’d remembered my symbolic logic, I’d have become comfortable with my natural writing mode a lot sooner. To most people, OR means alternatives. One or the other. You go downtown this way or that way. Not both, right? That’s the Exclusive Or in logic. The Inclusive Or says one or both alternatives are okay, more like ‘either/or.’ We most frequently use ‘or’ in the exclusive sense.

Is all this going somewhere, Rogers?

In a Sisters in Crime webinar, the pantser/plotter question was raised to Walter Mosley, the author of the Easy Rawlins mystery series and plenty of other stories. He got the weary look that denotes a person who is about to explain the obvious for the nth time. He said, “Both.” There was a short pause while the interlocutor figured out that he should ask the next question. Always the gentleman, Mosley explained that if you’re writing commercial fiction, you need something like a broad outline or you’re going to have to do a lot of fixing (see thirteenth draft, above). But characters have lives of their own. They grow. They develop. As an author, you had better let that happen or your book will be boring.

So here I am, nearly a decade into the craft that I love, learning an essential truth that should have been obvious all along.

 

Reading For the Sake of Enjoyment

A question I hear often in critique groups is, “Is this moving the story forward?” An ancillary question is where to insert backstory … the events before the time of the story that contributed to its direction or, more often, a character’s development.

And we writers are told by a thousand how-to books that we need to grab the reader in the first line. Get things moving. Bottom of first page is too late.

I have been reading two stories in my critique group from gifted writers who work humor into every line. I keep feeling pressured by conventional wisdom to suggest moving the story forward.

Then I began reading Deacon King Kong, by James McBride. Literary fiction, to be sure, so anything goes by way of structure, but the book starts with the obligatory precipitating event—but then gives the reader twenty pages of double-over-laughing backstory. Which brings up the question: Why do we read, anyway? For pleasure, right?

I guess I’ll cut back on the cookie-cutter critique and just enjoy my friends’ prose.