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.


Show and Tell

In our Zoom critique session this morning, we of Crème de la Crime got into a discussion of when to show and action or emotion and when to tell.

The oft-repeated direction is ‘show, don’t tell.’ Like any rule, particularly any rule in writing, it’s made to be broken.

Show is usually better. More action, and it calls on the reader’s imagination, which we authors hope draws the reader into the story.

But …

As our member Karl pointed out, sometimes it takes a paragraph of show to carry out what a sentence of tell can do.

In the end, Greg rewrote the Serenity Prayer thusly:

God, grant me the focus to show when it's warranted,
the brevity to tell when appropriate,
and the wisdom the know the difference.