Wednesday, July 21, 2010

By the seat of your pants

Monday afternoon, I had an unexpected urge to visit the Oregon Coast.

Since we live 4 hours away and it’s the middle of tourist season, you might think the trip would involve some advance planning.

You’d be wrong.

Within an hour, Pythagoras and I were in the car with one haphazardly-packed bag and one confused dog. We didn’t make hotel reservations. We didn’t know which towns we’d visit. We didn’t even remember to pack dog food or deodorant.
Bindi enjoys the ride.

But the trip was incredible. 36 hours of beautiful scenery, unexpected adventures, and good conversation.
On the beach in Florence, OR

This is pretty much how I write. Authors call this being a “pantster” (short for "seat of your pants") as opposed to “plotter” (those amazing souls who don’t regard outlines as tools of Satan).

There are advantages to both methods, and trust me – I’ve had moments I wished I could try the other method as both as a writer or a traveler. People who plan ahead probably don’t spend nights sleeping in a skirt on the floor of an airport delirious with fever from a bacterial infection contracted in Morocco.

Are you a pantster as well? Or maybe a plotter who’d like to let your hair down and try being a pantster? Here are three tips for both writing & traveling by the seat of your pants:

Don’t panic. There will be moments you realize you’ve backed yourself into a corner with your story or your journey. It’s all part of the experience.

While traveling in Europe, we hopped a bus to Slovenia without considering what we’d do if the bus dropped in the middle of nowhere without access to a telephone, computer, or ATM. For a few minutes, Pythagoras and I assessed one another while considering which of us would fetch a higher price on the black market. Fortunately, we kept our heads, shouldered our packs, and hoofed it a couple miles to a post office that kindly swapped our Euros for Tolars and pointed us to a pay phone. Slovenia ended up being one of the highlights of that trip.

It’s been the same with writing for me. When I set out to write MAKING WAVES (my debut novel) I knew I wanted to write a sort of pirate parody. I didn’t stop to consider the difficulty in setting an entire novel in the confines of a 45-foot ship. That challenge forced me to develop some twists in the final third of the book that are now my favorite parts of the story.

Choose travel companions wisely.
I packed for Monday’s beach trip in about 30 seconds, so I may have neglected a few essentials. Like a toothbrush. Or a razor. Or deodorant. Since Pythagoras also forgot the latter, he ran to the store for the deodorant while I helped myself to his razor and brushed my teeth with a cotton ball stolen from his bag. (Incidentally, nothing says true love like sharing deodorant).

It’s the same thing with writing. Plotting is not my forte, so I made sure to nab two critique partners who are masters at it. When I get stuck, I can email either one and whine, “my heroine got drunk at the hero’s male strip club – now what?”

Take the scenic route.
My favorite thing about writing and traveling as a pantster is the chance to discover new things. Our trip home from the beach yesterday involved a meandering drive through several small towns. Along the way, we saw a gorgeous covered bridge in Sweet Home and a pair of large mammals copulating at Sea Lion Caves.
Nookie at Sea Lion Caves.
Weddle Covered Bridge in Sweet Home.

Same deal on the writing front. I had no idea when I started writing LET IT BREATHE (the third in my contract) that the story would include pink-haired biker grandma or an alpaca who head-butts men in the gonads, but those are now among my favorite features of the manuscript. Use your pantster experience to try new things. You might be surprised at what your brain comes up with.

Are you a plotter or a panster when it comes to writing or travel? What tips can you share for making your method work? Have you ever tried the other method just for fun? Please share in the comments.

I’ll be over here shaking sand out of my shoes.

32 comments :

danicaavet said...

Impulse trips are the best! I'm...well, I like to think I'm a "plantster" because I try to bring both plotting and panstering together. I don't like having every little part of a story decided ahead of time. It makes me feel itchy. On the other hand, I have to have some vague idea of what I want to happen and how it'll get there.

Since I haven't published yet though, I can't say whether or not my method works. I do know that I don't let rules hinder me though. Even when I make rules for my world/characters, I end up breaking them. Cause I'm a rebel. Really.

Linda G. said...

Pantser all the way. When TG & I backpacked through Europe, we never planned where we were going next until we saw which train suited our sleeping schedule.

After we had kids we had to plot our travels more, of course. No sane person travels w/kids (it occurs to me I could logically stop this sentence here) w/out planning.

I'm the same with writing. Over-plotting deflates my WIP worse than a spike strip does the tires on a getaway car.

Candyland said...

Wow the pics are gorgeous! We're talking about moving the OR, btw.

Katt said...

hmmm. As usual, I don't fit the mold.
In life, well for vacations at least, I'm a total plotter/planner but don't necessarily stick with it.
Going down the Oregon Coast for example. I plan how many days in each town, where to stay, where to eat. And then find myself asking, hmmm could we keep this room instead of checking out tomorrow? Or, I know we ate at Mo's last night and were going to the Casino tonight but I let's go back to Mo's.

Ah and then there's the writing. Total, Absolute, Unabashed Pantser. Plots give me hives. For me, the joy of writing is discovering what the heck my characters were thinking when they did that. Or who might just pop in unnoticed. My fav is finding out 'who did it' in a totally bizarre place - like standing in line at the grocery store when it occured to me who the villan was.... I avoided that store for a week or two after shouting out, ohmygod it's him!

Elizabeth Ryann said...

Interesting. I am a super-organizer when it comes to traveling, in the sense that I NEED to know where I'll be sleeping and how I'll get there, what the reviews are, and what the best deal is. Including alternate routes in case of emergency (like missing your plane to Venice by two freaking minutes, but knowing that the train is an option from the airport that is relatively affordable, convenient, and allows you to recharge all your devices along the way). Beyond that, I might have one or two activities in mind, and have researched a couple of options that I may or may not choose to eat at, but that I know are available if I choose to go.

I'm a lot more laid back with my writing. The only things I really know are my main character and where it begins, possibly two or three other characters that are important to the MC, since I find it's really hard to develop one without the other. All the rest is kind of a surprise.

Adventures in Children's Publishing said...

Love the metaphor of the impulse trip and the pantster writing. I pants my first three chapters then do a turning points outline. Working so far, I think, but I'm learning every day.

Thanks for this. Looking forward to reading all the tips from commentors. Also putting this into our Friday round-up of best articles for writers, hope that's okay!

Martina

Patty Blount said...

Great analogy, but I'll stick to compulsively outlining and planning trips.

We head to the Outer Banks on Aug 1 and I've got lists of the lists I need to write. :)

middle child said...

A impulsive trip like that is that best!!!!! Go where the road takes you. But I do have to say one thing - Don't EVER say that cotton ball on teeth thing out loud again. Blecht! It is like nails on a chalk board to be. Ick!

SM Schmidt said...

Is it still pantsing if I leave it to friends to plan the trips? I learned early on to just throw travel size bathroom stuff in a zip lock bag left always in my luggage. Never forgot deodorant again!

With my writing I need a vague idea of where I'm going kinda like a really comfortable bra. Supportive but not restrictive yet I know its there if I get stuck.

Shallee said...

I loved the comparison of travel to writing in this post!

I'm kind of funny-- I'm a hybrid, both in travel and in writing. To write, I have to have a basic outline. I then proceed to write and completely derail from that, but I have to know where I'm going before I start.

I'm the same with travel. When I traveled in Ghana, I plotted everything ahead of time, but once I got out there, I'd derail. Tour a bush hospital after visiting the monkey sanctuary? Sure. Spend an extra day getting completely lost in a gigantic city? Awesome.

The plan keeps me on track, but the ability to fly by the seat of my pants brings out the fun!

kd easley said...

I'm a pantser in my writing, and a planner when I travel because the folks that I travel with are afraid to wing it. By myself, I just take off and go. You find the best stuff when you're lost or distracted by the view.

LadyGenette said...

Even the best laid plans tend to go awry for me. This last March I lived in the Seattle airport for 3 days because the flights oversold. Trust me, living in the Seattle airport isn't cheap, especially once you walk into Fireworks and discover the jewelry section.

Side note: my favorite little town on the Oregon coast is Manzanita. I've never found another place quite so beautiful.

Harley May said...

Great post, Tawna. Thank you for the beautiful expose AND photos. I'd like to think I'm somewhere in between a plotter and a pantser.

I spend a lot of my time playing with legos, coloring, strolling in the park, (mom stuff). Things that do not recquire a lot of brain activity. I devote a lot of that time to "plotting." I have thought of stories beginning to end within like a few weeks.

That being said, I'm not afraid to go somewhere unexpected when I'm at the computer.

Lovely post. Miss seeing you.

Neurotic Workaholic said...

I'm definitely a pantser; I think it's more fun that way. I like not knowing what's going to happen when I sit down to write. I tried outlining the story once, but it felt too much like homework and then I found myself watching TV instead.

Tawna Fenske said...

Danica, "planster," I like it! I do often have at least SOME idea how the story will turn out, but no idea how I'll reach that conclusion.

Linda G, funny, when we were in our 20s and no one believed us when we said we weren't planning to have kids, people would always say, "be sure you enjoy all that globetrotting now, since you won't be able to do it once you have children." If my mind hadn't already been made up at that point, that probably would have done it.

Candyland, what?! When?! Where?! You must email me at once with details! I'm a 3rd generation Oregonian, so I've got plenty of insights.

Katt, mmmm...Mo's clam chowder! We ate a whole big bunch of it these last couple days!

Elizabeth, remind me never to travel with you. I might end up throwing you out the window of a train, and that would make me very sad because you seem awfully nice.

Martina, aw, thanks! It's funny, in re-reading today's post, I was thinking of yesterday's post in which I blathered on about how I don't like some of my posts as much as others. This one seemed too long-winded and boring to me, so I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Patty, if it's any comfort, I do sometimes make packing lists for trips where we'll be gone for a month or so.

middle child, LOL, that was EXACTLY the reaction Pythag had when he caught me with the cotton ball in my mouth.

SM Schmidt, I don't know why I never think to do that w/ the travel stuff. Maybe that should be my next resolution.

Shallee, if we're doing any serious globetrotting where we're visiting several different countries, we will at least buy a travel guide and have a vague idea which places we might like to see. Doesn't mean we'll end up there, but it gives us a starting point.

kd easley, amen to this: "You find the best stuff when you're lost or distracted by the view."

LadyGenette, we fly standby much of the time, so I know EXACTLY what you mean! Have slept in airports in Madrid, Auckland, New York, and Salt Lake City. The worst was the New York one, since we were coming back from Morocco & both had crazy high fevers from a nasty bacteria we picked up there. It almost made me rethink the pantster travel.

Harley May, I do the same thing when I take the dogs for a walk. Lots of good ideas have gelled when I'm picking up turds in little plastic baggies.

Neurotic Workaholic, I have actually tried to write stories with a completed synopsis. Totally killed the joy of writing for me.

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

Terry Stonecrop said...

Panster. I like finding out what's going to happen next. I like surprises. Once, I tried outlining a story. Never wrote it. I guess I talked it out in the outline. And outlines bore the sh*t out of me. They remind me of school. Ick.

Enjoyed the post. Glad you had such a great trip!

Elizabeth Ryann said...

In my defense, I think I am rabid about travel/sleep plans b/c they fell through to the extent that I didn't have a back up for my back up once, and I spent three days at Heathrow trying to make it back to NY and wasn't allowed to sleep on the floor and since no one was getting out, all the hostels were booked except for this scary one I ended up at in Shepherd's Bush where they tried to make me sleep in a dirty bed (literally covered in dirt and pubic hair) with only three strange men who were traveling together in the room, and when I refused, the only other bed that was available was in a room with 11 other people, which I took, despite the fact that THE BED WAS COVERED IN BLOOD STAINS. Like, actual blood. That still smelled metallic.

I was seriously convinced I was going to be raped and/or murdered. Admittedly, I was exhausted and stressed, 19, traveling by myself for the first time, and internationally at that, but I think I had good reasons to be afraid. Anyway, never again will that happen.

P.S. If I ever did travel with you, I would make sure to plan an alternate route home from any stop along the train route. FYI. :)

Jen J. Danna said...

Seventy-five percent plotter and twenty five percent pantster... does that count? Look at me being difficult as usual! ;)

For both writing and traveling, the majority of what I do is planned out. Otherwise, I'm so uncomfortable with the uncertainty of not knowing where I'm going, I'll get brain freeze and then I go nowhere (at least as far as the writing goes... I'll just fret if I don't know where we're going when traveling). I've written novels where I did about 95% plotting. But for this last one, my partner and I tried an experiment -- we had a good 60% of it planned ahead of time but gave ourselves some leeway to see where it went. And 2/3 into the manuscript, we planned the final section. So mostly planning, but with a little room for some creative shimmy, if you know what I mean. Best of both worlds?

colbymarshall said...

I'm a combination of both in both writing and travel...I always have a very rough outline, but it's flexible. The best of both worlds! :-)

Kelly Breakey said...

When it comes to writing I am a plotter, but when it comes to everything else I am a pantser. I have been know to invite people for dinner with no idea of what I would server. We have dashed off to New Orleans on a Friday afternoon with no reservations in the middle of Mardi Gras with excellent results.

I think its the best way to travel.

Kelly

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

I'm a mix pantster/plotter. I love how you defined them and how you wove your trip into writing. I'd love to just get in the car and go, just like I'd love to just sit down and write. But in the end I have to have a map...plot. :)

April said...

I am definitely a pantster. I love the thrill of finding out what is going to happen as I go along. It's more exciting that way. I do planning in my head. I have to mull over my characters for a while before I can think about what their story will be.

Alas, I also travel in much the same way. It once led to a less than ideal hotel arraignment for a conference during college. It turned out all the girls stayed in one suite and the guys in another, with the exception of myself. The guys were much more wiling to share their space. Hmm this could be an interesting background for a new story...thanks for jogging my memory. Might have a new idea to write about! :)

reberto.alberto said...
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Suz said...
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KO said...

Great post--
In travel I like to make a plan, but have the ability to diverge from it. I was a little more adventurous before kids, but now I need to have a bed on the agenda at a certain time or everyone loses it.

In writing-- much more of a pantser. I can't wait long enough to write out an outline. I jump in.

Mother Hen said...

I think I am a plotter who pulls her pansters up.
I love have a bit of structure then seeing where it can go.

I love that you and the man and the dog just take off on a whim like that. Happy Summer.

Terry said...

Florence?!?!?!?!! Part of my WIP is set there. Love that place, love Mo's! Outline???? There's an outline???? I was on Chpt 3 when I had to stop and call a friend to tell them so and so killed Sara's dad!! I didn't know that. I knew something was being smuggled in but not what for like 15 chpts and I know that a sand dollar is going to finally make things click in Sara's brain but I have no idea how. They haven't told me yet!! lol

LadyGenette said...

Flying standby is the only way to go! Get the middle seat in between two burly dudes who secretly love teddy bears, or not so secretly snore and have to pee every 20 minutes... (It's always the gent by the window, too!).

@Terry: man, you write like I do! I just realized that Henry's birthday is on St. Patty's Day and has always been then, but NONE of my notes say that! I swear I'm channeling this story sometimes rather than creating it. :]

Suz said...

HELP! I've written my protagonist into a corner and I don't know how I'm going to get her out. What do I do? I thought that writing free style was the best idea, but it means I've ended up with a million sub-plots that may never get sorted out! Is this when I should have a trusty writer friend at hand for plot brain storming? Damn. I haven't got one of those :(

Claire Dawn said...

Pantser all the way!!! Still working out the kinks with my writing, but I figure I'll stay a pantser, since that's how I live my life. I pretty much moved to Japan on a whim.

PS, Janet Reid mentioned yoU!!! You are sooooo ooooo ooooo cool! ;)

Tawna Fenske said...

Terry, I have a couple stories for which I've written a synopsis beforehand, and guess what? I've never finished either one. Go figure.

Elizabeth Ryann, LOL, OK -- if we travel together though, I'll bring the wine :)

Jen, that sounds like a cool experiment! Might have to give that a shot sometime.

colbymarshall, flexibility is the key, isn't it?

Kelly, how close do you live to New Orleans? That sounds fun!

Kathi, my critique partner Cynthia is the same way with the plotting.

April, I attended a conference for work once and wound up having to share both a room and a bed with a co-worker. Fortunately, she and I were already pretty close, but it was still a little awkward!

KO, beds are probably a lot more necessary with kids, eh?!

Mother Hen, LOL on the "pulling her pantsters up" line!

Terry, I hadn't been to Florence for years, so it was fun to revisit. Do you live near there?

LadyGenette, the standby flying has been getting tougher lately with all the oversold flights. It just took my sister-in-law and her family the better part of a week to make it from their home in Germany to Portland, OR.

Suz, I did a post last week on critique partners/beta readers and I know there were a few people in the comments seeking partners of their own. Maybe check there?

Claire Dawn, LOL, Janet Reid has mentioned me several times lately. Very flattering!

Thanks for reading, guys!
Tawna

MK said...

I'm pretty much a pantser when it comes to everything. Thus, the state of my house.