Planning for Pantsers

Two weeks ago, as I wrapped up my series of posts on writing Mythopoeia, I mentioned that it would be useful, if you want to produce a work of mythopoeia as the bedrock of your speculative fiction novel, to employ a “planning” method for writing.  Whereas, of course, this can be difficult for someone who’s a “pantser” – someone who writes by the seat of their pants, otherwise known as a discovery writer.

I’m mostly a planner, myself, but betimes I am also occassionaly a pantser.  Meaning, I think writing style is more of a continuum than a binary either/or proposition.  There are times when one methodology is preferrable over the other, I think, but neither is inherently better or worse in general.  I, for instance, will tend to “pants” it when working on shorter-length fiction.  But for those who hover closer to the pantser side of the Force more often than not, treading into the world of planning can seem… shall we say… daunting at times?

So, how to go about shifting your default mode, if you are so inclined?  Is that even desireable?  I ought, first, to say that it is not impossible to write a book while weaving in mythopoeia.  There are many legitimate approaches to writing a novel, and this includes writing a novel that is mythopoetic.    Using the discovery process, for instance, one might write a first draft, in the process “discovering” many of the mythopoetic elements, but also finding many plot holes and disconnects within the mythopoeic background.  This might necessitate numerous rewrites and copious note-taking, and at the end you would have a finished manuscript and a supply of notes equal to what would be produced in alternative methodolgy.

That said, I believe there is a significant increased risk when using the discovery process of false starts and failed beginnings – of discovering along the way that the foundation of your novel is weak and cannot support the story you are trying to tell.  I suppose this to be the case based on my numerous attempts to write “Project SOA #1“.  I started that book when I was a child – my age counted in single digits – and when I started I had no clear plan.  I had an idea of the beginning and an idea of the end, and very little idea of the specifics of the middle.  Even in rewrites, at older ages, when I had the framework of a plan, based on the initial sequence of events described in my childhood first-draft, I was still largely writing by the seat-of-my-pants.  I had an outline, but I hadn’t really planned out the intricacies of the plot, characters, setting, and background, and I hadn’t really considered mythopoeia at all.

In this process, I came to realize that my novel was on a very sandy foundation indeed.  When I made the decision to rewrite from scratch, it was with the knowledge that I would be scrapping the semi-rigid framework I’d been working in based on that old first draft from the single-digit years and rebuilding everything from the ground-up.  I still wanted the outline, the plan, but it needed to make sense, and that meant making sure that everything in the story was aligned.  It is likely no coincidence that I came to this realization not long after discovering The Book of Lost Tales.

In that book, two volumes edited by literary executor Christopher Tolkien, we get a peak into the creative process of J. R. R. Tolkien.  The book is a collection of stories and notes that create the fabric of what would eventually become The Silmarillion, the ancient history of the better-known “The Lord of the Rings”.  As I read this particular book, I realized how powerful this was.  Tolkien had written these stories originally without any thought to whether they’d be published.  He did it because he was deeply enthusiastic about the art of myth-making.  When the opportunity came to write a sequel to his popular children’s novel, The Hobbit, he started weaving in elements of this ready-waiting, complex backstory – and in the process he captured the minds and imaginations of an entire generation.

Though he never finalized in his own lifetime an authoritative version of his Middle-earth myths, his methodology inspired me.  The stories were complete enough that they could inform the world of Middle-earth as it was to appear in “The Lord of the Rings”.

My take-away from this, though, is that planning for an expansive and engaging mythopoeia as the background for a fantasy or speculative fiction novel doesn’t have to be a matter of charts and graphs and dramatis personae and complex timelines and genealogies and various other detailed planning documents.  This sort of planning can be approached from a perspective closely aligned to that of the discovery writer.  You just have to be willing to take time, up-front, before writing the novel and story you actually intend to tell to first tell a different story.

Because the histories and myths of your world are just that: stories.  And like the story you’re actually trying to tell, these stories have characters, they have conflicts, they have beginnings, middles and ends.  What you don’t need to do is get it perfect and exactly right.  You don’t need endless revisions and redrafts.  You don’t need details that will pull your reader into the tale.  You don’t even need to worry so much about voice and pacing and tense.  The only thing you need is a sequence of events and the characters who made them happen so you can refer back to it later, when you’re writing your novel. 

That’s the secret to this sort of detailed planning, if you’re not inclined to be a planner.  Just treat it like another story to tell.  Just remember your audience for this story: the audience is you, the writer.

Happy writing.

9 thoughts on “Planning for Pantsers

  1. I bought a couple collections of Ursula Le Guin’s short stories. The forwards talked about her process of developing her worlds, and it was exactly that: she discovers an imaginary world by writing about it. Short stories.

  2. My lecturer had this to say about planning: Don’t do detailed pre-thinking. Trust your imagination to discover and learn. Take hold of the wrong turn that might just be the right one. Not that it matters for me. I plan, then rip my plan into shreds then throw it out the window and watch it flutter away.

    • See, I have to disagree with that (i.e. what your lecturer said), at least in the sense that it’s the only way. It’s most emphatically not the only way. And there are a fair number of successful authors of both stripes – planners and pantsers – that illustrate the truth of that point. Planning then shredding the plan upon first contact is also a perfectly legitimate way of handling it.

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