Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Plotters and Pantsers

Last night I took my Writing for Children class to a talk at the Putnam County Library by Indianapolis-based young adult author Mike Mullin, author of Ashfall, a coming-of-age novel about a boy struggling to survive post-apocalyptic conditions following an eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano. I thought, correctly as it turned out, that Mike's presentation would be a good counter-weight to my focus on younger, sweeter stories. After all, there is quite a difference between trying to stay alive during the aftermath of a volcanic holocaust and trying to get the promised ice cream cone for having passed all of your times tables tests (7 x 9 = Trouble!). And I thought Mike's talk would up the coolness quotient of my course, as well, which it did: Mike studied Taekwondo in order to write the book and ended his presentation by smashing a sizable cinder block with his bare hand.

I confess that I did have a moment of despair at this point in the evening as I wondered how a staid middle-aged authoress is supposed to compete on the lecture circuit these days.

For me, the smashingest part of the evening, however, was NOT the karate chop. It was an insight the Mike offered during Q & A into the age-old writing question of whether it's better to write from a detailed, self-conscious outline, or better to grope your way through a story without any clear plan. Mike called this the difference between being a plotter and a "pantser" (flying by the seat of your pants). I had always thought that both approaches were viable: some writers are plotters, some are pantsers, and both can produce wonderful, and terrible, results.

Mike had a different insight, which I'm still pondering this morning. He pointed to empirical research comparing "logical" versus "intuitive" creative styles. He claimed that according to this research, when logical people try an intuitive style, creativity goes up. BUT (and this is the interesting part), when intuitive people try a logical style, creativity also goes up. He concluded that there are considerable creative benefits in trying the style with which you are LESS comfortable.

Hmm. While I'm not a rigid plotter, I definitely start with a fairly clear vision of what the structure of my story needs to be (details to be filled in later). As I continue on my creative journey this year, with the goal of "writing a book that surprises me," perhaps I need to give myself some "pantser" freedom.

It's worth a try.

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