Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Teachers, Preachers, Plotters and Pantsters

by Niki Turner

When we were in ministry, my husband and I had to come to terms with our different methods, or styles, of studying and sharing God's word. He's a preacher, I'm a teacher. He studies and reads and meditates and prays, even takes copious notes. But when he gets behind the pulpit, the notes are forgotten. Sometimes he never gets to the subject he intended to speak about, ending up on a "rabbit trail" of Scripture and following the Holy Spirit. I tried his method a few times, and ended up stammering along about nothing for 30 minutes, leaving my bewildered Bible study class blinking owlishly at me.

I, on the other hand, study, take neatly outlined notes (with multi-colored highlighting sometimes), try to have two or three Scriptural references for every point, and follow those notes rigorously, from A to B to C to the conclusion. Three points and a prayer, and all that. It works for me, but my husband (when he tried it) felt constricted and locked up and unable to hear God's leading.

So it came as a surprise to me during the first week of National Novel Writing Month to realize part of my recent writing dilemna is the direct result of trying to apply that "teacher" method to my writing. After all, I SHOULD have an outline and a synopsis and character arcs and motivations before I start working on a project because that's what everyone else does, right? That's the logical, organized, systematic way to craft a novel. In my brain it makes sense and sounds lovely and appealing and so... tidy.

But in application? Apparently I'm a preacher when it comes to pounding out a story. I rarely know where I'm going to start and have little or no clue where I'm going until I get there. As I tried to explain to my spouse, for me, writing is a lot like reading. I don't know what's going to happen on the next page until I arrive. If I do know, I get bored and skip to the end.

This year, since I decided this year's NaNoWriMo was going to be a "purging the creative pipe" kind of experience, I just opened a blank document on Nov. 1 and started typing. I'm halfway through my 50,000 words.
I have a story. I have characters. I have a setting. I have some scenes. I don't have a synopsis, or an outline, or a well-planned plot, or a character arc, or any of those other literary/writerly terms. I'm not entirely sure the hero is not the bad guy in disguise. I don't know who killed the lady in the hotel courtyard, or why. I know just about as much as what's going on as the heroine. It's a little nervewracking. It's also much more fun (for me). I know plenty of "plotters" out there who would feel as hemmed in and constricted and repressed by this wild-and-free approach as I do by the orderly, logical, planned-out method.  

It's been a reminder that we're all intensely, incredibly, unique beings. From our fingerprints to our DNA to our gifts and talents and abilities. We must learn to embrace that uniqueness and be the best US we can be, instead of trying to copy someone else's approach or method or style or system. Sure, we can try new things, but if we find those new things don't work, don't feel natural, quit struggling and go with the flow. Take it from one who has been trying to swim upstream as a plotter for the last year or two, only to find out ... I'm not even a salmon!

Writers: Which are you? Have you tried to morph yourself into something you're not? What were your results?

Readers: Can you tell which of your favorite writers are "teacher" types or "preacher" types from their writing? Does it matter?


  1. I'm somewhere in the middle. I usually have a general idea where the story is going. Then I need to write about 10,000-30,000 words to get a feel for the book and figure out my characters. But by that point the story is playing out in my head faster than I can get it on paper, so I write a 3-4 page synopsis so I can remember the details of where I'm going.

  2. Excellent post, Niki! Great insight comparing writing to preaching. In that way, I'm like my pastor and Dina... I need to know a few of the basics, then I start writing and it usually comes together as I go.

    When I liken it to my preacher, it's because Pastor Lorne has his notes and starts off on track, but 2/3 of the way through he realizes he's off and then skips some stuff to bring himself back in line so that he finishes on time. I know many other preachers who'll keep people in their pews and keep going until they're done, but in the village where our church is located the Sunday brunch ends at 2 and so Pastor Lorne always lets us out on time. :)

    This year for Nano however, I'm not doing so well. I think I'm feeling the pressure of having an agent and deadlines. I have 3 ongoing projects and while I'm trying to do my nano, my mind is on another project and so forth. I'm finding it hard to keep on track.

    You, my dear, have caught the true spirit of Nano. Congratulations. You're doing well!

  3. Cool post. And congratulations on NaNo! You go, girl! I'm impressed!

    I definitely need a plan or I run out of plot. Plot is my weakness, which may sound odd for a romance writer, but I sometimes forget to tie plot points to emotional growth, etc. I have to have a structure.

    Things do change and morph as I go, however. I've written a few chapters in my new wip and I am pretty sure I'll have to come back and change some things.

  4. I'm not NaNoing because I had a manuscript I needed to finish. And while I do have another ms I need to write, I'm taking this week to catch up on all the little things I've ignored because of finishing that manuscript.

    If I don't begin with a 2-3 page synopsis, then I get to about chapter 3 and stall because I can't write if I don't know what's going to happen next.

    I *need* a road-map.

    A 1-page syno is enough for a novella, but when I was writing Sugarplum Hearts, I got to a point where my story was didn't fit anymore with the synopsis's ending. I had to consciously say, "It's okay, Gina, to diverge from the syno."

    In writing this last ms, I had a 3-4-pge synopsis. Still, when I got to the middle of the story, my creativity froze. Even though I knew what happened next (plot), I didn't know how to get there. Something was missing. So I did a micro-version of breaking down a scene that Cheryl Wyatt shared on Seekerville several years ago.

    chapter X, character X POV, setting, character X scene goal, conflict internal and/or external, maybe a new obstacle, character X decision if one

    By the time I reached the chapter I was stuck on, I knew exactly where I needed to go next.

    I think NaNoing is a stupendous tool to help writers get a manuscript written. The key is making it work for *you.*

    I, personally, would rather take two or three months to write a solid first draft (that only needs some minor edits before being sent to editor), than take a month to type something so problem-filled that it'd take months to fix. Because, let's face it, MOST writers do not like cutting the precious words they've written no matter how jumping-the-shark the character or scene is.

    With that said, I also think too many writers (myself had been in this mix) waste too many years revising and revising and revising the same manuscript while NOT writing something new. Thus, I love when writers participate in NaNo and write a new manuscript, even if it is dreck, because maybe just maybe it's not dreck. Such as Dina's Three-Quarter, which was her last year's NaNo accomplishment. :-)

  5. Excellent post, Niki! Back in the beginning of time, I was pretty much the same way. I usually had a starting point and a vague idea of what would happen, but no outlines or other plotting tools. I've tried to do all those things like the Snowflake, interviewing your characters, using a notecard for each scene... all that stuff drives me nuts! Can't do it. BUT... I've gotten to the point where I have to write out at least a vague synopsis ahead of time. This is only because in order to sell an idea, you've got to have that synopsis, so I've been trained now :) But for the most part, I'm still a see-where-the-road-takes-me kinda writer.

  6. i'm not sure what kind of a writer i am, because i haven't done enough writing on an actual manuscript. i do great on little 1,000 word challenges (idea forms and then i write).
    i was working on actually starting an ms when i got pregnant with my little guy - i don't believe i've figured out how to balance time since he was born.
    i work days and he gets so excited when i come home (plus i feel guilty because i can't be stay-at-home mommy). i've put writing a little on the back-burner. *heavy sigh*
    on a bright note, i still am learning so much from the ladies here (and over at seekerville). i'm hoping i can put that learning to practice soon.

    nice post. i particularly liked the I'm not even a salmon line...

  7. Such fabulous comments today from everyone! Sorry I'm late to the party, I was able to meet a friend for coffee at STARBUCKS this morning! YAY!!!

    Caffeine-induced replies to follow...

  8. @DebH - I applaud your efforts to keep writing, and learning, even with a wee one to manage! I wish I had done that, but after two babies in two years I laid it aside... now I'm 42 and just getting back on track where I was when I was 22! Keep up the good work!

  9. Dina,
    That sounds reasonable. As this NaNo story progresses I'm getting a better idea where it's going, and I should start jotting those ideas down before they get lost in the brain scramble.

  10. Thanks, Anita! It was kind of a revelation for me!
    You've got a lot on your plate, so I can definitely see how keeping up with NaNo this year would be extra challenging. At least you're making the effort! No matter how it turns out you'll have something to go back and play with later.

    LOL. My hubby had to learn the hard way that people like to get out of church on time. :) Something about "the brain can only absorb as much as the seat can endure"?

  11. Susie, plot seems to be my weakness, too, but if I try to create a structure, then my characters run away with me and I end up all in a muddle and can't seem to get back into the project! Coming up with something I can stick to is a definite goal!

  12. Gina, that makes sense, too... I wonder if every manuscript is different in the way we have to approach it, which would require us to be flexible in our approach. One more reason interacting with other writers, and blogs like this one and others, and studying the craft are important! More tools in our writing tool boxes, instead of just a big hammer. :)

  13. Jen! BLESS YOUR HEART! Thank you for saying that! That's just how I feel. I've tried the Snowflake, which seems SO effective for others, and the notecards, and a huge board covered with sticky notes, and interviewing my characters... All are wonderful tools, but, as I mentioned to Gina, perhaps it's the right tool for the right story, in the right hand! You gave me hope for finding a happy medium in there!

  14. I tend to be something different on every book. Not a salmon. A chameleon? :D

  15. writing while my granddaughter plays with her IPad. Okay, so she's 18months old. We are just such twins! and she's just watching Curious George.
    While i tackle the tough jobs such as contemplating how much i am messing up my head in November...

    I have a pretty good outline for NaNo, but my plot and characters are giving me fits. I feel like I'm writing now just for word count because I have to make a lot of changes now and later... and that's frustrating me.
    Let's not talk about the multiple projects aspect, either.

    Last Jan I wrote 75k words from an outline with no problem. What's messing me up is that I am working alongside real actual evens and people and that is very restricting.

    I love having an idea of my plot twists but letting my characters surprise me.
    If I wasn't following an actual event for my story, I'd be running head long to 50k words by now... oh well.

  16. Niki, I read this at 3am and really thought I left a comment. That's what I get for thinking I can function at that time of day.

    I have tried to morph myself into something I'm not, both in my writing and in life - to be what I thought I should be to pkease others. It doesn't work. To get the best results we have to be who God made us to be. I'm much happier and more at peace this way.

  17. Deanna, I like that! I'd rather be a chameleon, I think!

  18. Deb,
    I think you'll be surprised at the end of the month! One of the quotes on my NaNoWriMo desktop calendar says "Don't get it right - get it WRITTEN!" (Lee Child)
    You can do it!

  19. Suzie! Love your comment. It's the perfect close to today's post, so it's probably a good thing it didn't pop up at 3 AM!
    I agree, we MUST embrace our individuality!


Share This Post

How Our Giveaways Work: The Official Rules

We, the ladies of Inkwell Inspirations, would love to give free stuff to everybody. Since we can't, we will often have a giveaway in conjunction with a specific post. Unless otherwise stated, one winner will be drawn from comments left on that post between the date it was published and the end of the giveaway as determined in the post. Entries must be accompanied by a valid email address. This address is used only to contact the commenter in the event that he/she is the winner, and will not be sold, distributed, or used in any other fashion. The odds of winning depend on the number of entrants. NO PURCHASE, PLEDGE, OR DONATION NECESSARY TO ENTER OR TO WIN. ALL FEDERAL, STATE, LOCAL AND MUNICIPAL LAWS AND REGULATIONS APPLY. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED.