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  • Writer's pictureToby

Reluctantly Crafty

If you've followed this blog you may have noticed I've stayed pretty far south of conversations about craft. But with the Louisiana Book Festival coming up in just under 3 weeks, and with my participation in this amazing panel with amazing authors (, I figure it's time to be honest about my writing in new ways. The honest truth behind not talking about craft is I feel like an imposter (which dovetails this blog with my previous blog on imposter phenomenon). In my writing I focus on connections, whether it be characters, or storylines, or with the readers themselves. I, of course, always think about the form my words take. But I am reluctant to talk about craft. I do not have a MFA. My learning of writing has been piecewise and informal. With my rudimentary tools I hope to create something which you can see me in, but even better if I can create something you see yourself in. So with connecting in mind, I'll share my thoughts on pantsing and plotting.

The above image is the hand drawn spreadsheet/graph laying out The Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling. It is my understanding the layouts became increasingly complex. Clearly, Rowling had many characters and plotlines to manage. Excel must have gotten involved at some point. But this is a clear example of very deliberate plotting. A writer who is a plotter knows exactly where the book is going before they type the first word. Another (unwritten) example would be David Joy. I've heard Gabino Iglesias tell a story of how Joy sits on his porch and works the whole book out in his head before setting its words on paper. At that point it only takes him a few months to write it all out. Even in my greatest and wildest plotting imagination I don't think I would have this ability.

Then there are your pants-ers. I think Cormac McCarthy may have been one of the greatest. Hear me out. He was a deep believer of the unconscious and its power. In an article The Atlantic published regarding McCarthy's relationship with the unconscious they asked on his behalf, "Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium?" McCarthy let his deepest desires, and his worst fears, guide his characters in speech and deed. And similar to David Joy, he created something I dream of doing (there is an unconscious dad-joke pun there).

Then there is me, and maybe you. I am somewhere in the middle. Early in my career I was a complete pantser. I used pre-existing plots to give me structure and let my unconscious run wild. What a wonderful mess I ended up with. While there were some nuggets to polish, most where errant threads. When pulled, those threads either unraveled the story, or were connected to nothing. Over the years of reading and writing I continued to refine this, learning that plotting is essential for me. I need to know what will happen to the character to know who the characer is, to know how what they need. But you should know I usually don't completely know my characters when I sit down to write them. Their faces aren't formed in my mind yet. Their personalities are loose and mismatched, like they are wearing clothes that different Nannas bought them. They form up as the plot unfolds. I will often go back to the beginning of the story once I am done to make them match the end. That way, I still get to be surprised as I write them. If you are reading moments in my writing when you feel like you finally "get" a character, there is a good chance I just "got" them in that moment, too. I guess I'm always a reader first.

Maybe the most interesting thing I have discovered is I vary on how much I lean on plotting or my unconscious depending on the project. My most recent novel Debris (on submission) was plotted much more intricately than the others. It had to follow the timeline of hurricane Katrina and how the events may have shaped the characters and their relationship. However, my current novella Seeds, doesn't have a fully formed protagonist and I'm learning more about her, and the plot, the more I sit in front of the blank page.

So what are you? A pantser? A plotter? Or somewhere on the spectrum in between like me? Let me know in the comments!

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