Not everyone knows this, but Chinese and European chefs actually take a radically different approach to cooking.
In the European style (which we naturally follow in North America), the focus is on short preparation times and long cooking times. This likely came from the nature of European vegetables (lots of tough starches) and the style of pots and ovens they used to cook with. In any case, the key to European style cooking is all about the cooking process itself, and not so much about the preparation that goes with it.
Chinese style is the complete opposite. A typical Chinese dish is almost completely prepared before the Wok is even fired up. They were usually just working with one fire and one cooking surface, so anything fancy had to be done during the preparation stage, because they only had one shot at it.
So, what does any of this have to do with writing?
Well, generally there are considered to be two polar opposites when it comes to approaching writing. One side, referred to as Pantsers (as in “Fly by the seat of your pants!”) are people who come up with an idea and just start writing the story, developing it as they go. The focus for Pantsers is exploratory writing, as they’re basically telling themselves the story when they write their rough draft.
Being a Pantser is a lot like being a European chef, as the focus isn’t so much on the prep as the actual cooking itself. Of course, there’s the opposite pole as well- Plotters, who are like Chinese chefs. For them, it’s all about the preparation, and at an extreme you get writers who write 60-100 page (or more) outlines before ever typing a single word of dialogue. (That’s like writing a book to write a book!)
Of course, most authors fall somewhere in between these two extremes, using some hybrid method of Pantsing and Plotting- whether it be loose outlines, or a plotter who never looks at the plan while writing. There is no right way to write, and you have to go with whatever works for you.
That said, there are more efficient ways to write if your goal is churn out your rough drafts as fast as you possibly can. And, the truth is, they pretty much all involve using the “Chinese” approach of plotting the hell out of your book first, so that the actual writing of the book turns into an exercise in detail and letting your creativity flow instead of worrying about what goes where. Essentially, you do the creative heavy lifting first, so that the the writing itself turns into a long jog in the park instead of running a marathon through the Alps.
On a recent episode of the Rocking Self Publishing Podcast (an episode every author should listen to no matter what their writing style), writer Matt Ahlschlager outlined how he managed to finish Nanowrimo’s 50,000 words/month goal in a single day!
How did he accomplish this goal?
I’ll spoil it for you and tell you the answer was:
- The software Write or Die
- Planning. Planning. Planning.
He always knew where he was going, so he never had to stop and think about it, and could just keep writing. (Which is good, because Write or Die is a merciless little piece of software that will punish you in nasty ways if you stop writing!) Two weeks of planning based on Mary Robinette Kowal’s method of outlining put him in a position to know who all his characters were, what the story was, and where all the scenes went. After that, writing became the easy part! No wonder he could crank out 50,001 words of a novel in a single twenty-four hour period, have time for social media updates, and still finish with a half-hour to spare.
Naturally, there were a few other tricks and techniques involved (you can read a list of most of them if you click on the RSP episode link and also check out the file marked “Fast Drafting Guide”) but it pretty much all came down to planning ahead.
Of course, Matt isn’t claiming to pull off a ready-to-publish novel in those 24 hours (he even turned off spell check), just an extremely rough draft which can later be edited into something that might be worth publishing. He puts a lot of work into the editing and revision when he writes (he plans to publish 8 novels this year, and already makes a living with his writing), but that may be the better way to go for some writers. Editing can be a lot easier than writing it the first time, and even if you have to do a total re-write, it will still be easier than trying to get it perfect the first time for most writers.
As Nora Roberts once put it- “You can’t edit a blank page.”
So, should you give up Pantsing and turn yourself into a Plotter?
Not necessarily. There are a few Pantsers out there who churn out a novel a month, and they seem to do fine without a map. Also, if your goal is quality over quantity, maybe you do want to pick every word with tweezers and take the time to let your muse slowly guide you on a wonderful journey of discovery.
The only problem is that in the Self-Publishing World, Quantity = Money, because the more you write, the more likely you’ll write something that people enjoy reading, and the more you get your name out there and build a loyal readership. You need to write lots, and write often, and anything that can give you an advantage can make a big difference if you plan to make a living as a writer.
Also, I should note that there are degrees of plotting as well. Author Rachel Aaron is famous for being a 10,000 word a day writer, but she only plans a few chapters ahead before she puts her words on the page. And the speed can vary, Matt himself has only done the 50,000 words in a day thing once as a challenge, and has yet to actually publish that particular book. He normally writes at a fast (for most writers) pace, but nothing close to 50,000 words in a day.
So, like anything, it’s about finding what works for you and getting your butt in that chair to write. Even if you’re a Pantser, it might be worth experimenting with new plotting strategies in order to see if they help up your output. After all, the more you write, the better you will naturally get, and the faster too.
Just like most European chefs at least try cooking Asian cuisine to boost their skills at some point, taking a cue from the Chinese way of cooking might boost your writing as well!
It’s an interesting perspective, and ties into me trying to finish my damned comic. One of the weird things that happened during my almost decade long hiatus was that I’d lost my repitoire. “Back in the day” I could crank out pages ‘cos I had a huge mental catalogue of stuff; characters and character designs, hardware, gestures, expressions…. Coming back to it my style had changed, so I had to start all over building up a new stock catalogue. On top of that, I had more real-life experience with a lot of the things that crop up in the comic, and some of the older designs and ideas seemed really wrong because of that.
….but that all goes to the “planning” part of your article. Your mental catalogue of stuff can be referenced as part of the planning process; blurring the line between prep and winging it.
Yep. Sounds right. The more stuff you have in your “mental catalogue” the easier it will be, and the better your work will be. It likely also allows you to reduce the amount of detail in your prep and get the same result, but that takes time and practice.
I’m editing a book now where I Pantsed the first half, and Plotted the second half before churning it out as fast as I could to get it done. The weird thing is that I’d say the Plotted half is actually the better written half. The first half has more artistry to it (the style is a bit more poetic) but the second half has far fewer grammar mistakes and is much more solid in terms of craft on almost every level. I think I’m slowly learning that I’m more of a Plotter than a Pantser, despite trying to be Pantser all these years.
Live and learn.