Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fly by night, or Plot ya Stops! (waw)

I'm sure you all know what fly by night means. Something that just pops up over night. Plot ya stops, which I just invented, is quite the opposite. It involves thoroughly planning each step before it's taken.

This is one of the biggest debates I've seen among writers. In fact, I can't think of a single argument which can divide a room of authors so fast.

Fly by nighters, also know as seat of the pantsers, have an idea and sit down to write. Sometimes, it's no more than a character, sometimes it's as vague as a single phrase. "Try to steal the crown jewels." And they sit down, start clacking away, and in a month or two, they've clacked out a novel.

Plot ya stoppers, also known as outliners, start with a network of lists. They make a list of characters, their motivations, their conflicts, the settings, the major plot points, the minor plot points, etc.

Some people intrinsically know which method is better for them, but just in case you don't here are a few of the pro's and con's of each.

Fly by night
Story is always fresh
First draft is usually turned out very quickly
Can feel like you live in the story, because it unfolds in front of you in real time

Editing can be tedious because of greater likelihood of plot holes and inconsistencies

Plot ya stops
Easy to keep characters' names, motivations, etc straight
Easier editing, because of fewer plot issues
Keeps writers from meandering away from their focus

For more "creative" types, it can feel very scientific, since the story is preplanned
Pre-plotting can restrict the story, as it will limit the authors ability to adapt the story as new paths reveal themselves.

I should mention that I wrote my first novel fly by night. I had the characters, and the outcome in my mind for a month beforehand, but I didn't write down a single word. I found that my characters changed a lot as the story progressed, and I liked the characters I ended up with better than those I started with. The climax of the story also changed. It came out of nowhere and blindsided me. I prefer the new ending, story wise. It feels more realistic, even though the Disney Princess part of me would have liked it to wrap up on a happier note.

My second novel I outlined. I made this decision specifically because my second novel was a fantasy. In a fantasy, you often have to create an entire world. So I would need to be keeping track not only of characters, but of properties of trees, magical powers and ancient languages. I found it helped a lot to just be able to glance over at my spreadsheet. I instantly knew if a character was doing something that was "outside his character" as well, since I'd defined their motivations and conflicts ahead of time.

I don't believe anyone writes completely fly by night or completely plot ya stops.

When I was in the Coast Guard we did a band trip to Montreal. We had the evening off and me and my friend TK decided to explore. We knew nothing about Montreal. We found the train station and a station map. We found the stations where several lines intersected and decided if more than one line was stopping there, there must be some sort of something happening.

Looking at the map was literally plotting our stops, but going there with no clue about what we were going to find was fly by night. In case you wondered, we ended up in the red light district! :)

Even though I wrote my first book without an outline, I did know who the main characters were, and what they were like. I had a general idea of what the result would be as well. For the second one, I did preplan most of the characters, the cities, the plants, the magical powers, but I had a lot less in the way of plot than I did for my first novel. When I started my only plot was: these characters will meet up (the good guys), they'll face these characters (the bad guys) and good will triumph over evil. Awful starting point, but it all fell into place.

If you're trying to decide how to write, look at the other things in your life. If you like things more orderly and planned, try a mostly plot ya stops approach. If you prefer to just get up and go, try the fly by night route.

Even though writers could argue forever which is "better", they all agree, they write best under the method they choose. It's a personal choice.

Which way do you fly?

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