A friend asked me to tell her how to write a book.
“Um…you just type words,” I told her. “With, you know… a computer. There are some books on writing and stuff. I’ve never read any of them, but I hear they’re great.” Thank you, Queen of Lame.
I thought about the way I write books. In fact, one of the first questions writers get asked in interviews is whether they are plotters or pantsers.*
*NOTE: plotters do what’s on the tin and plan out the story with outlines and notecards and post-its and other organizational-type stuff that gladdens the hearts of office supply companies. There may even be dry-erase markers. Pantsers, of course, fly by the seat of their pants.**
**[NOTE about above Note: Okay, all my British readers, just go ahead and get that snicker out of the way right now. Feel better? We’re talking about leg-covering AMERICAN pants, not your bum-covering knickers.]
What kind of writer would you be? Take our quiz and find out!
PLOTTER OR PANTSER QUIZ:
When you get up in the morning, do you:
- Turn the alarm to snooze so you have ten minutes to review the day’s to-do list and check the news, before rounding up your current book’s characters from where they are all lined up next to the bed in order of appearance, ready and waiting for you?
- Wonder (again) why you’re not waking up in your bed, why you’re not sure what time (or day) it is, where the hell your current book’s characters have disappeared to (again), and just who that spectacularly interesting new character curled up next to you will turn out to be?
- Make the bed, exercise, and eat a healthy breakfast from ingredients you regularly have in your fridge, then brush your teeth and floss?
- If you chose Number 1, you’re a Plotter, efficiently reaping the rewards of all your hard upfront research, planning, and scheduling.
- If you chose Number 2,you’re a Pantser, waking up to see what new story your characters will tell you today, which you will then dutifully transcribe, and undoubtedly cut it when you edit.
- If you want to choose Number 1 but sometimes you’re Number 2 and even a teensy of Number 3, you either need to fine-tune your pharmaceuticals or join the other 90% of the writers out there. Write down a few cryptic notes about what your characters are getting up to, pull the blankets over your head, and go back to sleep.
- (If you chose Number 3, I’m very sorry. You’ll never be a writer. But at least you’ll have your health and a quiet bedroom.)
Personally, I’m a plotter wannabe. Before I start any new project, I draw up character sheets, take my characters on practice outings, and make an outline. Then I start writing and all of that just floats off into the ether, never to surface again. Yup. I’m a total pantser, pouring out my literary diarrhea in the pursuit of the First Draft. When it comes to revising, the only way I can cut out these superfluous passages (the bane of pantsers) is to very soothingly assure the deleted bits that I’m going to put them in a wonderful, safe little file (called Dead Kittens) so I can use them in my next book, but I still love them very, very much. Then I kill the little darlings and never look back.
There are great writers on each side of the divide.
Plotter: Chuck Wendig, Terribleminds—
Creativity is raw and flickering like fire — you want to make use of it, you have to bring often ugly, unpleasant metals to it and forge that shit into the shape you desire. It’s hard, sweaty, sometimes grumpy work. Nobody wants writing to be about discipline. We all would love it if it were the equivalent of catching fireflies in a moonlight meadow. We wish it were fun and goofy, like icing cupcakes in zero gravity.
But it’s not. It’s tough work. Satisfying work, yes. But tough just the same.
Pantser: Ray Bradbury—
When you plot books you take all the energy and vitality out. There’s no blood. You have to live it from day to day and let your characters do things.
Writer or Serial Killer?
But recently, I’ve been considering a slightly different approach. I realized that the greatest mass murderers, villains, and world-class meanies aren’t those in the history books. They’re the ones writing fiction. As writers, we do horrible, disgusting, life-ruining, gut wrenching, often bloody things every day. It’s our job. Because “Once upon a time a boy met a girl and they got married and lived a long lovely life and then died. The End.” might work for Hallmark but isn’t going to get a lot of stars on Amazon.
So here’s my new definition of writers. Forget pantser or plotter. The real question is: sociopath or psychopath?
Sociopaths vs. Psychopaths
Let’s start with the traits a sociopath and psychopath share—at least according to Psychology Today)—AND which all writers automatically embody as they
torture their characters develop their plot:
- A disregard for laws and social mores
- A disregard for the rights of others
- A failure to feel remorse or guilt
- A tendency to display violent behavior
Where does a sociopath’s behavior separate from the psychopath? Well, writers, I don’t want to make you nervous, but the differences can be summed up as PLOTTERS vs PANTSERS.
- Psychopaths can be charming and witty, they can mimic social and emotional ties they are actually incapable of feeling, but most of all, they are careful, meticulous planners. Of course, what they are planning often involves self-gratification via unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty.
- They don’t have a moral compass, but they know how to project one. This lack of the ability to separate right from wrong makes them fearless.
- Unless it’s a police procedural where the detective meticulously tracks down his clever opponent, psychopaths generally make boring villains. (Interesting anti-heroes though!) But they sure do make great writers of police procedurals, damaged detective noir, and cookbooks. They also tend to be successful after-dinner speakers and reality TV contestants.
- Sociopaths are far from fearless. Instead, they are more likely to react nervously to events, making them volatile and prone to fits of rage.
- Above all they are masters of the Machievelian: cunning and deceitful, hiding behind outward masks of trustworthy sincerity. They’ll use seduction, charm, or flattery to achieve their ends. It’s not that they lack a moral compass, it’s just that they are manipulative, pathological liars. They can perceive the difference between right and wrong, but they are incapable of judging the morality of a situation in any terms other than their own gratification.
- Although forming attachments is difficult for them, they can become attached to an individual or group, while still having no regard for society or its rules. But to any outside their small chosen group, they are persistently angry or hostile, exhibiting mean or cruel behavior even in response to minor slights. They make complicated villains, interesting heroines, and successful academics. They also can be excellent writers of horror stories, romantic comedies, science fiction/fantasy epics, and alcoholic beverage commercials.
So what should I tell my friend about how to write that book? Well, I’m not sure she’s ready to tell me about who wakes up with her each morning. And I really don’t know if she considers herself to be either a
psychopath plotter or sociopath pantser.
How about you writers out there? Psychopath or Sociopath?
Who do you wake up with each morning, and how do they help you fill in the words between Once upon a time and The End?