Last month I went on a road trip with one of my favorite people in the world, who also happens to be the inspiration behind my Brody character. He had just finished a writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I signed on to drive with him from Vermont back to Austin, TX.
There were so many options on how to get back! From Vermont, we knew we’d drop down and visit Salem, because we both like spooky stuff and our husbands don’t. But then what? Should we still try to hit the Finger Lakes? Should we cross through Pennsylvania and see Amish Country and Gettysburg? Or should we head south and check out Virginia?
It occurred to me at some point that it was like planning a novel. In fact, the whole road trip became a metaphor for the age-old debate of plotting versus pantsing (which, if you’re not familiar with, is the opposite of plotting; it’s coming up with your story by the seat of your pants).
Hard-core plotters will often argue that pantsers don’t have a plan. They’re just slapping words down willy nilly and hoping it works out, which can lead to an unsatisfying conclusion.
Pantsers argue that plotters suck all the life out of a manuscript by over-planning. Where’s the joy? Where’s the spontaneity? “If it doesn’t surprise me,” they’ll say, “how will it surprise my readers?”
I’ve always considered myself somewhere in between — a plantser, if you will. It turns out, that’s also how I like to travel.
If we’d just started out with a roadmap and gone wherever we pleased, we’d probably be pretty far off track, trying to figure out how to get to Austin. (Score one for plotting!)
On the other hand, if we’d planned out every stop along the way, every meal, every hotel, we wouldn’t have had time for detours. Like the buggy ride we took in Lancaster, PA, that dropped us off at a Mennonite bakery. That wasn’t on the schedule, and it’s one of my favorite memories of our trip. (Score one for pantsing!)
We knew we were starting from Vermont. We knew we were driving to Austin. We knew we wanted to stop in Salem and that we were spending the night with friends in Nashville. The rest was whatever we wanted it to be.
We didn’t micromanage our trip so that there was no room for discovery. (If we had, I wouldn’t have ended up with this cool shot of what I’m pretty sure was a ghost on a late-night adventure at a haunted bridge in Gettysburg.)
That’s how it is when I start a story, too. I like to know where it starts. I like to know where it ends. I like knowing a couple of stops along the way so I can make sure I’m basically headed in the right direction.
But figuring out how to get there — that’s the fun part.
Readers, what about you? Opinions on plotting vs. pantsing, road trips and Civil War ghosts are welcome!