While listening to the podcast “The Shit No One Tells You About Writing,” I heard something interesting about plotter versus pantser. The guest on one episode, Genevieve Gornichec (author of “The Witches Heart”), is neither and gave an excellent explanation of what I often find myself doing.
If you’re a writer, you’ve heard of plotter versus pantser. Basically, do you plot out your story and get some bare bones of how things will pan out, or do you just start writing and let it happen organically? I have never fit into either category, as I’m guessing many of us don’t. I get an idea; I pants it out, meaning I “write by the seat of my pants,” not really with any method. But then, once I get a sense of what I like about the large group of words in front of me, I plot out a bit. So I’m not really a true plotter, yet I turn to plotting at some point for at least a while. What I do is navigate.
After I pants a bit to get words down, I start to follow my character’s journey and create their timeline, so to speak. Or, as Genevieve Gornichec better explained, “a narrative outline” or “emotional beats.” I really liked how she described this, and I recommend listening to that episode. It’s just the words or thoughts of my characters and how they move through each moment. I call this navigating because it’s somewhere between trailblazing and charting out a specific course.
When I hike, I often hike like this. I have a map but cannot determine which path I’d prefer to take, so I get a general sense of timing and direction and start off. I have no idea which trails I’ll take, and yes, sometimes I have gone trailblazing, but I always have tools to navigate my way. I make decisions based on the safety of the trail, my mood, how pretty a path looks, where my dog prefers to sniff, and several other factors, including what I have time for and what I can physically do on any particular hike/climb. I’m not going in blind with no idea of where I’m going, but I also do not plot out a course.
In writing, I pick my character or event, and rather than plan out who exactly they are and what will happen, I simply start writing. I don’t worry about where I’m going; I just need words down. Like hiking, while it’s good to have a general idea of where you’re going, you’ll miss the views if you’re only concerned about the next trail marker. I’ve hiked with people who are always searching for the next marker and, they aren’t really enjoying the hike. You have to stay in the moment. If you get lost, don’t worry, you have your navigational tools to help you turn around or find your way back to the path you want. So how do you keep your eyes off the trail when writing? You close your eyes.
That’s right, I often close my eyes or stare at my dog when writing. Or the art on my wall or out the window, anywhere but my computer screen. Perhaps it goes back to when I learned to type. Yes, I’m that old that I once had a typewriting class in 8th grade with actual typewriters, not computers. We were not allowed to look at our keyboards or our typing. We had to keep our eyes on the document placed beside us that we were copying. It helped you focus and remember the keystrokes better. I will often do this just to let my characters speak without interruptions. Let events take place without worrying if they fit in. It feels very productive when I can simply write and not worry about typos, grammar, or format. But yes, then I have a thick forest of words in front of me that may make no sense at all.
Time to navigate.
At this point, I have some pretty strong characters. I have some emotional beats to align and work around, and these are my navigational tools. I may now set a course to guide my travels with those in hand. I don’t worry about needing to backtrack when on a hike, and I don’t get upset if I must follow trail markers to get back on course. When hiking, indeed, I often select a more specific path on my journey back. I’m tired, my dog is tired, and my daylight is running out. And that’s exactly how I write: just get out there and enjoy, then navigate my way back with more precision.
I’m not a true plotter or pantser; I’m a navigator. I jump right in the thick of it, get a blind flow going, then navigate my way home. Some people call it a planter, but I’m a writer, I’m allowed to make shit up, so navigator it is. In charge of steering and deciding routes doesn’t mean I have to be clear on my directions until I’m ready.
My advice (if I had to give some) is this: don’t let how you write get in the way of actually writing.
Happy Travels, my friends.