Saturday, December 29, 2012

Pantsing, Plotting, and the Grocery List

I hate the "grocery list." I do. I hate it. You want to know why? Fine, I'll tell you why. Because I didn't used to need one, and I hate the fact that I need one now. Seriously, ten years ago, I could walk  into the grocery store with no list despite needing 30 different things, and I'd walk out with every single thing on my not-list. I never got home and had to deal with "CRAP! I forgot the <one thing I went to get in the first place>!" These days, if I go to the store needing three things, I might come home with two of them. Yes, I said "might."

It's all very distressing. Mostly, it's distressing for my ego. I've been in list training now for probably five years or so. 'Cause, see, I hate the idea of needing the list, so I try to brush off the need, "No, I don't need no steenking list!" But, yet, coming home with only 2/3 of what you went in to get just doesn't work very well, and it causes repeated trips to the store to get the things I forgot, and I hate that even more. Especially if it's something I need right then, which does happen.

Granted, one of the reasons I forget things is my kids, specifically, my daughter. She likes to go to the store with me, and we never make it even 10' into the store before she's asking for things, and, pretty soon, the flood of items she's inserting into my mental landscape has completely blotted out the actual mental list that was there. Which is why I need a paper list. Besides, she likes the paper list. She gets to hold it, and she likes to go get things while I'm, say, picking through the apples trying to find ones that aren't bruised.

Which brings me to pantsing. We were at the store the other day without a list, my wife, my daughter, and I. Theoretically, since my wife was with me, we should have had a list, especially since she's the one that makes lists in our house and is in charge of my list training. Seriously, she loves lists. But we didn't have a list, and there was a reason for that that I just can't remember right now. See, I should have written it down (except I didn't know I'd want that particular piece of information again). Anyway, we were walking through the store tossing back and forth the things we needed to get and going back and forth in store as we remembered things that we'd already passed and all of that, and it occurred to me how like pantsing it is to go to the store without a list. [For any of you non-writers that may be reading this, "pantsing" is not what you might be thinking and has nothing to do with high school hazing. Pantsing is short for "by the seat of your pants" or, in other words, not having a plan. Writing without a plan (plot), specifically. To look at from an Indiana Jones perspective: "I don't know. I'm making it up as I go."]

Without the list, the following things happen:
1. I spend a lot of time walking back-and-forth through the store trying to get things as I remember them rather than starting at one side of the store and ending at the other. In other words, it takes a lot longer because it wastes a lot of time. [To put this in writing terms, it's like having to do a lot of revising as you go back and put things in that you forgot. Like forgetting to have one character tell some other character some vital piece of information that he wouldn't know otherwise.]
2. I still forget things. This is especially true of items I only need every few weeks. Like laundry detergent. I hate when laundry detergent is one of the things I need on a given trip, because, if that's not written down, I will forget it. That means an immediate trip back to the store or putting off the laundry, and, let me just say, you can only put off doing the laundry so many times. Not having laundry detergent is not an excuse when  other people can smell you. [In writing terms, this are major revisions. Having to go back into the draft over and over to fix the holes you left.]
3. I buy things I don't really need to be buying (this is especially problematic when my daughter is with me). If I have a list, I go directly to the things I need, finishing my trip quickly and efficiently. When I don't, I wander through the store and pick up extra things "just in case." "Oooh! Cheese ball! Things I wouldn't see if I wasn't wandering around trying to remember what I was supposed to be getting. [This is like writing things in that don't really serve your story just because you like them. Sometimes, these things can be entertaining side bits (like "Oooh! Cheese ball!"), but, often, these are just things that bloat the story (like those Oreos you know you should have just walked on past and are now sitting in the cupboard causing all sorts of guilt) and would be better left out. Yes, I'm calling your story fat.]
4. I let my daughter talk me into buying things that no one else in the family wants to eat and, really, we don't want her to eat. Like the jar of nutella sitting in the cupboard that no else likes, and we won't let her eat any of it more than once a month or so because it has so much sugar in it (actually, that wasn't a whim purchase, but it serves to illustrate the point, because that stuff is in our cupboard only because of my daughter). [This is like applying every piece of advice you hear to your manuscript, whether it's coming from CPs or agents or whomever. I don't have definitive data for this, but it seems to me that pantsers have a much more difficult time with not responding to every suggestion about their manuscripts that come along. (Plotters tend to be more focused and more easily discard bad advice.)]

I'm sure you've figured out that the list is a metaphor for plotting. Just to be clear.

Having said all of that, I'm not saying that being a pantser is a bad thing. It's just a bad thing for me. If I don't have a plan, if I don't, at least, have notes, I don't remember it. So I make story notes. Right now, I have notes for about half a dozen different stories or books for the future that I add to when I have ideas. It's just... necessary for me. If I'd started all of this before I had kids to distract me, maybe it wouldn't matter, but it does, so I have to plan out what I'm doing just so that I remember what I'm doing.

Which is not to say that I'm extreme or anything. I don't storyboard everything or anything like that. Heck, I don't even make actual outlines (which is ironic, because I was trying to teach my daughter the importance of outlining, recently, because she was working on an essay for school, and she kept mixing up her main points with her evidence). But I do need a list. There are probably a lot of you out there that don't need lists, yet, but there's one thing I can tell you for sure: even if you don't need it, it never hurts to have one. Just in case.


  1. Perfect comparison!

    I thought I could pants my way through my novel until I got to the halfway point then felt like I was drowning. A quick list gave me the information I needed to get the rest of the job done. It was an instant clearing of my muddied mind, instant focus. I think next time I'm going to make a list from the get-go, see what happens. At the very least I won't have to go back to the deli aisle for that cheese ball.

  2. Damned good comparison!
    I do writer out a detailed outline, but I don't use color coded tabs or index cards or any of that extra stuff. But I have to know my basic route and destination. If pantsing is like your analogy, I'd never find the cash register.
    And I got you beat - I can go shopping with a list and still forget one or two items on the list. I can't even blame kids for that.

  3. See, I'm a total pantser and I never take a list to the store unless I'm planning a special meal. Sort of the same with my writing. If I've got an important scene ahead of me that requires a good long think, then I'll plot it out first to see if it works.

  4. Nice posting and a very good comparison. I am definitely a lister and actually have several. Life is just so much simple with lists. Wishing you a happy and a safe New Year!

  5. My hubs is in list training, too. I think our daughters have the habit. I'm a planner from a to z, and an ardent list-maker.

    That's how I do the novels too. I would go nuts pantsing - I like to think I'm in charge of the novel, not at its beck and call. . .

    I keep 'running lists' on the fridge door for groceries, and planning lists on my desk for the writing.

    Really enjoyed this post,and could identify with much of it.

  6. I've always used a list because I forget things too easily. It's like this kids book I somehow remember was on "Romper Room" when I was a kid and this elephant needs to go to the grocery store so he keeps repeating what he needs over and over but of course by the time he gets to the store he's forgotten everything.

  7. A first draft of a pantser is an outline. If it's 200,000 words long then it's probably going to need a complete rewrite to be strong story. Which is also why I've got 6 novels sitting in a (digital) shoebox. I just have really long outlines, not workable novels.

    I learned a couple of years ago that anything longer than a short story requires an outline, at least for me.

  8. Cathy: Yeah! You want to make sure you get that cheese ball the first time!

    Alex: I'm okay with the list in hand; everything -on- the list will at least be checked for. None of that is to say that everything makes it onto the list to begin with, though.

    Luanne: But do you ever get home and think "d'oh! I forgot the milk"?

    G_G: You have a happy New Year, too!

    D.G.: I can't pants when I'm writing. I just sit and stare at the screen unless I know where I'm going.

    PT: I've tried that. It works okay right up until someone speaks to me, then it's all gone.

    Rusty: See, I hate rewrites. If I need a list or an outline or whatever to avoid them, I'll use it.

  9. I use a list and I still forget stuff. I try to stubbornly pretend I didn't really need it anyway. But today I forgot kitty litter and I guess I have to go back. Sigh.

  10. I use a list and I still forget stuff. I try to stubbornly pretend I didn't really need it anyway. But today I forgot kitty litter and I guess I have to go back. Sigh.

  11. Not a writer, but I am a shopping list creator. We would never get anything without one.

  12. I'm not a pantser in the writing world or the grocery store world. I love grocery lists~ I get a kind of pathetic satisfaction from checking the items off my list. I usually end up with more than I need (justifying extra items with "it's on sale and we'll need toilet paper by next Thursday" or "Chris goes golfing, so I shouldn't feel guilty about getting two kinds of cereal specifically for me" and similar excuses).

  13. Charmaine: That's almost as bad as forgetting the toilet paper! But I've never done that. Nope, not me.

    Jo: Maybe you should come make lists for me!

    Jess: Hey, I can totally understand things being on sale.

  14. It's so funny you wrote about this! I just finished up my entry for ISWG and talked about how organized I am in everything but writing. I totally fly by the seat of my pants because I find the journey fascinating!

    Great post. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to work on my shopping list and organize my coupons.

  15. Jo: Okay!

    Elsie: Coupons! You even do coupons! >envy<

  16. I can relate to this. I used to be a very organized shopper with list and coupons. Now I don't often do the coupons and skip the list. My memory usually works okay, but my intent of getting $20 worth usually becomes $80 worth as I walk up and down every aisle and see more things we could "use" or "might be nice".

    And that's the way I write. Hey, that's my whole life anymore. To hell with organization when you can be random, scattered, and completely out of control.

    Tossing It Out

  17. Andrew -- you need this:

    Ultimatest Grocery List.

    My sister sent me this years ago, and it is absolutely comprehensive. I love it.

  18. Lee: Oh, well, I've never really been able to do that. People like to joke that I was born an "old man," because I've never acted like a real teenager or anything. Even when I was one.

    Callie: That's pretty cool. I'll have to think about using it. heh