Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Plotting vs. That Other Thing

When I think about the great bullshit debates of our time (chicken v. egg, tastes great v. less filling, Nedna v. no Nedna) one stands head, shoulders, and crotch above the rest, at least in our little community.  Before I get started on this, let me take a moment to thank Steven Chapman for this blog post and advise you to avoid my abrasive writing style and just read his post, because he comes to pretty much the same conclusions, only in a much nicer way.


Plotting v...



Yeah.  That's an actual (sort of) writerly term.  There are people in this world who willfully and deliberately describe themselves as "pantsers."  Where I come from, "pantsing" meant someone was going to rip off your trousers in order to embarrass you in front of a group of peers.  I still find it hard to avoid that connotation, and I am in fact quite embarrassed just to write the word down, as should all writers, in my humble opinion.  But it's the word we have, like blogosphere, and like blogosphere there are just times when we'll have to gnash our teeth, wail, and bear it.

So the argument goes something like this.  There are only two kinds of people in this world: those with loaded pistols and those who dig.  No, I'm just kidding.  There are only two kinds of people in this world: plotters and "pantsers."  Plotters sit down and with the work ethic of an ancient monastic order dutifully outlines his or her story, book, chapter, and verse, with presumably lengthy illuminated manuscripts detailing character backstories and descriptions of the setting, much of which will never get used and is simply there for "flavor."  So-called "pantsers" eschew that whole thing, and simply sit down and begin randomly stringing words and (quite possibly) letters together until, like a room full of monkeys on typewriters, a story marvellously and almost counter-intuitively comes into being.

(I'm not exaggerating here, by the way.)



It's stupid.  Like, really fucking stupid.  Like, on the order of, "Shut up you fucking pretentious pseudo-intellectual, why won't you just die" kind of stupid. 

Whenever I hear people talking about this subject (which is thankfully rare) or, more often, when I see folk about the interwebs bloggin' on the matter 'n' sich, I have to roll my eyes and groan.  I understand that some people are more spontaneous and some people are less spontaneous in their writing styles, but is this really meaningful to our discourse?  I think Mr. Chapman kind of nails it on the head when he points out that it probably doesn't really affect your writing until you decide to label yourself as a plotter or a "pantser." 

Once you've decided you're a plotter you're going to sit there and insist that you screw every detail into place before you start writing, and guess what, that's fucking frustrating.  It's frustrating because it means you can't follow dialogue wherever its going, you can't let new characters into the mix because it might screw up your oh-so-carefully-constructed plot, and you end up railroading your characters, because they have to do whatever will take them to point B instead of what they might actually do as a fucking human being.  Which eliminates a lot of the verisimilitude that we're striving for as authors of fiction.

And, similarly, once you've decided you're a "other P-word" you've just insisted that you're going to come at every manuscript with a vague idea and not much else.  Really?  You're just going to let all that shit grow organically as it goes?  I mean, I love to read meandering nonsense that goes nowhere, but actually I don't I just said that because it's really hard to sound sarcastic right now because I'm already writing in a pretty jaded style. 

See, here's the thing.  I've done both.  Actually, not really both, because it's a false dichotomy.  I've done it all, I should say.  I've sat down with a title and made something out of it.  I've sat down and plotted and plotted and plotted down to the last shred of meaning short of just writing the fucking novel in one sitting.  The thing is, you've got to let the story come the way the story wants to come.  There's a reason why we still know what a "Muse" is and other dead Greek chicks not so much. 

It's not technically "true" that inspiration is coming to us from some fanciful spirit.  But the brain works in such marvelous, unpredictable ways that an idea is just as likely to come from being hit on the head by an apple in one instant to staring at a fig tree for 49 days.  The muse is a useful metaphor (not like these) and there is a reason why we best understand inspiration as a lady that sometimes whispers in your ear and sometimes doesn't and sometimes has to be appeased. 

Haven't you ever been standing in the shower and suddenly thought of the perfect thing to make your plot click into place?  Or run through a whole conversation between characters as you're driving to work?  (If you're a non-writer, don't worry that you haven't, that's probably a good thing.)  I guess what I'm saying is, inasmuch as labels can occasionally be useful, in this case, they are absolutely in no way useful.  Junk 'em.

(Also I once had a woman who I really have no respect for tell me that she was a "pantser" and then waited patiently for me to ask what that meant.  Since I already knew I just nodded and waited for her to stop talking.  Ever since then I just can't take anybody seriously when they say they're one or the other.  It's SO pretentious.)


  1. A woman I know is trying to be a published author. Whenever we hangout, she tells me that whatever activity we are doing gives her ideas for a story and then she starts writing it. Sometime later, I ask her how the story is going. She tells me it is progressing very well and that she's really happy with it. I then ask her what is the plotline of the story. And she always says "Oh, I haven't gotten to that yet. Something will turn up."

    I really hate it. Whenever I read her work, I just get annoyed. The endings are always terrible because it didn't come out of the sequence of events told in the rest of the story or because it doesn't even have an ending, the story just stops with no real rhyme or reason.

    I definitely agree that stories need to grow organically and there are some writers who can just put words on paper and the results will amuse me, despite it not being a proper story but a real story needs to go somewhere. It doesn't have to go somewhere I expect but if you have no idea where your story is going, then why did you ask for my time to tell me this story.

    In conclusion, I agree with you whole heartedly.


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