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The two types of writers

· Writing,Advice

Writers tend to fall into two camps: those that romanticize the process, and those that hate it. Well, I suspect that the ones who hate it are the most romantic of all of us; after all, what's more capital R-romantic than tying suffering to art? But like many dichotomies in this business, I suspect we don't disagree with each other so much as we misunderstand each other.

Take the plotters and the pantsers, for example. Wherever you fall on the continuum between meticulous outline that you actually follow, sketchy outline you abandon halfway through, and starting at chapter one, page one, and writing until you find the story, we're all trying to solve the same fundamental, irritating problem: that we can't know what our story is until we've told it. All we can do is start making our best guesses at how things should unfold and play them out until we find out if they worked or not. Then we re-write.

Now, since I started my professional work in collaborative work-for-hire environments, I definitely lean more toward the plotter end of things. You can't be a complete pantser when the art department is going to invest thousands of dollars into creating the setpieces for the level that the design team is blocking out based on your story outline. It did not come naturally at first, but it was something I learned to do. Which is another thing: I think process is malleable. I think we can learn new processes, and adapt our processes to different projects. We shouldn't try to force ourselves into processes that don't work, but we shouldn't be afraid to give new techniques a test run.
In any case, here's the deep, dark secret of most plotters: we also don't know how the story really ends until we've written it. The outline is a plan, but plans go wrong all the time. So most of us are pantsing right along with you. What the outline does for me is to keep the work structured and on focus; if my pantsing leads me into an entirely different story, I can recognize it early--and either step back and refocus what I'm writing, or change the story.
Or here's another famous writing dichotomy: character vs. plot. Like plotting and pantsing, the differences are real, but the goals are much the same. Some genres simply require intricate plotting to hang together (murder mysteries spring to mind), or rely on more overt external stakes, but a truly successful story brings these elements together. The plot emerges from the characters' flaws, failures, and needs and intensifies them. The character drama makes the stakes of the plot personal. The actions the characters take to resolve the plot reflect on where they are on their journey toward or away from growth. The themes emerge from how these elements intermingle and resonate with each other at the conclusion.
Some more Romantic writers talk about letting the characters dictate the story. I think I know the experience they're describing: when a character becomes so fully realized to you, it feels less like you're creating them than channeling them. It does not happen to me with every character I write, but it has happened a few times. It never happens from page one, though. I could never sit down to write a story with a character in mind and let them dictate what happens. It would be awful, because any first idea I have for a character is necessarily too shallow: just a concept, a single sentence, and no one is a single sentence. 
But neither can I do it the other way around. They feed each other, the story and the characters. If two characters must fall in love, because the story dictates it, then they will fall in love. But the how and why must be particular to them. The fact that I know they must fall in love is what helps me realize them; it pushes me to find, not the general story of two people falling in love, but the specific story of these two people. Does it start with a spark? Or does it start more slowly, with distrust that eventually turns into deep trust, friendship, and eventually, attraction? How do each of them react to the possibility that they might be falling in love? And so on.

This isn't to say I start knowing nothing of my characters to begin with, but that knowing the general arc of the story helps me do the work of deciding between the myriad options that present themselves whenever I'm creating a new character. It's intimidating! Babies are born with their own little personalities, but your characters could be anybody. So you guess, you feel your way toward the story you think you want to tell, and your characters slowly take on their histories, personalities, mannerisms, and all the little details that make them convincing.

For me, writing is not suffering, but it is work. When a story is failing, or a scene just isn't working out, or I can't quite grasp who a character is, it's not time to panic. It's time to take a deep breath and recognize that I'm still on the way.

So, if you feel like you're stuck--especially if you feel like you're stuck with being a certain kind of writer, all I can do is encourage you: it's okay, it's hard for all of us, but there aren't just two types of writers in the world. The way through your problem could come from anywhere, even from a writer whose process is the entirely opposite of your own.

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