Thursday, 14 January 2016

A Conversation with Helena Puumala about Writing Styles, “Pantsing vs Planning”

A Conversation with Helena Puumala, author of the Kati of Terra and Witches’ Stones Series

January 6, 2016 Plato’s Pizza, Edmonton, Alberta

Part Twenty-Three – Writing Styles, “Pantsing vs Planning”

Question – A subject that comes up quite frequently on writing blogs and other venues of the writing community concerns the notion of “pantsing vs planning”.  Before getting into the discussion, let me lay out the terms, for the benefit of our readers.  

The distinction relates to writing style, but not in terms of the elegance (or lack thereof) of the  words and sentences that make up the content.  Rather, it is about how detailed a writer plans ahead as he or she writes.  “Pantsing” comes from the phrase “flying  by the seat of one’s pants” or just diving into a story idea and seeing where it leads, with minimal upfront, formal planning.  “Planning” usually involves careful outlining, often with the help of specific types of software.  The story arc is first laid down, then the general sequence of specific events, then the precise details of these events, and so on.  Note that different writers might use different terms for this stylistic difference, but the general sense will be there.

So, Helena Puumala, where do you stand on the matter of pantsing vs planning?  Do you come up with a story idea and just dive in, or do you carefully plot out a comprehensive outline before getting into the nitty-gritty of a novel?

Answer – I will confess that I am characteristically incapable of making and following a detailed outline.  Of course, I have some idea of where I am going with a novel or short story, but I have very little idea of how I am exactly going to get there.  I guess that puts me in the “pantsing” category. 

Question – As an aside, let me note the similarity between this and data science, which is the activity that occupies most of my 9 to 5 weekday hours.  Some data scientists and/or statisticians believe in having a thorough plan before beginning a project.  Others tend to dive right into the data, rather like a “pantsing” writer.  Later, we tend to fib and say we had a well-designed plan all along or fall back on the term “exploratory analysis”.  I’m one of those people.  We have that in common.

Answer – That’s comforting to know.

Question – It is.

Answer – Anyway, I think that if you insist on having a plan and sticking with it religiously, so to speak, you risk missing out on the serendipitous upwelling of the subconscious, or as I like to say, the subliminal self.

Question – Those terms are kind of synonymous, but they do have a different nuance.  What’s your take on that?

Answer – I think the term subliminal self covers more ground.  It’s a bit more along the humanities side of the fence, whereas subconscious implies a bit more of a social sciences perspective.

Question – And, as an English lit major, that’s where you are more comfortable.

Answer – That’s an ok way of putting it, though it goes deeper than that.  I also see “subliminal self” as having more of a spiritual dimension, while “subconscious mind” has more of a conventional psychological science meaning. 

Question – Interesting.

Answer – I might also point out that the “pantsing” method means that you, as a writer, get to discover the story, in much the same way as the reader.

Question – How so?  Does something out there (or in there) throw a surprise at you?  As a writer, don’t you already know how the story will develop?

Answer – I don’t know about other writers, but I am often surprised by developments.  Plots take turns you didn’t count on, characters reveal traits that you never expected.

Question – I imagine that’s why the ancients spoke of the muses.

Answer – Just so.  Sometimes it does feel a bit like an outside entity is contributing.  And the really beautiful thing, is that that story is usually better for those surprises.  There does seem to be something at work that I don’t pretend to understand, and I think that the writer with the well worked out plan and outline could well miss out on those unexpected contributions.

Question – But who knows, maybe their subconscious is just acting on a different schedule.  It was involved in the planning, so to speak.  Maybe their muses are super-efficient, the kind that have accounting degrees. 

Answer – And mine has an Arts degree.  Could be, if muses need university degrees.

Question – Well, you know how credentialism has crept into so many areas of life…But, seriously, do you think that some inspiration is external, rather than just the work of the individual’s conscious and sub-conscious mind?

Answer  You mean, can the sub-conscious mind have “co-creators”, on some kind of spiritual dimension?  I’m willing to go there.

Question – I am reminded of stories I heard in my freshman English class about the poet Yeats.  He and his wife famously were involved in automatic writing, which they thought was at least partially from the “spirit world”.

Of course some people thought he was nuts.  Ezra Pound was one of them  - ironically he later spent over a decade in an insane asylum himself. He did some of his most notable work there, though.  

Answer – There you go - it’s all a muddle.  All I can say about it is that it comes down to where you draw the line between the self and the other, and it’s murkier than we generally believe in everyday life.

Question – At any rate, artists and writers force themselves to the edges of the self more often than most people in the course of their lives, so I suppose we should give their interpretations due consideration.

Answer – When I am writing about my characters, it certainly feels like they have an outside reality that is separate from “me”.  In other words, they are their own people, and not just expressions of my repressed id or whatever. 

Question  - So, not a Freud fan, then? 

Answer – No, definitely not.  He had some helpful insights, but he had his self-imposed boundaries.

Question – I suppose we all do.  You are more of a Jungian, then? 

Answer – Possibly, but even he had his limitations.

Question – Getting back to pantsing versus outlining, on a more practical level, do you think outliners or pantsers tend to be more productive? 

Answer – You mean in terms of word count?  Novels per year?  Short stories per month?  Sheer volume, in other words?

Question – Yes, something along those lines.  There are those who say that writing is a business, like any other, and you have to push out product on a regular schedule to succeed.  And that requires measurements, like word count.

Answer – Well, we pantsers probably measure our productivity by “hours that pants are sitting in the writing chair”, which is admittedly a less precise method than hitting a 5 thousand words per day target, or something like that.

Question – Less precise, but more romantic, from a "struggling artist" point of view.

Answer – Practically speaking, I think that the outlining method probably does give you an edge, in terms of word count or some similar volume measure.  But, there is a danger that if you force yourself to stick to a rigid schedule, you could end up repeating yourself.

Question – You mean writing variations on the same book?

Answer – Yes, though that might not be altogether a bad thing, from a commercial point of view.  Some readers do place great value on predictability.

Question – But a writer can’t really force herself into a production style and schedule that doesn’t suit her underlying “muse”, can she?

Answer – Well, I can’t speak for others, but that would never work for me.  I like serendipity and surprise too much, though there are times when it freaks me out.  What swells out of the subliminal self can sometimes be disturbing.

Question – Like life itself, art can be disturbing.  The subconscious will do what it will.

Answer – If you let it. And we artists have to give it fairly free play, even if that means writing by the seat of our pants.

And here is an XKCD comic about how inadequate planning can mess up your communications (yes it has a swear word in it :) )

And here are links to one of Helena’s books:

The Witches’ Stones Series Book 1 – Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos
(Space Opera with some alien paranormal aspects):

Witches’ Stones Book One – Rescue from the Planet of the Amartos

Sarah Mackenzie had trained as a space ship mechanic at the Space Port of her home city on Earth. She left Earth to explore the galaxy, and, some months later, landed a dream assignment, to become the ship mechanic of an Explorer ship, the Beth 117.

The Beth was on its way to a planet at the edge of the galaxy, where its crewmembers were to search for the Witches’ Stones, or amartos, the mysterious crystals, which the Witches of the world, Kordea, use to channel and augment their psychic energies.

Sarah has no idea that she, herself, happens to be Stone-sensitive, just like the Witches are.
Under perilous circumstances, she comes across the cache of the Stones which the Explorers are looking for, and, unwittingly, “keys” them, igniting a psychic blaze that attracts the attention of The Organization, the implacable foe of the Terra Confederation, the centuries-old star-spanning government of most of the human race, and its non-human allies. To make use of amarto-energy, The Organization needs, not just the Stones, but also amarto-sensitive individuals whom they enslave to the devices which they have developed in their pursuit of galactic domination. Thus, they want not just the cache of Stones; they also want Sarah.

To forestall galactic war, rescuers, from a counter-intelligence group, known as The Agency, are sent to the Planet of the Amartos. A fast scoutship, manned by an Agent and a Pilot, must try to fetch Sarah and the amartos, bringing them to a safe haven among the Kordean Witches.

Sarah, herself, has to deal with serious conflicts. In the psychic realm she must choose between The Organization and the Kordean Witches, while retaining mastery over her own mind. In the physical reality, she has become the centre of an armed battle between the Terran scoutship and a military task force sent by The Organization to capture her and the Stones. Her determination to keep control of her own self sends her into unexplored mental realities, while exciting but dangerous physical events swirl around her and the crew of the scoutship, Camin.

To further complicate things, she senses within herself, the beginnings of an attraction to the handsome Agent sent to rescue her. However, she’s merely a naive young woman from Earth; surely, her hopes are beyond realization....

The novel is about 100,000 words, or 250 pages. It is the first book in the Witches' Stones series, which will explore the struggle for power among the Terra Confederation, the Kordean Witches and The Organization, as well as the personal and romantic entanglements of the characters. Book 2  followed in May, 2015 and Book 3 will be published in May 2016.

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