Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Panster's Guide to Plotting Your Premise


Last week, my pastor said something that really stuck with me. "Don't eat your seeds."

Matthew 13:3-9 says that Jesus, "told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”


Many of us have a tendency to take the seeds God has given us and eat them, or save them, or hide them, rather than investing them in good soil. Even if they do get planted, they may get thrown along the wayside or cast into the scorching sun.

Not only are these "seeds" relevant to our personal spiritual walks, but they're also relevant to our writing.

God has given each of us concepts, creativity, and dreams that function as seeds for our stories. Ever get a brilliant idea just before you sleep into the realm of sleep each night? That's a seed. Keep a notepad (or your phone) on your nightstand and write it down. Same goes for inspiration that strikes you at the oddest times. I can't tell you how many random "notes" I've made to myself on my phone while sitting in church or the line at the mall.

Sometimes we get lackadaisical about what God's telling us. I don't know about you, but if I wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, more times than not, I'm going to go back to sleep and assume the idea will still be there in the morning. Thing is, sometimes it isn't. 

The seeds God has given us for our books are precious and ought to be treated with care. We shouldn't toss them around so carelessly if we truly want them to take root and become fruitful.

So the question is, how do we plant these seeds?


Little anecdote from my own writing journey. I was trained to write by a bunch of brilliant postmodernists. I was taught that over planning and plotting could stifle creativity and keep a story from taking on new directions and depths that come through writing. I think there's certainly some wisdom to this approach. After all, you don't want your book to become formulaic, and you don't want to reject new ideas just because they come in the "editing" rather than the "plotting" stage.  Some of the best ideas and poignant moments aren't discovered until the book is almost complete and you've really come to know your characters in a deep way.

However, using this approach as an overarching strategy presents a problem--a very big one--that I soon discovered as I "panstered" my way through four books. And the problem is this. Writing is frustrating, and too much responsibility falls on editing's shoulders.

You need a premise, a seed, a core idea to drive every scene and every character in your story. Now, this seed can be developed. It should take on roots and leaves and flower throughout the course of your writing. But don't make things harder on yourself by looking for the seeds only after you've finished your book. Doing so leads to so much unnecessary editing!

Think of the books you've read that have really stuck with you or touched you in an emotional way. Most likely, they presented a concept or demonstration of character growth that was both vibrant and relatable, and you saw a bit of yourself in the character's journey. That didn't happen by mistake. That happened because an author was willing to invest for thought into cultivating seeds before planting them.

Now, I'm not saying you have to plot out your whole novel. I still have enough "pantster" in me to tremble a little when I think of a task so daunting, and I know that personally, my writing would end up stifled if I put too many restrictions on it. 

But I do want to challenge you today to take time mulling over and praying over the seeds--the core concepts of your story--and ask God where He wants to plant them. If you know the major questions and themes driving your story--where your characters are going to fail and succeed, what they're going to fear, their dreams, etc.--then you can craft each scene, symbol, and supporting character accordingly. Not only will this make editing easier, but your first draft will also be a lot less painful to write, knowing each scene is already infused with purpose and meaning.





I want to hear from you all! Are you usually a pantster or a plotter? How can both camps approach the process of planning their premise (albeit a little differently)?



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Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.

13 comments:

Teresa Richards said...

Thank-you for this wonderful post!! I just finished my first novel, starting with the spark of an idea and working through it pantster style. I found that my best ideas came out of nowhere and I never could have planned them out beforehand, but the editing process became a nightmare as I realized it was extremely difficult to surgically insert new ideas into my book without rewriting the entire thing. So now as I start my second novel, I've determined to plan it out first so I don't get caught in the same way, but I'm finding it is really killing my desire to write at all! Thanks for helping me see that blending both styles might be the best solution.

Elisabeth Pettifor said...

A little of both I guess. I make a list of key points in the story I want to hit, and that's pretty much the extent of the plot planning. I love it. It's just the right amount of freedom and control for me.

jeannetakenaka said...

Ashley, what a beautiful post. :) I'm the opposite--I have a hard time writing if I can't picture the story or the scene before hand. So, I do much better plotting things out first. I am working on becoming a little more flexible and trying some "Pantster" methods, but it's harder for me to really write if I can't see the scene in my head first.

I plot out the major points ahead of time, using MBT's Book Buddy. It helps me see what I need to include and gives me the freedom to craft my story in my way, if that makes sense. If I know my story and it's themes, I find it easier to plan out my premise.

Thanks for sharing your wisdom today!

Susan Anne Mason said...

Hi Ashley,

Wonderful post! I was sitting here trying to come up with ideas for a new story, wondering why it wasn't sounding exciting and then I opened your blog.

My story needs a theme and a core concept!

Of course! Thanks for the reminder!

I'm definitely a plotter much like Jeanne above, I have to see the scene in my head first, where the story is going, before I plunge in.

Have a great day!

Cheers,
Sue

Angie said...

This is a great post, Ashley! You have taught me to plot my premise out...that's something I never did before. Thanks for being such a great inspiration for me!
Love ya!

Ashley Clark said...

Teresa, I'm right with you! I totally get what you are saying! Thanks for sharing that today. Yeah, with me, I've found that plotting out every little detail stifles my creativity because it inhibits those let-the-characters-do-something-that-surprises-you moments that are so fun to write. I hope you find that having a core moral to each scene helps you blend the styles! I'm reading The Moral Premise right now, and that's a book I would DEFINITELY recommend since you seem to have a similar writing style as me. :)

Ashley Clark said...

Elisabeth, I like what you said about planning key points, but nothing else. Sometimes I also like to think through a scene that's coming, without realizing how I'm going to get there. :) Thanks for stopping by today!

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, it's so interesting to me how people have such different styles of planning and writing, and no one particular style is any better than the other! Susan Meissner teaches a lot at ACFW about plotting, and from my limited experience with her teaching, I get the impression she really plans details out... and look how brilliant her novels are! Sometimes plotting more versus panster-ing can really be an advantage in that it can allow for more complicated stories... for instance, if your character is living with some kind of secret that she (and the readers) need to know from the beginning. Thanks for sharing!

Ashley Clark said...

Sue, you bring up such a great point! When I find that a scene is lagging, usually it's either because I'm just generally feeling tired, or it's because the plot is feeling tired--I haven't set out a clear forward motion in the story. Have you read The Moral Premise? It talks about how the external arcs should mirror the internal arcs, so having that moral or core reason for writing is so very important, because it shapes the external action just as much as the character's emotions. Thanks so much for coming by today! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Sue, you bring up such a great point! When I find that a scene is lagging, usually it's either because I'm just generally feeling tired, or it's because the plot is feeling tired--I haven't set out a clear forward motion in the story. Have you read The Moral Premise? It talks about how the external arcs should mirror the internal arcs, so having that moral or core reason for writing is so very important, because it shapes the external action just as much as the character's emotions. Thanks so much for coming by today! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Ang, you are too kind! And lest anyone reading your comment be fooled, you have taught me plenty about plotting premises too! I so appreciate having someone to talk through those early, fragile stages of a story with. :)

Elisabeth Pettifor said...

I just meant that I don't plan out every single word, how much time I will spend on this scene, that scene, etc.
I also run them through my head before writing them, but it's more of in a movie form than the actual words. It's one of my favorite parts of writing.

Ashley Clark said...

That's great, Elisabeth! :)