Writers and Mental Health
There is an age old debate about if you’re a plotter or a pantser as a writer. Basically, plotters are those who find it very difficult to write fiction unless they’ve developed richly detailed outlines that break down every single action in every single scene, and the reactions and the transitions to the next scene, etc. They map everything out.
Pantsers, on the other hand, are so named because they ‘fly by the seat of their pants,’ so to speak. This means they don’t outline as they find that process to be too restrictive, or they have a few bullet points or write a few paragraphs but that’s it. Instead, they sit down with maybe a general idea of what they want to write about in a given project (and sometimes not even that) and they wait to see what comes to them, relying on unpredictability and the flexibility for changes to keep popping up.
There are countless debates about which method is “better”–that is to say, which method yields more writing output or enables more creative flow to facilitate the writer’s process so that they’re able to maintain a momentum once they’ve started their project.
I’ve recently come across the idea that outlining is too restrictive and can be a major reason for impeding a writer’s ability to keep up a momentum within what they’re working on. It’s too stilted and forced for some writers. Others go as far as wondering how plotters ever get anything done. Plotters wonder the same about pantsers.
This blog post isn’t going to try to tackle that debate–that’s been done in many places before and on a much bigger (and more comprehensive) scale. But what I am driving at is wondering if one of the reasons writers get stuck on a manuscript (or indeed, stalled altogether) might have a relationship with the fact that they are too rigid in their role as plotters and perhaps they may need to experiment with pantsing, no matter how uncomfortable that may seem at first.
Some writers must know the ending of their book before they even begin to write it. They work backwards, or they shuffle up and randomize the order of chapters they start (so instead of following the conventional and linear pattern of writing Chapter 1, 2, and 3 when they start a book, they might start with Chapter 10, make a detour to Chapter 18, go to Chapter 6, then tackle Chapter 2 and leave Chapter 1 last).
Different things work for different writers. No two processes are exactly alike. However, there is a tendency to associate plotters with “paint by numbers” kind of plotting, while some writers are quick to point out that while they are plotters, they don’t chart out every little single detail of their manuscript in excruciating detail necessarily.
Some people refuse to even “start the car” (or begin a book, to extend the metaphor) without having a map to guide them or without making sure they’ve got a GPS system installed because without those things, they know they would be completely lost within seconds and have no idea where they were headed.
Another school of thought argues that writing is like driving at night–you can only see what’s directly in front of you and the darkness and shadows of the night cover up the rest, so you must rely only on what you can immediately see (perhaps plotting one chapter at a time) else you’ll risk swerving out of control if you try to arrive at your destination too fast.
In my experience, pantsing to me feels like “winging in,” as in the writer just randomly deciding “Okay, cool, I’m going to go into this project and just go with the flow of whatever comes up.” I’ll admit I haven’t tried this method hard enough, or perhaps it could be that I’ve misunderstood how to go about pantsing (in which case, someone please tell me what the dynamics of pantsing are!) But what I do know from winging it in other areas of life like at work or school presentations is that it’s a 50/50 thing: either it can go really, super well or it can blow up in your face and show the obviousness of the fact that you’ve done zero preparation and that you have no idea what the heck you’re talking about.
Still, there is also the prevailing argument that outlining in too much detail can be too stifling and can lead to writer’s block because in essence, the writer is trying to exercise too much control, and forcing things to go unnaturally where she or he wants things to go, so…ironically, there is such a thing as plotting things out too well, which leads to bouts of hair-pulling and existential crises.
So, what’s the best solution? Is it a combination of both approaches? Is the answer to use neither of these approaches but something completely different? Is one method superior to the other? I’m very curious to know what writers think of this! Sound off below!
“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
It’s no secret that writers oftentimes focus on laundry, washing the bathtub, doing their taxes, and pretty much anything else that can get them out of writing. This has been the subject of several blog posts related to why writers procrastinate. I’m interested in exploring why writers de-prioritize their work and put it at the bottom of their to-do lists in a given day. What makes writers say yes to everything else but not their writing?
Before I launch into my suggestions/theories, I’d like to point out that this list does not account for things like chronic illnesses, recent traumatic events in a person’s life, dealing with the loss of a job or a divorce, and things of that nature.
- We’ve been told that writing is a selfish activity: Chuck Wendig has spoken about the fact that writing is often seen as an egotistical indulgence, a needless luxury that gets a lot of flack from non-writers because while there are firefighters and doctors out there in the world who are saving lives, what writers do is seen as the equivalent of kindergartners frolicking during playtime.
- One of the ways to get over this, as Wendig suggests, is to be aware of these types of criticisms but to blow past them and to make art anyway. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s something writers must learn how to move past in order to move forward.
- We fear that our writing is no good at all and never will be, so why bother with it at all: This is equal parts insecurity and Imposter Syndrome, but also stems from a misguided idea that writers have–the expectation that our first drafts should spring fully formed as of the first draft, like Athena from Zeus’s head. In reality, it doesn’t really work like this.
- In addition, writers fear that their work will get torn apart by critique groups and beta readers so their creativity shrinks away and they’re left feeling deflated.
- I’m not sure what a way around this is except to say that it’s the nature of the beast. Unless critique partners/beta readers/editors tear apart what you’ve produced, you’re not going to learn to spot patterns in your work of consistent issues that keep coming up again, and you’re not going to be able to improve.
- It’s downright painful to implement revisions. Some writers recoil from it like cats from water, but despite the fact that it’s difficult and grueling to get through, it’s important to realize that there are ways of breaking it up into smaller pieces so it doesn’t come across as completely overwhelming and undoable.
- The Personality Factor: some writers are predisposed, as part of their personality type, to naturally put the needs and wants of others before their own. For people who are codependent or who have other personality disorders, their tendency to focus on the needs of others and to put their own at the bottom of the totem pole comes from a desire to take their focus away from the pain and self-hate that is waiting for them if they give way to their own thoughts and consider their own needs. It’s easier to focus on others, so they delay writing for a long time (sometimes permanently), and part of this is tied to the “selfish/indulgent” argument from the first bullet point.
- In this case, it is incumbent upon the writer to understand that they have this problem and to seek help for it, either through self-initiated channels or through therapy or group settings. This one is something that a person’s parents and/or teachers have usually programmed into their brains, so they need to take years to un-learn this way of thinking.
The root of all of these things is fear. That and insecurity. Worrying about what others will think of us. Worrying that we’re inadequate. Worrying that we’re never going to reach the same levels of the writers who came before us that we idolize.
However, it’s important to recognize these things, understand which is the culprit for why we keep putting writing off, and to find a way to work around them.
What about you, fellow scribes? What are some of the reasons why you put writing last on your to-do list? Sound off below!
Every since Volume 1 of this wonderfully useful series, I have devoured each of the “Writers on Writing” books from Crystal Lake Publishing, each of which focus on different aspects of the writing life. This time around, although I was sad to learn that Volume 4 would be the last of the series, I was thrilled to see that this tome deals with a broad mixture of topics ranging from poetry to networking to description.
Blunt Force Trauma: How to Write Killer Poetry by Stephanie M. Wytovich
Although I don’t write poetry, I am fascinated by the poet’s process and I find that there are always some useful nuggets to be gleaned that may also be applicable to prose. I have been a long-time admirer of Stephanie Wytovich’s poetry, especially her wonderfully devastating and impactful poem in “Gutted,” which you should also read, so I was interested to see her breaking down the notion that poetry is like blunt-force trauma. It is an “assault on the body.” She describes poetry as the “exploration of the wound,” which I thought was a very evocative analogy.
While she describes her early efforts as a tad melodramatic, it taught her to be honest and it gave her permission not to hold back. These are two things I still struggle with as a writer, so it was very liberating for me to read that poetry could be so cathartic. I loved her phrase “the demons that had been following me for years.”
One of the things I admire most of about Stephanie and her work is that she is not apologetic or demure about it. She is bold and brash. I have known many established writers who have tried to put down the work of younger writers or to dismiss the credibility of anything they have to say or any advice they may have to give, which I think is rubbish, but I am glad we have folks like Stephanie out there who give a brave face to younger writers who are maybe not as comfortable in our own skin yet.
Her systematic breakdown of steps to writing killer horror poetry is magnificent in its detail. As she suggests at the very end, “expose the wound, examine the fear, and close the case.”
Happy Little Trees by Michael Knost
In his piece, Michael Knost focuses on imbuing characters with depth, details, and layers to make them jump off the page and be memorable to readers. He makes analogies to forests and trees to illustrate his points, as well as painting and Photoshop, and he very much emphasizes the notion of relational influence. If you’re antsing for more tips on how to do characterization better, be sure to check out his piece.
In Lieu of Patience Bring Diversity by Kenneth W. Cain
Kenneth W. Cain talks about the virtues of patience in a writer and how it encompasses all the areas of a writer’s career from waiting to hear back on a submission to award nominations to gaining a readership. He also discusses considerations of how detailed to get when it comes to descriptions, which I thought was useful especially as he related it to the importance of creating characters that the reader will sympathize with.
Networking is Scary, but Essential by Doug Murano
The style and direct approach of Doug Murano’s entry in the volume, which is all about that scary word–networking–helped to make it seem a little less daunting. He also discussed some of the marketing innovations he came up with while doing PR for the Horror Writers Association, which is very useful for authors to note.
His section on strategies should is excellent and many authors will find it useful.
Are You In The Mood? by Sheldon Higdon
Focusing back on the writer’s craft side of things, Sheldon Higdon’s entry talks about how to establish mood in a story as well as the subtle differences between mood and how it builds into atmosphere. If you struggle with description or you’ve been told you write purple prose, check out Sheldon’s piece.
What if Every Novel is a Horror Novel? by Steve Diamond
Angling more toward a philosophical bent is Steve Diamond’s piece, which seeks to define what horror is, which is no easy task. He encourages readers to stretch their defintions of what constitutes horror and rightly so.
Description: You Can’t Win so Why Play by Patrick Freivald
Patrick Freivald tackles why writers over-write so often, particularly when it comes to description and throwing too much detail at the reader, and how even though writers want the reader to have a very specific vision in mind of what they want people to see, the results sometimes get muddled in translation onto the page. Freivald also addresses incorporating sensory descriptions into prose, so it’s a worthwile piece to check out.
Long Night’s Journey Into…This? A First-Time Novelist’s Odyssey by William Gorman
Being a novelist for the first time is usually not an experience that goes particularly easily for the writers who manage to get there. I cannot believe he had a correspondence with Clive Barker (how fortunate!), who told him to write a novel at one point, which made for a magnificent story. He discusses why the novel-writing process turned out to be so difficult for him. I think the piece is one that established pros as well as hopeful newbies can benefit from.
I Am Setting by J.S. Breukelaar
Getting back more toward the craft side of things, we have a piece devoted to setting and description. This part of the volume was a very useful breakdown of setting as well as what to do with fictional world-making and building.
Finding Your Voice by Lynda E. Rucker
To cap off the volume, we get a piece about that ever-elusive concept of authorial “voice” from Lynda E. Rucker. So often writers are told to develop their voice, that their voice isn’t strong enough, that the voice of the piece is highly derivative or a pastiche, but many writers are left scratching their heads and wondering just what the heck “voice” even means. It’s something that this piece helps to simplify into something more understandable. She also has some wonderful suggestions as to how to find one’s voice, so it’s well worth reading through.