My Dichotomy – Project Managing a Novel

June 4, 2011 at 11:41 am (writing)

As I fumble my way through my latest WIP, one that is very much out of my comfort zone, I’ve been seeing questions and debates about plotting versus pantsing a novel on some of the online writing groups I belong to. Neither technique works for everyone. I’ve tried pantsing and because I have an uncontrollably overactive imagination, it doesn’t work for me.

Some people may say “that doesn’t make sense – pantsing allows you to make the most of your creativity.” Well, I have a very double-sided brain, neither side being dominant. I’m only good at things that allow me to make use of both of those sides; I need to be creative, but I also crave structure. If I spend too much time letting my imagination run rampant, I lose all sense of direction and literally forget where I’m going. If I spend too much time doing structured, orderly things, I get bored and lose interest. I have to have that mix.

When I’ve used pantsing, I run off on wild tangents and take forever to get back to the story, I lose focus and consistency, so that the story doesn’t make that much sense, and I lose purpose, which means my writing loses depth and realism. My work becomes flakey, confusing and insubstantial. Pantsing is definitely not for me. I hardly ever finished anything when I was trying to write by pantsing.

Then I went to business school, where structure was required for your writing (non-fiction writing, but that doesn’t matter.) Writing was suddenly that much easier and when I got back to writing fiction, I found myself applying the structural tricks from school, because it made me happy, and focussed and it just felt right. Now I finish almost everything: 14 novels to date and more than two dozen short stories.

Today I was sitting in a conference about project management, and I realized that I apply a version of project management to my writing. I am not a control-freak – I have worked in several offices with other accountants, so I know what control-freaks look and act like, but I do write best using guidelines. My creativity is not stifled in the process and my characters do not appear to be boxed in or contrived, no matter what an effective pantser might think – I need boundaries as much as they need freedom in order to function properly.

So there are four stages to a project and here’s how I see each one with regards to a novel.

Conceptual stage – this is the idea stage, before I write a stitch. I derive ideas from whatever inspiration I have and figure out what my story will be about, sort out my characters and how they’ll integrate into my plot and solidify major plot points.

Planning stage – this involves preparing my outline, doing any necessary research, setting timelines, determining voice appropriate for the story, calculating preferred word counts for the novel and chapters and deciding on the number of story threads and subplots.

Execution stage – here is the writing of my first draft, while sticking to my planned objectives and adjusting as necessary. This is where I flesh out the characters and particular story details in full.

Closing stage – this is editing, including any rewrites.

It’s a fairly simple methodology that works for me, but from what I’ve gathered, it wouldn’t work for the typical writer. Does it restrict my creativity, as some others who haven’t read my writing like to suggest? Feel free to check out my work, and judge for yourself.


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