Or, Who Shot First?
We’ve all heard the debate. Most of us have chimed in at least once, probably to vociferous response. It’s right up there with Team Fangs versus Team Fur. Star Wars versus Star Trek. Mac versus PC. Yes, folks. It’s time, once again, to play Planning versus Pantsing. *pause for groans*
What my question is—why can’t we do both? Is it possible, in the grand scheme of things, to be proactive even while pantsing? To which my response is: Well, yes. Being proactive doesn’t mean planning every little thing out and sticking rigidly to said plan. What proactive means is being prepared for any foreseeable eventuality. You know, like backpacking across Europe without a solid plan in mind, just blowing along the path the wind takes you. You can either fill your backpack with a survivalist’s essentials, or choose to leave the first aid kit at home.
Let’s go back to the Star Wars a moment, mainly because I am the Grande Poo-Bah of Geekery. In the original version of the movie (i.e. the real version—but I digress) Han Solo shoots first. You know it. I know it. We have all been witnesses a multitude of times.
Now, good ol’ Han, quite possibly the coolest cat in the whole dang ‘verse, isn’t much of a planner. He goes where the money is, runs for the hills when necessary (when the hyper drive manages to kick in, which ain’t all that often), and more or less leads a footloose and fancy free existence. He is, quite simply, the ultimate gambler.
But. BUT. Impulsive as our favorite scruffy-looking nerf-herder is, he is always prepared for trouble. He knows exactly what do to when he finds himself in a confrontation in a crowded cantina. He plays it cool, waits his moment—and bloody well shoots first.
So the question is, as writers, are we prepared to shoot first? Or do we get the lame revised version, wherein we are caught at the first sign of trouble with our pants down?
Crash and Burn
Franklin Covey defines proactivity as the act of not only taking initiative, but being responsible for the results we get in life. For us Word Monkeys, this especially means being responsible for the results we get in our writing life. It means arranging matters so that you have the freedom to choose, rather than painting one’s monkey self into a corner it becomes impossible to get out of.
By being proactive you’re taking responsibility for the things you can control—your stories, your words, your dream to make a career of this wonderful crazy gift you have—and recognizing the things you can’t control—whether or not people like your stories and words, whether or not an agent or publisher snatches your manuscript up, whether or not you end up a victim of lifeus interruptus.
A reactive response would be to let uncontrollable outside influences decide your path for you. A proactive response would be to give yourself room to maneuver when those influences rear their ugly hydra heads (and they will). Reactive writers tend to believe they are not responsible for what they say and do—it’s all up to fate. Proactive writers hone their craft, strive to get better, keep swinging the bat until they hit a home run. They may not be able to control the world’s response to their art, but they can sure as hell perfect the craft that drives it, even as the world flings balls at them at a hundred miles an hour.
A reactive writer waits until the right mood strikes, when the weather is more conducive, or spends their writing time worrying about the bills piling up, or the dishes, or the cat box (ew). Not that these aren’t things to worry about. The proactive writer worries about these very same things–just not during their scheduled writing time. That time is sacred.
GRIST FOR THE MILL
That’s the writing life. Let’s take a look at how the whole proactive/reactive theory applies to the story mill itself. Me, I’m a big fan of Aristotle’s Incline and working in key scenes, but I wasn’t always that way. I used to pants away quite merrily, mooning everyone in sight and laughing like a maniac. Now I understand the value of a map, even if I’m not entirely sure of all pit stops along the way.
Then, without fail (or perhaps with Epic Fail), I’d hit the skids somewhere in the middle and land chasse-up in a ditch, wheels spinning and forever stuck. Or, just as bad, I’d make a desperate bid for the end I can see so clearly that I had no conscious inclination of the route I took to get there. I currently have, like a lead weight at the bottom of my writing trunk, a 280,000 word fantasy novel with a middle so meandering it looks like Billy from the Family Circle coming home for dinner via Halsinki. Or those cartoons where Jerry ties the end of a thousand foot string to Tom’s tail, cat’s cradles it through the house, and attaches the other end to the trailer hitch of a Mack truck, with similar results.
But the proactive Word Monkey can take control of their story while still leaving themselves room to fly, and the story itself to find itself organically. The proactive Word Monkey, once again, takes control of their craft. By understanding story structure and character arc, by working to become a critical reader and thinker, they can become a prepared writer. When the toolbox is brimming with options and you understand when and how to use them, you give yourself the freedom to shape your story with panache, even when you’re pantsing from word “go.” It’s occasionally handy to have a belt on hand when a church bus full of nuns pulls up.
A reactive Word Monkey? Let’s the story shape them, often pushing them into an area of negative space. The result is not being able to write because of the weather, the phone is ringing off the hook, the kids are killing each other and the kitchen is on fire. Because they’re waiting for lightning or the muse or inspiration to strike. Because they don’t know what happens next. So they pick and chew and scrape at what came before, searching for answers. No great artist gets a way with breaking or reforming the rules until those rules have been mastered. Only then can you, as Granny Weatherwax says, “break them damn good and hard”.
In summation, a proactive Word Monkey is a prepared Word Monkey. We may not know what happens next, but we have the tools to find the answers. Climbing rope. Spelunking helmets. Great bloody pick axes. And then watch out, world.
Next Week: Habit 2—Begin With The End In Mind