Plotting by the Seat of my Pants

Should you plot your stories with meticulous care or should you write spontaneously and see where the muse takes you? I know writers who have an almost religious devotion to each approach and there are certainly pros and cons to each approach. My ability to plot stories before I write them has helped me make sales before I’ve taken the time to actually compose them. In this case, plotting can effectively become a pitch. An editor might solicit an idea from me. Afterwards, I go away and think about it for a time and then throw some ideas about how I would handle the story to the editor. The editor then gives me feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. This can be a very exciting process and it’s one I recently went through with an anthology editor and it’s also how I created the outline for my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt. Hopefully I’ll be able to share news about the story I just wrote before the year is out.

Those who write by the seat of their pants argue that you don’t always know your characters when you start. The more you write, the more you understand their motivations. If you plot, there’s a danger you force your characters to take actions that aren’t true to them as they’ve developed. That’s a valid point, and one of the ways I counter that is to treat my outline more as a set of goals than as a detailed roadmap. For a short story, it tells me what my characters are going to do to set them off in a direction. It suggests complications they may encounter along the way. I don’t always write an ending. Instead, I think of ways the story might end depending on who the characters turn out to be. It’s exciting when I get to the end and the characters do something I don’t quite expect because its right for them. That happened to me this last week and I like the ending much better than any of the ones I actually plotted in advance.

In a novel, the plot points are a little more defined, but again, I try to keep them general enough that they serve as complications the characters encounter. There is a challenge if the characters diverge far enough from the original conception that they don’t encounter the complications laid out for them. At that point, there’s no choice but to revisit the outline. Figure out what path the characters are on and see whether there’s a way to get them to encounter the original complications or see if you just have to create new ones altogether.

Now, if an outline serves as the basis for a pitch, what happens if the story becomes very different from the outline? This is something I don’t worry about too much for two reasons. First off, good editors are more concerned about finding good stories than assuring your story perfectly matched the pitch you gave them. If the story works and doesn’t violate any guidelines, you’ve still got a really good chance of selling the story to an editor who solicited one from you and liked the pitch. Second, when you make your pitch, you’re not likely to give the editor your entire outline. Mostly you’re laying out the initial situation and the problem the characters are going to be faced with along the way. If you resolve those issues in a different way than you envisioned, no problem. The editor doesn’t necessarily know that. Again, what the editor will care about is whether or not the story works.

For pantsers, I recommend trying your hand at plotting a story or two. It could prove a lucrative and useful skill down the road. For plotters, I recommend leaving enough room in your outline to let your characters breathe and do things you didn’t quite expect. You might be surprised at the result!

Bubonicon 49

Today’s main event is the solar eclipse happening over much of the United States. I hope you have a good place to watch with clear skies and proper eye protection. I’m in Louisiana, where we should see about 80% of the sun eclipsed, presuming we get clear skies.

This coming weekend, I’ll be in Albuquerque, New Mexico for Bubonicon 49. The link will take you to their page with more information. This year’s theme is Back in Time (Time Travel). C.J. Cherryh and Sherwood Smith are the author guests of honor, Ursula Vernon is the toastmaster, and Elizabeth Leggett will be the guest artist. The convention is being held at the Albuquerque Mariott Uptown at 2101 Louisiana Blvd NE. Read on for my tentative schedule.

Friday, August 25

  • 4-5pm – Main Room – Jurassic Spark: Dino Appeal. Not just kids love dinosaurs. They’ve fascinated people of all ages for almost 200 years. Why? What is the enduring appeal of dinosaurs in the popular imagination? Dreaming about dinosaurs constitutes mental time travel. Usually. Does this fascination explain the appeal of Godzilla, Rodan, etc? On the panel with me are C.J. Cherryh, Steven Gould, Emily Mah, and John Saberhagen. Victor Milan will be moderating.

Saturday, August 26

  • 10-11am – Salon A-D – Fancy Pants: Idea Strategy. Are you a pantser? An outliner? How do you get at your material? The most common question asked of SF writers is “Where do you get your ideas?” and we’re all interested. Do you keep ‘em in your pants? Should we rephrase that? Where do you find them? What are your ideation strategies? Is that an idea in your pants, or are you just happy to see me? On the panel with me are Brenda Drake, Betsy James, and Susan R. Matthews. Robert E. Vardeman will be moderating.
  • 2-3pm – Main Room – Exo-Planets: What We’ve Learned. Astronomers have discovered several planets in orbit around far stars. What have we learned? Are there any in reach? Are any *really* habitable, or is it just that some could be habitable if all the conditions are just right? On the panel with me are Larry Crumpler, Loretta Hall, Kathleen Kitts, and Cathy S. Plesko. I’ll be the moderator.
  • 4-5pm – Main Room – SF As a Stealth Delivery Platform. Everybody knows that SF has inspired legions of young people to grow up and become scientists; half of NASA was weaned on Star Trek. But does SF’s influence with these people end with their choice of career? Might SF actually serve as a legitimate means of transmitting scientific ideas between working scientists in different disciplines? Might it, in certain circumstances, be more effective than usual technical publications? On the panel with me will be Kathleen Kitts, Pari L. Noskin, and Corie Weaver. Emily Mah will be moderating.
  • 5:25-6:40pm – Main Room – Mass Autographing. I’ll be joining all the Bubonicon participants in the main room where we’ll all be happy to autograph your books, programs, and anything else you want signed!

Sunday, August 27

  • 10-11am – Carlsbad – 55 Minutes with David Lee Summers. Although this is billed as a solo event, I’ve invited Gene Mederos to join me and we’ll read stories from Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales and Kepler’s Cowboys. We’ll be happy to answer questions and there may be some surprises as well. Come by and join us for 55-minutes of thrilling science fiction adventure!
  • 1:30-2:30pm – Salon A-D – Ask a Scientist! Larry Crumpler, Cathy S. Plesko and I will field your questions about science!

As usual, I will be helping with the Bubonicon Author Tea on Sunday afternoon. Check the program book for details. Because of my schedule, I’ll be helping at the second session. There are always some amazing teas to try and lovely snacks to eat.

What will be unusual for me this year, is that I won’t have a dealer’s table. I will be a free range author at this year’s Bubonicon. You will be able to find my books at the Who Else Books Table and possibly at the Barnes and Noble table as well. If you’re in Albuquerque this weekend, I hope to see you at Bubonicon!