Plotters, Pantsers, and Bill Murray

It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are two types of writers— plotters and pantsers— and all writers love to talk about which ones they are.

It’s a writing conversation starter. A softball.

Are you plotter or a pantser?

Nobody is wholly one or wholly the other, but the lines are drawn somewhere between— do you largely create outlines and stick to them? and do you largely discover the plot as you go along, preferring to only hammer down important moments— like the climax, the inciting incident, the finale?

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I never had a very good answer. When I had someone ask me this about a year ago, I said, in that overly bright way I use when I’m very unsure of my answer, “Well, I think I’m somewhere in between.”

Needless to say, I never felt really like either. And that question that was supposed to be a softball always felt like a trap. I flew by the seat of my pants on book one. But book two I sold on proposal, so I had a synopsis and an outline of what was to come. It had changed from book to book— of course it had changed. But that’s writing for you.

And that should have been that. She asks the question, I answer in a vague, noncommittal kind of way. But because I love specificity (and also, talking), I kept going with my answer.

“What I really do,” I told the person, “is, I get stuck writing and rewriting my beginnings until kingdom come. I know people say to push on, to keep going. But I can’t. I keep finding knots and I have to go back and untangle them, or I’ll just get stuck later on and really get blocked.”

“Oh,” said this other writer. ‘You’re a Bill Murray.”

As I am not a six-foot-one, uncomfortably hilarious, middle-aged white man, I was at a loss to say anything other than, “A Bill Murray?”

“You know,” she said, really nodding along to herself at this point. “Like in Groundhog Day, when Bill Murray keeps re-living the same day over and over again. He can’t move forward until he’s learned all the lessons from that day that he needs to understand. Writers who do this, they just like, keep working on the first fifty to seventy-five pages. Over and over and over again. Until it’s right. And then they jam out the whole rest of the book.”

I sat for a moment, gaping at her.

Reader, I was a Bill Murray.

It was a revelation, this knowledge that I was not alone in circling the beginning of my book until I felt dizzy. The hellscape of slowly untangling myself from those first pages until I could make substantial forward progress into the rest of my book. And now, of course, I had an answer that perviously elusive question: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

Everywhere I went, I started saying I was a Bill Murray. Cocktail parties, panels, small writing retreats. Every time there was always one person who looked on in horror— how can you write like that?— and at least one other person who is also a Bill Murray and had no idea that there was a word for this process until that moment.

A writer who, metaphorically, keeps going through the same forest, seeing the same rock and the same tree, knowing they have been here before, but unable to stop moving, unable to stop re-living this space until every bit about the character has been discovered, until every plot point that must carry on into the end has been fully established.

I write this because I have learned that there is power in knowing you are not alone. That to do a thing intentionally is so different— just in terms of sheer psychological feeling— than accidentally stumbling your way through.

Yes, there will always be specific dangers in being a Bill Murray— there are times when you feel you will never finish the damn thing. And, incidentally, this is why my number one piece of writing advice to writers is to finish the damned thing.

But you also dig deep into your characters. You understand the importance of threading through all plot lines, right from the very start. You might outline, you might not. But you know that the way you begin a story is the way you mean to go on with it, and you do not believe in tricking your readers. Everything is all there, in that overworked and overwrought first series of pages.

Those first pages that by the end of a draft you can barely stomach looking at.

Writing categories (plotter, pantser, Bill Murray) are really, just ways of understanding process. Ways of talking about a kind of work that so often feels ephemeral and unknowable and inexplicable. So if this is not you, that’s totally alright. But if this is you, then I hope you feel less alone as you live through the hellscape that is writing the beginning of your novel. Eventually, you will understand everything you need to know from those first fifty pages and your story will be the better for it. Eventually, you will be able to leave Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

Keep writing. And don’t forget to finish the damned thing.

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