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.


8 Responses to Plotters, Pantsers, and Bill Murray

  1. Christa Buchan Jan 16 2019 at 8:27 am #

    Hello, I am a Bill Murray and always have been. Back at university when writing major papers we were often asked to submit an outline before we were allowed to write that paper just to make sure that we were on the correct track. I had such a hard time, outlines were foreign to me. Now, at age 70 and, trying something new, I still don’t know how to make an outline. I just start writing and those firsts couple of paragraphs are worked on all the time. Forward movement ceases until the aforementioned tells exactly what I want. I do believe though that an outline would really help because I could research, plot and post and then write from my plan. So, if you have any good resources on how to outline in basic language, I would be very interested in trying to utilize a method that would work for me.

    • Aminah Mae Jan 16 2019 at 11:29 am #

      Hi Christa! I actually had a writing friend say they write outlines almost like a short draft, which helped me so much! Instead of it being an outline that says “this is exactly how I have to go for the whole book” I now think of it as being able to write a super short draft. Essentially, I Bill Murray the outline, too. It helps me work out plot faster and it’s helped me a lot with both book two and book three. I’ve just started incorporating the fact that I go in circles in the beginning into all parts of the process, if that makes sense.

      So I basically think of the outline not as an outline, but a super short draft. I put in emotional beats, I put in the dialog that I hear for that scene (I hear dialog first, but maybe you don’t and that’s okay too!) and I basically use that to quickly figure out the bones of the story. I don’t focus on word count. I focus on characters and figuring out if there is any underlying structure to the story that I am missing. I am still circling my beginning as I draft book three, but there is so much already there in those first chapters that it really did help to give myself the space to sort out the story in a short form. Let me now if this helps at all!

      • Christa Buchan Jan 16 2019 at 12:48 pm #

        There you go, somebody who thinks almost like me. We share a lot of characteristics. I hear dialogue, I dream it; in my dreams, I see my characters, where they are, their surroundings and who they are talking to. Dreams move in and out then another scene comes into focus. Oh to have those scenes on video. This, when I finish, will be my first book. I really did not plan this book, definitely not at age 70. I wish that I could walk out my creative frustrations, or run them off at the track but, the best I do is think, paper, pencil and write, double spaced; have a page with “What If” at the top of it and all sorts of lines coming down, I keep seeing a genealogy tree; well it could look like that. I like how you presented your thinking. Once I re-coup, onward and forward.

        • Aminah Mae Jan 16 2019 at 1:48 pm #

          I’m so glad that this helped you! And honestly, I don’t know that anyone plans to write a book, I think we often have stories inside of us and writing is one of the many ways we let those stories out and share them with the world. I always try to remember that frustration is a part of the process. Best of luck with your work 💜

  2. Janice Hampton Jan 16 2019 at 5:46 pm #

    OMG…I’m a Bill Murray too. I always called myself a plotser, kinda of a cross between a pantser and a plotter. What I do usually is freewrite and ask all sorts of questions about my characters. I’ve been known to do the Myers Brigg thing for them. Read their signs. And their names – I’m sort of anal about that. I want the perfect name that in my mind fits who I believe them to be.

    Anyhoo, thanks so much for writing this piece. It’s really helpful to finally have a true name for myself.

    Best regards,
    Janice Hampton

    • Aminah Mae Jan 16 2019 at 8:44 pm #

      Oh man, isn’t it a relief to know you’re not alone? Also, I do this too, except I sort them into Harry Potter houses and ask what elemental magic they would do if the world had magic. It’s just drilling down into who the characters are and providing a framework, which is so helpful! And I get that, I once made the mistake of giving a character a filler name and I was like welp that’s his name now, he lives like this forever 😂

  3. Chris Bailey Jan 17 2019 at 9:31 am #

    Thanks for that! I’ve been feeling really bad about groundhogging my midpoint, and returning over and over to the beginning pages to add a line or dialogue or a bit of description. Feeling better now, and ready to push on.

    • Aminah Mae Jan 17 2019 at 1:43 pm #

      Hi Chris! Omg I do this in the middle, too! I was telling someone “I’m only circling back to chapter 11 now” as a big success and the look on their face made me realize that some other people do not do this 😂Sometimes you just see what is missing and you have to thread it through all the appropriate spots until you feel like you can move forward again. Not all progress is linear, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t progressing and moving forward. Keep going, you’ve got this 💪🏽💜

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