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Tuesday, August 17, 2021

GUEST POST: Gods And Tyrants by Peter Blaisdell

 

 
Fiction authors get asked whether they’re planners or ‘pantsers’. Being a planner means the author, before setting fingers to keyboard, develops their entire story, plot, character arcs, settings, and the themes/conflicts. They then stick to this plan until the work is finished. Conversely, pantsers just start writing with only a vague idea of their destination and let the story develop organically (i.e. write ‘by the seat of their pants’).
 
However, the planner/pantser question is reductive. In fact, trying to distil the creative process for something as complex as a novel into a dichotomy misses the nuance and intricacy of the creative process. Incredible ideas that completely upend the original story elements may arrive before, during, and after the first draft. So, many (most?) authors don’t fall on either extreme of the planner/pantser continuum; instead, they plan and research and then start writing while being open to new ideas as they write that may wind up in the final novel.
 
Indeed, responses from some of the authors participating in this year’s ‘Self-published Fantasy Blog-off’ (SPFBO 7), when asked to describe their writing process indicated that most of them are neither pure plotters nor pantsers. This was an admittedly small sample of about 20 writers, but they span the gamut of subgenres in this space, from high/epic to grimdark to YA, so they’re probably reasonably representative of the universe of fantasy authors.
 
For myself, I’m both a planner and a pantser – and rarely trouble myself with the distinction between the two. By that I mean that I start out with a plot, characters, and whatever themes/ideas I want to explore in the story. I need some sort of mental map telling me what my destination is rather than blasting down a nighttime freeway at 90 miles per hour with no headlights. So, I research the setting and develop the characters’ backstories before launching into the novel. However, I don’t lock myself into a strict story framework that can’t change if great ideas strike while in the middle of writing.
 


As a case study, let’s use my SPFBO 7 entrant, THE LORDS OF THE SUMMER SEASON, a fantasy during San Francisco’s ‘Summer of Love’ in 1967. Going into it, I thought I had a firm grip on all the story elements particularly the setting and characters.
 
This novel was an attempt to write an exciting story about a near-immortal magician and witch who have a long, fraught relationship through history and, because of a series of misfortunes, wind up together in 1967 in San Francisco. That summer, everything seemed limitless – until it wasn’t, so what better place for themes of romantic attraction and creativity run amok than flower-power drenched, psychedelic San Francisco when magic was real?  
 
Anyway, before typing a letter of the first draft, I moved into planner mode and did a ton of research on that era and developed (I thought) a climactic showdown with the bad-guys at a famous concert of that time, the Monterey Pop Festival. This seemed to be a great coda: acid rock, witches, and my protagonist trying desperately to win a savage fight with the villains.
 
But it didn’t quite work.     
 
Though it seemed an exciting dénouement when I was in planner mode, when I actually completed the first draft, I knew I needed a postscript linking the story to current times, so I added a new final scene at the Coachella music festival, a modern music festival that would serve as a counterpoint to the Monterey Pop scene. This was a classic pantser move since it represented a dramatic deviation from my original plan.
 
Compounding the changes to my original ending, I also added an entirely new major character, a woman professor who befriends the protagonist. She added more romance to the story (it was the Summer of Love, after all) and she provided a contrast to the witch. I hadn’t even dreamed of this as I conceived the original cast of characters.
 
Things reveal themselves in your story DURING the process of writing it that couldn’t have been foreseen BEFORE there was a pretty good working draft.
 
If you’re writing well, the original, linear plot may twist itself into a pretzel shape, and the characters can decide to go their own way. That’s fine – if the story benefits from this bit of improvising. The author needn’t adopt every spontaneous whim that pops into their mind, but they can at least be open to modifying their first-pass story. In fact, for most writers, it’s overconfident to think that everything can be mapped out a priori.
 
The author is the god of their little world, but that doesn’t mean they have to be a tyrant!
 
Tyrants aren’t flexible enough to change their original plans.
 
 
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Official Author Information: Peter Blaisdell lives in Southern California and aspires to write fast-paced, literate fantasies. He is the author of ‘The Lords of the Summer Season’, ‘The Lords of Powder’, and ‘The Lords of Oblivion’. The books can be read as stand-alone novels or together as a series. He is currently writing his fourth novel, a fantasy set in medieval Spain. In the non-literary side of his life, he has a PhD in Biochemistry and is in the biotechnology industry.

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