04 May 2013

Pantser, Plotter, Plodder, Slumper

The results of my recent scientific investigation - i.e., a foray into the thoughtful comments a bunch of you left on my last post - suggests that there is more than one way of working at writing. I'm not talking about the well-trodden pantser / plotter continuum. I'm talking about how you structure your work time, where and how you derive the energy to write, how you perform. I've had an insight or two into my own style recently which is helping me to avoid a certain habitual self-esteem nosedive, so I thought I'd share.

My friend Chris is a good example of a plodder. Or, let's call him something a little more impressive sounding and aligned with the reality: a consistent, steady producer. In response to my post about pulling out of a slump, he wrote:
I'm not sure if I can think of a time when I pushed into overdrive and turned the creative corner like that; most of my recent creative victories have been the result of lots of prior planning and pep talks, and setting a steady pace from the outset.
I can tell you, Chris gets a lot done that way. A. Lot. Often I think I should just buck up and follow his example: slow and steady work done on a regular basis.

However, I'm a lot more like mood, who commented:
I have to crawl through the slumps and then try to ride the wave when it comes, which it always does (eventually).
I'm a slumper. Or, to call it something a wee bit more positive, a peak performer. I've done a lot of performance-based things, and continue to do them. Whether it is playing music, acting, teaching at the university, or my current occupation, which is teaching tai chi and qigong, I do my best when I have to be "on." I've noticed that I really groove on situations where I have to gear up. During a class or event I burn all that fuel, then go home and collapse. There's something almost lethargic about my "off" state. Even just before a performance situation, I often feel very mellow and low. Once I'm in front of a class or audience, though, the focus kicks in, my awareness hypes up, and I am fully present. I use everything I've got without even feeling it. When it's done, I often end up with a rather mixed feeling: I'm tired and wired, overstimulated and drained.

Basically, I experience the act of writing as a type of performance. It works best for me when I spend a bit of time thinking about what I'm going to write, building up the key parts of a scene or story in my mind, attaching emotional content to it, and overall getting really excited about it. When I write, I go fast. If I can burn through a whole story or an entire scene, it is so much better than when I write it a smidgen at a time. That focus is really important to me. If I do it right, I feel much like I do under other performance circumstances.

It's not the audience. It's the need for a concentrated burst of effort. During these efforts, I'll skimp on sleep, eat minimally, yet generally have more energy and be able to do more even outside of the central act of writing. My laundry gets done, my house gets vacuumed, amazing things get baked and cooked, and my classes move into a higher, more challenging gear.

The up side is, I can get a heck of a lot done in a short period of time. I wrote 15k words in the last four days of April. Good, coherent words. (I know some people are capable of much more...for me it was a lot.) The down side is, I need to rest in between the peaks. Really rest. I don't mean get a solid eight hours each night. During a peak, especially if I'm working on a novel-length piece, I find sleeping well or consistently is not only impossible, it's unnecessary. A few hours will do. I am talking about finishing an act of a longer piece or completing a story, letting everything fall to the floor, spending a couple of days stepping down my excitement and allowing the adrenaline to drain, then going into a coma / stupor that lasts for days or longer. (I am in an adrenaline-drain phase now. What's left over from my recent push is what I'm using to write this post.)

It is an elaborate process, and fine so long as I honour each part of it.

Here's the rub: when I'm in a peak, I tend to start thinking in an almost greedy fashion, like, "ooh, if I can write 4k today, I can do it every day and finish this manuscript if I only spend nine more days doing it after these fourteen days of pushing really hard." Great idea, but it only works if that kind of effort is sustainable in the long run. It's not. Not for me, anyway. A month is about my absolute maximum. After that, things get dodgy and I start feeling very unwell if I don't come down.

The key is, if you're a peak performer / slumper, don't expect that you'll do every day what you do during the big push. (I am sure for steady performers / plodders there are downsides too, like wishing you had the steam to push through the night and greet the sunrise with a shiny new 6 or 8k on your hard drive.) As with the pantser / plotter binary, it is easy to think the grass is greener on the other side. It isn't. It's all just grass.

I know from experience that after a month like April, I'm in serious danger of a crash. I am still pushing forward on the novel draft, but at a much mellower pace while I recover from what I just did. I'll bide my time until I hit the next big plot push (probably the climax). It will have to be at a time when I'm more rested. I'm also spending more time on things that I can do piecemeal, like polishing almost-finished short pieces, and just reading.

As my friend Wendy likes to say, it's good to think of rest as an activity: something you have to do and which is as important as anything else you also have to do.



Andrew Leon said...

You sound like a cat. They spend around 18 hours a day sleeping. They'll exert a tremendous burst of energy, if needed, to catch some food, eat it, and, then, go sleep it off. They don't have stamina.
A dog on the other hand, will work steadily for long periods of time, which is why we have sled dogs and the like.
I'm more of a dog.
There's some words for you to use in your categorizations.

Elizabeth Twist said...

My dog sleeps most of the day. I don't know if that's significant.

Luanne G. Smith said...

A burst of manic writing for me would be three pages in an afternoon. Yeah, I'm a huge plodddder. I write a page a day, almost every day. I'm very much the tortoise. Ooh, but I also wrote a page and a half of synopsis today, so that was kind of a wave for me. :)

Hey, whatever works. As long as there's something to show at the end, right?

Andrew Leon said...

Dogs sleep a lot, too, but not as much as cats. With dogs, I think it's more that they don't have anything else to do.
Dogs that work are capable of working for long periods. Cats are not able to do that.

blankenship.louise said...

True, one of the limitations for plodders is an upper limit on the word count. I know I can write a quarter million words a year, but the chances I'd ever win at NaNoWriMo are slim to none. Two thousand words a night is writing at a fever pitch, for me, and I can't sustain it more than a few days.

Whatever works, like LG said.

Elizabeth Twist said...

@Andrew: Today my cat only emerged from his excellent deep dream-filled sleeps to eat and stare out the window. He is definitely my hero. You're right about dogs, though. Mine can do a three-hour hike, sleep it off for a few minutes, and be ready to go again. He's awesome that way.

@L.G. @L. Blankenship: It is all about knowing what works for you. I guess that's the whole point of figuring these things out. Just as it would probably be harmful for a plodder to try a giant burst of speed, it is not so effective for me to plan to do a smaller amount each day, or to try to avoid resting in between efforts.

Mina Lobo said...

I've waxed and waned through the plod/pants/peak spectrum. I think I'm with L.G. in saying you've gotta do whatever works for you, whenever. And, you know, you can always try other stuff out and go back to what you know if you don't dig it.
Some Dark Romantic

Anonymous said...

Yeah, my energy level goes up and down, but I'm generally pretty comfortable being a creative plodder. That's part of what I love about timeslices and wordcount tracking spreadsheets; a little bit a day really does add up.

But it's important for us plodders to take breaks too, and that can be difficult for me, since it's going against all of the mental tricks I've been using for months to get myself to NOT STOP WORKING! ;)

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