Friday, January 28, 2011

Great minds don't think alike

In another life I was a PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition, which is a subspecialty of English, and I studied how writers write. Anybody remember the Love Stories series from Bantam in the 1990s? I sent off for their guidelines (yes, "sent off"--there was no internet to speak of), read lots of their books, compared how the guidelines and books matched up, and incidentally became a die-hard Elizabeth Chandler fangirl in the process. I presented this paper at the national conference of the Rhetoric Society of America. I am not making this up.

Today I am happy to be a novelist and copyeditor rather than an English professor. I do not miss the public speaking one bit. But I do miss the research. I miss talking to people about their writing processes, which I find endlessly fascinating. And lately I've been thinking a lot about one question in particular: Does personality type have anything to do with a person's process of writing a novel?

There are lots of personality tests we could use for investigation--but so we're all on the same page, let's use my favorite, the enneagram. You can figure out which type you are by checking out this description on AOL, or this one on my personal blog, or if you're really interested, google it and you'll come up with some multiple choice tests you can take online (I can't vouch for other people's sites but I took this test and it did not make my computer explode).

I am a 5, all day long. I read. I research. I figure things out. I am nothing if not logical. I take great pleasure in looking things up for people. The very best conversation is one in which somebody reaches for the dictionary to prove a point. I am SuperCopyeditor.

There are lots of descriptions of types of writers we could use, too, but I think many of us are familiar with the pantser/plotter dichotomy. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. They have no idea where they're going when they start writing a novel. I heard a pantser say recently that she hates writing a synopsis for her novel before she's through writing it, because she doesn't want to know how it ends until it gets there. If she plans the end ahead of time, she doesn't want to write the novel anymore because the thrill is gone. I do not understand these animals but that is what they claim.

A plotter, in contrast, plans and outlines and researches before ever putting finger to keyboard. They know exactly where they are going. They would be afraid to start writing without a detailed plan because they are terrified of writing themselves into a corner.

We're familiar with this dichotomy, but all dichotomies are false. You may not be one or the other, but you can place yourself somewhere in this framework, right?

I used to think I was a plotter. The more I have talked to people about their novels, though, the more I have realized that there is one very unusual thing about my process. I don't write in order. Most plotters do. Most pantsers do too. But I start with an idea, and I figure out what the most basic plot points of the novel will be: how it begins, what the problem is, what happens in the middle, what the climax is, how it gets resolved, how it ends. Somewhere during that stage, I start writing what will become page 142. Then page 350. Now I'm on a roll. I jot stuff down in the middle of work, in the carpool line. I step out of the shower to do this and get my notes all wet. This goes on for several weeks until I can't find anything anymore. Now we know I'm serious: it's calendar time! I make a calendar-shaped table and figure out what happens when and divide the action into chapters. I go through my manuscript, which has grown to perhaps 150 pages by now, and put everything in the proper chapters. And then I fill in the gaps.

What is that? A plantser? A potter?

You know what it's not? Logical.

And, being logical, at one point I realized that other people were writing their books in order (how odd!) and having a much easier time of selling books on proposal, which of course requires turning in the first 3 chapters, not page 142 and page 350 and a bunch of garbled notes and a calendar. So I tried to write a book in order.

Disaster.

I will never do THAT again.

I am really curious about what's going on here. The only thing I can think of is that I am writing on the macro and micro levels simultaneously, one is constantly influencing the other, and on a subconscious level that makes good sense to my brain.

But what am I doing writing YA romance novels in the first place? Shouldn't 5's stick to the ivory tower? If you look at the personality types in the AOL article, the 5 is listed as the writer, but I think they meant research writer or nonfiction writer. They list 4 as the fiction writer, which makes perfect sense to me. Yet off the top of my head I can name you novelists I know personally who fall into every one of the 9 personality types.

It also seems that the more logical 1, 5, 6, and 8 would be plotters, the more impulsive 2, 3, 4, and 7 would be pantsers, and the 9 would not be able to decide. From my very informal research, that is true exactly half the time = no correlation = random = no.

And many of these writers realize there's a disjunction. They will say, "I am not an organized person but my writing process is very organized," or "I am an excruciatingly organized person but my writing process is a mess." (me me me *raising hand and bouncing obnoxiously in my desk*)

Have I bored you? Sorry--we 5's have a tendency to do that to people. Just go on, 3's and 7's, nobody really expected you to stick around for the whole post anyway. But if you're intrigued, make a comment about your enneagram personality type and your writing process. Do you see any connection? How does your writing mind work and why?

22 comments:

  1. Wow. It's like you're my twin. And here all this time I'd thought I was alone. Excellent post. Not boring at all. :)

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  2. I write in order, yep. But I do read here and there about people that aren't, so you aren't the only one!

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  3. I write in order. I can't do it any other way. I'll jot down ideas for a scene that might have come to me while running (I get a lot of ideas while running!), but I won't work on it until I get to it in the first draft. Even though I'm a plotter, there's always surprises on the way, which means that scene I wrote out of order might not work anymore.

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  4. Well Lydia, of course YOU don't think it's boring, you 5 you.

    Laura, that's comforting!

    Stina, wow, that's very organized. I guess I should add that pretty much everything I come up with is conversation between characters. I have to go ahead and write it down because it's so detailed that I will forget it if I wait. The nuances of the way characters phrase things tell me a lot about the characters themselves, which in turn influences the plot. IT IS A MESS I TELL YOU.

    I get a lot of ideas while running too! If I'm in the thick of a book I take a notebook in the car with me so I can dump everything I've thought of onto the pages before I forget it.

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  5. Interesting post. I came out as a 6 and it fit my personality exactly. I'm anxious, stressed, untrusting and self-reliant.

    As far as the writing goes...I'm suppose to be hardworking and I can see problems before they arrive, so I should be more productive in my writing area of life and maybe my fear and stress makes me less likely to submit and face rejection.

    Just rambling now. Thanks for the insight.

    Michelle

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  6. Wow, this was really interesting. I did the RHETI test and it said I'm strongly a 6 with 5, 4 and 9 the next strongest. Type 7 was the lowest. That surprised me, because I'd always considered myself pretty optimistic. :-) But the RHETI test calls it the "enthusiast" and by their definition, yah I'm not the rah-rah type. I kinda guessed I'd be close to a 6 because I thought I was a little 5 and 7 based on your list here, but RHETI shows I'm a 6 for different reasons. Very interesting. And I can kinda see how it relates to my writing (needing support of others is spot on). I'm going to read the whole thing and see what other insights I can find in it.

    I took the quiz over at AOL too (something about job matching) and it said I was ISTJ, practical, serious, quiet and logical. Yup, sounded like a good assessment. And it said a good job match would be librarian (so there's that "5" again). LOL!

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  7. More fascinating enneagram nerdbait:

    Whatever number you are, you are also going to have tendencies from the numbers on either side of you. One will be stronger and that is your "wing."

    I'm a 5 (nerd) with a stronger 4 wing (dramatic, creative). But I also have lots of 6 (cautious, protective) tendencies.

    So Jillian, I know exactly where you're coming from. I have a 7 friend with a 6 husband and I am always explaining him to her. I think you will feel better about submitting your work if you do a lot of research beforehand and know what you're getting into.

    And Catherine, of course you're a 6, and of course it makes sense that you are 5-ish and 7-ey, because those are the numbers on either side of you.

    Each number also has a "growth type," a number you can try to be more like. The growth type for 6 is 9, basically meaning it's good to learn how to relax.

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  8. So I took the test and got the same score for type 2 and 6 so as in line with my personality, indecisive (I can't even score a number on a chart, I'm both?)

    The descriptions didn't surprise me and probably reflect more on my current role as a nurse. With regards to writing however, I am a plotter through and through, I HAVE to know where I'm going but I'll often write out of order. Nanowrimo was weird because I tried to write IN order and there were times I didnn't know where I was going. Thankfully I still finished though :D

    This is a really interesting post and I had thought of doing a similar one based on star signs as I'm curious to know which star sign comes out top in writers. Feel free to do it if you want x

    p.s. LOVE your books :)

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  9. I waffled on so many answers to that quiz I don't know if it's accurate for me (for a lot of the questions, I thought, "Well, it depends on the situation.") I had a definite answer for very few of those questions. That being said, I had the most 3's, and then split between 5's and 7's. I am clearly NOT a 2. :)

    That being said...I have no idea if it means anything for my writing. I have a very loose plot in mind as I write. I do try to write in order, but as I write I always have a separate file that I use to jot down notes and sometimes whole paragraphs/scenes as I think of them that are intended for later sections of the book. Then, when I get to that section, I re-read those notes, edit, and insert them. Sometimes there are big changes, sometimes not.

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  10. Here I am again! (Mostly because I just read what I posted and thought, "sheesh, that could use some editing!" Now what does THAT say about me?!)

    So...now that I've re-read a lot of what's on the quiz, I know I'm not a 7. I'd love to know which answers triggered which "types" to be flagged.

    One other personality test I've taken a few times is the Myers-Briggs. I don't always come up with a consistent type on that, either, but it's usually INTJ or close to it.

    I do think they're interesting to take and consider.

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  11. Lynsey, do you take care of people because you want to have a relationship with them and it makes you feel good to have helped them (2) or because you worry about what will happen if you don't (6)? CONGRATULATIONS on finishing NaNo!!! And I'm glad you've enjoyed my books!

    Niki, you are such a 5. "for a lot of the questions, I thought, 'Well, it depends on the situation.'" LOL overthinking! "I'd love to know which answers triggered which 'types' to be flagged." LOL 5's love systems! I might have suspected you are a 3 because of your lawyer background, but 3's operate on a wing and a prayer and you do not. Your system for keeping your notes straight seems very 5-ey.

    I am an INTJ too.

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  12. I'm a 3 with 5 and 9 right behind. My stress type is 9 and when I am happiest I am a 5. I'd describe my writing process as planting. I put a seed down and I go on with my process of being a writer. I have a whole garden to deal with.

    Sometimes a seed will lie dormant for years before it starts to germinate. When I put time and effort into its development, it grows--roots, stem, leaves--in various directions but the system itself is orderly. If I keep working on it (sometimes I have to pay more attention to one area or another or I have to leave it alone for a little while) eventually it becomes a mature plant ready to be harvested.

    I hope that made some sense. *g*

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  13. I turned up as a 1: The Reformer.

    Ones are conscientious and ethical, with a strong sense of right and wrong. They are teachers, crusaders, and advocates for change: always striving to improve things, but afraid of making a mistake. Well-organized, orderly, and fastidious, they try to maintain high standards, but can slip into being critical and perfectionistic. They typically have problems with resentment and impatience. At their Best: wise, discerning, realistic, and noble. Can be morally heroic.

    5, 8, and 9 were right behind, all tied, only one less than my score for 1.

    What this says about me, I'm not sure, except I'm not buying that noble stuff. :-P

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  14. With respect to writing, I suppose I follow some sort of hybrid as well. I generally start out pantser-style, following my bliss for about five or six chapters, getting to know the story, the setting, and the characters, then generally (and there's no rhyme or reason as to when, exactly), I'll sit and write a chapter by chapter outline of the rest of the story. I like doing this because while I don't like writing scenes out of order, ideas for scenes will occur to me and I'll have a place where I can jot them down and then let the lizard brain work on the details while I continue on my linearly merry way.

    Synopses don't bother me in the slightest-- I guess again because I do write outlines, so I know where I want the story to go and how I want it to end, even if I don't know the exact particulars. Sometimes, I will know what the final line is and again, it gets jotted down in the trusty outline and lives there until I'm ready to use it.

    And I always have a notebook with me, for jotting down notes. Tell me that surprises you. Go on, tell me. It's okay. I know.

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  15. See, Jennifer, great minds DO think alike. And they are 5's!

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  16. Anah, what a lovely metaphor. I can tell that you love your process and that's got to help!

    Barb, I would have pegged you for a 4/artist/patron of the arts. But now that you mention the 1, that certainly does go along with your Virgo-tastic tendencies. And your process sounds a LOT like mine except that you are happy about it and I am not.

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  17. Number 2 Jennifer, so does that make me a number 2? I don't know what that says about me as a writer though?

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  18. What a fun post. I am a 2 (and I love that examples included Mother Teresa and Monica Lewinsky lol. wow big difference there). I am not sure right now how it relates to my writing BUT I do know that by reading the description it hit on key aspects of my next Main Character, whom I was thinking was alot different than I am LOL. So, I guess I was STILL writing about me, even though she is completely different than the protag in my first novel.

    Oh and while I am still wondering how it affects my wriiting, I definitely know that being a 2 influences my critique/beta reading relationships!

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  19. So interesting! I'm a #4 and a pantser and I write in order. I revise constantly, circling back again and again throughout the writing to cull the issues and problem areas out of the ms.

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  20. Lynsey and Rachel, I'm not sure how being a 2 affects your writing--that's what I'm so curious about. And yeah, Rachel, it DEFINITELY affects your critique partner relationships! I tend to be a pretty harsh and analytical critic and it's something I've worked on a LOT over the years. I like to think I'm much more mellow than I used to be. (my friends are rolling their eyes right now...)

    Cheryl, that sounds exactly like a 4!

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  21. I came out with a tie between type 4 and 5. Sounds about right! That was fun. Thanks for posting, Jennifer!

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  22. I tied 5, 6 and 8, with 1 right behind it. I have no idea what that means, except maybe I'm completely mixed up. :)

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