Panzers and plodders: Lessons in writing, part 1

They’re the two types of writers. Didn’t know that? Neither did I. Found this out when I was at Arisia, the Boston sci-fi/fantasy convention in January.

You see, my hearing, like James Thurber’s eyesight, sometimes plays tricks on me. I was at all these writing panels, and they kept referring to panzers and plodders. Took me a while to figure out that what they were referring to were “pantsers,” people who write spontaneously, or “by the seat of their pants,” and “plotters,” people who carefully plot out a story before putting down a word.

Ausbildung, Überrollen durch Panzer

Panzer (German Federal Archive)

Plodders (Royal Irish Rifles)

Plodders (Royal Irish Rifles)

After thinking about it, I prefer my version. Panzers are writers who charge ahead with inspiration. Plodders slowly and systematically work out exactly what they are going to write. One’s the armor, the other the infantry of authorship. And just like in war, you’re going to need both.

At least it works that way for me. “The Troubles of the Farnsworths,” which you can find here on my blog, is an example in point. I began it as a panzer and finished it as a plodder, and it shows.

“Troubles” began because I was bored. I decided, purely for amusement, to start a story on Facebook. I was going to make it look as if it came out of some 19th century New England town history. I was not going to explain where I got it, so readers would be unsure if it was real or not. And it was going to deal with allegations of witchcraft. I borrowed some real history to support the story: the Year Without a Summer, various New England superstitions, and the fracturing of the Puritan church into orthodox (later Congregational) and unitarian factions. Good panzer that I was, I had no idea where the story was going.

That worked out fine, until I drove all my major characters off the stage. Rebecca had been driven out of town, and the two ministers were gone. My time as a panzer had run out; I had driven myself into a metaphorical cul-de-sac. At that point, I had to turn plodder. I’d written too much of the story and had too many readers (that is, more than one) to just simply drop it as a pointless experiment. Over the next two days, I worked out how the rest of the story was going to develop.

My first decision as a plodder was that the story was going to be deliberately unclear about whether the apparently supernatural incidents had natural causes or not. More by chance than design, I had not made that clear in the first part of the story. Now it became policy. Every subsequent event could be explained either way.

My second decision was to introduce Israel Farnsworth into the story. He was my Sherlock Holmes, my Van Helsing. He would be mysterious and knowledgeable, able to investigate, unravel, and defeat Rebecca Grimes Farnsworth’s machinations. To do that, he would call upon my knowledge of magic, pseudoscience, and religion from the 1840s. (All of which I explained in the author’s addendum to the story, included at its end.)

With those two ideas as the engine, I returned Rebecca to the story as a variant of the European “pest maiden,” spreading the white death of tuberculosis, much feared in those days. As with his models, Israel would fight his nemesis in mysterious ways, only explaining what had happened once Rebecca had been defeated. I didn’t have all the details worked out, to that extent I was still a panzer, but the design my inner plodder had worked out was an adequate guide to finish the story.

I did make one change, at the very end. I let Israel acknowledge that he and Rebecca had indeed practiced real magic. Why? Because one of my readers asked whether the magic was real or not, and I felt it would be cheating not to supply him with an answer. There are indeed reasons to listen to your readers, and one of them is that they can help keep you honest.

“Troubles” demonstrates the virtues and defects of being a panzer and plodder. If I hadn’t been a panzer, the story never would have been written. If I hadn’t been a plodder, it never would have been finished. Being a panzer kept it lively, at the cost of a meandering story line that includes one significant event that is never explained. Being a plodder meant I was able to tell a coherent story, though it means the last part of the story, when Israel explains everything, is rather dull.

Now, The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge? Had to be much more of a plodder for that, but my inner panzer got its licks in. But that’s a story for part 2.

About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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6 Responses to Panzers and plodders: Lessons in writing, part 1

  1. E. J. Barnes says:

    How often we talk about two diverging styles of solving a problem, when it turns out it behooves us to use both as the circumstance directs. We are sometimes told, in those silly Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus magazine articles, that men navigate by “dead reckoning” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_reckoning), while women navigate using landmarks. Yet the best navigators of both sexes do both.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    I used to be a “heigh-ho, in we go” panzer, fired by an idea, a character, a plot . . . . only to end up in a place of non-negotiation. I learned to plod, but only in outline. I have now become a manic editor, favouring multiple rewrites – which is why, as I’ve frequently said, I admire your “publish as you go” technique. Cos it’s all too easy to overdo those rewrites. Good valid post. Now I’ll read part 2.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Oh, I start a lot of things that hit a dead end, just as you used to, CP. Often I have to start a story several ways before it will come together, as I describe in part 2 of this series. Sometimes even the abandoned drafts are useful. Elements from them remained in “Dragon Lady,” and I took the Asenath Shattuck story, which was cut out of a quite different story, and stuck it in DLS, changing it considerably in the process.

      • crimsonprose says:

        Snap . . . ish. I cut and save into a word doc. named Scraps, then bookmark them. Still can’t find them when I want them. Case in point, there are 4 stories in Neve (only 3 as yet have emerged, there’s another to come). Two hit walls, yet by combining them (ah! that act of creation) and fitting them into a frane (story 3) they work. The 4th story, of course, is Raesan and Kerrid who were born of Feast Fables.

        • Brian Bixby says:

          Got to get back to reading Neve. For some reason, probably the overlapping characters, I started getting the two stories mixed up in my head. (Which as you’ve just said, they were. I’d compliment myself on my insight, but it’s more just my brains getting scrambled while reading six different books at the same time.) Now that I’ve reread FF from scratch, I’ll have no problem keeping the two distinct hereafter. Unless you tell me that’s a bad thing!

          • crimsonprose says:

            FF was written first, Neve was planned as 6th in a series, each featuring one or more of the original characters, each set a little later in time (mesolithic, neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Raesan and Neve as C21st. But things haven’t worked that way, and as I remarked to Russell when I first made the decision to post Neve in parallel to FF, I was concerned that it might muddle the head. However, I can now see that FF can serve, not only as backstory to Neve – which it is – but also as a “primer”. By reading FF you can better understand where Raesan is coming from. You can better understand the great service and sacrifice of Sur Guy, you can better understand the conflict of Asars and Angels. Well, I think so. However, if you must make the choice, I’d say FF first, Does that make sense? Sorry, not coming from a good place at the moment, my usual winter plunge, curtesy of CFS & too many late nights researching the Tudors. Have now bought a tonne of books (and that mighty army was sent against the French cos it seems Henry changed colours. All will be revealed, In a way it’s to be a supportingt post for Neve, but on Crimsons History

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