I was talking to a client the other day, and she used a metaphor I loved to describe her writing style. She said, “I have a friend whose writing is more like papier-mâché. He starts from the bare bones and adds on words, piece by piece and layer by layer. For me, it’s more like starting with a block of marble, you know? I start with a lot and then chip away until it looks like something good.”
I love both approaches, and I’ve worked with authors who’ve done incredible work with both. One client, a papier-mâché writer, refers to getting the “content layer” down, then adding the “artistic layers.” But I’d never heard the styles described in quite this way, so I wanted to take a minute to break them down, explore their advantages and challenges, and, hopefully, help some of you pin down your own approach (or inspire you to try a new one).
If you’re a papier-mâché writer, it’s likely you’re an outliner. you fall on the “planner” side of the “planner vs. pantser” debate. You start by painstakingly building the framework of your plot—the wire base for your papier-mâché, if you will—and only once you have that structure in place do you start layering on the glue and paper strips that add color and depth and texture to the piece.
If you’re a papier-mâché writer, one of your biggest advantages is that, by the time you start writing, you know exactly where you’re going. I’m not at all saying you won’t work hard or run into trouble spots (you will), but you’re unlikely to run into the roadblock of “what’s next.” From the very first scene to the very last, you already know what’s next.
There are a couple challenges I see papier-mâché writers face quite frequently, though. One is that all that planning can get in the way of actually getting started. It’s easy to get comfortable researching and plotting, tweaking that outline over and over, and avoiding the task of actually writing. When this is the problem, I recommend my authors give themselves time limits—two weeks, three days, a month. Do what feels right to you, but stick to it. Once that planning time is up, it’s time to start writing.
The second challenge I see papier-mâché writers face (and one I’m guilty of, myself) is clinging too tightly to the structure once they do get started. As you start to add layers, it’s not unusual for characters to take shape in unexpected ways, and sometimes that means the existing structure needs adjustment. While the premade plan is an excellent guide, holding too tightly may lead to forced-feeling plot moves or missed creative opportunities. So if you’re a papier-mâché writer, go ahead and hold yourself to that outline as long as it makes sense. But when surprises call for adjustments, don’t be afraid to shift things around.
If you write like a sculptor, you likely identify as a “pantser.” Rather than planning ahead, you fly by the seat of your pants, letting it all flow out of you and then paring it back in the editing process—carving away anything that isn’t your story, to paraphrase the old Michelangelo joke.
As a sculptor, your biggest advantage is that you give yourself the freedom to go any direction you want. Without a wire frame to guide you, you can take twists and turns as they come to you, seizing and rejecting opportunities as you see fit in the moment.
Of course, that freedom also means you’re more likely to hit a wall. And when you do find yourself suffering from writer’s block, you don’t have a plan to fall back on. Getting things back on track is all on you.
The other challenge I see sculptors face frequently is the challenge of killing their darlings. When you start by putting everything on paper, it’s a guarantee that you’ve written things that don’t belong. Whether it’s an overdone description, a static scene, or even an entire character, something is going to have to go (likely many somethings). It’s never easy to scrap what you’ve written, but one way to make it easier is to get a new perspective. Print your work rather than reading it on your screen, take it somewhere else to edit it, or if you can, put it away for a week or two before you come back to it. The change of scene and the time away will help you read your work more objectively. And don’t forget, just because something doesn’t belong in this story doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong anywhere! Save your trimmings in a “scrap” document or folder for later use.
So, when you sit down to write, are you making papier-mâché or sculpture? Why do you prefer that approach? What do you struggle with, and how do you overcome those challenges? Comment below, or shoot me an e-mail. I’d love to hear about what you’re working on!