Thursday, March 29, 2012

Confessions of a former “Pantser”

Pantser - someone who writes without a detailed outline. In other words, they write by the seat of their pants.

Plotter - someone who plots out or outlines their story before beginning the writing process.

I’ve completed two novels. (Three if you count my very first attempt eighteen years ago - and I so don’t.) I started the first one as part of an online class. Even though one of the assignments was to make an outline, I more-or-less, “pantsed” by way through it. I loved the idea of having a basic premise or characters and following them into the wide unknown. Let them tell me the story, I thought. It took me about a year to write the book. Correction: it took me a year to write the first draft. I’m still working on revisions.

Pantsing worked well so I did the same thing with my second book. I loved my MC’s voice and simply followed her down a bunch of roads. Oh, I knew where the two of use would eventually end up; I had a destination clearly in mind. But the journey was a wide-open adventure. From start (idea) to finish (signing with an agent) that book took me about two years and included help from a freelance editor. (The amazingly gifted Diane Bailey)

Then I started Book #3. Again, I had an end place in mind and a general idea about who my MC was and merrily pantsed along. Only, this time, things didn’t go well. I had false start after false start. Part of the issue was that I simply had the wrong plot for the right story. (That's a whole other post.) But it also became increasingly clear to me that something about my process wasn’t working. I was growing more and more frustrated and after six months, I barely had 30 pages I was willing to show anyone.

In all other aspects of my life, I am a planner. I was girl who knew what she wanted to do for a living and who she wanted to marry at age sixteen. I named my three kids well before they were born and didn’t change my mind (like my mother swore I would!) I live by lists, buy a certain calendar every year because it has large “day” boxes and stress endlessly over details. So, why on Earth wasn’t I planning when I was writing?

I decided to take shake things up and try something new. I found an online plot class taught by the awesome Rhonda Helms and signed up. I was desperate so when Rhonda walked us through how to plot out chapters (or scenes, if that’s they way you work) and asked us to figure out our plot twists (who know, those events that send the story off in a different direction), I sighed and thought, Fine, I’ll give it a try.

Long story, short - miracle (cue the choir)!!! After I went through that outlining process and then *clears throat* totally revamped my original plot, I FINALLY found my footing. I started writing again in mid-January. I’m quickly closing in on the 100 page mark. Which is remarkable when you consider my 30 pages in 6 month pace of before. (Ugh.)

Of course, having a new direction is probably helping a great deal. But I can’t deny that the outline is proving to be very valuable as well. I'm sold and I don't think I'll ever go back to being a pantser.

I thought planning would hinder my creativity but it’s just the opposite. I find that having a detailed outline (even if I’m not following it exactly) is freeing me up from the panic of “What comes next?!” and I tend to be able to focus more on the task at hand. Today, my goal is THIS scene and only this scene. I don’t feel like my juggling act is all about to fall apart because I know what I need to keep track of. I also can see (literally) if I’m including enough of the subplot or have too many scenes set in the same location or dialog heavy chapters and so forth. Because the details are taken care of, I’m enjoying the process a thousand times more. And as we all know, happy writer = great work.

So here’s my suggestion: If you’re a go-wherever-the-muse-takes-me kind of writer and it’s not working, why not try something new?

It might be just the kick in the pants you need. (See what I did there? haha)


  1. I'm finding the more I get into the process the more planning I need. Of course it doesn't always turn out as I plan it.

  2. I'm dying to try out Rhonda's method on my next novel, if I ever decide what it will be. I'm thinking it might be three points of view. If that's true, pantsing isn't going to cut it!

  3. neat - thanks for sharing! i'm somewhere between a planner and a pantster, and i think i could be a little more efficient :)

  4. I so identify. And like you, I'm finding that having a detailed outline is reducing my "what comes next" panic! Plus I figure it may cut down on the number of complete rewrites I need to do as I discover major plot holes or inconsistencies. Thanks for this post!


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