Monday, February 22, 2010

I'm a Pantser. Not That There's Anything Wrong With That.

Last week I made a startling discovery about myself and my writing process.  Total shocker to me, because I am one of those "must have my ducks in a row" kind of people who can't work with an untidy office and I write linear, meaning one chapter at a time.  I thrive on structure.  So realizing that I am indeed a pantser was, well, liberating.

For those who aren't familiar with the term, writers tend to fall into two categories:  Plotters and Pantsers.  Plotters are the planners, who lay things out in advance, know where the story is going, what the arcs are and how it plays out.  Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants.

Before I sold, and even a bit after, I was quite a plotter.  If I didn't have things mapped out in a prelim synopsis and chapter by chapter break down of plot points and character arc I felt adrift, and I totally think my pantserness has evolved from a growing sense of confidence.  Not one borne of any sort of brilliance, just that in the end it all seems to work out.  Probably five books ago I was writing the end and BAM!  Something hit from out of the blue that was so perfect for the story.  I started really enjoying those moments.  I then kind of admitted that I am a combo plotter pantser.  I do character work at the beginning, you see.  But that's not really plotting.  That's just kind of getting to know the people who are going to populate my waking hours for the next 12 weeks or so (or less, depending on deadline).  I usually have a few scenes in my head too, and they are usually turning point sort of moments, but again - not plotting.  These are more inspiration type vignettes that drive me forward.

As I'm writing this my buddy Trish is DM'ing me on Twitter and she just said:  I can see how that would place the writer in you at odds with the Mom and wife who does 467856 things a day off a pre-planned LIST.

Actually, that created another lightbulb.  Maybe the reason I need to pants it is BECAUSE I have so many balls to juggle and I simply can't fit the STORY side of my brain into compartments like I do laundry, school runs, dinner, dishes, promotion and marketing, and so on.  Perhaps my pantserness is like the yin and yang of me:  one side needing the structure and the other side needing pure creativity.  THAT makes perfect sense to me.

Part of the whole conundrum has to do with trust, and trusting myself and my story instincts and the ability to pull things off.  The more I go on the more I realize I just need to get a first draft down.  The frustration was coming because I was going chapter by chapter and not having it all perfect, but the truth is - it doesn't HAVE to be

Wow.  Lightbulb time.  I don't have to be perfect.  There can be holes and gaps.  And it's OKAY.

Now, THAT part of it does kind of go to war against my organizational ducks in a row concept, and that's where the trust comes in.  I need to trust my creativity and let it fly.  I can always rein it in if it goes a little crazy.  Case in point, the current wip Under Argentine Skies.  I thought I knew where it was going, but I kept getting stuck on the small stuff.  I decided I just needed to stop analyzing it and get on with writing THE END.  And as I was writing away, all the pieces started to come together.  SO MANY AHA MOMENTS! 

THIS is why I'm a pantser.  Cuz I didn't have this all figured out before hand.  The next thing is so many of the revelations have the groundwork all laid out - I just need to tease it out of the threads that are already there.  I started making notes about the Rule of Three and how it relates to my hero's character arc.  About symbolism that I missed but got in the end and now needs to be inserted at strategic points earlier on.  I couldn't foreshadow correctly because I didn't really know what I was foreshadowing.  I mean I DID, but not the true essense of it, not so I could really use its power.  Things like in the HEA scene when my heroine thinks:  Her heart had known from the start that he was exactly what she needed. It had just taken some time for her head to catch up.  That seems like a really simple idea, but truthfully it had hovered over the whole story without being given voice until that scene, and it just tripped off my fingertips and I stared at the screen in amazement.

The really great part is that I've realized it's okay to work this way, because when my creativity is let loose it can really come through with some great things.  And I don't really know how it's all going to play out until I get to the ending and my characters will say something or do something that has been there all along and suddenly is made brilliantly clear.

Then I go back and make sure all the threads are there.  It does make for more second draft work, but it also makes complete sense to me now.  The problem was I kept fighting it thinking I would get to the end and have a directionless mess.

But I don't.  I just need to trust myself and trust in my process and when I get to the second draft, look at it with a critical eye to bring it up to the best story it can be.


  1. Welcome to the pantster clubhouse sweetness! It may not always be tidy in here, but we have the best desserts and surprise guests are pretty much guaranteed ;)

    Now if I could just get the CHAINS off my panster my paranoia has placed around her, she could drop by and nudge some of those ducks out of place for you when you're not looking...You know, just to keep you on your toes ;)

    Maybe my problem is my yin has been missing my yang for so long now I'm not sure where I left it.

  2. I'm so glad you have put into words the method that seems to be working for me, too. Before I hit on the concept of just letting things fly (after all the preliminary thinking, everything except the detailed synopsis-type planning, that is), I was trying to make every chapter perfect. I was constantly getting stalled somewhere along the line because I didn't know exactly what was going to transpire.

    Now, I really do fly by the seat of my pants, and it's also partly because I now realise how much I look forward to the revision stage. So it's possible to get to the end faster as the scenes that are carrying the story along keep pouring out.

    Love your yin and yang analysis of the process! And thanks for making it clear to me. Not that I am a huge multi-tasker like you, but I do make LISTS!

  3. I have a marvellous notebook published by pukkabooks called THINGS TO DO TODAY which gives you 115 pro forma lists. It's revolutionised my To Do Lists, which used to be on scraps of envelopes and easily lost. You just fill in the date at the top, and away you go. It's so groovy, and has room for sidenotes etc.

    Yes, I'm a list person. Because my compartments are starting to leak and I find myself forgetting the kids' dental appointments but remembering to do the revisions.

    Pants or plan? Bit of both, really.

    Way back when, I would use the Writer's Journey checklist to see the arc of my story in action right down to the exact page number where Act Two or whatever should begin. Now I tend to get an idea and scribble it down over a page of two of A4, with a vague idea about what will go in each chapter, then start writing and restructure as I go along.

    Having said that, the ms I just finished - in less than a month - was planned out over about 15 sheets of paper in one sitting. But I didn't adhere to my own plan, or even look at it again once I was past chapter three. It was all more or less in my head, and not checking meant I could change things as I went along without worrying about messing up my lovely plan. ;)

  4. I'm a bit of both, too. I've tried plotting, but it didn't work for me. It took out all of the spontaneity. Please talk more about the rule of three that you mentioned.


  5. Great post, Donna. I'm a pantster too!