One night, I got a message from my brother, who also writes novels. It read:
Subject: Pantser or Plotter
Two links for you:
I’m a pantser. My guess is that you’re a plotter.
The links were interesting. From Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, I knew he was a pantser. Now I knew my brother was a pantser as well.
But, was my brother right about me? That’s not a simple answer. Let me explain.
One day, while half-asleep on a plane, I got an idea for a story. After that, every time I flew, the story in my brain grew.
Like a true pantser, I started writing at the beginning and kept moving forward.
Originally, I planned to write a short story. Before long, I had a novel in my head. Since I couldn’t write as fast as I could dream, I made notes on anything handy. When that became unwieldy, I organized my notes into a mind map. Eventually, I reorganized everything into a spreadsheet.
When my short story evolved to a novel, my pantser approach became strained. I pressed ahead, even though my new chapters contained subplots that needed support in earlier chapters. I handled this by inserting notes in the manuscript to fix these problems in the first re-write – and didn’t look back.
Two things happened that forced me to change my ways.
- One day, as I pantsered along, one of my characters did something unexpected. The action took the entire story in a new and more exciting direction. It also made about a month’s worth of earlier work obsolete.
- I realized, based on my notes, that my novel was on pace to finish at over 200,000 words.
At that point, I considered keeping the original content and disposing of my new, brilliant idea; but it made the story so much better, I couldn’t.
I’d also been aware of being over-budget on words for a while. At first, I ignored the problem. Then, I told myself I’d cut a lot during the first re-write. But when I calculated 200,000+ words, I knew I had to deal with the issue.
That was the day I became a plotter.
I spent a week transforming my loosely formatted spreadsheet into a formal plan to write a novel. With a column for each major character across the top, I listed the scenes in chronological order under the character who controlled the point-of-view.
Once I had inserted every scene, I calculated the average number of words per scene in my manuscript.
With a goal of finishing under 100,000 words, I took a cleaver to my spreadsheet. I stripped out a couple of major characters and lopped off several subplots.Emotionally, I had so much invested, it took days to gather the courage to make the needed changes.
When I finished, I had a plan that would guide me to delivering a finished product at or under my word target. As an extra benefit, I would no longer be discarding months of work.
Now fully converted to a plotter, I resumed writing. I expected, with all the prep work now complete, the words would roll off my fingertips. Not so. Every time I sat down to write, my creative self raged, constantly howling and shaking the cage. I found it impossible to focus.
I eventually made peace with my creative spirit. I agreed to set him free, if he would agree not to change anything already written. Then I locked in the ending by writing the final chapter. He’s free to change anything in between, as long as the number of scenes stays the same.
So, my brother was correct, I am a plotter; but with the soul of a pantser.
Which are you?
Update: Terri Giuliano Long has posted an article titled “To Plot or Not to Plot“on her blog that covers this issue in greater depth. She explains that pantsering works well with some types of stories while others need some degree of plotting. Jump over and get educated by a master.
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