Plotting, Pantsing, and Something In Between
In the age old discussion of how writers write, people often make a distinction between plotters (people who create an outline prior to writing, also called “architects” by George R. R. Martin, of Game of Thrones fame, because they develop blueprints for the finished structure prior to beginning work) and pantsers (people who write “by the seat of their pants”, making it all up as they go along, also called “gardeners” by Martin, because they plant a seed, water it, watch over it, and see what grows.) I’ve been in the plotter camp ever since I wrote my first novel, The Glasswrights’ Apprentice.
My early outlines/blueprints were sketchy at best. I wrote a sentence or two for each chapter, saying briefly what happened to the main character. I kept that information in a word processing file, separate from my written manuscript. Often, I didn’t refer to it as I wrote, because I knew the general shape of the story I was telling.
As my career evolved, I modified my technique. I wrote a short paragraph for each chapter, giving myself more detail about the storyline. I tracked key events in the story (rising action, climax, denouement). I worked out complicating “reveals” when my main characters discovered surprises about the world they thought they’d always known, writing down the specific elements of their discoveries.
Then, I started using Scrivener. That software allows authors to create “index cards” for each scene and/or chapter, and I recorded a few sentences for each scene, shuffling them as necessary when my plots changed direction. I took advantage of Scrivener’s color-coding system, using one color for scenes written in one character’s point of view, another when the POV shifted. I added details in ALL CAPS at key turning points of my story, reminding myself of transitions, following the advice of screenwriting gurus like Michael Hauge.
It was a great system. It worked well for me. I never fully understood how pantsers worked — I heard them explain their methodology, but I didn’t understand.
And then I wrote Law and Murder.
Oh, I started like I always did. I broke open a new Scrivener file, and I sketched out my plot on index cards. I skipped the color-coding — the book is all narrated in first person, through Sarah Anderson’s eyes. But I added my ALL CAPS markers for key transitions. And I rolled up my sleeves and started to write.
But around Chapter Three, I discovered I was using an entirely new (to me) system. Because Sarah wasn’t doing what I’d told her to do. She wasn’t meekly mastering a new system of magic, sitting down at a table and studying the books I’d put in front of her. Instead, she was breaking into her mentor’s home, stealing his books, and teaching herself magic on the fly.
I saved that off-the-track chapter (once again, thrilled by Scrivener’s “Research” folder, where I could stash unneeded material), and I settled back into my outline.
Until I got to Chapter Eight. I won’t tell you what happened in Chapter Eight — I hate spoilers, after all. But I’ll tell you that Sarah encounters an agent of the Big Bad Villain. That’s what it said, right in my outline: Big Bad Villain. I reduced that name to initials for the next eight chapters’ worth of outline. BBV does this. BBV does that. Sarah uncovers BBV’s nefarious plot. You get the picture.
Except, I’d never figured out who the BBV was.
Maybe I was lazy as I wrote my outline. Maybe I wanted the challenge of plotting on the fly. Maybe I was writing myself into a teensy, tiny corner, because I wanted to make my life exciting for this, my thirty-first novel.
I stopped, about half-way through the manuscript, so I could figure out who the BBV was. I thought I’d figured it out. I knew the BBV’s name, and his race (in a world filled with a wide range of supernatural creatures, from sphinxes, to vampires, to witches and lots of others.) I reworked my first ten chapters, making them line up and point toward my selected BBV.
Except I was wrong.
I hadn’t figured out what the BBV would do in the last eight chapters. I hadn’t worked out why he was doing the things I’d charged to his account.
Around Chapter Twelve, I reworked my plot, zeroing in on another BBV. I reworked the first twelve chapters and moved forward again.
And I hit a wall at Chapter Fifteen. Lather, rinse, repeat, I refined my BBV yet again. I reworked all the earlier chapters. And that time, I was able to write through to the conclusion of Sarah’s story.
By the time I typed “The End”, I had a 75,000-word novel. And I had 25,000 words of material that no longer fit into Sarah’s story.
It’s not all garbage. Some of it will likely factor into a third Sarah novel, if there is a third Sarah novel. Some of it can be shared with my newsletter subscribers. Some of it was cut and pasted and massaged into the book I actually published.
But the “plotter” part of my brain kept reminding me — for every three words I wrote, I cut one. I spent hours (and hours and hours and hours) reworking chapters I thought I’d finished long ago. I dawdled down story paths that readers will never imagine.
I’m thrilled with the way Law and Murder turned out. It’s a strong novel, true to its main character. The magic system works. The plot holds together.
And I’m much better able to understand how my pantser compatriots write their own work. When I teach writing classes and people ask questions about process from a pantsing perspective, I’m far better equipped to answer.
Will I pants again?
Not if I can possibly help it. It was an exhausting process. I spent several literally sleepless nights, trying to regain the mileposts I thought I’d passed, when they turned out to belong on a different path than the one I actually needed to travel. I felt like my writing was out of control, like Sarah and her world were driving the story, instead of me.
But is the book a good one? Reviewers seem to think so — the book is averaging five stars. People say the writing is fresh, that Sarah’s story is strong. So my challenge going forward is to keep that energy, to control it in a way that consistently feels productive as I write.
If you’re a writer, are you a plotter or a pantser? If you’re a reader, can you tell an author’s process? Do you think it makes a difference with regard to genre? (Are light paranormal authors more or less likely to pants than mystery writers? Than romance writers? Than thriller writers?)
You can check out Sarah’s story for yourself, and tell me if you think my plot ultimately holds together!
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