New Year’s Resolution for Pantsers
Posted by Sharon Lynn Fisher Jan 12 2011, 12:01 am
Pantsers are a self-flogging bunch. We look at plotters’ tools — like Excel spreadsheets — and we can’t help but feel inadequate (and a little queasy). This post will NOT be about how you, as a pantser, should change. You write straight from your heart, and it takes you to amazing places. That’s a beautiful thing! Instead I want to offer up some ideas to help in countering the potential pitfalls of pantsing.
While I was noodling about this post, I chatted with author Kathleen Baldwin. I attended her workshop, “The Secret Life of Pantsers,” at the 2010 RWA conference. I was moved to tears at several points. (You’ll see why later.)
Kathleen said a few things that I would like to use to set the tone for the rest of this post:
Love who you are as a writer. Embrace your unique modus operandi. Your creative genius was formed when you were a very small child.
Plotters and pantsers are hard-wired differently. Our brains developed different priority systems. For some writers, structure provides comfort. For others, structure traps and inhibits. Forcing a pantser into a plotter’s structured process may kill her interest in writing, or severely diminish the creative heights she would otherwise reach.
Her first sentence is the ONLY new year’s resolution you’ll find in this post (and the most important point I have to make): I will love the writer I am. As a bonus, I’m including some of the tools and approaches that have supported my own writing along the way. Try them out if you like, use them to come up with your own, or thumb your nose at process completely! We’re all about loving our pantser selves today.
I started writing my 2009 Golden Heart finalist manuscript exactly three years ago this month. My “outline” consisted of three sentences that described each of the three major acts in the story. That first version is still very close to my heart, but identifying its deficiencies – dragging sections in the narrative, too early resolution of conflict between hero and heroine – well, that was both shattering and eye-opening.
I had to rewrite that manuscript from beginning to end. And while I think pantsing often entails more rewriting than does plotting (actual writing is often part of our brainstorming process), I never wanted to go through that again.
So I developed some — eek! — PROCESS. I’m still a pantser — I still have to discover my story and my characters through actual writing rather than planning. But I did change a few things about my approach, and picked up a few handy tools along the way.
I almost always start by writing the first scene, and sometime after that, the rest of this follows…
The Master Plan
I have a single Word document where I store all my brainstorming notes. When enough has accumulated, I put in some headings to make it easier to find notes on plot, character, backstory, etc., but that is the extent of the organization. I never delete anything from this file – if I rule out an idea, I strike through it, or move it down under the heading “Old Stuff.”
Creating profiles has helped me add complexity to my characters AND my plots. Again I use a Word document, with a heading for each primary character. Heroine and hero for sure, often a couple secondary characters, and the antagonist if there is one. I just jot down notes in a rambling fashion, as things come to me. Stuff about their personalities, motivations, formative events in their lives, etc. I’m inspired by visuals, so I usually include photos as well. If I’m ever lost during writing, thinking “What would she say here?”, I read the profile.
Pantsing *can* be conducive to meandering. I send 50-page chunks to my critique partner, and this has very naturally conditioned me to strive to give her something exciting at the end of each batch. It doesn’t always fall right at that point, but striving for it has helped to keep my plots tight, fast-moving, and twisty.
Plotters as “Tools”
One of my CPs is a plotter. And yes, she scares me. (Love you, Mel!) But she is a fabulous resource. I brainstorm with her when thinking about where the story could go, I get her input on the early chapters, and then she doesn’t see it again until it’s finished, when she can comment on the work as a whole. On more than one occasion she has suggested a significant change, I’ve argued with her about it, and then I’ve ended up doing it. Have never regretted it.
I am almost as scared of craft books as of plotters. “Don’t mess with my process!” (or lack thereof). But Kathleen’s workshop offered some great advice that immediately lowered my blood pressure. Don’t read them with the idea you have to adhere to every bit of advice they contain. Don’t force yourself to highlight and take copious notes. Just READ them. Let them sit in the back of your mind. The information will be there, influencing your craft or not, at the moment you need it.
Nooooooo! I’ve left the most controversial for last. I don’t like outlines. I don’t like synopses either, but regard them as a lesser evil. After I’ve done a bit of writing, and gotten my muse interested, I write a 1-paragraph summary of the story. Eventually that grows to several paragraphs, and finally to a 2-3 page synopsis. This is for me. I don’t worry about polish (until, inevitably, my agent asks for it).
Here is the reason for this blasphemy: I’ve found I need some sort of high-level plan to guide me as I write. Now, this both helps and hurts. Once I’ve written it, I tend to feel that all the surprises in my story, all the juicy twists, are predictable. I combat this in two ways — I consider myself free to head off in a different direction at any moment, and I watch the reaction of my critique partner at those moments where I was sure a twist was predictable. (They almost never are.)
So this is my pantser toolkit. I’m sure many of you have developed your own, and I hope you’ll share with us in a moment!
I want to wrap up with another lovely quote from Kathleen:
A pantser relies on a deep gut-level comprehension of what makes a good story. A successful pantser studies writing craft and gathers tools that aid her process, while carefully weeding out those that stifle her. But what excites a pantser, what really gets her juices flowing, what she craves, is the challenge of weaving her tales on the fly, the delight and surprise of watching magic unfold from her fingertips.
See why I cried in her workshop?
Your turn! Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you taken techniques from the other camp that have really worked for you? What is the most essential tool or technique you use? Share with us!