New Year’s Resolution for Pantsers

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.”

Character Profiles
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.

50-Page Planning
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.

Craft Books
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!

59 responses to “New Year’s Resolution for Pantsers”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is really helpful, Sharon! I’ve been thinking of myself lately as a “recovering pantser,” trying to get more structure down on paper ahead of time so I don’t end up with the kind of paralyzing muddle I have in the latter half of my current WIP.

    The more I work on it, the more new ideas sprout (sometimes contradictory to what’s in another chapter), and now I’m not sure how to contain it all.

    But it’s energizing nonetheless to hear a call to embrace my inner pantser…let my pantser freak flag fly! I like the idea of working in 50-page chunks. Will have to try this!!

  2. Hello, Sharon! Thanks for letting us tinker around with your toolkit. I love the advice about carefully weeding out the tools or methods that don’t help. You’ve got to find the best method that works for *you* and your book. That takes a bit of patience and experimentation.

    I’m in pantsing rehab with Elisa. (Waving!) I’ve started books that degenerated into directionless messes with 101 subplots! Much as I hate writing synopses, they are super helpful in keeping me on track.

    • Hi Vanessa! Me too on the synopsis. What I end up with without some kind of plan is loooooong sections of characters doing nothing that moves the plot forward. There also tends to be a lot of eating. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by despite the high water. 🙁 Thinking about you.

  3. I do wonder how many pantsers would actually like to have more structure to their writing. I’ve written in excess of 20 novels now and planned none of them. Like you, Sharon, I write the first scene and somehow it all flows from there. BUT when it doesn’t flow and I sit here wondering what the hell I’m doing– how I long to be someone who had the thing plotted from start to finish, a synopsis completed before I wrote the words – chapter one. The joy in sitting down and knowing the next scene you’re going to write…. ah but then, I’d lose those moments of delight when I realise things link in in a way I’d not foreseen, that a character who was minor, might well be a major player, that I actually have themes I didn’t intend, that the moment things go wrong comes as much as a surprise to me as I hope it does for the reader.
    I think I’ll always be a pantser and I DO like writing this way but I’ll harbour a secret desire to be a little more organised. The irony is – in life I am uber organised. A list maker, I pack well in advance, I’m never later, never unprepared etc etc.

    • Oh, Barbara, I had to laugh. The detailed lists and advanced packing is me to a “T” but my writing style is sometimes pure chaos. I’ve written myself into corners so many times, but nothing–nothing!–kills my muse faster than trying to write an outline or to approach a new WIP with a predetermined, cut and dried plot. The story just has to sort of spontaneously combust on paper. Some great ideas here from Sharon that I’m going to try to work into my process (such as it is). 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by, Barbara and Laurie! It is a joyous, amazing thing, isn’t it, when suddenly things come together and we have no idea how or why! Despite the additional planning I do now, I still have that. My synopsis keeps me on track, but I don’t allow it to imprison me. Just as an example, in my last book I had a big twist that I intended to happen 2/3 of the way through. It ended up on page 100(ish), because once I got to that point I just knew it belonged there.

      Funny that you are both so organized in the rest of life! I have…brief fits of organization. 🙂

  4. Elise Hayes says:

    Hey Sharon,

    I, too, have my roots in a pantser approach. Yeah, I know you couldn’t tell it from my last posting (with my scene-by-scene chart that forces me to ask myself whether I’ve gotten everything from a scene that I should get from it–but that’s a *revision* tool. I could never do something like that for a first draft). As I was reading your post, I kept nodding: the one Word file with notes on the story that I never delete. The individual character files with rambling thoughts/musings. Fact is, I can’t just sit down in front of an empty chart and say, “so who is this character?” I can only find out who my characters are in writing them–and ditto with plot twists.

    That said, the sheer amount of rewriting that I had to do on my first two books was nothing less than daunting (6 years each!! argh!!). So I have been pushing myself into the writing territory of those planners. Some of the tools work for me, some of them don’t. It’s getting better–I am writing much more efficiently now and I feel like I’m *starting* to find my balance. (Mind you, I suspect each book is going to have a different balance, but still, progress is being made 🙂

    • Oh, our experiences have been VERY similar! I don’t really feel I KNOW my characters inside and out until the end of the first draft, but by the time I’m finished with revisions they are deeply rooted in me.

      And you hit on something else — efficiency. Like you, I did not want to spend the amount of time rewriting the second book that I did on the first. It will always take time to develop those characters, but lordy it’s hard to make major plot changes once that first draft is written!

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Elise! 🙂

  5. Tamara Hogan says:

    To use a word that my chaptermate Liz Selvig used in a blog posting I did on Midwest Fiction Writers’ 2010 Golden Heart finalists, I think I’m a pantsalotter.

    Before I sold the first Underbelly Chronicles trilogy to Sourcebooks, my editor asked for a series arc – basically a high level synopsis of every book in my proposed series. Book One’s ‘synopsis’ is 1 page long, Book Two’s is 3/4 page, Book Three’s is half a page, and books four through nine, at this point, are a single paragraph each noting the names and occupations of the hero, heroine, and their internal and external conflicts. I’m finishing the second book now, and man, has that 3/4 page synopsis, written in late 2009, anchored me.

    Knowing what has to happen to drive the series arc, having done a lot of character development work, and having a pretty good idea of what the major plot points are, I…fly into the mist. Once I have 50 pages or so under my belt, I pause to assess where I’m at, and then try to apply some craft in terms of character journey and story arc. I then break out the note cards, brainstorming the scenes I think I need to drive the plot to the end of the book. Cards are added, cards are thrown away the deeper into the story I get.

    I wrote TASTE ME using an entirely instinctive process, with all the time in the world. With CHASE ME, I’ve retained the pieces of TASTE ME’s process that work for me, but adapted others so I can produce usable manuscript more quickly, being I’m now writing on deadline and under contract. Someday I plan to build a shrine to Deb Dixon and her GMC charts!

    I’m looking forward to reading about everyone’s processes. I develop processes for a living, and I have yet to decide whether this is a pro or a con as it applies to writing. 😉

    • HA! I am so using that! Pantsalotter.

      Tamara, thank you very much for bringing to the discussion how things change once you have deadlines! Plotters definitely have the advantage there. And thank you for sharing with us how you addressed this for your series.

      I once read on a published pantser’s blog that she writes an outline for her publisher, and then pretty much does what she wants when she sits down to write, because they won’t remember. Ha! Not sure whether I’d be brave enough for that, but I would imagine there is some wiggle room once an outline is approved. (Any thoughts?)

  6. Hi Sharon! As a pure pantser, I really appreciate your ideas on how to move toward being a tad more organized in my creative process. I do embrace, celebrate and enjoy pantserdom and the surprises and unexpected plot twists that seem to pop up as I work. But at the same time, I need to learn to “write smarter” and adapt methods that will help me avoid those dratted corners and box canyons.

    Thanks for the great tips and treasures!

    Oh, and the fifty page system works really well for me, too!

    • Welcome, Laurie! (Indispensable critique partner mentioned in “50-Page Planning.”)

      There are some pantsers who really stick to their guns and do NO planning. I have great respect for them, but don’t know how they keep from going crazy! Most pantsers I know have adopted some sort of process. In fact, I think you may be the most uncorrupted (ha!) pantser I know! 🙂

  7. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Sharon, my process is very similar to yours, however, I consider myself a PLANTster because I plot a little, pants a little, plot a little and so on. I start with a vague premise for my story (for example my 2004 GH winner was begun with the simple idea of two single parents dealing with their kids teen pregnancy.)

    Next I do character profiles and GMC charts for all my main characters, which include in-depth questions about my characters’ back-stories and what shaped them into the people they are and gave them the values and flaws they possess. I then write my elevator pitch to refine the premise into the main story conflict to keep me on track.

    Then I start writing. After I finish the first three chapters and have gotten to know the characters and established the conflict, I determine where I want my characters to end up and figure out what they each need to learn (character arc) to get there. Before I begin writing again, I compose a very rough outline of the pivotal scenes I’ll need to complete those character arcs and I decide what incident will cause the black moment.

    Then I sit down and pants the rest of the book, using the rough synopsis as a road map to keep myself focused. Along the way, I frequently change things, but the core story is still there.

    I started out my career as a total pantser and slowly evolved. This process has saved me countless hours of rewriting.

    • Laurie, I may have to give your system a try. Sounds like that process might be something that would work well for me.

    • What a great blended process. Thank you for sharing it, Laurie! I love the focus on character development. In my experience that’s the trickiest bit! And sorting it out helps shape the plot. When you’ve identified your hero or heroine’s greatest fear…well how about that, there it is on page 100! 🙂

  8. Dara says:

    Can you be a little of both? 😛 I’m not an extensive plotter but I do like to write out very loose chapter summaries for my book before I start. Of course they nearly ALWAYS change as I’m carried away by the events of my story…

    But the two things I use the most are character profiles and a master plan sheet. The master plan has all of the possible ideas I get for the story and like you, I never delete anything. Sometimes I get stuck and then find a kernal of an idea in that master plan that I’d forgotten about.

    So…I guess you can say I’m a little of both? Maybe a little more of a plotter, but not a very strict one. 😛

    • I think being a little of both is a great way to be (especially since I am too, ha!). And though we do tend to think of ourselves as one way or the other, I think many of us naturally start out by blending aspects of the two without even thinking about it.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dara!

  9. This is an interesting question … and I think my tendency to fly by the seat of my pants is what leads me to stall in the middle of a WIP.

    In November, when I did the NaNo, I actually had a semblance of a synopsis before I started — and I made it through without stopping.

    I’ll definitely be taking a closer look at some of these tools of which you speak! 😉

    • Hi Arlene – Thanks for dropping by! You know, even with these tools I get stuck in the middle. It happened on both of my last two books. I knew where I needed to go, but in both cases I stopped and experienced some serious doubts. The only way I could get through it was to keep writing – despite feeling like it was all dreck – until things started coming together in my head again. I’ve found encouragement from crit partners essential at this point!

      HUGE CONGRATS on finishing NaNo!

  10. Being a pure pantser, I can say there are days I wish, fervently, that I could function with a nice outline in place. But, those times I’ve tried, it’s like a bad child inside throws a tantrum, going off on tangents, doing whatever it can to shred the outline. No pre-production outline has ever lived past chapter three. I did try, but the story I was writing and the story I original thought I would be writing became more like a bitter divorce than a happy marriage.

    Your spread sheets work like my folders and index cards, Sharon. Gotta have those “notes to self.” 😉

  11. While I am a plotter and think all pantsers are just a little bit on the crazy side, I would never ask one of them to change! Go ahead! Embrace your insanity! If it works for you, then that’s what you do!

    LOL. I promise, I’m kidding. (I’m going to get hate mail, I just know it.) It’s funny how the grass is always greener…. I’ve always wanted to be able to pants it. Tried. Can’t. But for those of you who can and do, go forth! Pants your way to a bestseller and show us all how it’s done!

    GREAT post, Sharon!

  12. Hope Ramsay says:

    I want to borrow from Tamara, only in reverse.

    I’m a plotapantser.

    I wouldn’t dream of starting anything without some advanced planning, to include: 1) really detailed information about the hero and heroine including their goals at the beginnig of the story, 2) Some sense of what the emotional romance arc is all about — what does each of them give to the other, and 3) Some idea of two or three turning points — usually in the first half of the book.

    I usually don’t have a clear idea of what the climax is going to be or how it’s going to be fully resolved. Subplots and story layers are only vague ideas for the most part when I start. I don’t really know what’s going to happen in the space between the turning points.

    But I do have a plan. I kind of discover the road by going off in the right direction.

    The more I plot/pants, the more I find myself doing more advanced planning. Having professional writing deadlines has made me want to have more control over the process. The time available to produce a book is seriously constrained, now that I’ve sold a couple of them.

    Great set of tools to help pantsers gain a little control over the chaos. I use many of these tools myself.

    • These plotter/pantser terms everyone is coming up with are making me giggle. 🙂

      I am SO relieved to hear you say that about the climax, because this happens to me too! I can only usually plot out the first two acts or so. In fact, I may write my synopsis believing I know what the climax is, but find that bit actually comes earlier and I have to come up with a new climax!

      I love this:
      “I kind of discover the road by going off in the right direction.”

      Thanks, Hope!

  13. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sara Ramsey. Sara Ramsey said: RT @sharonfisher: Validation (and tips) for pantsers over at the Ruby Slippered Sisterhood today: […]

  14. Diana Layne says:

    Oh, I call myself a plotter, and I like having an outline, but inevitably I get it wrong and have to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. No, not revise. Practically start at the beginning and just rewrite. I’m currently doing that now. sigh.

    • Oh, ugh, Diana – know what that’s like. Big group rewrite hug for Diana! 🙂

      • Diana Layne says:

        Thanks for the hugs! In rereading this post, I think I’m with Allison and ally myself more with the plotters. I do try to have a bit of a synopsis, I like to have some ideas of my characters and I keep files to write down when things come to me, but most of the stuff on plotting I just can’t do cuz I don’t know til I write it. I have found the “W” plot helpful as I just have to fill in a few highs and lows and then I can go from there. But perhaps if I do embrace that I’m more of a pantster (what was one of those terms? Pantsalotter? I like that) then I won’t beat myself up so much when I have to do these rewrites.

  15. You’d think I was a plotter, what with my love for spreadsheets and structure. But the truth is, I’m a total panster. I never have the slightest idea what’s going on in my book when I’m writing it. Plotting makes me bored and despondent, but I often feel like I’m in over my head once I begin. I worry so much about my productivity that I never give myself the time and permission to treat research as a valid step in the process. I’ve always been all about the wordcount, to my creative detriment.

    I’m in the early stages of a brand-new book right now, and normally I’d rush straight in and write until I have no idea what I’m doing. Then I pull my hair out, rail against my lack of creativity, and keep trudging along.

    So this time, I’m focusing a solid week or two on research, and I’m trying to let this story percolate a little longer than I normally do. I’m also trying NOT to think too hard about the outcome of any given scene I may imagine. I am gathering strong impressions of what will spark a scene, but I don’t want to know how how anything — even a conversation — will resolve.

    I’m very, very excited!

  16. Okay. I thought I was a plotter… but reading some of the comments from plotters… I think I’m aligning myself with the pantsers now. 🙂 “Character arc? I don’t need no stinkin’ character arc! Romance arc? Oh, heck, no.” 😀

    Seriously… I’ve never ever thought about arcs before. And my plotting has never been involved. It’s more like summaries–up to a point. Then I get totally sick of plotting and think, “Good gawd, I just wanna write the story.”

  17. Rita Henuber says:

    LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this. I start out with a synopsis. I mean it’s just for me. Details change but the basic story and character arc stays the same. This story is driving me battier than I already was. Two people hiding their motivations from each other. Second guessing everything that happens. And for the first time several secondary characters to confuse the plot and me. I have a stack of notes on different color paper for different characters. What ever was I thinking?

    • You weren’t thinking! We try not to do that! It confuses and demotivates us. We’d much rather moan when we get stuck. (HA!)

      Thanks Rita – really glad you enjoyed the post. Because you are a dear, funny soul, and not batty at all. 😀

  18. This pantsing/plotting conversation always makes me think of my cat Oliver, nicknamed Mr. Pants (shortened form of Mr. Pees-In-His-Pants). We call him Pantsies. He’s paranoid and uptight, and often yells at me for no obvious reason.

    I spend a great deal of time asking him what he wants, and he never, ever knows. Such a pantser.

  19. liz talley says:

    Lovely post!

    I have to say that I’m a pantser who tries to stick to a synopsis. I need the creative high of being a pantser, but I sell my books (three of them) on synopsis so I have to write the story I sold. Pretty much 🙂

    I like your points – all very valid. I haven’t had a true critique partner for the last three books, but I do write once a week with a friend who helps me plot and helps me keep the story in line.

    • Another good example of when you have no choice but to plan! (And congrats on your release!) Oooh, I don’t know what I would do without my CP. I’m impressed you do it on your own!

  20. Tina Joyce says:

    Great post, Sharon. I think I’m a mix of plotter/panster, like others. I start with an outline, but once I start writing, the sky’s the limit. I normally veer away from my outline at some point and, by the end, I’m nowhere near where I’d planned to be. But it works. I think if I forced myself to stick to my outline, even when my instinct says to switch directions, the story would end up sounding wooden (because I’d no longer believe in it, and it would show). So I guess I start off as a plotter and end up as a panster.

    • Tina Joyce says:

      Hmmm…that obviously should have said “pantser” rather than “panster.” That’s what I get for not plotting ahead of time!

      • I think both terms work! It’s interesting to see that most folks are a mix of the two. I know exactly what you mean about sticking to the outline. If it doesn’t develop organically, it all falls apart.

  21. Hey Sharon!

    I adore Kathleen’s workshop, The Secret Life Of Pantzers. She first presented it at Dallas Area Romance Authors (DARA) chapter. I had little epiphenies throughout and thought it was the most entertaining and informative workshop for pantzers I’d ever been in! I highly recommend it to anyone who has a chance to take it!

  22. kelly fitzpatrick says:

    Thank you for not trying to change me, Sharon.

    I think I do even less prep than you do. I’ve had to stop myself from jumping right into a story with nothing more than the first sentence. Now I mull the premise around in my brain for awhile before diving into the actual writing part. I’m afraid I get to know my characters along the way. Sometimes I know how the story will end, not always. I love it when it all comes together.

    Craft books scare me. Craft workshops scare me. And how ’bout those Seahawks?

    • <>

      My only question is, “Why?” because that’s how I always start. I get a sentence, a snippet of an idea, and I’m off. Of course, off and going somewhere are entirely unrelated . . .

    • I’ve been known to start writing with just a vague idea (shy girl wins husband she doesn’t want).

    • I absolutely get to know my characters as I go! Those character profiles happen as I go, too. I can’t think them up out of nothing — have to start writing and get a feel for them.

      I would never try to change you, Kelly. 🙂 Go Seahawks!

      Gwynlyn: “Why” is a great place to start. My 2009 GH novel started with a title, and me asking, “What’s the story behind that title?”

    • I can do craft workshops (both online and face-to-face). I think it’s because of the whole “learning with others” thing. But craft books? BOR-RING. Like I’ve never read Debra Dixon’s GMC. I have it; I’ve tried reading it a couple times; I always give up. But because everyone else reads it and talks about it and writes articles about it for RWA newsletters… I’ve got the just of it. 🙂


Subscribe to the Blog

The Latest Comments

  • Autumn Jordon: Also proof to IRS that this is you’re serious about being a businessand not just a hobby.
  • Vivi Andrews/Lizzie Shane: Oh ugh! Editing is NOT my cake. It’s TORTURE. I love the shiny new words when I can...
  • Heather McCollum: Wonderful tips, Kim! I try to get in 2000 words a day if possible (definitely not when life throws...
  • Rhonda Clark: I love editing, so I guess for writing my tips would be: planning a plot twist, exploring different...
  • Kim Law: lol. Tell us how you really feel about interruptions, LOLOLOLOL! But yes…death glare! I don’t...