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October 16, 2012

NaNo Prep: Should Pantsers Be Plotters?

Two kids with ice cream, one looking envious, with text: Do All Pantsers Have "Plotting Envy"?

My friend Roni Loren has often mentioned that she has “plotting envy.” Like many pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants), she wonders if her writing method is the best she could do. Pantsing can feel a little like magic—we trust our subconscious to come up with plot twists, character depth, and elements we couldn’t consciously come up with in a year of plotting—and we worry the magic will one day disappear.

Pantsing can also feel like a bad match for those of us who are perfectionists. We normally leave nothing to chance, so leaving a whole novel’s worth of words to chance can feel wrong.

Because of this, workshops abound with “plotting for pantsers” ideas. Yet no one puts on “pantsing for plotters” workshops. Why? Is pantsing seen as a less valid writing method?

Do “Real” Writers Plot?

I pantsed my first story (a Harry Potter fan fiction story) with only a general situation in mind. I had a blast and was thoroughly bitten by the writing bug.

But for my next novel, an original story, I plotted. And by “plotted,” I mean I had chapter-by-chapter outlines, character sheets with full histories for all the main characters, emotional arcs for every scene, etc. (Perfectionists can be dangerously thorough. *smile*) I thought that’s what “real” writers did.

That story originally had no voice and was painfully clunky. Paying attention to my outlines meant I wasn’t listening to my muse. Umpteen revisions later, I’m still not happy with how that story turned out. The near-failure almost convinced me that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer.

My Subconscious Is More Creative than My Conscious Mind

In the midst of revising that story, I had another story idea and interrupted my edits to pound out the first 30,000 words in a few days. I had zero plans for the plot or character arc, but my muse had a good handle on the characters themselves. The whole story practically wrote itself.

At first, I thought I’d go back to my plotting ways for the next book. This one was probably just an anomaly. I’m a perfectionist—I couldn’t possibly be… *imagine a grimace here* …a pantser.

But then my next story was pantsed with even less information, just a first line. Again, the story wrote itself, right down to foreshadowing, subplots, character arcs, etc.

This was what writing was supposed to be like. Magic.

I Am a Pantser

So unlike many other pantsers, I have no plotting envy. I’ve been there, done that, and I know the truth. Plotting doesn’t work for me.

I have no second thoughts or doubts about my pantsing ways. My analytical nature has figured out that the magic of pantsing makes logical sense for me. Rather than wishing I could plot, I consider myself a “reformed plotter.” *grin*

Now I’m a firm believer in letting my muse run the show. I simply write what he tells me to. (Yes, my muse, an arrogant alpha-male type, loves this arrangement, but when he’s right, he’s right. *sigh*)

So What Gives with the “Plotting for Pantsers” Class?

With all that history, you might wonder why I’m giving a class called “Lost Your Pants? An Impatient Writer’s Guide to Plotting a Story.” Heh. Honestly, I’m being sneaky.

I have no intention of trying to change anyone’s methods or of teaching pantsers how to plot. *pshaw* People should use whatever approach works for them. However…

Back when I had a post about fast drafting, everyone who successfully completed a fast draft (including me with my word sprints) had pre-planned the story or scene a bit. So this class is geared to help pantsers plan their story just enough to give their fingers a goal to write toward.

I’ll share techniques and tools so pantsers can plan without actually plotting. I’m using these techniques myself on my novel I’ll be working on in NaNo (National Novel Writing Month). (Yes, I officially signed up for my first NaNo. Feel free to add me as a buddy—I’m “Jami Gold.” Creative, right?)

When I made a sample of my worksheet to use as an example for the class, it took me all of 15 minutes (thus the “Impatient Writer” part of the class title) to fill in the page. Usually, we wouldn’t even need to complete the whole worksheet. Trust me—being a confirmed pantser—I have no intention of trying to convince anyone to plot. *smile*

If you want to join me, block off 7:00 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, October 23rd and Thursday, October 25th, 2012, and click here to sign up for the class.

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Do you consider plotting to be a more valid writing method, like what a “real” writer would do? Are you a pantser with plotting envy? Or a confirmed pantser, happy with your method? (Any plotters with pantsing envy out there? *grin*) If you’re a pantser, do you plan anything in advance? Have you been successful with fast drafting or NaNo before?

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What do you think?

53 Comments on "NaNo Prep: Should Pantsers Be Plotters?"

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc
Hi Jami! I am a perfectionist, too. I’ve always been this way and don’t think I’ll change. That being said, for years and years…and years, I wrote by the seat of my pants. I liked it, it was fun, but it was like pulling teeth to get substantial words on the page. I had nine mostly finished novels that I wanted desperately to finish, but couldn’t. I felt very disorganized. But last year I decided to write a synopsis of a story I had in mind before I wrote a single word of prose. It was a first. My crit partners and I had a long plotting session, I wrote down scene ideas, character bios, etc and with that information was able to construct an 8 page synopsis I was proud of. It was liberating!! Writing my paranormal novel (the one that finally landed me an agent) was so much easier. It felt right and the stress of ‘not knowing’ floated away. And to be honest, I didn’t feel like I was wearing a noose at all. I still felt creative, even surprised when little twists or turns showed up in my novel. I think that’s because I didn’t stick 100% to the synopsis. It was more like a guide than a rigid how to manual. So, I guess, I’m a plotter. A happy plotter. But I’m also impatient…very, very impatient, and I want to learn to write faster, with less stumbles (I never said this epiphany made me perfect:).… Read more »
Roni Loren

Glad you found the way that works best for you. : ) I still have plotter envy but that’s because I don’t have that other cool talent so many other pantsers have –that rush of writing and banging out 30k in a few days (like you did.) That’s the awesome benefit of pantsing. But I can’t seem to do that. I pants but my drafts are SO slow and painstaking. (And I’m saying slow in relative terms because last month I wrote 40k but that was absolutely holding myself under the gun b/c I have a deadline to meet.) Most days, drafting is like pulling teeth for me. I much prefer revising (which tends to be a plotter quality.) So I have some weird hybrid of qualities, lol, and I think that’s why I’m always tweaking my technique. But I know for sure, I’ll never be able to do a scene by scene outline. That gives me the heebie jeebies just thinking about it.

Carradee

I’ve found that different stories end up needing different methods, but I cannot use a numbered outline. If I’m going to outline, it has to be with 3×5 cards or on Scrivener’s Outliner function. Otherwise, I get stuck on my outline and cannot deviate from it.

The most I can is broad strokes for events and motives, and when one starts feeling “off”, I have to stop myself and figure out what I’m missing.

However, some things I write, I find that I can’t plan them at all. If I start trying to plan them, I get blocked, but if I sit down and just write, I get ’em done. (Recently did a short story like that, which ended up completely different from where I’d expected it to when I started it. It’s a nice prequel to one novelette I’ve written, though, and one detail in it means I have another novelette to write before that.)

And the same story can be both types—needing planning, needing no planning—at different points in the draft.

Thus why I work best with Outliner or 3×5 cards. It’s minimal work to change tacks without losing a copy of your original layout.

On the bright side, the more this technique shift happens to me, the more I internalize that I have to adjust tacks when I start getting blocked, so I’m swifter to do it when I do get blocked. 🙂

Melinda S. Collins
I’m still a pantser at heart, but this new WIP I’m working on is one that I absolutely had to sit down, create character sketches, plot out the 4 main plot points, and create my world rules. Though all of those are always subject to change as the muse gets me writing. But even with planning that much out, the drafting process this time around is like pulling freakin’ teeth from a tiger. I’m finding that I’m lucky if I can get 5k written over the course of one weekend, much less during the week after the dayjob. My intention was to write out the main plot points, and pants the in-between scenes. Now I’m actually finding myself having to write out what I ‘think’ should happen in the scene(s) I’m about to write before I actually sit down to do it (and if it goes the other way, then oh wells). I definitely think the plotter/pantser approach to stories not only depends on the writer, but also on the story. Some stories call for plotting due to a large cast of characters or worldbuilding, and some stories call for you to just sit there and vomit on the page. I’m a perfectionist like you, and so I do enjoy my 10-tab spreadsheets for story plotting – but I’ve found that I actually don’t even use about 5 of those tabs in the end because I want the info on those tabs to be a surprise. 🙂 I do say… Read more »
Buffy Armstrong

Last year I decided to do NaNoWriMo at the last possible moment. Consequently, all I had was a weak premise and a few characters. I had a lot of those “OMG,WTH am I doing” moments. It took the better part of the month to get my butt in gear. Some nights I had to write 5000 words just to catch up. I really hope that doesn’t happen to me again this year. In then end though, I did figure out the story. It’s changed since I’ve revised it, but the germ of story I went in with is still very much intact.

This year I’m going to work on a story that I’ve been thinking about for over two years. I know the characters inside and out. I know most of elements of the story. I’m just having a hard time putting it all together. I’m thinking about taking your class next week to help me come up with a method to weed through it all.

Marcy Kennedy

Lisa Hall-Wilson and I have become a little infamous because we co-wrote a novel, but she’s a pantser and I’m a hard core plotter. It’s like the proverbial oil and water. We made it through, but what we discovered was that neither of us do our best work trying to write the other way. We also learned the strengths we can borrow from the other side. It sounds like that’s similar to what you’re trying to do for pantsers in your class. Good luck!

Stina Lindenblatt

I would drown if I wrote without plotting. For me, that’s part of the fun (the plotting, not the drowning). That doesn’t mean surprises don’t happen on the way. It just means I have less digging out than if I don’t plan ahead of time. Of course, plotting doesn’t mean your book won’t have problems. You can still steer wrong when you plot. That’s why I prefer to give my outlines distance before I write the first draft. 😀

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Me too, I’m a confirmed pantser. I have also tried plotting but it never worked for me. 1) Plotting is generally boring, in my opinion. 2) Whenever I DELIBERATELY decide on anything, like character details, I mess it up. 🙁 But if my subconscious feeds me the information, it all flows and it feels *authentic*, if you know what I mean. Hmm I don’t know if I ever thought that all “real” writers plot. But after reading a lot of books on story writing, I had an impression that a very great number of real writers pants. (Or should I say “pant”? Oh the puns.) In fact, after being immersed in the writer’s community, it feels like that MOST people are pantsers! I keep hearing people talking about how character planning sheets never work for them. Seems like most people prefer to write and let things emerge organically from the story instead. *shrugs* So from writer’s forums, I got the impression that pantsing was “the norm”! I may be wrong though. I probably am. But maybe most people do a combination of plotting and pantsing. Two of my closest friends who are also writers make general goals for their story to reach (e.g. the main characters win the tennis tournament), but then nothing is planned in between. Sure, there are little things to be worked out, like why do these characters walk there when they could have just taken the bus? But mostly it’s writing without thinking from point A… Read more »
Carradee

I suspect part of the confusion also comes from types of writing. Where do most of us learn to write? English classes. What are we usually required to start with in English classes? An outline.

For a lot of folks, an outline helps them—or, at least, it doesn’t hurt them. Me, my grades tended to be better if I could write without an outline, and sometimes that meant writing the entire paper before the outline’s due date, so I could write the outline from the paper.

Yeah, some teachers didn’t like me.

Ashley Farley

I’m going to need to be a panster to manage 50,000 in a month. I worked on a short passage yesterday for about an hour and all I got was 400 words. That’s a lot of hours.

Edith

Hi Jami, great post! I’m still sitting on the fence about that one, though I think I’ probably a bit of both…I like to have some idea of where I might be going but am delighted when the writing, or rather my characters, let me know that they have their own plans. After that its all about asking who, why, when, how, etc!

Linda Adams

Pantser here! I’ve tried outlining to solve problems with the story and discovered that I can’t connect my creativity at all to an outline. I get to about three chapters of the story, and then the outline rolls over and puts its feet up the air.

Laurie London

Darn you, Jami. I’ve been toying with doing NaNo, but now that I know you are, I may just have to sign up. 😉

I’m a pantser who does a little bit of plotting. The times I’ve tried fast drafting, it’s all gobbledegook that gets tossed out unless I go into it with a little bit of a plan. And I certainly don’t write fast. If I can eek out more than 500-1000 words in an hour, I’m fairly happy. But when I do have a tight deadline (like Roni), that’s when I write the fastest (10-15k a week).

I think it was Lisa Gardner who says she writes to each turning point. I like that method. You know just enough to head off in a direction, then you fill in the blanks as you go.

Sonia G Medeiros

I used to be a diehard pantster. The very thought of an outline was enough to give me hives. And pantsing seems to work very well with flash fiction and short stories. I usually have several rewrites (at least) but, as short fiction is short, it’s not an ordeal to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. When I tried to pants my way through a novel…I got stuck. Some of it was that I’d have new ideas that would affect the whole story. This happened frequently. I probably could have just gone with it and worked it out in rewrites but I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I got so stuck I had to put that novel on the back burner for awhile.

Reluctantly, I started plotting with a new WIP. Not heavily, but just a sketchy outline of scenes. As I worked on the outline, the trajectory changing ideas popped up but I could easily rework the outline. Now that I’m into the first draft, I’m still finding those ideas popping up (though they’re less of a drastic change) but I’m taking them in stride. I’m still able to write spontaneously but I have my outline as a suggested route for when I get stuck.

I consider myself a hybrid of plotter and pantser. A plantster. Or maybe a plottser. 😀

ChemistKen

Just like you, I got hooked on writing when I began writing my Harry Potter story (still working on it after three years). At first, all I had were unrelated scenes, and it was over a year before I arranged them into a coherent plot. Then I learned about story structure and had to rearrange them all over again. 🙂

I’m definitely in the plotting camp. Can’t imagine how I would write without having some idea where I’m going. Looking forward to November.

Jodie James
Jodie James

I’m a pantser and out and proud about it. :O)
I love that feeling of ‘whoa, where did THAT come from?’ when you have a really good day, but on the flip side it is like pulling teeth when the words won’t come. Times like that I have to take a break for a day or two and think it out before I can go back to it.
I find that I set out with a general idea in mind of how the story will begin, and usually I know what I’m working towards as the climax and conclusion, then I pants my way between the two.
I’ve tried plotting in advance and I just can’t do it. I guess both ways are good as long as you end up with a book you’re happy with.

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[…] post, I explained that I’m a pantser (I write by the seat of my pants) because that’s the best way—for me—to hear my subconscious ideas of what to write. But maybe one reason why some of us are plotters and some of us are […]

Donna B. McNicol [@donnabmcnicol]

Add me to the list of perfectionist type-A’s who quickly discovered that pantsing worked much better for them. Really surprised me…now I may or may not do a little planning in advance but only research about the area and any forensics stuff I’ll need and some basic character outlines.

So I have declared myself as a plantster…a little planning, a little plotting and a WHOLE LOT of pantsing!

Becca

While I’m usually a huge plotting fanatic, and believe everyone should plot… this year I’m reconsidering. I liked your explanation that even though your ‘perfectionist’ side (also in me) wants you to plot, you have to pants in order to keep the book magical.

This year for NaNo, I’m trying it. I have some character sheets and a few scene cards, but that’s it. I’m gonna pants.

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[…] Should Pantsers be Plotters? by Jami Gold […]

Gerry Wilson

I’m a perfectionist, but I was a pantser long before there was a term for it, so maybe I should be relieved to know that’s what I am! I like the way a story unfolds. Yes, I have a general idea of where a story’s going, and I *do* think about the plot, but plotting ahead doesn’t dictate where I go with it. Where my perfectionism gets me in trouble is my tendency to edit as I go–not a good scenario for NaNoWriMo. I’m trying to do some pre-planning for NaNoWriMo, but actually, I’ve used it in the past to expand a work I’d already started–yes, cheating a bit, but it got me the 50,000 words I needed to move that work along. I loved this post and the comments following!

Taurean Watkins
I differ from you here, Jami, I have plotter envy, only because I strongly believe writing the ACTUAL BOOK will NEVER, EVER be the same as “Writing ABOUT a book” in the form of query letter/synopses/flap or back cover copy/press releases/etc….Yuck! (Sorry for being bratty there, Jami, I just had to say it) My point is that those are NOT the same process for me. While I know you struggle with query letters too, Jami, I really think writers differ with what they find especially challenging, what I find “basic” others could find to be their “nightmare.” Some like writing the “blurb” stuff. I don’t. Only because this is where agents/editors vs. potential readers are EXTREMELY divided! Agents/Editors want to know EVERYTHING (While still being under 200 freaking words, readers just need to be teased, and the writer (At least THIS writer) feels like they’re unavoidably trapped in the middle, and can’t seem make either audience happy. I “tease” when I should be specific. Or I’m “overly detailed” when the broad strokes will do. Truth be told, I’d rather be detailed than annoyingly vague, that’s just how I am, so that’s over half of WHY query letters/synopses drive me insane. I get why brevity matters, Jami. I’m BEGGING you to believe me. But I can’t help that I’m not an over burdened, widowed parent, with 2.5 kids, with 9+ day jobs outside the home, writing, and trying to get my PhD, all at the same time. (You folks are my… Read more »
Nordlys
Nordlys

I’m a switcher (former plotter). I think my conscious and my subconscious mind are creative equally.
Anyway, I never felt that my stories are written by theirselves. I always fell the owner of the story, and I never felt that things went out from my control. Usyually when i start to write, I already know where the story goes, especially how it ends, and I have no problems to follow the path. I think switching the method is necessary to avoid stagnation.

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[…] Some plot their stories in advance, while others write by the seat of their pants (known as pantsing or pantsers). Unlike many, I never question whether pantsing is the right method for me. […]

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