Just out of curiosity, I typed “pantser” into my browser to see how many entries I could find on the subject.
There were more than 413,000 posts either defining ‘pantser’ or discussing the relative merits of being a plotter or a pantser. Wow. That’s a lot of writers interested in the subject.
For the benefit of those who have never heard the term, I should really clarify.
- Plotters are writers who plan their novels in advance, usually in some detail.
- Pantsers are writers who prefer to wing it, or to fly by the sea of their pants – hence: “pantser”.
That’s the short version. Of course, it’s never that simple, is it? Many of us fit somewhere in between. I don’t know what you’d call that kind of in-between person, but ‘Plotser’ seems fine to me, so I’ll go with that.
I started writing stories when I was around nine years old. I was an insatiable reader, and this quickly morphed into being an obsessed writer. I wanted to write books just like those produced by my favorite authors. Since I didn’t know anything about plotting, I simply started writing. Looking back, I can see that one thing has lasted through all those years – I always start with a character. I see that character in my mind, and usually they’re in some kind of trouble. (Confession time: that’s one of the things I love most about being an author. You can create all sorts of mayhem for your characters, then make them really dig deep to get themselves out of trouble!)
This approach always brought problems with it. While I was free to follow whatever flights of fancy I wished, I sometimes found myself wandering down a side path that went nowhere. I’d look around, wondering how I got there. Quite often, I’d have to trash the last few chapters, go back to where I branched off and start again.
Sometimes the book just fizzled out. Now – an older and wiser writer – I can see several reasons for this.
- The story was just a ‘slice of life’. The character had no real goal, or need, or problem.
- The story was about something that was too easily solved. If you fix things after three chapters, the story is over. (These stories often work well as short fiction.)
- The characters were boring. If I can’t get interested in a character, I can’t get interested in what happens to him/her.
- The whole story bored me. This is a real trap for a ‘pantser’. You have this brilliant story idea that lights up your brain and sends you racing to the computer – and the book just refuses to come to life on the page. A flat story can’t energize an author.
As I wrote more stories, I tried different strategies. There was the point-by-point, exhaustively planned, linear outline. This definitely wasn’t for me. Somehow, this approach took all the magic out of writing. It became more like a homework assignment than anything else.
I tried the mind-map approach. Lots of little circles with lines going out to other circles. Plots. Characters. Lines connecting characters to characters and scenes to scenes. Scribbled words everywhere. This had some appeal, but mainly as a brainstorming tool. I usually scribbled on scraps of paper which I promptly lost, or I’d look back at it halfway through the book and realize that I didn’t want to include half the stuff anyway.
I tried the sticky-notes approach. For this I used a manila folder and sticky notes of varied colors. I used one color for characters; another for the plot; another for sub-plots; another for research and setting. I filled a second folder with sticky notes for scenes, and moved them around to see where they worked best. I could also quickly delete or add scenes. This had some merit; I could plan the novel enough to see where I was going, yet leave it open to change.
On another occasion I tried index cards, kept in a nice neat file box with dividers. I had a section for characters – one card for each – a section for plot ideas, and a section for scenes. I’d write the rough outline of what I wanted to happen in each scene; one scene per card.
This, too, seemed like too much work. Eventually, I got to where I am now.
I use a system close to the one I outlined in The Busy Writer’s One-Hour Plot.
- I know who my lead character is.
- I know who the other main characters are.
- I work out the opening problem for the main character, and how he or she is going to solve it.
- I jot down ideas for further hurdles for the main character, and who or what will get in her way.
- I do any necessary background research to get started (keeping this to a minimum) and then I’m off and running.
I have found that I work best with minimal information about the main characters at the beginning. I don’t create detailed character profiles. (I’ve tried that too, and it doesn’t work for me.) If I leave plenty of blank spots in a character’s past, it pays off later. (This happened in a big way with my paranormal romance series, “Hunting Eve”. Most authors who write a series find the same thing: you’ll be exploring your characters in more depth from book to book – so leave them room to grow! Secrets in the past are great.)
It may take you a while to find out what works best for you. The one thing you shouldn’t do is force yourself into a way of working that isn’t YOU. Writing should be fun. It should be something you look forward to doing. And yeah, I know that all writers have their bad days when it’s not fun AT ALL. Still. You want it to be mostly fun – and to do that, you have to write in a way that suits you.
Or something different and totally unique?
It’s up to you. You’re the captain of the ship. Make sure you enjoy the voyage.