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Pantsers Beware!


Misty Landscape
Photo by Denis Defreyne (click pic for link)

Hi, my name is Roni and I'm a pantser.  (This is where you guys say "Hi Roni" to make me feel okay about myself.)


Alright, over the past few weeks, I've attended two workshops for pantsers--one by author Sandy Blair and the other by author Kathleen Baldwin--and have learned a lot.

First, I've learned to accept that pantsing isn't an affliction, it's just another equally valid method at getting to the same goal.  But more importantly, I've learned that often, it is not really a choice.  Pantsers and Plotters brains work differently--not just with writing but in most aspects of our lives.

Pantsers like creating order out of chaos, but in order for us to do that--we need the chaos first.

An example:  I love to cook.  I'm good at it. But, I am by no means a neat or organized cook.  I cook like I'm on fire--pans banging, spice bottles littered everywhere, veggies being chopped at random moments, dishes piling up on every counter as I go.  However, once the meal is ready, I present this lovely, gourmet plate of food.

So, my husband (who would definitely be a plotter if he were a writer) watches me do this at night with knitted eyebrows.  "Honey, why don't you chop everything all at once?  Why don't you move the salt dish closer to the stove so you don't have to sprinkle to world with kosher salt on your way over to the pot?  Why don't you load the dishwasher as you go?"

To which I, of course, reply with a perplexed look, "Why would I do that?"

That would take all the heart and excitement out of the process for me.  I can clean the kitchen after the meal and bring it back to order, but doing that during the cooking would ruin the joy of creating for me.

Now for him (the plotter), he gets pleasure out of sitting down to a meal knowing everything is already done and organized for the night.  He will never "get" my viewpoint, just as I don't "get" his.  But both are perfectly okay.

But what does this mean for you if you're a pantser?  Well, what I took away from the workshop is that we have to go with what works for us and stop beating ourselves up.  Otherwise, we are going to screw with our creativity. Here's the warning:

If you are a true pantser and force yourself to intricately plot out the whole book--it could kill your creativity and you may no longer be able to write the book!

Did you hear that?


The passion and excitement for a pantser is in experiencing the story as your write.  If you write it all out in outline form first, you've already gone on the journey and you may lose interest in going on the same journey again.

Now, if you're a plotter, this is not the case.  Plotters take comfort in having that outline and thrive with that order already in place.  So if a plotter tries to pants, their stress over the unknown may choke their creativity.  So the key is to know what works for you and to stop forcing yourself into a round hole if you are a square peg.

Of course, that's not to say that pantsers don't have to plot.  Every story needs plot, obviously.  But it's just a matter of WHEN we plot--before the writing (plotters) or during the writing (pantsers).

And it's important to figure out which way works best for you.  If you're not sure which camp you fall into, try a few methods out and see what feeds your muse the best.

I've discovered that I'm a pantser, but like to have my characters backgrounds fleshed out before I start writing.  I don't necessarily need to know what is going to happen to them, but I need to know their history and wounds.  I think this need to know their past comes from my therapy background.  Plus, I'm a character-driven writer, so I tend to show up with characters and a vague idea of the hook, then decide, okay now what journey are these people going to go on.

The downside of this is that I often end up with a lot of words I can't use as I write my way into the story (I have 10k in my cut file so far on my new WIP), but I enjoy the journey of discovery.  If you are a member of RWA and get the Romance Writers Report, there was a great article called "Once More Into the Mist" this month on this very thing.  Author Jo Beverley said she often writes 200-300k words for every 100k book she publishes.  The thought is daunting, but that's what works for her.

So, moral of all of this: accept what kind of writer you are and stop trying to be something else because you may murder that fickle muse otherwise.

Alright, so I'm curious as to your thoughts on this.  What's your process?  Do you fly into the mist or have a GPS?  Do you find yourself forcing methods that seem great but that just don't fit you?  Did you try out various ways and see what works best?  Have you ever done something that completely beat down your muse?


**Today's Theme Song**
"Welcome to the Jungle" - Guns 'N Roses
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Reader Comments (47)

boy this is a popular topic today! I have been on 4 blogs discussing this - each with different & wonderful entries!

Okay I am a hybrid. yes we do exist. I am unsure whether my species is new or ancient but we exist all the same.

In other words I am a pantser for the majority of my WIP, but there comes a point where I can see the plot outline in my head (not meaning that I write it down and flesh it into a real outline). It is there, dangling in my mind as I move forward. I notice it, I study it and I adapt it. But I also revel in the freedom of free form writing! It is the way of my world.

Glad to hear that true plotting for someone like me is an actual hindrance, makes me feel less self conscious when I admit my pantsing...

Thanks for a great post!" rel="nofollow">Visit My Kingdom Anytime

I get the characters in my mind and hang around with them until I know what they eat for breakfast, then I give them a little shove in the direction of the plot that is wavering on the horizon. After that, I follow along.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLaraine Eddington

I enjoy plotting out my characters first as well... I do have a general idea of the story before I bring pen to paper (yes, I hand write first)but I realized a formal outline doesn't help. In fact, the plot tends to start shifting and changing as I make profiles even... so, it is funner that way...

though when I cook, I am definitely a plotter.. how can you cook like that?? :)

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJm Diaz

I really enjoyed this post.
Although I've often thought that plotting things out would speed the actual writing along I don't think I could really get into the story if I did.I've tried I the past but always eded up being discouraged. I like being surprised, I guess.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterlauraabest

This is a great post! And I do agree that plotting the entire book may squash creativity.

I'm a panster for the first part of the book, and then a plotter for the rest. Wierd combination, but that's how I tie up all the loose ends.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAubrie

From one pantser to another - great post!

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer Walkup

I'm a bit of a hybrid, I guess, though the pantser is definitely dominant.

I like to write character backgrounds, and then a very loose synopsis, usually less than one page handwritten.

From there, I go crazy.

I can feel the outline killing my soul, so I don't even bother. Even when I was in college and we had to turn in outlines of our papers, I'd write the paper first, then write the outline from the paper. :-)

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

Someone else talked about this exact same thing this morning!

I'm a panster when it comes to writing. But everything else in my life (like the example you gave of your husband and cooking) I'm a plotter. I would die any other way in life.

I'm a panster in writing because it makes me feel free. I'm a plotter in life because I'm OCD and need everything organized. The writing sets the two worlds apart.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJustineDell

Hilarious analogy. I'm in the middle. First of all, I hate to cook, but when I do it (which is almost every day--UGH), I tend to put the spices away, but I cut the veggies as I get to them in the recipe. My husband likes to wash the dishes as we go, but I only do that if I have to wait for something to cook before adding an ingredient to the pot. My husband, like yours, relaxes a lot more knowing everything is taken care of before we eat. I'd go crazy if everything was still out, but don't need it all to be put away either. Strange, huh?

What's even funnier is that this translates into my writing, too. After trying a few different styles, I've come to the conclusion that I like to have a synopsis written first (knowing it can change at any time), but not a rigid outline. However, I like to think about the next few scenes before I write them and outline that before I continue writing. LOL I guess I'm a blend of both worlds.

Lynnette Labelle

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLynnette Labelle

Oh in the kitchen I am definitely the pantser and my husband is the plotter. I think we've had the exact same conversation before.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnastasia

I start out with the characters, followed by the beginning and ending...not written down, but in my mind...and then pants my way there.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSue

This topic is on every other blog I read! Which is fine of course, it's an important point.

Personally I've only written one novel, so I'm by no means an expert but when I wrote it I used a loose outline that changed a little while I wrote. Even with it I still went on forever and wrote too much.

I would love to try the snowflake method sometime but I'm afraid I'm not organized enough to pull it off.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew Rush

This is definitely going around, I'm writing my blog post about outlining/pantsing/revising/crying/pantsing some more. Love the post, I'm discovering I'm a hybrid of pantsing and outlining.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJEM

I do or am both... I think. *looks confused*.

I'm not a total pantser, because I have vague roadmap idea in my head. And sometimes I write a few notes that could imaginatively be identified as a VERY ROUGH outline.

But I don't plan everything out and I couldn't sit down and outline a full novel.

In order for me to get a good idea of the characters and their 'stories' (which are sometimes seperate from the main plot), I just need to let it fall in place and reveal itself to me as I write. <- That's what wakes me up at three in the morning.

@cooking - heehee. This probably shows how I'm sorta in the middle.

I don't like wasting time when I'm cooking a meal. It's why I try to do as MUCH AS POSSIBLE at the same time. So I'll be frantically chopping stuff for an omelet while the eggs are cooking as opposed to pre-preparing them before cracking the eggs. And then while the whole thing simmers and cooks, I'll be running around gathering plates, silverware, and pops.

According to you and your post above, that is a plodder, right?

But I never or rarily follow printed or typed up recipes. I just play by ear and go from there. <- Which kinda is a panster thing, right? :)

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Kariaxi

After reading this, I'm not really sure what I am in terms of panster/plotter. Before I start writing, I have a few names picked out and an idea of the plot (very vague though). Then I just write.... But I ALWAYS do better if I have a few notes written down on what the next few chapters need. So if I'm working on ch7, I have notes written down for ch8/9/10.


April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNatalie Murphy

Ugh plodder s/b plotter.

I need lunch.

And now I think about it... the cooking analogy is weak. Because a plotter probably WOULD pre-prepare and line up everything before actually cooking an omelette. Even if it means spending more time in the kitchen.

Whereas my thought process is "Multitask everything at once so I only spend fifteen minutes (if that) in the kitchen".

I was thinking about timing (vs organization), because a lot of outliners say that they plot well ahead so they can write faster. They know where they are going so there are no inadvertant side trips or stalls along the way. And they spend less time cleaning up in edits.

*rolls eyes and smacks self*

I definitely need lunch.

Great topic<:

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine Kariaxi

I am a plotter, but it took me a few novel starts to figure that out.

I like what you said about each person needing to figure out what works for them--so true! What works for me doesn't work for the next writer.

But I'm still confused as to whether my novel is character-driven or not. There are magical transformations which appear almost like deus ex machina devices, but the characters are (unbeknownst to them) causing those magical events with their own subconscious wishes and fears. Magic is "real" in Vepres, but all prophecies are self-fulfilled.

Hmmm! Anyway, I do best when I start with a well-mapped plot, but I do amend the plot and characters significantly as I go along.

Maybe this has to do with how I can't find my way out of a paper bag without a map in real life...

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGenie of the Shell

I'm a pantser while I "sketch" out the first draft of my story. I put in "place setters" (aka crappy writing) of ideas I want to develop later, just so I can get the idea down and keep the story moving. Then I go back and flesh out my scenes, add a little more character to my characters, and incorporate subplot.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShelli

Let's see, I tend to plot most of the important moments. I've tried to outline but that never works real great with me.

I would say I'm both. I like to know where my people are going, what's their point and purpose, but when I start writing they always go their own way, so then I have to decide where they go from that point on and so forth.

I think half the fun of writing is allowing your characters to roam and find their own way. Of course you have to keep them on track and not allow them to get too far off the road. But detours can be great.

Not sure it really matters how they get where they need to be as long as they get their (and it's not a boring as hell journey lol)


April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNotSoBadLit

Great post today Roni! I'm most definitely a plotter. I am much less stressed when I have an idea of where I'm going. Plus I like my first draft end product much better which makes me want to keep working on revisions until it's perfection.

It did take me a few tries, though, before I figured out plotting beforehand works wonders for me. Needless to say, those 4 "panster" novels and various short stories are tucked under the bed safe and silent. :)

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterValerie Geary

Fantastic post.

I am a pantser with a mix of plotter thrown in. While I can do the whole outline, character descriptions, figuring out setting and research beforehand I often don't. When it comes to the first draft in particular, I just write. I have the whole thing plotted out in my head more often than not, but I don't force it into an outline or anything like that.

I've tried outlining first. Took part in a pre-nano prep in october of 2008 where we had to do 4-5 different outline drafts. I made them all and in november I managed to write 50,000 words for the first time ever. However, I never looked at the outline the entire time I was writing the novel.

So, I am a pantser and a multi-tasker when it comes to writing novels and I accept that.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDawn Embers

OKI totally agree with your advice!!!! And Huge congrats on winning the NTRWA's!!! You ROCK Roni!!!!

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterT. Anne

I'm glad you posted about this-- I think it's important for everyone to realize that different people write differently, and that's totally okay! We don't all have to write with the same process, just as we don't all want to be writing the same books!

Myself I am definitely a pantser and character driven. I have actually experienced the "got too far ahead of myself plotting and lost interest" syndrome. It was awful. But I also revise weirdly-- by rewriting from scratch the entire book using the first draft as a reference. I'm not sure why, but it makes it a lot easier for me to cut the excess and not get hung up on the words already on the page, but keep my mind on the important parts of the story instead. There is no compulsion to conserve old words if there are none to keep!

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmalia T.

I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants gal all the way! This is a great post, Roni. I've never read one that explains the pantser process/mentality (and drawbacks) better than this. Thanks! :-)

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShannon O'Donnell

My writing TomTom is one that's always on the fritz. It can tell me starting and ending, but maybe only one or three turns in between.

April 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie McGee

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