Rant Alert! R E S P E C T – Have a little why don’t you?

Today I was listening to an RWA workshop from a previous year. My jaw dropped when I heard the speaker say this (verbatim).

How many of you are pantsers? [Pause] You’re making the biggest mistake of your lives. Just gonna start with that. And if you are a pantser, what you need to do in terms of brainstorming is find somebody that’s going to help you do the 42 drafts of the book you’re going to have to write because you didn’t plan it out in the beginning. Pantsers invariably have a harder time of it because they have to do draft upon draft upon draft and then revision upon revision upon revision. My suggestion would be: plot your book. It’s a little faster that way.

When she was finished unloading on pantsers1, my first response was along the lines of F.U. only without the acronym.

I think it’s safe to assume that this woman is not a pantser.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard a writer who works on the plotting side of the spectrum make such statements about pantsers. I don’t know where these particular folks are getting their facts. I suspect that they’re making an inference based on their results. They’re plotters so pantsing doesn’t work for them and, therefore, they ended up doing all those drafts and revisions because their writing style isn’t suited to seat of the pants writing. Or maybe they just don’t see the value in revision as a method.

The problem with her pronouncement isn’t just that she’s wrong in just about every way. I happen to know she’s wrong because I am, myself, a pantser. Not only is she wrong, but she certainly gives the appearance of being inflexible and close minded to the possibility that there is more than one way to end up with a publishable novel. She was disrespectful to every single writer for whom plotting does not work.

Let me state for the record that I have no problem with plotters or anyone who needs more structure in their writing process than I do. Hey, if it works for you, AMEN sister. I applaud you for discovering for you what gets the job done — for you. And I will never tell you that you need to give up your charts and outlines.

The only thing that matters is that a writer discovers what works for her. And that she respect what other writers have discovered about what they need to do to write.

By all means, offer and explain your process, especially to writers who haven’t reached a working process. I suspect we’re all looking for ways to improve and be more efficient. But don’t make the mistake of believing your way is the only one that works and that all other methods are mistakes. That’s insulting. And it closes your mind to things that might actually help you.

A little later in the presentation, this person remarks on the empty seats and says, All the pantsers have left.

Gee. I wonder why? Because maybe they were depressed and disheartened to hear they were wrong even though they may well have been struggling with plotting or perhaps even suppressing their seat of the pants tendencies because of wrong-headed claims like this. Or maybe they figured there was no point in listening to someone so close minded, because I assure you, at least some of those pantsers knew she was wrong.

She lost the opportunity to let curious and inquiring writers learn about another approach, parts of which may actually have been useful. I know if I’d been at the workshop, I’d have walked out too. Life is too short to sit around listening to someone tell me that I’m doing it wrong. Because, you know, the evidence suggests that I’m not doing it wrong. But neither is she, and therein lies the respect she lacked for others.

I respect her process. It works for her. Just for fun, let’s examine those disrespectful and incorrect statements from the point of view of a pantser:

  • Even if I were to write 42 drafts, I don’t need help writing them, thank you very much. But I don’t write 42 drafts. I actually usually have only one draft but I revise the living hell out of it until it’s not a draft anymore.
  • I don’t have a harder time because I’m a pantser. But I sure as hell had a harder time when I was trying to plot in advance.
  • I write my books in about 4 months. Now, I prefer to have more time, but so far I keep ending up with 4-5 month deadlines. And I meet those deadlines, pantsing the whole way.

I don’t think there’s a reader or editor in the world who cares about an author’s process. They care about the finished product and whether it’s any good. I also don’t believe it’s possible to tell from the finished product whether the author was a plotter or a pantser or something in between or even neither of those things.

How Plotting Failed For Me

Don’t think I haven’t tried plotting. I have. I really, really tried. Between 1989 and 1991 I wrote and published two books and I wrote them totally by the seat of my pants because I didn’t know how else to write. Or that, apparently, I was making the biggest mistake of my life.

From 1991 to 2002, I was unpublished. Why? Because I was trying to plot. At one point, I had a 50+ page outline (for my doorstop book). I wrote long character bios and filled out GMC charts and made lists and kept spreadsheets, and whenever my writing deviated from my master plan, I killed that dead and stuck to my plan.

Let me repeat the really important statement: During the period I was doing all the things plotters do, I was and remained unpublished.

Finally, I reached a point where I had to decide whether to give up writing — because eleven years is a long time to fail at something. But I didn’t want to stop writing. I wonder what would have happened to me if I’d heard that anti-pantsing statement at this point in my writing life? Because you know what I did?

I thought long and hard about the difference between what I was doing all that long and unpublished time and what I had been doing when I wrote two published books. And the difference between the two was that before, I followed my instincts. I looked at what was happening on the pages and went with that instead of what I’d plotted in advance.

Sure, I had outlines so I could keep track, but they were short. And when I read something in my work and had an inspiration about what was really going on in my book, I followed my instinct. To hell with my outline.

So I took my WIP and I tore that thing apart. I let go of all that advance plotting and I followed my instincts. I followed the thread of story that was interesting and unexpected and I deleted the stuff that wasn’t. I wrote in a kind of fugue state where I just fucking put the passion down on the page and flew without a net. And guess what?

Six weeks after I finished, the book sold.

I am a pantser. I can advance plot until the cows come home and it won’t help me. In fact, I know it will kill my story dead. I know it for a fact. Every book I have written since then has been seat of the pants. I have figured out the level of advance work I need to do, which, no surprise, tends to be minimal — but not none. I don’t plan more than three chapters ahead.

Right now, in my current project, I’ve been brainstorming and doing what if scenarios and keeping track of who’s who, what they look like and keeping a skeleton outline. Two days ago I started working on chapter 1 again (to refresh after RWA and ComiCon) and my heroine lost her ability to see. The words just ended up on the page. At that point, I was 14 chapters into the book — about 27,000 words. Early going.

I know, because I now pay close attention to such things, that this development deserved some thought. And I also know that her loss of vision never once came up in any of my advance work. I also know that I’d just hit on a very powerful theme for my story. And I’m now working it, layering and complexifying what it means for my heroine. As this theme develops, I will learn whether the loss of vision is permanent. I suspect it’s transitory in nature. I don’t need to work that out yet because the questions will resolve themselves as I develop what I have and forge ahead with more chapters.

I highly recommend that writers read Freud’s Introductory Lectures for a fascinating discussion and analysis of the role and function of the subconscious. It’s a far cry, by the way, from his suggestion that women have penis envy.

As for me, I don’t care if someone gets at the subconscious meanings of their stories before they’ve written a word or if they find it while they’re writing. What I do care about is whether others have respect for a process that isn’t theirs.

1. Panster: Someone who writes by the seat of her pants, that is, with minimal outlining and advance plotting. As opposed to a plotter, who does a good deal of plotting before the book gets written.


Tags: ,

24 Responses to “Rant Alert! R E S P E C T – Have a little why don’t you?”

  1. Arianna Skye says:

    Wow! Isn't Nora a pantster? At least that's what I heard. LOL. I, myself am a plotting pantster. I start with a general idea and outline, but I let my characters take me where they want to go. If I only plotted, my characters wouldn't come alive and would just be walking stick figures.

    Great blog!


  2. Arianna Skye says:

    Wow! She actually said that? I would have stood up and walked out of the workshop. I heart that even Nora Roberts is a pantster. I'm sure she revises her books 42 times too, right? LOL

    I am a little of both, a plotter and a pantster. I set up a general outline of the path I'd *like* my story to follow. Sometimes, my characters choose to go around that path and do their own thing. If I didn't fly by the seat of my pants a little bit, I'd end up with stick figures for character with sticks stuck up their hind ends. I have yet to re-write a book 42 times either.

    Just my 2 cents. Great blog!


  3. Lynn Raye Harris says:

    Whoa! From one pantser to another: right on, girlfriend!

    The most blocked I ever got was when I tried to plot, outline, plan, etc. I respect those who do and wish I could. But I don't. The story grows organically from what I write at the time. And when I realized that and went with it, I sold.

    My editor gives doodly-flip how I get there. She even knows my synopses are written because I'm required to do it — she knows I won't follow it.

    My 3rd book was just accepted. I've begun the 4th — and beyond a situation and a vague idea of a past together, I have NO idea what's going on in this book yet.

    My revisions from my editor have been fairly minor for the last two books (the first had a bit more, but I was learning). No massive rewrites.

    Sheesh, no wonder you needed to rant. Pantsing works for a lot of writers. Outlining works too. You just have to learn which one works for you.

  4. Heather says:

    As I have posted on my own blog regularly, I write by the seat of my pants as well. In fact, I frequently begin a new book with a blank page and no idea what I'm going to write on it until the words begin to appear.

    I've tried plotting, but it doesn't work for me. I do occasionally write out a synopsis before writing on a new book, but the end result rarely ever matches the synopsis very closely in those instances.

    Who cares what process you use so long as the end result is a publishable novel? It really makes no difference to anyone, other than those who think their way is the ONLY way, which is clearly wrong.

  5. Ann Aguirre says:

    Oh, man, that pisses me off. The number 1 thing I say to aspiring writers is: "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you're doing it wrong. Whatever process works for you is the right way to go."

    I was on a panel once with an editor (who also writes), who stated that it is impossible for a pantser to write a series and that she insists all her authors learn her "method" to organize their writer. I was -totally- boggled by this because, hello, I'm a pantser, and I think I'm doing just fine. The key thing is, once you incorporate an element, you just have to be consistent all the way down the line, and not change horses midstream.

    I've also seen authors online saying stuff like, "If you're a midlist author, you have to learn to outline in order to sell on proposal." I'm like, really? Nobody told me. Because I'm sure as heck selling on my general 2 page synopses that give the feel of the story much more than any real plot detail.

    I could not disagree with any of this more and it's REALLY intolerant and demeaning! I mean, frankly, the idea of outlining a book in great detail, using cards, flowcharts and god knows what else, sounds tedious in the extreme to me, but why would I mind if that works well for someone else? It makes no sense at all.

  6. Maggie Robinson w/a Margaret Rowe says:

    Yay you! For the first time ever, I had to write a synopsis for a proposal I turned in. I sat at the computer thinking, "How the hell do I know what's going to happen?" I've already diverged from it.

    I think we all have to do what works best,and I am most definitely a pantser. Those people who have boards covered with color-coded sticky notes before they start scare me silly.Or maybe I'm just jealous.*g* But I never know what's coming until my fingers hit the keys.

  7. RKCharron says:

    Hi 🙂
    Thank you for a great blog post.
    I'm a pantser too. I actually finished my first novel that way during college. Soon after I was told to outline, storyboard, etc. and haven't been able to complete one since.
    Recently I've gone back to what worked for me since I began writing at 4. I have an idea, and a character in my head and I "channel" that into the novel. I let it lead me instead of the other way around.
    And I am writing again.
    Thank you also to the other commenters. I gives me a feeling of relief to know that I am not alone, that I am not "doing it wrong".
    This has been very uplifting for me. And I thank you, Carloyn Jewel, for writing this.
    Love and best wishes,

  8. meljean brook says:

    Amen, sister.

    Pantser here, too. I edit as I go, don't have multiple drafts to revise, and it takes me 4-5 months per book.

  9. Carolyn says:

    Nice to hear from my fellow pantsers in solidarity! Thanks for weighing in on the subject.

    I too envy people who can work with charts and post-its and color coding stuff because I am an office supplies junkie and would love to have a practical excuse for buying colored stickies. I tried the post-it method of plotting and boy, it really did not work for me. My writing brain just isn't wired that way.

    I enjoy hearing about plotting methods because sometimes there are tips and tricks I can adapt so they're helpful to me.

    But I won't ever forget all those hours staring at charts I couldn't complete and that didn't really make sense to me anyway or post-its I couldn't get arranged in any helpful way and feeling like an utter failure.

    Shudder. You have to try things to know whether they work, but once some method doesn't produce results for you, it's time to move on.

    Seat of the Pants writing is a valid method.

  10. Ann Aguirre says:

    Oh, also… the 42 drafts thing? That's just asinine.

    I do three revisions, at most. The first pass is to correct egregious errors, add description, make sure the continuity is what it needs to be. Then it goes to a beta reader. I incorporate the feedback; sometimes they notice problems that would escape my notice. That's the second pass. Then I turn the book in. If my editor has revision notes, I do a third pass to make the book as shiny as it can possibly be. With Anne, I do revisions on every book I turn in. With Cindy, she loved Skin Game as it was — so that was two passes only. I assuredly don't need anyone to help me fix my books; I can do the work myself — and I do.

    As for how long it takes me to write a draft, it depends. If I'm really crunched for time, I do the draft in 30 days (3K a day for 30 days = 90K and you're good to go.) I prefer to take weekends off because that helps prevent burnout, which means the process takes 6 weeks. After that, I take a week off (if the schedule permits — otherwise just a few days) and then I make my first pass. Nobody reads my ugly first draft. Then it goes to beta. Second revisions never take more than a week. So even with my "ugly process", it doesn't take me more than two months (though not all consecutive time, as the beta reader may not turn the book around that fast) to draft and polish a novel.

    So suck it, Ms. Prejudiced RWA Plotter.

  11. Cybercliper says:

    I know you have previously described yourself as a panster – first time I had heard the term actually. All I can say is as a huge Carolyn Jewel fan – it works for you. Your work however you do it is perfect and I'm waiting patiently – ok not patiently – but still waiting for your next project!!

  12. Sandra Schwab says:

    That's what I've found so annoying about several RWA National workshops in the past: presenters who try to tell you there's only ONE way and ONE way only to write – theirs. Or people who've got recipes for just about everything: take one dash of alpha male, one dash of conflict, stir, draw triangle and voilà, you're novel will be an instant success and everybody will love it to pieces.

    Unfortunately, only very few things in life work that way (cake! *g*), but writing is not one of them.

    @Ann: Outlines are supposed to be longer than two pages? Uh-oh. Nobody told me. I'm a plotter, but I had writing synopses/outlines: imo, they always make the books sound silly. At least mine do.

  13. Katrina Strauss says:

    Thank you, oh fellow pantster!

    When I write a first draft, I knock out the first five chapters or so by the seat of my pants. From there, I create what I call "the kinda/sorta outline thingie" to keep up with the remaining chapters. I tweak the outline as I go to suit the story, not the other way around. I'm not saying my method would work for all writers, but it certainly works for me!

  14. Kerensa Brougham says:

    As others have said, THANK YOU. I pantsed my first ms, and loved it. Plotted the second two, and they were okay. Just pantsed the third, and feel like I've found my voice, my purpose in my writing life, and the story I love-love-LOVE the most of all the stories I've written, or even just started.

    Also, I heard someone else (forget who) recently comment that pantsers "had" to learn how to plot, because eventually we'll have to write a synopsis for a proposal. To which I say, BFD. Everyone (editors, agents, other IPs) knows that an initial synopsis is "more of a guideline" (to quote Jack Sparrow ;)), and divergence is generally expected.

    Besides, I actually did pre-write the synopsis for this latest book. But 90% was me thinking about the emotional journey and the main themes, with the entire plot summed up basically as "and then she uses her inherent skills and the skills she learns along the way to beat the bad guys."


  15. Lucy Woodhull says:

    Fist bump of solidarity, Carolyn! I for one am happy you went back to pantsing, for I adore your books.

    From one pantser (well, sometimes skirtser) to another.

  16. Karen Erickson says:

    I can't believe she said that – I have utter respect for everyone's process. I would love to be able to plot and use pretty colored post-its (office supply junkie too) but I just can't do it. I've tried but I'm not wired that way either.

    I outline a little bit, get the idea, know what's going to happen somewhat. But mostly I'm a pantster. And I like it that way. It works for me.

    Love this post. Giving you a big Amen, sister. 🙂

  17. Katiebabs a.k.a KB says:

    I have been writing without a net. Not sure if it will work, but it will be an interesting ride finding out.

  18. Amanda McCabe says:

    Great post!! I hate it when people say "This is the only right way to write the book," when that is obviously not the case. I once tried to make post-its for every scene (since I also have an insane love of office supplies, and could happily browse Staples for hours), and ended up spending all my time re-doing the post-its and moving them around. Not smart. I have to just let it flow and let the characters carry me where they will–and I get books done in 3-4 months with 1 draft, not 42. 🙂

  19. Sandra Schwab says:

    Ooops. Just to make this clear: I was *not* referring to Cherry Adair's article in the current RWR. I only got my copy today, so didn't know about her "Recipe for Texturing and Layering Your Novel" (which is a great recipe, btw, though I'm still waiting for that chocolate cake to turn up *g*)

  20. Tracy Madison says:

    Great article. I also am a pantser, and have repeatedly learned that my books are so much better when I don't pre-plot. For some reason, the really good stuff only occurs to me when I'm knee deep into the story, not when I'm staring at a chapter/scene breakdown trying to "plan" what will or will not happen.

  21. K J Gillenwater says:

    What a great post, Carolyn! I wholeheartedly agree with you…I am a pantster and write maybe 3 drafts.

    1) Write first 2/3 of book with only a minimal idea of what the plot is and who main characters are.

    2) Hit the 2/3 point and freak out that I will not be able to fit all the loose ends together, ohmygod I have no idea where this is going, I am failing horribly! Aah! Aah!

    3) Brain thinks over book and decides there may be minor issues missing or perhaps a whole character or a whole plot point. And this would make the book so much better!

    4) Continue writing last 1/3 of book as if that new stuff I thought up was there from the beginning.

    5) Finish book and the go back and edit…this first edit is to add all the stuff I realized I needed at freak-out moment (see number 2).

    6) Do one last overall edit to clean up stuff.

    One thing I cannot ever understand about a plotter is how they can KNOW ahead of time where their characters will be emotionally at any given time in the story or exactly what the conversations will be. These are things I just cannot plan in advance…the feelings and responses must come organically as I write and then those feelings/responses connect to the next scene.

    Thanks so much, Carolyn, for defending the pantster!

  22. KtL says:

    SO well said, Carolyn. People will be referencing your words here for a long time!

    In personality psychology it's well-accepted at this point that there are two [at least] diametrically different creative/"doing" approach modes in the human race–

    It's got a lot of names: right brain vs. left brain dominance; in Jungian psychology, the preference for the Perceiving function over the Judging function (and possibly the Intuitive function over the Sensing function; and more.

    The point is: The differences are biological, they are natural; but it is the amusing bias of those of the left brain/Judging function/Sensing function family– due to the outlook on the world their biologically preferred functions gives them–that the way that they operate *is* the way.

    And our ability to see that their point of view is valid in addition to our own is ironically the gift of our opposite preferred functions. The sad part in the irony though is that while one half of us will always be willing and able to extend our hands and be inclusive, and grasp the big picture, the other half never will be inclined to be. Not without a monumental struggle of a mountain to climb.

    It calls for quite a supply of 'longsuffering' on our part. Hopefully we can be patient with them. Some will be better than others.

  23. Carolyn says:

    Thanks KtL! I appreciate your comments. Very very interesting. I have met plotters who are fine with the existence of pantsers, but mystified by our method. As I, I confess, am mystified that plotting works so well for others.

    I worry most about writers who are working on discovering their process. I'd really like to see more teachers making sure students understand the things people have pointed out here. I know writers who were stopped for a long time because they couldn't follow a particular method (could be a Pantsing one or a plotting one)

  24. Carolyn says:

    Thanks KtL! I appreciate your comments. Very very interesting. I have met plotters who are fine with the existence of pantsers, but mystified by our method. As I, I confess, am mystified that plotting works so well for others.

    I worry most about writers who are working on discovering their process. I'd really like to see more teachers making sure students understand the things people have pointed out here. I know writers who were stopped for a long time because they couldn't follow a particular method (could be a Pantsing one or a plotting one)