Posts Tagged ‘Pantsing’

In Defense of Pantsers . . . Again

Friday, July 29th, 2016

I’ve posted before before, before, before, about being a seat of the pants writer and how often people who plot get pantsing wrong. Sigh. Understandably, of course, since it’s not something that works for them. But I’m pretty tired of hearing the same old “If you plot in advance, you’ll save so much time and write so much faster!”

Let me explode that myth.

Plotters need that pre-writing work, the outlines and charts and notes. But that work takes time and words.

Pantsers (typically) do very little pre-writing work. If that work exists, the outlines, charts and notes are minimal. That work takes ZERO to LESS time than the outlining.

Supposedly, pantsers discard more words and therefore plotting is superior because they’re not discarding whole chapters. But that does not withstand scrutiny. Outlines and charts and notes etcs are words that count in this comparison. They count because the pre-writing of plotters and the discarding of a chapter that proved a new direction is necessary is all part of the working-it-out phase of writing.

It really doesn’t matter when or where that occurs. If you need to do it up front before you’ve written any part of an actual chapter, awesome! If you need to wait until you get to that part of the story and then write some words, and then some different words, awesome!

Honestly, I’m just so tired of hearing people who write in more structured ways that non-structured ways are wasteful, I’ll just cry.

More important, if you’re a writer who thinks you can use any process instead of figuring out what works for you, well, that’s why you’re having trouble. Or your book is done and dead on the page.

Sadly, there’s no way to make it easy.


In Defense of Pantsing

Wednesday, June 17th, 2015

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about methods of getting a book written. This is expected writerly talk. Put writers together and eventually we’re talking craft. At the RWA National conference there’s loads of great workshops about these subjects. Quite sometime ago I had to stop listening to presentations about craft. That’s because they freak me out. Ack!!! I’m doing it wrong!!!! And then I dissolve into this gelatinous mass of self-doubt. Earlier in my career, I needed those workshops. I needed to learn about what other writers did and how they approached problems of story and craft.

I need less of that now because I’ve been at it a while.  I’ve spent hours and hours and hours and hours learning myself as a writer.

Some writers are “seat of the pants” writers and some are “plotters.” (Pantser vs. Plotter) This tends to be a polarizing issue and one that, for some reason, often sounds like ‘pantsing is wrong/immature/inefficient.’

No. It’s not.

I think it’s more accurate to talk about writers and their requirements for structure in their process. Some require a lot and some require less. It’s not a This or That situation. It’s a continuum, and what matters, ultimately, is whether your process results in a finished book where “finished” means it’s great story and you’ve fixed all your bonehead errors and typos.

Did you FINISH that puppy?

I love podcasts. I listen to lots of writing podcasts– most about the business because craft discussions — see above. Just about all my favorites have recently featured guests who said, in some form or another, some obliquely and some overtly, that pantsers are doing it wrong.

No. They are not. I have been writing long enough that actually, I know I’m not doing it wrong. I am coming up on 30 published novels, novellas, and short stories. Most of those 30 are 100,000 word novels. I have been traditionally published and now I self publish. There was a period, during which, by the way, I did not sell a single novel, in which I tried structured approaches.

I once wrote a 70 page outline. I’ve done character bios, charts, you name it, if it involved pre-planning so you know what you’re going to write, I tried it and I failed miserably. I FAILED MISERABLY AT PLOTTING. I lost an embarrassing number of years out of my writing career because all the writing books insisted on structure and pre-planning, and that had to mean I was doing it wrong. Right?

Charts, Bios, GMC, Outlines: GO AWAY!

I’m one of the few authors around who sold her first book. Two weeks after I queried it. By pantsing it, by the way. I had no idea what I was doing so I did what I felt like doing and it turned out I’d managed to hit on the process that worked for me pretty much right off the bat.

When I hear a new author talk about how they they were a pantser but boy, that first book was such a mess, it’s still under the bed, so OBVIOUSLY pantsing is wrong — Folks, no, Just NO. What it means is that author had not yet discovered her writing process. Few people writing their first novel know what process works for them. But it doesn’t mean that messy process is wrong for everyone. It’s a newbie effort, so all you new writers, your job is to find out what works for you. You have to keep writing to find out. You do have to pay attention to craft discussions and try out techniques so you know if it works for you.

All those plotter sort of things that are supposed to be a better, faster way to write are likely to completely fail some authors. All those pantser “just let it flow” things are going to fail some authors.

Carolyn the pantser (with a full time job) has written novels in 90 days while in graduate school, with a young son. I have written 30K word novellas in 30 days. Without a single outline. With very little planning.

The kind of significant planning that so many plotters do is a waste of time for me. Not for them. For me. I know this because my traditional publishers used to make me write synopses and it was awful horrible, dreadful and not one single synopsis I ever wrote (unless it was after the book was done) had the slightest resemblance to the book I turned in. None. Zero.


In the time it would take me to write a synopsis that didn’t make my agent cry— actually, I never wrote a synopsis that didn’t make my agent cry (Sorry, Kristin!)— I could have been 20 pages into the actual book.

Here is how it works for me: I spend 3-4 days bouncing around ideas in a notebook for an hour or so a day. Handwritten. I now have fountain pens so this is fairly awesome. I describe various things the book might be about, things that might happen etc. And from that comes this sense of the emotional heft of the characters who will be on the page. And then, I start writing. I pick a scene that represents that emotional heft and I start writing at what I figure is the middle of their story. My notebooking focuses me and gives me a place to start. I think about those characters and their story and I KNOW FOR SURE my story will be about some series of events.

{Folks, Ima setting you up. About now, you’re saying “BUT THAT’S PLOTTING!!!!}

I sit down to write and

Not one single thing I notebooked happens. The characters say and do stuff I didn’t expect and in response to that more stuff happens that I didn’t expect. But it’s magic. If I pay attention to what’s happening on the page my characters show me the interesting complicated fascinating relationship they will have. My job is to let that happen no matter what I wrote in my notebook.

My writing is constant focusing, brainstorming, following the threads that appear, deciding that X will happen and being totally prepared and willing to go with Y if that’s what’s happening. I brainstorm in my notebooks as needed — because I do need that. But I’m never more than a few scenes ahead. There’s no point.

Nobody Knows You’re a Pantser

After nearly 30 novels, I know that’s what it will be like. Not one single outline, no charts, no beats. No nothing. Sometimes I’ll go in and chop things up or out or rejigger. Every story is a little different, a different shape and heft on the page. I’ve had books that I rewrote in 3 weeks because I knew the traditional editorial process had failed me. I’ve had books where editors said “Don’t change a word.” I’ve had books I heavily revised because my editor was right about a weakness.

Some people write faster than I do. But loads of people write slower. And nobody can tell I’m a pantser from the finished product. Just like readers can’t tell if a book was plotted in advance.

I have one doorstop/under the bed book. It’s the one I tried to plot. Every other book I’ve written has been published. So, you know, pantsing works. If you’re a pantser.


Why Plotting Does Not Work for Me

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

I’ve started The Next Historical. I had to write a couple of paragraphs of a snyopsis of sorts to sell the thing. In the week leading up to actual writing, I brainstormed in my trusty notebook and had worked out what I thought would be good rough plot. I started writing yesterday. Wrote from the heroine’s POV and things were good. Wrote from the hero’s POV and things were . . . eh . . . something not quite right. It’s been nagging at me all day. My Plan included the hero retaining possession of a certain item belonging to the heroine. I had three (vague) scene ideas where she’d attempt to regain possession of said item. I notebooked those, too, by the way.

I started working on chapter 2 (hero’s POV) and the more I wrote and fleshed out, the more certain I was that the hero would simply not do that. Every word suggested something quite different. Then I wrote this paragraph where he sees the heroine for the first time and yeah. He just isn’t going to keep this item she needs and wants. It would be unkind of him to do that. His story is quite different from what I had envisioned.

There was just no way for me to discover this without writing the words that put me into his head. I needed the spark of words in the chapter before I saw this. I could, conceivably, have gone on to outline my original plan including the scenes I was thinking about. But thank goodness I know better than that now. I’d actually notebooked them fairly extensively.

The insight grew from my chapter 1 (which I might end up cutting or moving) in which my heroine turned out to have a different personality than I envisioned, and that carried into Chapter 2. I need the specific words, the actual writing, in order for that spark of realization to happen.

Your Mileage May Vary.



Literary Twister

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

Last night, this morning at the gym and during various downtimes of the day, I’ve been mulling over this particular scene that Just Wasn’t Working the way it needed to. It involves Xia giving Alexandrine a substance that affects people with magic. Originally, he did it to prove to her she has magic. But the new! Alexandrine already knows that. Obviously, that original scene needed a re-write. While notebooking at the gym, I settled on her taking the pill by accident. I recognized the idea was a wee bit lame, but I thought if I meditated on it some more, I’d see my way to the solution. I am not at my best at 5:00 a.m.

So I sat down to do the work this evening and I was in there with the machete getting things conformed etc and at last I get to the substance scene at the end of chapter 6. How is she going to take this pill?

She’s not. It turns out, as I was writing, that, as a former teen runaway (which was previously established) she had issues with drugs and does not take any drugs ever anymore. Color me surprised! But this revelation ended up being a major development in their relationship. Oh! Oh! I get it! Neat-o.

But now I had a chapter 7 of substance-induced events that needed a new home. And I knew the perfect place for it. Between chapters 13 and 14. The beginning of 14 got spliced onto the top of chapter 7 which was renumbered as Chapter 13 (with 8-13 becoming 7-12) Are you following me here? and then about-to-be 13 and 14 were temporarily combined so I could look for the best chapter ending. Found it. Chopped it. And Voila as they say in France. Chapters 7 and 14 were spliced and split and became 13 and 14. It’s a bit messy yet but tomorrow I will smooth that out into a scene that has my heroine who is afraid of backsliding on drugs facing the ABSOLUTE NECESSITY of taking a drug that humans with magic routinely abuse… See? Much more at stake.

It’s like that game Twister. Only with words and paragraphs and my characters and story instead of people.

This sounds like a horror show, I know. I suspect it is, but that’s how it’s been for all my books so far. I have an advanced case of esprit d’escalier only since these great ideas have to do with a novel which takes a while to put together, I can actually go back with the perfect bon mot and nobody will ever know I didn’t think of it until way late.

I have to do this kind of slice and dice very quickly because I often need to have 3 or 4 chapters all in my head as I reassemble and sort out the bits and put the left overs in the right places, and I don’t want to forget who’s going where. If I go too slow or think too much every thing just goes to heck. It’s scary because in the middle every thing’s a bit fat mess, and I get in there and muck about and then it’s all better. Usually. To be honest, sometimes it’s not and I have to start over. But this one feels good.


Monday for sure

Monday, May 14th, 2007

I should have known when I woke up exhausted and decided to skip the gym that I wasn’t well. But I got my extra hour of sleep and went to work. 2 hours later I came come. The really good news is our Koi are parents. Four of them between 1.5 and 2 inches long. We know it’s the Koi and not the goldfish because the babies look like the Koi: Orange, black and white. One of them is mostly orange. A while back they were doing a lot of breaching the water. I think they were "flirting." Sometimes I’d hear the splash from my room (the koi pond is right outside my sliding glass door) or I’d look just in time and see them pretending they were whales. Anyway, big excitement here today.

I got some work done today despite the foggy brain. I decided to work on my missing chapter. I picked a good spot and started and after a bit I went If this keeps up, Carolyn, this will be boring. So I stared out the window for a while and then got back to work and now my antagonist is with my heroine and there’s some stuff going down. And I’ve got to go find out out that ends up…


In Which Carolyn Writes Herself out of a Corner

Tuesday, April 10th, 2007

69K words for Magellan’s Witch. I almost gave up for the night about 45 minutes ago. I was fixing more stuff and getting my hero in those scenes he needed to be in and then I wrote myself into a corner. I’d moved a bunch of stuff around so I was only addressing a certain subject in one place instead of more than one, I consolidated characters etc, and then for a while things were a big awful mess. The choreography was all wrong and people were standing around awkwardly, either too close to or too far from wherever they needed to be, and the tension was going pfft and then, even worse, I realized that if I were my hero and heroine (which in a way I am) I’d just get the heck out of Dodge. And I tell you it’s not a fun feeling when you realize you have all your key characters together in a scene that’s supposed to be tense only there’s no reason on earth to believe these people would ever be in the same room with each other without pulling knives. In my own immortal words, uh oh.

I just wanted to say Carolyn you hopeless hack, stop here for now and fix it tomorrow. In fact, I did say that.

But I kept going and fixed my staging and set problem and all of a sudden my antagonist was doing some really unexpected creepy stuff and it totally worked. He came up with the reason why they should even be in the same room, let alone talking and lying and establishing agendas and the like. Neat. And what a relief, I might add.