Friday, June 10, 2016


There is much banter in the writing industry about the terms “pantser” and “plotter.” I believe they were coined by the NaNoWriMo community. To be a “pantser” is the write by the seat of your pants, to have no set route and to go where the story takes you. To be a “plotter” is to have a comprehensive outline, to know where you’re going and how you’re getting there before you even start writing.

I’ve tried it both ways. NaNo 2014 I was a pantser. I basically had a character idea and some settings ideas and I went from there. It was the seed to my novel, and I’m super glad I just did it. But to be totally frank, the result was… unsatisfying, to be diplomatic about it. For my second and third drafts, I was (/tried to be) a plotter. Even though I loathed writing outlines and the process was disheartening and soul-sucking compared to just writing narrative, I was sure that the reason my first draft had failed was because I didn’t know where I was going when I started.

Well, my second draft, while being much better than my first, was still far off the mark of what I want to eventually end up with. I don’t believe that it benefitted from an outline as much as I had learned a lot from the first try, but after I finished it, I didn’t have that perspective. From where I was standing, it looked like I had a second draft that was much better than my first and it had had an outline: ad hoc, ergo propter hoc. But I was several chapters into my third draft when I realized that I was going at my story from completely the wrong angle.

And I realized that writing the outline had contributed to cementing this wrong angle in my head.

Not to mention that starting over after writing a comprehensive outline was… well suffice to say that I was more ready to give up writing forever than to write another comprehensive outline. More than that, though, I wasn’t sure yet where the story was going to go. I kept trying to work on an outline and getting stuck on things that I couldn’t predict. And I was getting very frustrated with not writing narrative—the only fun part of writing. (Hashtag my own opinion kthxbai.) So I decided to start writing and see if it went anywhere.

The beginning I wrote was both strong and terrible: strong because I think I started in the correct place, narratively, and terrible because it was disjointed and semi-coherent. That was partially because I was in a semi-panic while writing it and as a result was having terrible aphasia. I kept not being able to find words, so instead using the much more formal words for things than my narrative voice justified. But I said fuckit and kept writing, because it felt like running away from a predator: didn’t matter if I tripped, I fucking got away.

As I write more, my voice comes more easily; the sequence of events happens more naturally; and as ideas come to me I feel very free to incorporate them if I want to—no restrictive outline to stick to like glue. As a result I really feel like this draft is where I’ve been wanting to get to all along. I still feel like it is almost certainly not the final draft. Much polish and sanding and restoration will be needed once I’ve finished writing it. But I may have finally found the thing that I won’t have to rewrite from the ground up.

Anyway. I recently read a term that I had previously not heard of: “plantser.” This is a hybrid planner-pantser. For me, that means I know the starting point, I know the themes, I have a cast of characters (some of which may not end up making appearances), I know the twist, and I know what Cassidy needs to do to “win”—but I don’t know the exact journey she takes to get there, and to be honest, I don’t know if she wins or not, yet.

So, put me in the plantser camp, because I need a little structure—a little, but not too much.

Word count: 10,916 (⪤)


Becky Munyon said...

I don't think I realized that you were that unhappy with your first draft. I knew it wasn't quite what you wanted, but drafts never are. I just didn't realize you were that disappointed with it. I thought it was pretty good, but obviously you're opinion is what matters most. I think you're going in a good direction now.
I like the term plantser. I think that's kind of what I do. Even when I outline, they're very thin, and they often change. Outline shmoutline.

Elly Conley said...

Oh, don't get me wrong! There's a lot about my first draft that was kind of amazingly good, considering everything. But looking back on it, it's just so very different from what I want it to be.
Plantsers unite!