When a pantser plots: the weird world of think first, writer later…

When a pantser plots: the weird world of think first, writer later…

The divide between plotters and pantsers is well known within the writing world. To the un-initiated, these terms indicate a writer’s underlying approach to their first draft. Plotters meticulously lay out their entire story – index cards, cork boards, timelines, character profiles, story arc, subplots, B characters, turning points … – I’m exhausted. Pantsers on the other hand, like to throw caution to the wind and let the story take them where it wants.

I’m a panster. I get an idea, bounce up and down in my chair for a bit, bore my husband to death with it, then (just as his eyes start to glaze over) I go away and start writing. I don’t have time to waste worrying about plot consistency or whether the story actually makes sense.

I’m an artist, damn it, and I’ll find a way. The story will grow organically, and bloom like a beautiful, vibrant sunflower – tall and elegant. (Visualising readers gasping with delight…)

As an example, the novel I’m currently editing started from an overheard conversation at the airport where a couple in their sixties were complaining that their daughter never makes them pudding when they go to her house for dinner. By the last draft, I’d written a story about a woman who time-travels through her mother’s memories to unravel a family secret.

Pantsing in action.

Some writers use a combination of both approaches.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you write so long as you write. We all get there in the end. Only writing creates writing. You can’t fix what isn’t there. A bad draft is better than no draft. Do the work and fix it later. Write. Just write. Be a slave to the desk. Be a slave to the process … and so on.

Apparently, no amount of downloading the latest writing app, reading books about the writing craft, lying in a hammock with a glass of wine imagining your new universe, or telling your long suffering partner about your great idea will put words on the page. (Neither will writing about said method in a blog post.)

So, I find myself away on my writing retreat, wanting to get the most out this precious solitude. I have aspirations that I’ll come away with a chunky body of work to show for the expense and inconvenience I’ve put my family through.

I arrived with about twelve thousand words of ‘pants’ work for a new novel that has been swirling around in my brain for the past 12-18 months. Swirling is about the sum of it. It’s a mess. There are contradictory plot lines, overlapping characters, and it appears I’ve written the same events more than once, but for different characters. And no, not the specky same event from different perspectives trick, but literally the same thing happening to different characters.

In the past, I’ve found pantsing works well. I often ‘hear’ my characters chatting in my head. Most scenes start from a conversation and I find building a scaffold of dialogue lets me get the backbone of the story out. Once that’s down on the page, then I worry about fleshing out the backstory and spending time on world building.

But this approach has its limits. Particularly, as this time I’m writing a science fiction novel which requires a large amount of world building in order to understand how the characters act, move and live. The environment directly affects every element of their lives and needs to be carefully considered first. In other words, the world needs to make sense.

Therefore, I have embarked on the audacious quest of plotting this novel. (Cue dramatic music. Some applause would be quite nice right now too.)

The jumble of plotting devices I’m using to wrangle this story…

Wow.

My brain hurts.

Plotting is really hard. I have a new-found respect for those writers out there that can build a whole universe in their head and see their story from start to finish – even loosely. So far, my plotting hasn’t been the best. I’ve done a lot of staring out the window under the pretence of thinking (not sure who I’m trying to fool, because I’m alone), I’ve consumed a tremendous amount of coffee (that burns up a few minutes in the making), and already I’ve changed my plot at least ten times because I’ve realised my ideas don’t make sense. Hence the need to plot.

But that’s a good thing, right? Maybe these plotters are onto something.

In the past I’d plough on, hit a roadblock, come up with a patched solution, then blunder ahead hoping it’ll all work out in the end.

To a certain extent that’s still going to happen. It’s inevitable, because the thing I’ve discovered in my feeble attempts at plotting is that I’m not capable of micro-managing the nitty-gritty of the story. I freeze up, and those character voices still jabber away inside my head with their own ideas about where the story needs to go.

What I do have after hours of contemplation, however, is the skeleton of a plot. It’s not pretty and it’s not perfect, but I think I’ve ironed out the worst of the pitfalls (famous last words anyone?) Who knows?

I suspect that I’ll always be a pantser. I love the high you get when you’re writing and the solution presents itself – as if unbidden – on the page. But I don’t love the writing in circles, the repetition, the rabbit-holes of no return, and the inevitable re-drafting and systemic repair that’s needed to fix my short-sighted bursts of enthusiasm along the way.

Maybe this new venture into plotting will bear fruit. Maybe it won’t. But at day 8, I’m ten thousand new words into the novel and I know what I’m going to work on tomorrow. So, something is going right.