Once a Pantser…

Typewriter - Once upon a timeEver since it dawned on me some thirty years ago that the short story I was writing had the potential to be a novel, I’ve been an enthusiastic and dedicated pantser. I’d follow some interesting characters around, taking notes, until something resembling a narrative arc bubbled up. I’d follow that thread until the story was told and then on subsequent drafts, shape it together into a plot, like a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. (And no, I did not just think about Patrick Swayze in Ghost. Okay, I did.)

Then, a year ago, I tried an experiment in plotting. I thought if I planned events out before writing, it might help me get to that lump of clay a little faster. I didn’t use a tight, scene-by-scene structure. The idea of that killed a piece of my soul. (Your actual mileage may vary and I know that for some of you, plotting is your perfect partner.) I used a loose armature called story beats, which I learned from fellow Indies Unlimited author Lynne Cantwell. I thought it would be the perfect compromise.

I used it quite happily with my last two books. It appealed to my love of puzzles and my desire to publish more than one title a year. I even used it to help plan out some stultifying complexities in my current novel-in-progress. In fact, I scribbled that entire plot, in three different colors, on the whiteboard the spouse-man gave me for my birthday.

But as much as seeing my entire project every day was motivational, it was also like a giant weight around my neck. An entire novel. Not written. And I had to see its guts. Its raw, glistening bones. Every. Single. Day.

So, dang it, persistence is my middle name. (Actually, it’s Ellen.) And I dutifully began cobbling my scenes together into the order I had devised. Then I hit the slide. Ever hit the slide? The point where you’re writing and it’s all going sideways and you’re raving to your spouse who was apparently not smart enough to leave the room before you started going off on your characters for not doing what they’re “supposed” to be doing, and there you have it.

The slide.

It felt like that point in the movie when the soundtrack makes that needle-scratching sound that nearly everyone under thirty does not understand. And then everything went silent.

WHAT WAS I THINKING? Telling a character what to do? Telling the story what it was supposed to be about? No. No, no, no, no, no. I was so far out of my wheelhouse I was calling for a quarterback sneak when the catcher signaled for a fastball.

So I chucked my pretty, tri-colored plot out the window. I’m not done with this thing yet; there are still a few more scenes before I can call it a first draft, but I’m a lot happier with my writing than I’ve been in a while.

So for now, I’m putting my pants back on. You’re welcome.

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21 thoughts on “Once a Pantser…

  1. Lynne Cantwell says:

    Those pesky, wayward characters… 😉

    See, the raw, glistening bones motivate me to put meat on ’em. That’s why I write so fast, lol. But you gotta do what works for you. And your way clearly works, because you write awesome stories. 🙂

  2. dvberkom says:

    Lol–great piece, Laurie! I started out as a pantser, and then went hybrid. It works for me–you should see my “outline”–so, so messy, hand written, scratched out, yadayada. But I allow that sketchy thing to be a living, breathing entity. If my characters take off, so be it. I revise the “outline”, not the characters. The characters rule, at least in my world. Writing a novel is still like finding my way in the fog with bad headlights, but every so often, a character shows up with a Maglite.

  3. Carrie Rubin says:

    I love how we all go about things differently. I’m a huge fan of plotting. I can still make changes, but it gives me a direction to go and allows me to fix any plot holes during the first draft rather than later on. Others feel confined by this. Whatever method gets the book written and finished is what counts!

  4. Mel Parish says:

    I’m a pantser too, I just can’t write to an outline. I discovered this at a writing workshop when they kept asking us to write short scenes based on given situations – my brain just froze, because I didn’t have any feel for the characters so they couldn’t tell me what they were going to do next!
    I guess my imagination just doesn’t work that way.. Besides, I like the surprises my characters throw at me along the way.
    And I don’t have a middle name either. In my family the boys were deemed to need one, but not the girls!

  5. Candy Korman says:

    I wear the improvisational pants, too. Although I often have a general idea of the direction, I’ve let the characters let the way and found them taking me far from my original intent. This goes for short stories AND for novels. The characters are in charge. LOL… I’m the nominal chef, but the characters vote with their feet.

  6. acflory says:

    I think I’m a hybrid too. Every story starts with a character and continues as a plotless exploration. And then, about 1/3 of the way through, I suddenly have to stop and work things out. I write pages of dot points, heave a huge sigh of relief and go back to letting the characters rule. But…the story now has some possible milestones to aim for. Possible is as far as my plotting goes though. -sigh- It’s hard.

  7. darkroomdiva says:

    I’m a panster. I couldn’t do it any other way. My characters control my stories, sometimes even changing my whole idea of where the plot is going. (My middle name is Nicole)

  8. Leland Hermit says:

    However you do it, you do it well. I’ll say this for outlines or whatever you worked from… as you create them, you get to know your characters better… I think you can do that through character sketches, through character interviews, or just sitting down and having a nice (written) chat with your characters… but once you know them… they’re gonna do what they wanna do, and if you don’t let them, they will torment you. Incessantly.

    • laurieboris says:

      Thank you, Leland. I do a lot of character work, more as I get rolling, more if I get stuck. It’s been interesting to try the outlining process, but I did end up doing pretty much the same amount of character background (oh, the chats we’ve had in the car) as with my other work when I approached it organically. The characters do what they want and for some reason, I lost sight of that during this last project. Guess some lessons need relearning.

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