Plotting for a Pantser: The Great Experiment
February 22, 2021
As a writer, I’m primarily a pantser*. I get a line or an image or a snippet of conversation in my head, I sit down to write and just see where it goes, letting events unfold before me. I also, often, will get a portion of a story in my head. These sections are larger than the snippets but they are far from complete. For example, the last book I wrote I had the beginning chapter and the final battle in my head before I began, but not a whole lot in between. The story before that, I had all the villains and most of the main conflicts ready to go but I struggled with my main character. Sometimes an overarching theme comes to me first, sometimes I think up a plot situation, sometimes I wake up from a nap and discover almost a whole story in my head, and sometimes I see a single color silhouetted against a sky.
Long story short, I usually work out a lot of the details as I write. This method allows me to play; to write lyrically, to take detours, to discover. I strongly believe that our unconscious is doing a lot of work without us realizing, and I’m happy to see what it tells me.
However, my average time for writing a novel is clocking at two years. TWO YEARS! That’s just to get the story down beginning to end. Add on to that editing, beta readers, re-editing, pitch materials, querying, etc. and the process really stretches out. Now granted, I tend to edit as I write (something that happens because I’m pantsing, i.e. not all those detours and discoveries work) so I will say my complete draft is usually pretty clean. But still, two years feels like too damn long. Especially if I truly want a career writing novels.
SO! I decided to move outside my comfort zone. Take Off Your Pants is a book about plotting. Written for pantsers (or anyone) by a self-proclaimed reformed pantser herself, Libbie Hawker says she also took two years to write a novel before starting her outlining method. Yay! I’m not alone! I dove into the book.
Then I took a deep breath… and now I’m trying to apply her methods to my next novel.
This is a bit of a struggle, because pantsers want to pants. On the one hand, I love that her method puts certain aspects of story-telling front and center; aspects I feel are critical to a great story. Such as, she recommends starting with your characters’ story arc(s), their flaw(s), the external goal, and overarching theme (not in that order), and leaving plot alone for later. I totally get this approach. I also develop these early in my own stories. But these elements can take a lot of deep thought and I am used to letting them unfold over a longer period of time, possibly 2-3 months. I also tend to let major symbolic points and lyric elements reveal themselves as I go. Her method is making me put the deep thought portion of my work on the front end, before I start writing. It’s also helping me really think about and flesh out all of my characters before I write. So that part I love love love.
On the other hand, I feel simultaneously as if my brain hurts from thinking too hard AND that I’m not doing anything when I could be writing. That is totally all on me! Hawker claims that she can outline her whole book, front to end, in about a day. Which… GRRRL… mad props! I’ve been working on mine for about a week.
Which brings us to the next step… start filling out, very loosely, some of those plot points. Hawker says to make the plot points super broad with plenty of room for creative freedom, mainly around the character’s drive for a goal and what’s thwarting them.
Oh my god, people! It’s like my brain just slammed the brakes on me! I don’t know what the problem is… maybe I’m still tired from the last book, maybe I need to switch to poetry or just read for awhile, maybe my pantsing just wants to pants, but whatever the reason, my brain does not want to work on this part of Hawker’s process. At least at the moment. I wouldn’t say I usually have a problem with plot either, because what’s more fun to a writer than dreaming “Hey! What happens next?”
Now I’m in a death grapple with my own resistance. (Both of us are being incredibly stubborn.) I am committed to giving plotting a chance, because ultimately, I would love to write a novel in six months. Hawker successfully uses her method to write novels in incredibly short timeframes. My experiment is in process. Hopefully soon, I will have a developed outline ready to go for this next novel. How the writing portion turns out after that is anyone’s guess.
But it sure will be fun to see it unfold.
(Ha! See, the pantser always wants to come out!)
*A pantser someone who writes by the seat of their pants, unplanned. As compared to a plotter, who usually has the plot outlined/planned before writing. I actually thought, before I read this book, that I was a main dish pantser with a hefty side of plotter. But after trying to apply this method I realize how singularly pantser I’ve been all my life. Like Atkins level.