I recently interviewed a writer who told me in no uncertain terms that she was not a pantser. I asked, “What is that?”
She explained that a pantser was a writer who wrote by the seat of his/her pants. She explained that pantsers do not use outlines or other tools to organize their plots or characters. I listened patiently as she spoke and with some trepidation because the more she said the more I realized that I might very well be a “pantser.”
For years I’ve described myself as an evolutionary writer. I learned this fact about myself the very first time I began a fiction piece. I’d start with a germ of an idea and then things started happening all around me that I didn’t expect. New characters walked on stage and a shocking, important event happened that shot my original plan out of the water. As a new writer I fought these things. I wasn’t sure how to cope with the evolution of my work.
No one told me there was such a thing as a pantser writer. When I wrote my first genre mystery I had attended a workshop where a well-know mystery writer told us how she constructed her books—with a plot outline and a chapter-by-chapter plan. I decided to give it a go.
I had written one chapter, and suddenly a very interesting character popped on the scene. He was not one of the characters I had planned to introduce. But, there he was. I realized at that moment, I could not write with an outline.
So, you may wonder if I don’t use an outline how in the world do I plan my books? In many interviews I’ve dealt with questions like: 1) Where do your ideas come from 2) Where do your characters come from 3) How do you create the plot or twists?
Here’s an example of what I mean.
Let me take you back in time in the early days of The Clock Strikes Midnight. I began the novel with Marlene in mind. It was supposed to be a story about a woman going through a mid-life crisis. Marlene, however, had other ideas. She took me down an entirely different path. Wow! It was amazing.
As I worked with Marlene, other characters emerged. The first being her husband, Peter. But, it wasn’t long before Peter took a backseat to Marlene’s sister, Janie. I had no idea that Janie would turn out to be a bad little teen. She was the polar opposite to Marlene. Where Marlene was the good little girl growing up, Janie rebelled. The contrast was fun to write, but again not what I had planned. Mid-life crisis? No way. It didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t plan. My characters had their own ideas.
You’ll find many writers sharing tips on how to construct a novel using outlines.
When a character tells you they want to do something, let them do it. See where it takes you and the storyline. Allow yourself to be surprised.
Okay, you’ll have to do some major editing, but let that character in. He or she had probably been asking to come in for a long time and you ignored the request. Now see the mess you’ve gotten yourself into!
Allow your brain to flow like a stream as your fingers dance across the keyboard. It will read like crap the next day. But, then again, maybe it won’t.
Wait to edit. I say this unless your story does a complete about face. In that case, just start over from that place. Usually what happens is the story moves forward and you can go back and make the necessary changes once you have it all down.
I’d venture to say that creativity is messy. Many an artist begins a canvass with one idea in mind and suddenly everything changes. Sometimes, they have to paint over what they’ve painted or they destroy the original canvass. I can imagine Van Gogh painting in this way. Others, like Vermeer probably have a clear vision from the get-go. Two different styles. Is one better than the other?
The one advantage the outliner has over the pantser is in the editing process. For me (as a confessed pantser), editing is a nightmare. Imagine for a moment that you thought you were writing a book about one thing and it takes off in a different direction. That means the early scenes you created become meaningless. Pantsers must be ruthless editors. We cannot get too attached to our scenes. It if doesn’t move the story along, it must go.
Here’s the rub. Writers who outline think us pantsers are lazy. We simply don’t have what it takes to map out a big long piece like a novel. Writers who are pantsers think outliners aren’t creative. They write like robots.
In truth wonderful works of fiction are produced by both outliners and pantsers. Just like Van Gogh and Vermeer are two of my favorite artists. The styles are different.
What about you?