Wednesday, April 6, 2011

I am a Pantser. What about you?

Hello, my name is Carmela, and I am a Pantser.
You don't know what a "Pantser" is? Neither did I, until I came across the term on Larry Brooks's Storyfix site. A Pantser is someone who doesn't plot a novel in advance, but instead writes by the seat of her (or his) pants. The opposite of a Pantser is a Plotter--a writer who creates an outline or some sort of road map before actually writing the story.

The fact that I am a Pantser actually puzzles me. Given my logical, left-brained tendencies (my undergraduate degree is in math and computer science, after all), you'd think outlining would come naturally to me. I did actually outline the first novel I ever wrote. However, despite all my pre-planning, that novel ended up with plot issues nonetheless, which is why the manuscript is boxed away and will likely never see the light of day again.

Still, I gave pre-plotting another try in 2007, while working on a contemporary young adult novel. I discuss that experience in this column for the SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind. Bottom line: that manuscript is also boxed away. (Some writers have drawers of abandoned manuscripts, I have boxes.)

But I'm nothing if not persistent. For my current work-in-progress, a young adult novel set in 18th-century Italy (and based on the lives of two real people), I tried again to be a Plotter. I even made charts using Larry Brooks's techniques, such as identifying my novel's 8 story milestones and when they'd happen in the story. The charts looked great, until I began writing. The more I wrote, the farther I strayed from my plot plans. One reason things didn't go as planned: while researching the culture of the time, I learned some of the milestones I'd planned weren't very plausible. On the other hand, my research also unearthed information about historical events that provided terrific scene material--material I didn't know about when first plotting the story.

So why am I writing today about being a Pantser, instead of celebrating National Poetry Month? Well, over the weekend I reached a true milestone in my WIP: I passed the 70,000-word mark! Better still, I'm almost to the end of the story. (I might have finished it by now if I hadn't been struck by a nasty head cold that makes it hard to think straight. I'm hoping this post is at least coherent.) 

I'm also writing to share something that happened last week. As my novel's plot kept evolving, I realized that the climax and resolution I'd planned would no longer work. I had no idea how the story would end! For a while, that immobilized me. But I forced myself to keep plugging away all the same. After all, I did know where I wanted my main characters to be emotionally by the end of the novel. I just had to figure out to get them there.

Then, somewhere in the last 10,000 words or so, the story picked up momentum and took on a life of it's own. Characters started saying and doing things I hadn't planned, but that fit their personalities and societal limitations, AND THE STORY. Instead of having to force myself to keep "Butt in Chair" (a crucial requirement for Pantsers!), I practically leaped out of bed in the morning. I was excited to see where my characters would lead me that day.

Of course, after I finish the remaining few thousand words of this novel, I'll face a new challenge: I'll need to go back and revise the beginning to fit the story's final trajectory. But that's a different kind of fun for me--that's when I dig deeper into my characters and their motivations. I used to hate revision. Now I find it's my favorite part of the writing process.

Earlier this week I read the Psychology Today article "How to Write for Children Without Injuring Your Brain," a rebuttal to Martin Amis's derogatory comments about writing for young people. The article features an interview with children's author Joanne Rocklin. In talking about "flow and revision," Rocklin says:
 I've found Anne Lamott's concept of the awful first draft very liberating, as well as the UP and DOWN concept of writing: Get it DOWN, then fix it UP. 
Rocklin's "UP and DOWN concept" describes my process as a Pantser. I'm looking forward to soon entering the fixing-it-UP stage. :-)

One more thing: a number of articles and books I've read imply that being a Plotter is somehow better than being a Pantser (or vice versa). I disagree. I think we each have to find the process that works best for us. And our preferred process may change from one manuscript to another. Maybe I'll be a successful Plotter next time around.

Then again, maybe not.

What about you? Are you a Pantser or a Plotter? Please share your answer in the comments. If you're not sure, maybe the following Writing Workout will help you decide.

Writing Workout:
Figuring out if you're a Pantser or a Plotter

In his book Plot & Structure, best-selling author James Scott Bell uses the terms "No Outline People" (or NOPs) and "Outline People (or OPs) instead of Pantsers and Plotters. He suggests the following exercise to determine which you are:
"Make a list of your favorite novels. Put down at least ten titles. . . . Are they heavy on plot and action, or do you prefer more character-driven books? Or is there a mix?
      There are more NOPs on the literary/character-driven side, and more OPs on the commercial/plot-driven side. Take this into account in choosing a system. You should be writing the type of novel you most like to read."
[Personally, I have a mix on my list of favorites, though I do lean toward preferring character-driven novels.]

I encourage you to also check out Bell's book for techniques that help both NOPs and OPs. 
Happy writing.


Anonymous said...

Hello, fellow Panster! (love that phrase!) Thanks for the mention and love your blog. Glad to know you, too, Carmela. Note for poetry month: my novel FOR YOUR EYES ONLY! a novel about a girl falling in love with poetry, is still going strong since 1998, on audio from Scholastic, and with a poetry guide on my web site for teachers...

Joanne Rocklin said...

oops--meant to leave my name, above: Joanne Rocklin

Carmela Martino said...

Hi Joanne,
Thanks for stopping by, and for sharing your novel-poetry info with us.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

I am a pantser. I did three NanoWriMo novels. (two are in the dreaded drawer.) My best work is when my characters take over directing the process. Sure I end up having to do a lot of revision, but I'm fine with that.

Megg Jensen said...

Pantser. I have to let the muse write my book and then I rip it apart in revision.

I saw Anne Lamott speak a few years ago and I'm a big believer in her process. You can't fix something that hasn't been written, especially where plot is concerned.

Leone Castell Anderson said...

I'm a "plotster" or a "pantter" - yep, I'm a
combination. My first m.g. novel began as
a plot, but segued into "character-driven",
so I finished as a "seat of the pants" -
Same with the sequel. But whatever I write,
it's always "down" and then "up!"
Lee (Leone Castell Anderson)

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks for sharing, Pen and Ink, Megg, and Lee. Lee, I love the idea of being a "plotster." Maybe I'll aim for that. :-)

April Halprin Wayland said...

Oh,my--I am SO a pantser! Love that term, love this post, Carmela.

The professor in the novel writing class I'm taking is a total pantser and asks us to be open to what the characters want to do and say. Very cool.

Life's a poem said...

Wow just what I need- I'm definitely a pantser and keep apologising (for my supposed lack of craft)when I read articles about plot charts, rise and fall and sequences- ahhhh! I need a tone, an emotional input and then I'm away- by the way I'm an Australian poet and love verse novels.
I have two published another one being currently written in 'pantser' style- exciting!!!

Lorraine Marwood

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, April. And Lorraine, I hope you feel free to stop apologizing now. :-) Good luck with your work-in-progress. And thanks for taking time to comment.

jen storer said...

LOL! I recently wrote a post about this very same thing! I am definitely a 'panster'. Great term.

Alice said...

I'm not sure what I am. I tried being a pantser, only because I hate outlines but got to the middle and didn't know what else to write. So I tried outlining, read books and put all my high points in, alas, I go back and edit. What do you call someone who writes and edits, writes and edits and can't seem to get to the end?

April Halprin Wayland said...

Alice...I call that person a writer!

Carmela Martino said...

I like April's answer. :-)
I'd like to add: I've gotten "stuck" several times in my current work-in-progress. Each time, I found I had wandered "off-course" from my main character's emotional trajectory. I couldn't move forward until I backtracked to the last part that felt "true." I had to be willing to throw out the sections that didn't work before I could move forward again. It takes courage, but you can do it!