If you’re a writer, you probably know what I’m talking about. It is the age-old writing-process dichotomy. Does one write by the seat of one’s pants? Or does one plot and outline things ahead of time, i.e. before writing that first draft? I know there are those writers that claim the pants/outline dichotomy is a false one, that there are third or forth options, that you can be both, or neither. And that’s fine. But I’m willing to wager that the majority of writers out there identify themselves as one or the other, or at least have so identified themselves, at some point in their writing career.
I’m a pantser by the way. And I kind of hate it.
There is a kind romance to the pantser. To pants is to start a novel knowing almost nothing, just starting at page one and following your nose, your muse, your characters, your whim. You’re like an archeologist, brushing away the sand from a couple of white lumps, slowly and methodically revealing the complete (you hope) tyrannosaurus rex skeleton. It seems mysterious and magical to create something complex and beautiful (you hope) out of thin air. Basically you amass a ton of words, like a giant glob of clay on the potters wheel, and then you make it into a novel in the rewrites. It’s a wonderful process of discovery. The story surprises you, you find gems you had no idea were in there. This paragraph has exceeded the legal limit for metaphors, so I’ll move on.
On the downside to pantsing, large chunks of material are thrown out (read: wasted time), false starts, wrong paths taken, gobbledeegook and blah blah blah has to be excised and tossed. Then new material must be written to spackle over the holes. Themes and meanings and through-lines must be discovered. Foreshadowing (once you know what the hell is going to happen) must added back in. Characters that morphed half-way through must be made consistent, motivations must be made clear all the way through, etc etc. Then the language must be smoothed to make all this major destruction and construction undetectable.
It’s a lot of work. For every pantser I know, including myself, there are many, many drafts, many, many rewrites, and much emotional handwringing over whether this mess will ever turn into something good.
Plotting, on the other hand, seems so efficient. You do a bunch of creative work before you start writing. You ask a bunch of the questions first, you work out your character arcs, your settings, your plot twists, or mid-points and culminations, all before you draft a single word. Then when you sit down to actually write, you have a map (that you can change if needed, it isn’t a straight-jacket after all) and you get to be creative about other things, language, weaving in setting, emotional depth, dialogue, etc. rather than using all your energy in flailing.
But it does seem a bit clinical, doesn’t it? This pre-writing. Many pantsers say, “Why write it if I already know how it ends?” To which a plotter might answer, “Why waste all that time flailing and being miserable?” They both have a point.
I used to love being a pantser. I think I thought it was some kind of badge of creativity or even of talent. “I’m so good I can just start typing and a novel comes out.” Some bullshit like that. Like it was a point of pride that I knew nothing when I went in. I now see this as stupid and an insubstantial mask for sheer terror. I’m sure I fooled no one.
On the other hand, I really have loved revision. I have loved discovering the book in the pile of words and lifting it out. Drafting has always been the hard part for me. Revision was where the magic was. Revision was where the book became a book.
But on my god, I’m so sick of the wretched groping around in the dark. And it seems like the more I know about writing, about story structure or scene structure or craft, the harder pantsing becomes. I remember with the first few novels I wrote a certain joy and exploration to the drafting, a freedom of ideas and a willingness to throw stuff in willy nilly. Maybe I’ve lost that feeling of freedom as I’ve become less able to ignore when I’m going off the rails. I can see that I need a character motivation or an outer conflict or a bit of back-story revealed through this setting’s details, and so I start trying to get that stuff in, and that effort seems to kill the free-form drafting that pantsing requires. Or, at least, at my current level of drafting ability, it seems to kill it (maybe there is a higher level that allows one to pants and work that stuff in, too?). But craft stuff: that’s revision level work. The free flow of drafting gets stunted by revision. You can’t do both at once. Or, at least, I can’t. (Maybe one day?)
And hey, I also want to write faster! Two years for a novel is too slow for my goals.
And anyway, all that thrashing and gnashing and wailing is getting old. Can’t I just get on with the work with a bit less drama? Please?
Which leads me to this: I have begun mission Pantser To Plotter.
I know, I know, it may not be possible. Being one or the other might be a function of the equipment I was assigned at birth. And even if it can be done, it may not be desirable. I might become an outliner only to realize pantsing is better after all. Whatever. I’m thinking of it as an experiment. For Science. Can it be done? Can this transformation be made?
I, your intrepid guinea pig, aim to find out.
I made a trip to the library and checked out a metric shit-ton of books on writing novels. There are the pantsers who have books on “the writing life” and there are the plotters who have books on “first draft in 30 days.” I’m reading them all. Memoirs, structured programs, interviews, anything where writers talk about their process, either for entertainment or to teach, I’m reading it. Out of all of this might come a method because I realize, really, I have no idea HOW to outline a novel. How do you figure out what a book is about without writing it first to see? So clearly figuring that out has to be the first step.
(Several of the outline-y books have you start by writing dowm a basic statement about what the book is about. The START with this. This sort of sentence has always been the very LAST thing I figure out about a book I’m writing. Either I’m doing to totally ass-backward, or wow, these two methods to creating novels are really THAT DIFFERENT.)
I also purchased a new notebook—one that you actually write in, not type, I mean in actual longhand! They still have those! AND I rousted out my fancy fountain pen because What The Hell. I need PROPS to help me in this epic endeavor. I might even need a hat.
I also have 100 pages of this year’s novel, drafted by pantsing, that may or may not be raw material for this experiment. We shall see.
But either way, I am going to learn how to be an outliner this summer, come hell, high water, or the zombie apocalypse. I might hate it, but I’m going to do it anyway, just to see what’s on the other side.
So there you have it. Can a pantser become a plotter? OR can a pantser become more at peace with her pantsing by trying to become a plotter and realizing her folly? AND if that’s the case, is there an easier way to pants? Could there be a middle ground as some writers insist? Is there a third option altogether?
Tune in next time to find out.