From Pantser to Plotter: the Evolution of my Writing Process
There’s a lot of chatter in the writing community about whether pantsing or plotting is the best way to write. In most discussions, I’ve seen a relatively even mix, each sharing the pros and cons of their methods. When I wrote my very first novel-length manuscript, I didn’t even know there was a difference! I had a story bouncing around in my head, and I wanted to get it out. A lot has changed since then.
I’ll admit, I had tried to write novels before completing Secrets of Serendipity. As someone who always loved to write, I found myself starting and stopping stories throughout my teens. I believed the reason why I never finished was that I didn’t have enough life experience to write something believable. Now thinking back, it may have been because I was pantsing without a plan. I’d get stuck in spots and had no way to dig myself out.
The Early Stages of my Process
In my early twenties, I tried again. I dedicated time to it, setting weekly word count goals. I still pantsed it, but I had rhythm and structure this time. I held myself accountable. I didn’t allow too much time to lapse in between writing sessions. I always made it fit into my schedule no matter what I had going on. This worked for me.
I remember the day I finished my first draft of Secrets of Serendipity. It was May 2013, and I was on a flight back home from Seattle. I couldn’t believe it. I wrote a 70k+ story.
As we deplaned in Charleston, a woman who had been sitting behind me commented on watching me write. “Are you an author?” she asked. And for a moment, remembering that I finished that full draft, I started to believe that maybe I was… or at least could be.
But after the excitement of finishing my first draft wore off, I realized revisions and edits had to take place. I didn’t know how much of an undertaking that was until I got into it. I thought getting the story down was the hardest part, but I was sorely mistaken. The draft is only the start of a much bigger process. The real work comes after you type “The End.” And, truthfully, this part of the process that tested if I had the heart and passion for being a writer.
The Importance of Structure
I envy writers who enjoy this part of the process. For me—a naturally critical perfectionist which I’ll blame on being a Virgo—this part is torture. I stare at my work and pick it apart. It’s a roller coaster of emotions. I’ll identify some elements of the story that make me think, “Hey, maybe I’m a decent writer after all,” only to immediately stumble upon other parts that make me feel like I should just burn it all to hell.
What made this process even more difficult was the fact that I had plot holes, loose ends, inconsistent character details or motivations, and so on. These issues could have been easily avoided had I taken the time to map things out so I could stay on track. Sometimes, there would be a few days or weeks between writing sessions, so it was easy to forget where I left off. Without something to reference, I was going in blind, and the result of that was evident whenever I did the first revision.
There are a lot of people who prefer pantsing because of the creative freedom it offers. They want to dive right into the story while they’re inspired rather than taking weeks or months to build out their acts, scenes, character details, and backstories. However, the plotting process was well worth it for me. For stories I pantsed, I found myself spending more time and energy during rewrites. I think about all the chapters and scenes I had to scrap because they didn’t make sense. Or about all of my anxiety and doubt when I wondered if my “fixes” actually helped the story or if it looked like a shoddy job patched together with off-brand Duct Tape.
Becoming a Plotter
For short stories or writing prompts, pantsing is fine for me. It gives me that creative burst. But for something that takes more effort and time, plotting is the way to go.
I’m a natural planner. My bosses and colleagues often comment on all of my tools and spreadsheets I use to stay organized. As a one-person team, I had to adopt that. It’s all on me, and I found I liked the control and peace of mind of having detailed knowledge of what all my moving parts were doing. Why I didn’t consider this as a part of my writing process sooner is beyond me. But I guess you don’t know until you try it, and now I do.
It wasn’t until I finished the first draft of The Mysterious Murder of Melissa Maher that I started to consider revamping my process. I did research and found a bunch of writing templates on Evernote. Using those and manipulating them a bit, I went through my draft and did a high-level chapter/scene outline based on what I wrote. I also wrote out my character details and backstory.
After, I took a good hard look at my first draft and identified my loose ends and plot holes. There was a decent amount, as expected. Rather than diving right into the edits, I went back to my outline first, shifting things around, adding new scenes to fix the loose ends, cutting things that didn’t help the story. Then, I got to work.
I found this outline had made the editing process a little easier. I wasn’t worried about missing something. Going forward, I decided to use these templates to plot BEFORE writing Saving the Winchester Inn (isn’t that a novel idea) and saw how it helped. Not only did it allow me to jump right into writing because I knew where I left off, but it made the editing process shorter and less painful. I could focus on the prose rather than second-guessing if I forgot something.
Perfecting the Process
Plotting in depth before writing is now my go-to. And just like working on my craft, working on my process with each story will make me a better writer. I’ve expanded a lot on the templates and tools I use, but the concept is always the same. Since doing this, I’m able to produce more. It also gives me more confidence in my writing…well, as much confidence as a writer could expect, this is a vulnerable thing to do after all.
I wish I could be a pantser. I see the benefits to it, but I have to stay true to myself. I’m a Type-A, organized, control freak, and that works for me. Now I’ve found a way to make it work for my writing.
If you’re someone who wants to start plotting or wants to improve your plotting process, consider reading Save the Cat! by Jessica Brody. I just picked up a copy this weekend and can’t wait to see how I can incorporate these lessons into my process.
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