Sliding back into my pantser pants…


So, this started out as a couple of Facebook posts, but seems to have graduated into a full on blog post.

First, to those not familiar with the terms – What is a plotter and what is a pantser?

A plotter is someone who uses whatever method works for them – note cards, outlines, maps, wall charts, etc. – to map out their story in some kind of detail before they write the first word. As I understand it, Dan Brown is a plotter, and clearly that is working for him.

A pantser, on the other hand, is a writer who sits down at his blank screen/paper/stone tablet and just goes to town, writing down the story as it comes to them. They don’t plan out scenes, chapters, arcs. They just let the cards fall where they may, with certain caveats. For instance, I pretty much pantsed all of Pawn’s Gambit, but I did a lot of research on the topic of chess and chess history and the various areas of the world visited both before and during and after the writing. So to say I was driving without a plan would not be accurate. However, unlike a dyed-in-the-wool plotter, I didn’t know where every rest stop, gas station, and fast food joint along the way was located, and definitely didn’t have a GPS (that would have been so helpful). With Mussorgsky, I had to stop and plot out a little, and used a calendar of about 1 month since most of the story takes place in a September/October 4-5 weeks. Some of my characters were teachers and another a psychologist, neither of whom typically work on Saturdays, so I needed to know which days my people were at work and which days they were out and about. Don’t want to get called out on stuff like that. However, other than that, pretty much pantsed that one as well.

Plotters often say they don’t have to rewrite as much because late manuscript course changes that cause retrograde ripple phenomena occur in your story don’t happen as often when you plot. Also, because you have a very clear map as to where you are going, you get there faster. Plotters, I suspect, once they have their (evil?) plotting all done can finish a story pretty quickly. We could ask James Patterson’s dozens of co-writers, I suppose. (In case you were wondering, most of the time these days, Patterson outlines and the other dude/dudette on the cover writes the book.)

Pantsers on the other hand are out on the open sea, just stopping at whatever island looks pretty, with a general destination in mind (or at least that’s my method). This is sometimes called “discovery writing” since you kind of discover your story as you go. This, to me, is the most fun part of writing. Lots of cool stuff in both my novel length manuscripts would never have come to pass if I hadn’t been totally pantsing it. Take Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle, for instance. I couldn’t have plotted out who they were going to be in a million years, but when I came to it, it was like I plotted it from the beginning. These happy accidents are, for me, what makes writing fun.

So, why all this jibber jabber? (said with Mr. T inflection, of course)

My sooper sekrit projekt, codenamed Operation: Ghost Story, seemed to be floundering the last few weeks (actually months). My critique group pointed out a lot of issues, my beginning wasn’t right, my main character’s motivations were unclear, and something just wasn’t clicking. So, after getting progressively more frustrated, I decided yesterday to trade in my pantser pants, slide into some plotter trousers (or culottes – thanks to Zoe for thinking I have the calves to pull that off), and see what would happen. I pulled out some 8 1/2 X 11 sheets of notebook paper, cut them into fours, and tried to do some note cards. This exercise lasted 15 minutes before I wanted to pull out my hair. Then I tried the note card feature on Scrivener – for all of five minutes. Considered tattooing myself with story elements like the guy from Memento or Michael Scofield from Prison Break, but that sounded far too painful. I sank into a maelstrom of doom, ennui, and self doubt. Not just yesterday, but for weeks, I had felt like I had forgotten how to write something longer than a short story. Kind of disheartening when you have at least novel/novellette length projects you would like to be working on.

The happy ending? Apparently what I needed was a good night’s sleep, three glasses of the sweetest tea I’ve ever had (and I was raised on Pizza Hut tea in Winston-Salem – Thanks Brixx!!!) and a white chocolate mocha at my favorite Starbucks. Today I churned out 2,000 words, fixed the opening 5-10% of the book (which was the part that was driving me so buggy), and still had enough oomph to write this little blog post.

In short, plotter trousers were returned to the store and I bought four new pairs of pantser pants (pictured above). Operation: Ghost Story, after a month or so of languishing untouched on my hard drive, is now back on the docket. Look out all you plotters, because like the tortoise in the classic race, I’m coming for you.

About Darin Kennedy

3 Responses to “Sliding back into my pantser pants…”

  • Robert Paul

    I have 9 toes because I dipped one into the plotter pool once.

  • August McLaughlin

    Good for you, Darin! I’m a pantser as well. My first agent liked outlines, so I supplied them after I’d finished a draft. 😉 I’ve tried on plotter trousers (love that!) too, and nope! They didn’t fit me either… Have to say, I was relieved.

  • David Jón Fuller

    I pantsed for many years, and had some success with short stories that way — it’s a lot of fun to leap in and just wing it!
    However, after many drafts “pantsing” a novel, I came to the conclusion it was not resulting in better drafts, just more complicated ones. I loved the thrill of discovery but found it exhausting and frustrating.
    However, having immersed myself in some very good books on plot structure, I decided to outline the next draft of my WIP before revising it again. It was a revelation — I now knew what had to be cut, what I wanted to emphasize, and I understood better the characters’ motivations. True, some of this was from churning out previous drafts; but with the outline I was able to write the new draft in a third of the time, and hit my targeted word count within a few hundred words (previously it had been about 60K words over).
    Some pantsers may have an innate sense of plot to guide them as they write, but I am not one of them. I like having the bones of the story down first, I’ve realized. This approach has served me well since adopting it and I’ve written many more stories that “work” by approaching writing this way.
    Funny thing is, I still feel free to “wing it” as I write — having an outline takes away the worry that my story isn’t going anywhere, so I’m more free to explore things as I write it.
    Just my two cents — glad to hear you are finding your approach satisfying as well.

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