Hello, my name is Michelle, and I have a dark secret.
I am neither a Plotter, nor a Pantser.
In case you've never heard these terms, a ‘Pantser’ is a person who writes their novel by the seat of their pants, with no preparation or pre-planning. They have an idea, maybe even sometimes only a character, and nothing more; on November 1st (these terms were originated with NaNoWriMo, or at least that's where I've experienced them), they sit down and start writing. On the other side, a ‘Plotter’ is a writer who does extensive preparation before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard—outlines, character sketches and interviews, volumes of research. On November first, they surround themselves with their prep-work, and then write, write, write.
I’ve discovered I’m neither of these, but rather a hybrid of the two. And I suspect there are more out there like me, who don’t fit neatly into either category, and who aren’t quite sure where they belong. So I’m here today to stand up for all us Pl-antsers out there by describing for you how I pl-ants my novels.
My first novel: Discovering my twisted hybrid nature
Although I didn't know the approach had an official label then (I had no idea what ‘Pantsing’, ‘Plotting’, or even NaNoWriMo was), I started work on my first novel, Hazel-Green, in the ultimate Pantser way. I had an idea nugget and no clue where it would take me. I’d been researching my family tree and kept discovering intriguing ancestors in incredible situations; as a writer’s mind is wont to do, I started making up stories in my head about what their lives were like, and what characteristics and knowledge might have passed down from them to me. Then little bells went off in my head: that would be a cool book! Protagonist finds out about ancestors and it turns out that events in their lives, back to 300 years ago, are relevant to protagonist’s current life in a useful way.
That was all I had.
I started writing scenes based on a few of the ancestors I’d learned about, one in particular who was hanged for two murders. At first, I had a single Word file, with the story I was writing for that character. Then I added a second Word file dedicated to her great-great-great grandmother’s story, based on ancestors I had who immigrated from France to Quebec in the 1600s. At that point I was still firmly ‘pantsing’, and if I had Scrivener then (which I did not), my project would have looked like this:
As I wrote about the second character, I was inundated with ideas about how her experiences could plant seeds that would eventually lead to what my first character had done, and what the in-between generations would need to look like for that to work. The issues got complicated, and I decided I needed organization—time for some ‘plotting’, apparently. I pulled out a notebook, and put together what could (very generously) be called an outline, along with an exploration of the changes that would need to take place over the generations and the characters. In Scrivener terms (which I still didn’t have), it would have looked like this:
Luckily, shortly after that point, I got Scrivener (and it completely blew my mind—but that’s another blog post). As I transferred what I had written into Scrivener, the ‘outline’ I’d put together in my notebook naturally came to live in the binder. And I was so excited playing with my new toy that I started creating scenes in different parts just because I could. I was ‘plotting’ and didn’t even know it. BUT. My outline was nowhere near complete, and there were whole sections that I had no idea what to do with. Yet, I went forward.
Enter my discovery of NaNoWriMo. That put me right back in pantsing mode—writing, writing, writing, writing, writing, despite the huge holes in my outline and in my thinking about the novel.
The more I wrote, the more ideas came to me about what I wanted to do with the current chapter, or the next chapter, or the themes I wanted to hit on in the book, or even new characters I needed. As I had these ideas, I’d create scenes or chapters or character descriptions in Scrivener as placeholders—sometimes with a sentence or two to capture my ideas on where to go, sometimes completely empty.
And when I’d finish with the current scene or chapter, or got bored or stuck, I’d go write whichever of those other scenes/chapters were calling to me. And as I wrote them, I’d have new inspiration for plot points and themes, and how to work out problems and holes. So I’d create more placeholders. Or I’d reorganize, because I realized a different order would work better. And then I’d write more.
And so it went; lather, rinse, repeat as needed until the first draft of my first novel was complete.
Novels 2 & 3: Adapting my discoveryMy second novel, MMORPG, about a serial killer who finds and seduces his victims in World of Warcraft, went essentially the same way; the one difference was that I had a tiny bit more organization to start with. And when I say ‘tiny’, I mean tiny: I knew there would be at least two murders, some police investigation, and an ending. When I started, my Scrivener binder looked about like this:
Then I started writing, and the same creative process unfolded. As I wrote, I’d get inspiration, which I’d build into my Scrivener binder; when a given scene called to me, I wrote it, which lead to more inspiration, which led to more structure in my Scrivener binder. Novel #3 (Accidental Divination) followed the path of her older siblings.
And finally: Celebrating my process
I currently have the idea for my fourth novel waiting on deck; I’ve created a Scrivener project for it to record my thoughts until I have time to write it. Because it’s a sequel to Accidental Divination, I'm already aware of some of the elements it will need; the basic structure of the book will be similar and there are some plot points that follow up the first book. I have more than double the amount of pre-pants plotting than I’ve ever had before; there does seem to be variation for me depending on the project. But I know that the true development of the novel will come when I write, and my pantsing and plotting begin their delightful duet.
So am I recommending you try it my way? No, although you certainly can if you like. What I'm saying is, not everyone is a pantser or a plotter, and that’s okay. For me, my ‘plotting’ and ‘pantsing’ work together in tiramisu-like layers where luscious coffee-flavored pantsing seeps into rich ladyfinger plotting. For you, who knows? Try things out. See what works. Adapt. Go with your gut. And put the kabosh on anything that doesn’t work, including general conceptions of process that work for other people.
I’m going to end there, because for some reason I’m really craving an Italian dessert right now...