Hi, my name is Susie and I’m a recovering pantser. It’s been three and a half years since my last transgression.
And I’m still paying for it…
When I first began to think seriously about trying to get published, I started reading blogs dedicated to the craft of writing. I soon found that one topic writers often like to talk about is that of the PLOTTER versus the PANTSER. If you type those terms into your search bar, you will get tons of articles on the subject.
So what’s it all about? A plotter is someone who plans out their book before they start writing while a pantser is a person who ‘flies by the seat of their pants’ or, in other words, wings it.
I started out life as a pantser. Whenever I set pen to paper, my thoughts went along the lines of: “Ooh, I want to write about this character and that character and now I’ll have them meeting here and now I’ll have them saying this and I’m not sure where it’s all heading but it’s magnificent fun, tra la la!”
Teenage me filled notebooks with the disorganised ramblings that ended up forming the basis of my historical fiction series, leaving current me (ahem, a decade or so beyond my teens) to shudder and cry, “Why, for the love of God, why?!”
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against the concept in general – it’s a great way to get the juices flowing and I think it’s ideal for exploring your creativity. However, I do not believe it constitutes the best approach to writing the novels that you one day would like to get published.
Because a novel is a carefully crafted thing. It doesn’t just spring off the page ready-made. You can’t be a pantser and expect to come up with a comprehensible storyline on the first draft. In my experience, a pantser will include a character and then forget about them halfway through. A pantser will realise they need an essential person/device for their climactic moment which they have failed to introduce in an earlier part of the novel. A pantser will be inconsistent with physical characteristics, characters’ ages, the passage of time, etc. Continuity is a term unknown to the pantser.
What’s the big deal, you say? Just sort it out in the edit. Well, that’s grand, except for the fact that editing such a messy monstrosity becomes a HUGE job, and the poor pantser will have to tease out all the details and rework entire scenes and character arcs to make the whole thing coherent.
Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to plot it out first?
I am 100% converted to being a plotter. I now approach a new book by first writing a general outline of it, which is basically a series of bullet points describing the Big Picture. I can swap the points around and juggle the different parts of the story until I’m happy I’ve got an overall view of it from start to finish.
Then I do a detailed outline where I write out scene by scene what is going to happen. This forces me to flesh out the details which I left vague in the general outline, as well as pinpoint where the major scenes occur and where transitional scenes are needed to create a smooth flow to the story.
After that, I make a timeline, noting exactly when the various events in the book take place and what ages the characters are at those points.
Only then can I begin working on the manuscript. The outlines aren’t rigid and are open to change if, in the course of the actual writing, new inspiration hits, but they provide a life ring that keeps me afloat as I glide down the River of Continuity (instead of being sucked into the Makes-No-Sense White Water Rapids).
Regrettably, that ship has sailed for the books I’ve already written. Because I never planned them out fully before I started, I didn’t have the plot set in my head. Now that I’ve had time to reflect and come up with a better version of the story, I am obliged to go back and alter them to fit. Which requires a tremendous amount of editing.
And that’s how I’ve been spending my summer.
I must emphasise that this is only my own opinion – many pantsers swear by their approach and I say good for them!
But I can guarantee you I will never fall off this wagon. Susie Murphy: plotter for life.