Over the last few months, several people have come up to me, online of course because I only hang out with my toddlers, and asked me about my writing process. I’d explain a little bit here and there, but I’d never have the time (or energy) to really put the process in words. Again, I’m a mom of two toddlers. What really convinced me to write this post was someone in one of my (many) writing communities reached out to the group and asked if anyone had been a pantser and switched to a plotter, to which I raised my hand and screamed, “ME!” So, here is the story of my writing journey and my current process.
Let’s back up a bit first, though, and define some words because I know some of you are sitting there wondering what the heck I mean by “pantser,” and “plotter,” and “plantser.”
A “pantser” is someone who writes the story by the seat of their pants. They go in it knowing just about anything. They might have a character name, or maybe a vague idea of a theme, or maybe not even that. It’s like that parent who pushes their kid in the pool or lake with the belief that experience will force the kid to learn how to swim. (Don’t do this, though. My mom did this to me, and I’m still terrified of deep water.) But there’s the belief, like the child learning to swim, that, after it’s all done, there’s a finished novel ready to be polished.
A “plotter” is someone who needs to line up all their ducks before they start writing. You might come across something called a Story Bible, and this is a plotter’s dream. Someone who plots before writing will write down everything: plot synopsis complete with plot arcs and scenes, character synopses with interviews, world building notes including maps, fictional languages if applicable, and anything else that could be thought of beforehand. I’ve known some writers, and I won’t call anyone out here (me), who once wrote a Story Bible that was longer than the actual story. There’s nothing wrong with that; it can help the world come alive to the author and, by extension, the reader.
A “plantser,” which is a term that recently popped up in writing circles is someone who is in the middle of the road. They do a bit of planning and a bit of pantsing (mostly when they get tired of planning), and somehow it all comes out to a finished story. Plantsing is probably the vaguest approach of the three since there really is no set way to do it.
Whichever method you choose, though, the end result should be the same: a finished story from beginning to end. But this isn’t a post about the merits of each approach. Instead, I’ll show you how I went from being a determined plotter to throwing away all my writing notes to digging some out of the trash can.
True to my formal academic background, I approached writing by planning. I’d start with a concept or a character, and I’d learn everything there was ever to know about said concept or character. I’d develop my premise into a story then flesh out the details. Eventually, I came across the Snowflake Method, and when the creator released the Snowflake Pro software (for a paltry $10!), I snagged it, knowing it would completely revolutionize my writing. And it did. I started with the concept and developed a one-line sentence that summed up my entire story, also called an elevator pitch for all you trad authors. I expanded it to a paragraph, a page, and four pages, making it into a full synopsis. Sometimes, if I didn’t have a story idea in mind and had only a character come to me, I’d skip to the character planning side and filled out questionnaire after questionnaire about the characters to help them come to life for me. I’d write extensive (and I really do mean extensive) backgrounds for each character, even that minor character who gets mentioned on page 42, and not even by name. Yep, everyone was given a life and a story. After I had all that, I’d work on my setting. Since I used to write only literary fiction, set in contemporary times, I’d figure out which real city I wanted to base my fictional city on, print out the map, and go to work making it my own. (To this day, I love using mirror images of real cities, and I did that with my most recent cozy mystery series.) This fictional city was like its own character, so, naturally, it got its own background, complete with the town’s history and how it was established to all the skeletons the townspeople want to bury (but can’t because I like to expose them) to how life has changed over the (hundreds of) years. After all of that, I still wasn’t done. Now, I had to get down and dirty with my plot and craft all those scenes.craft all those scenes. Most often, there were between 150 and 200 scenes for each novel and between 20 and 40 scenes for each short story. (I typically used short scenes with less than 1,000 words each.) I knew where all my characters were at all times, and I’d track the main plot and all the subplots using a color scheme.
Except, by the time I finished planning everything, and I truly mean I planned nearly everything I could, I was left with something that already resembled a first draft in note form. I didn’t want to write the story in narrative form because there was little for me to learn. The times that I did just suck it up and write were usually short stories, and they either followed the outline to the letter–making it less than adventurous for me–or it’d veer so off course that entire chunks of the outline were useless. Characters tend to do what they want to do and not what you want them to do. Goodbye, synopsis and questionnaires! Needless to say, I burned out fairly quickly, in a few years of doing it that way.
Needless to say, I burned out fairly quickly, in a few years of doing it that way, and like anyone who sees the world in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms, I went to the polar opposite style and pantsed my way through a book. This was my NaNoWriMo project back in 2015. All I knew was that I wanted the story to be about gun violence in schools and the aftermath of it. And I dove in! I was tired of never really finishing anything of novel length, so I gave myself an ultimatum: Finish the story in November or else quit writing. Okay, I knew I couldn’t quit writing, so I had to finish the story. In my eight years of NaNoWriMo participation, it was my first year writing only on one project, and I wrote over 80,000 words. I didn’t finish it in one month, despite taking off two of the four weeks from work, but I did finish it the day before my youngest son was born in early January. Let’s just say a train wreck looks better than that draft, but I still treasure it (even though I refuse to open the document) because it means I finished something. With pantsing, though, I found it difficult to keep my character’s names consistent (I think my main character changed names and ethnicities at least five times), and figuring out what was even happening was difficult. It was truly a Draft Zero because there’s no coherent story line, all the characters’ voices are muddled, and nothing is consistent. But it has “The End” written on it, and, for that project, that’s all that mattered to me. Okay, and I admit it was fun writing the first thing that came to mind without wondering where or how it fit in the grand scheme of the novel. It was strangely cathartic to be so wholly creative like that.
I finally had one completed novel under my belt, and I felt great. My creativity, despite just having a newborn and having a toddler to chase, was at an all-time high. I wanted to write more. Except I feared that Zero Draft. I knew that former novel had to be completely scrapped, and I was okay with that but I didn’t want everything I ever wrote to be scrapped. I had to come to a balance between plotting and pantsing because neither were viable approaches for me. Enter the plantsing approach! Now what I’ve learned is that everyone’s plantsing approach is a little different; after all, it’s on a spectrum. This is just my process, and if you find it leans too heavily toward the planning side–because it does–feel free to mix it up.
I start with an idea I want to explore. It could be a snippet of a scene, a full-fledged plot, a character, a feeling, or a theme. I get a blank piece of paper, usually a piece (or two) of legal-sized paper and write a complete mind dump of everything about the idea. Anything is relevant at this stage, and the more time I spend on this the more I can think to write. Still, I try to do this all in one sitting, though. After I’ve written everything, I just stare at the paper–in wonder or in horror–and I try to connect those ideas with lines to see what goes together. Okay, now I have a really messy piece of paper, but the idea is coming to life in my mind.
The next step is the first step of the Snowflake Method, and that’s boiling all that stuff down to one sentence. It contains the protagonist, the setting, and the core conflict. Ideally, it’s under fifteen words. Keep this sentence in mind; memorize it, even. This is the sentence you’ll recite to get people–agents, editors, future readers, other writers, your mom and dad–interested in your story. After you have this one sentence–don’t stress too much because it’s bound to change–move onto expanding it to
After you have this one sentence–don’t stress too much because it’s bound to change–move onto expanding it to one paragraph. This has more of the actual story in it, so it might be a good idea to consult your mind map for this. Again, this will likely change as you dive into your plot and characters, and that’s okay. Adjust as needed.
By now, I’m really wanting to get to know these characters because I don’t know how the story until I know the characters. (They’re fickle creatures, characters.) I have a quick reference guide to help me figure out these characters. I don’t write about everything, just the topics I think are relevant at this time.
- Goal, motivation, and conflict (both inner and outer)
- Important relationships
- Education level (and how it affects the character)
- Home environment (and how it affects the character)
- Preferred travel method
- Backstory as it directly relates to the story
- Carried items (in a purse, bag, pocket, backpack, etc.)
- Habits, mannerisms, quirks, catchphrase, etc.
- How the character view themselves versus how other characters see character
Finally, I figure out the point of view of the story (I usually choose limited third person), the beginning, and the ending. I figure out the ending so I can have a basic roadmap to where I’m going to make sure I’m still heading in the right direction, and it’s kind of like a treasure map. It doesn’t matter how I get to the ending (what makes it a pantsing experience), but I just need to get there somehow (what makes it a planning experience).
And then I write! I start at the beginning and feel my way around from there. I rely on my paragraph that tells me the basic story to help guide me, but, otherwise, I’m on my own.
Because I have two young kids and very little time to actually devote to writing, I will sometimes go the extra step, which is planning out individual scenes.
‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ E.L. Doctorow
By planning out only the scenes I need that day before I end my writing session the night before, I’ve turned on the headlights. Pantsing without doing this is like driving at night without any lights on. Sometimes a deer will jump out in front of you, and you will only narrowly miss smacking into it. (Or you might just fall into a ditch–or plot hole.) I never plan more than five scenes in advance since they’re bound to change beyond that anyway.
And there you have it! That’s my process of plantsing a story. Are you a planner, pantser, or plantser?