People love to ask authors how they write their stories. Most of us fall into one of two loose categories we call “Pantser” and “Plotter.”
The Pantser writes by the seat of their pants. They start with an idea, a scene, a character and see where it goes. It’s a very open, free way to write, and can result in some very creative surprises as a story evolves. I’ve Pantsed before with good results.
Plotters structure out all the main points of their story before they write a single word of it. A Pantser scoffs at this, believing it will crush their creative imagination as they write. My first Plotter book was a mystery, and I’ve been a Plotter ever since.
Writing a novel is like building a house.
For a Plotter, here’s how that works. You start with a foundation and a strong steel frame. That’s the outline. You continue by putting in walls and floors, doorways and staircases. That’s actually writing the first draft. Now it’s time to pretty it up with edits like paint, carpet, furniture, pictures on the walls, and landscaping.
When a Pantser starts building their house, they begin with a can of green paint, eighty feet of copper wire, two big stacks of drywall, a pile of ceramic tile, a rosebush in a pot, and three doorknobs. They know that all those bits go somewhere in the house, but they’re not sure where. They start building the house around these elements, propping them up with lumber as they go along.
This can make for a lot of rewrites. You might get the kitchen all finished off, and realize you just put cabinets in front of the only door to the bathroom. Now you have to go back and pull down the cabinets and rip out the drywall, and completely reorganize where you’re going to put the casserole dishes. In the course of figuring it out, you’ll have stairs that go nowhere and either have to be removed, or need rooms built around them. The end result might be a wild, crazy masterpiece of architecture, but it will take a lot of extra work remodeling things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but in retrospect maybe that clawfoot tub really shouldn’t be in the middle of the library.
This doesn’t mean Plotters don’t have to do rewrites. But if they’ve plotted well, those rewrites will be more along the lines of, “This picture doesn’t work in the dining room. I think I’ll move it into the office,” and less like, “Why the hell is there a sump pump in my linen closet?” There might need to be some columns added to support a surprise load-bearing wall, but the rewrites should mostly not require a sledgehammer because you had a strong structure before you started slapping on additions.
I spend months planning a book in my head before I write my outline. That’s the Pantser part. Before I ever write a word, I consider every detail of my story that I can come up with. I can move things around in my head, play up some scenes and gloss over others. My characters have a chance to come to life in my mind before I spend a hundred pages writing a sassy barmaid only to realize later that she actually needs to be a grumpy old cowboy for the rest of the story to work. The free, creative spirit that Pantsers value happens before I plot, and this allows me to avoid the dreaded blinking cursor of death when I sit down to actually write my story.
I already know where it’s going.
I can look at the steel framework and know exactly where the kitchen is supposed to be. Sometimes I end up with an extra roll of vinyl or not enough crown molding, but those are easy fixes.
As I write this, I’m Pantsing a new novel in my head. My actual writing time is spent on a different novel, but the next one is creeping around in my brain, whispering about double-hung windows and one of those cool kitchen faucets that turn on when you touch them.
But it’s not time for that yet.
First I need the foundation and the frame.
Are you a Pantser or a Plotter? Do you build your house from the frame up or start with a neat garden sculpture and a double oven?
Read more writing advice like this in my new release, Five Minutes to Success: Master the Craft of Writing