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As I Learn: Or Why I Stopped Calling Myself A Pantser

Do you already know what type of writer you are? You may call yourself a discovery writer, an outliner or a mixture of both. We traditionally think of discovery writers, gardeners, and pantsers as writers who make up their stories as they go, and outliners, architects, and plotters as writers who pre-construct their plots before starting the actual process of writing. Plantsers are writers who sit somewhere in between.

Woes of Pantsing and Plotting

Bloom and Grow by herinternestSome of our favourite authors have been helpfully candid in interviews about their writing processes, and we can place them somewhere on this spectrum. Typically, we cite the likes of Stephen King and George R. R. Martin as examples of gardeners. Meanwhile, J. R. R. Tolkien, J. K. Rowling, and Brandon Sanderson are cited as master plotters. (What is Gaiman’s process? I want to take his masterclass next month.)

As a beginning writer, I initially found these distinctions helpful, and was proud to label myself a pure, out and out gardener—wait, it gets even nuttier! It’s not that I was too lazy to plot, it’s that the words I wrote had a will of their own. Every word could wake some ancient whispering sprite to accost me with irresistible new ideas, forcing me to endlessly redirect the narrative. The writing grew by itself and out of control.

I tried fast plotting—racing through an outline faster than new ideas could form to distract me from the end. Those outlines had their problems, sure, but I told myself that I could “fix it in editing”. However, once I returned to those bare bone plot threads to do the slow work of fleshing out the scenes around them, that knavish sprite, Robin Goodfellow, appeared to distract me once more from my ending. It was mentally costly to swat away those new ideas, so I’d hop from new project to newer project pledging always to return and finish what I had abandoned. For any pantser-types out there, this may sound familiar.

Jot ideas down in a notebook, you say? Well, those jots could grow into outlines until I found myself compelled to start an exploratory chapter or ten and so the cycle would begin. There were rare occasions that I’d successfully create an outline, but the benefits of plotting remained elusive to me. In fact, on those rare instances that I did reach the end of my outline, my enthusiasm died, and my creative momentum with it. I lost interest in the story because, in some ways, I had already told it, even if only minimally.

Reframing the Writer Type

lost in a daydream by mkendallAs a sophisticated writer yourself, you may be shaking your head—and I don’t blame you. Naturally, you understand that there are as many different types of writers out there as there are writers. I had not yet learned this lesson. For me, there were only plotters and pantsers. I was a pantser—because I had failed at plotting—and I needed to stick to that. But pantsing was not helping me finish my stories.

As a writer, it’s not uncommon to feel stuck on a sentence, scene or narrative level. The act of developing as a writer involves shifts in perception, epiphanies, and even risks. It was no different for me, but that’s what led to my current beef with the gardener-architect dichotomy. Speaking in such broad terms lacks nuance—and purposefully so—and it is useful only up to a point.

My stagnation was rooted in my absoluteness (and only a Siths deal in absolutes). Let me explain how unhelpful this mindset proved to be for me.

Consider a hypothetical writer whose process/writing time can be split up like so: 25% pantsing and 75% plotting. Well, to my naïve mind, they would be a plantser (or mainly an architect). What about a writer whose process consists of 35% pantsing and 65% plotting? Still a plantser. There is little distinction. It’s like classifying every living thing as either a plant or an animal, or a mixture of the two. (Revel in the absurdity of trying to explain the difference between a cat, a dog and a fungus in terms of their “plantness” to “animalness” ratio.)

Instead of trying to describe this hypothetical writer, there are more useful questions that I could pose. For example, which elements of your story did you discovery write or plot? What do you focus on in your pre-writing and post-writing? Where do you generally get stuck? And there are so many more. This limited set of questions, posed to more experienced writers, could help describe, not the writer, but the writing process.

The Writer You Want To Be

The label of gardener or architect is only useful as a quick identifier. However, thinking in those terms about your own writing does not help you understand what you do when you write, or even how you write! Worse still, it can stop you from adopting creative approaches to your writing and finishing your work. What type of writer am I? The answer is always the same. You are a growing writer. This applies equally to J. K. Rowling as to JoeBloggs82.

The growing writer has different concerns, and so ask different questions of themselves. For example, instead asking, “What type of writer am I?”, the growing writer should ask, “What type of writer do I want to be?” and ultimately, “What writing tools do I need?”. This isn’t a new way of thinking at all, and if you have already adopted this frame of thinking then congratulations, you’re ahead of the curve. If you haven’t adopted this manner of thinking yet, it might prove to be a useful exercise.

Five Ws and an H

The key is reframing your type from an identity (who you are) into a series of tools and processes (things you use). Since tools are designed for purpose, we have no qualms switching between them. Switching identities can be a little trickier if you aren’t James McAvoy. We can also get better at using tools and, most importantly, we recognise that some are better for some projects than others. Reframing the question encourages a growth mindset rather than a fixed one, and there is a body of work in psychological research that supports the former over the latter.

Tools from both plotting and pantsing can level up our writing. Brandon Sanderson, a self-professed plotter, has described how he used pantsing for parts of his Alcatraz series on the Writing Excuses podcast. Similarly, novelist and poet, Tim Clare, promotes free-writing exercises to get those creative juices flowing on his Death Of 1000 Cuts: Couch to 80k Writing Boot Camp podcast. Give those a listen!

Examine Your Process

I call on so-called architects and so-called gardeners to examine their own writing processes. I think you’ll find that you “discovery write” and “outline” more often than you think. Remember all those outlines that I wrote and failed to return to? Well, I discovery wrote them. At some point in the process you must make things up as you go along, whether it’s to start worldbuilding, or to get natural-sounding dialogue, or to add spontaneity. So-called architects may plot using the snowflake method, beat sheets, 3-act structure, 5-act structure, or just map out major plot points and leave the minor stuff to their inner-discovery writer. There are varying levels of planning.

Snowflake by Sergey Polyushko

The same is true for so-called gardeners, a subset of whom discovery write complete novels, chuck them and start again. But some elements of that discarded draft will inform successive ones. Others may keep that first, lumpy draft and edit it into a fine statuesque work, retroactively steering the story. Those are examples of pre- and post-writing outlines, and there are different levels to it too.

Even writers with millions of published words under their belt constantly refine their processes. In fact, the publishing journey entails vast shakeups to writing practice, from going to writing alone to a writing group to having an army of beta readers, agents, and editors acting as filters. What changes in your process occur when you go from writing your debut at your own pace to writing the sequel on deadline.

The Growing Writer

Different writing styles have different intrinsic strengths and weaknesses in the hands of the developing writer. Discovery written work will need restructuring afterwards, while very detailed outlines can make writing stilted. On the other hand, pantsing can tap into something visceral that—that inner, undiscovered “voice”—while plotting can help sustain narrative momentum. Knowing these intrinsic qualities early on allows you to build a modular and corrective process that develops with you. For example, you could discovery-write your scenes starting from one-line cues. Or you can spend time daydreaming your characters into existence on long walks before putting pen to pad (or fingers to keys). You can write multiple versions of a scene safe in the knowledge that you have an overarching structure. In other words, you can build a writing habit.

Chapter Building by Joel RobisonAll of this is not to say we don’t have predispositions towards certain skills and processes. We should recognise and embrace our strengths so that we can build our processes around them and shore up our weaknesses.

If I was to examine why I believed the plotter-pantser dichotomy, it would sound simplistic. I didn’t want to betray my “camp”. However, by sticking so rigidly to who I thought I was, I betrayed my writing and suffocated my development. I wish that I had understood that when speaking in binaries, I was using a shorthand. I’m hoping that upgrading the language to focus on tools and processes leads to a similar upgrade in the level of the discourse and our understanding.

To speak the language of the writing craft, we must speak about tools and processes. Therefore, we will learn when to discovery write and when to outline, as well as what type of discovery writing and what type of outlining. Ultimately, it’s what works for you but when inspiration fails, it’s technique and process that will still be there.

– – –

P. S. To be fair to the gardener-architect binary, there is still nuance in it, we just don’t use it. After all, analogue (or continuous) information can be represented by using discrete bits (in this case, long strings of 0s and 1s), i.e. digitally. We’ve used this finite system to represent a potentially infinite things, so the potential for nuance exists. You could even say that speaking in terms of gardeners and architects is analogous to a digital system.

Get it? Analogous!

I’ll see myself out.

Title image by herinternest.

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2 Comments

  1. Personally: I usually know the end (not always). I write once. In order. I never rewrite.. I do a polish for obvious crud. Editor. Continuity editor. Publish.

    From 20+ books and 600+ reviews I have a 4.4/5.0 average.

    (And it’s only one book really dragging down the average – because it’s not a romance, but romance readers think it is and it doesn’t fulfil the tropes, so it gets bad reviews.)

    Except I have one book (200K in length) multiple PoV, multiple throughlines, all ending up at the same place … and I planned the hell out of that one.

    (Inspiration is totally overrated.)

    • Avatar Kerefah says:

      It sounds like you have your process figured out. I’ve been struggling with a multi-POV behemoth myself, though I hope for much fewer than 200K words! (That must have taken some work!)!!! It’s stretching my writing muscles.

      My process right now is a work in progress, but I tend to follow the characters (as Stephen King says), rather than my loose outline. A tension exists between my enjoyment as a writer and my enjoyment as a “first reader”. I’m sort of a tyrant on both fronts, on one hand, demanding that my characters entertain and surprise me, and on the other, demanding that they follow the roadmap. I’m trying to think of it as a dialogue between myself and the characters. Overall, I think the key is to enjoy telling the story.

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