A pantser tries to plot-www.themanuscriptshredder.com
Writing Craft

A Pantser tries to Plot

This is a reprint of an essay I wrote three years ago about NaNoWriMo. I’ve learned a considerable amount about plotting in the interim, but it still hasn’t changed the way I draft. This is the most important lesson for writers to learn. Whatever method gets words on the paper is the right choice. If you prefer to plan, do it. If you don’t, then don’t. And if this is your first NaNaWriMo, don’t worry about getting it perfect. Just get it done.

My first attempt at plotting fails hard

I love November. It’s the one month out of the year that I get to tell everyone in the house, “Mama’s writing!” I’d sit down at the keyboard and see where the journey takes me. That’s right, I’m a die-hard pantser.

I have piles of pages (about 300,000 words) all written in succession with only a few exceptions. This is how I tell a story. I start with a character, and then he or she tells me where to go, and how to get there. But after a year of querying my first MS with little luck (yes, it’s been edited and no, it isn’t 300,000 words), I am beginning to doubt my process. Perhaps the book is fundamentally flawed because I never made little dots on graph paper, or pinched a point, or pasted inspiration photos to my wall? Maybe I need to make an outline. This November I will do it. It will be my fifth NaNo, and I have no concerns about finishing. I need to make a fresh start with a new MS. I want to try something different. This year I’m going to make an outline.

Full disclosure I had made a (let’s call it a synopsis) last year of all the things I wanted to happen in the third book of the series. Not exactly a narrative, but more like a bullet point list of what key characters needed to accomplish to move everything toward the ultimate goal. Then, I sat down to write. I hit 50,000 words before I even got to the first bullet point. I clearly needed something more formal. Yes, that would fix it, formal and disciplined.

October returns.

A pantser tries to plot-www.themanuscriptshredder.comIn the weeks leading up to the big day, I see tweets and Facebook posts about outlines, character sketches, beat sheets (I don’t even know what that is.) pinch points, scene elements, etc. and I start my research. There are tons of worksheets on the internet, and I’ve downloaded several. They are littering my desktop. My favorite one is on Jami Gold’s website. She even has a template for Scrivener. It’s about a rigid as they come. “Do this thing before this word count.” Perfect prescription for pacing. Alternating excitement with reflection and character development without any of those embarrassing dragging middles. All I have to do is fill in the blanks. Three days until NaNo and I start poking around and filling things in. Here’s where the ‘cute meet’ goes. ok there’s the inciting incident, point of no return. Got it. Easy.

and print.

OMG this sucks!

By the second day I’m completely bored. I already know what is going to happen, so I really don’t care about getting there. And the characters feel like I’m playing with dolls. With all their physical and psychological traits preplanned on a sheet I feel like I went to the American Girl store and ticked the boxes for brown hair, green eyes, and trust issues. Now I’m going to bring my new dolls home and have them perform scripted skits. I hate this.

The other problem is that I am WAY underprepared. The outline template only gives main points like inciting incident, first plot point, etc. But I still have 12,000 words to get there. So now I’m adding scenes backward from the inciting incident trying to figure out how to get to it, which means my story will begin wherever we happen to be approximately 10-12,000 words earlier. That ain’t right.

But the real problem is that I have now spent the majority of my writing time putzing with my outline, and I’m no closer to liking the story.

But these frustrations aren’t really what’s killing it for me. At one time I really liked these characters, but now they completely bore me. I’ve lost interest in them because the outline has taken control of the story away from them and put me in charge. I’m deciding what they should do and say rather than letting my characters speak for themselves.

For me, writing is about discovering characters

When I write a story or even sit daydreaming, the one question that propels my interest and my story is, “What would this character do next?” My characters exist whole in my head before I begin writing. I might not know how many hangnails he has on his left thumb, but I know what he wants and what he’s willing to do to get there. That is my interest in a story. How is he going to get what he wants? It’s more like watching an experiment. What would happen if these people found themselves in this situation? It’s the ultimate people watching.

I’m a pantser because my characters are in charge. They are writing the story, not me. That’s how I prefer things because frankly, they are way more interesting.

M.L. Keller is a freelance writer and editor. Her blog "The Manuscript Shredder" is focused on helping emerging writers hone their craft.


    • michele

      Lol, I cannot comprehend the VooDoo that you do. I seriously feel like I’m trying to read a foreign language. I am amazed by anyone who can make an outline and stick to it. Maybe with a little more practice…

  • dgkaye

    Loved this Michele! I like to call myself a plotser. I start off with the bullet point list of topics and points I want to cover in each chapter, even though my stories turn out to take on a life of their own – kind of like my recipes, they’ll never taste the same way twice. 🙂

  • Alex Sheldon

    I can totally relate.
    When outlining every journey your characters are likely to make and plotting the unfolding of a story scene by scene, can certainly take out most of the fun out of writing.
    It’s like being a director who has to adhere to the script word-for-word and with very limited creative freedom on the overall project. Like, no improvising whatsoever. What a drag.

    I guess it may work for some people; and more power to them.
    But the adrenaline I get is from not quite knowing what will unfold and how my characters might react. So in equal measure, I too find myself on an adventure. And even though I might have a vague idea of how it will end, the journey there will still surprise and engage me.

  • Marie

    I have never been able to outline anything. It was a struggle in school when they’d make us turn in the outline, then the rough draft, then the finished project. I always did a fake outline and turned it in late with the rough draft.

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