Pantster vs Plotter

The Road to Writing a Book: Pantster vs Plotter

After two decades of writing news copy for radio and more than ten years writing for an aviation magazine, I listened to my inner dream voice (you know, the one where God plants those crazy ideas that you’re not fully equipped to fulfill without him), and began my first work of fiction.

Oh my.

Writing is a very different beast when you’re “making it up as you go along.” My first creative writing class taught the merit of the “Thirty Point Plan.” The idea being that you write your novel outline in thirty sentences, and then turn each sentence into a chapter. Obviously you have the option to add or subtract chapters as required.

The careful news planner in me loved this idea. I even managed to write about it six sentences to outline chapters. There was one for the beginning, three in the middle of the book and then two to round out somebody getting saved and the happy ending (I’m writing Christian romantic fiction).

And then I wrote the first chapter. But I didn’t have the next sentence to explain chapter two, so I stopped writing.

Three years later and a lot of effort and I had managed to write the first five chapters. But then nothing more for twelve months. I went back to non-fiction, and was thrilled to discover I could still write an outline and then string the sentences together to build it. However great it felt to write those chapters (a Bible study), that inner dream voice was feeling thoroughly neglected and rather than whispering in my ear, it started screaming.

I still didn’t have any idea for chapter six onwards, but I did have a very clear picture of how the second book in the series begins (I have the premise for a series of four books), so I wrote that. Then I paused to attend the Write Well Sell Well conference in Oklahoma. That’s where everything changed.

Rene Gutteridge is a tremendously successful author and perhaps the most creative writer I have the joy of calling my friend. She’s never struck me as a plotter. I have some friends who have huge files of character profiles, back stories, photos of their locations and maps of how the main stories and secondary plots interweave. Not Rene.

As I discussed my dilemma, Rene said the most remarkable thing. “Debb I release you from plotting.” She then encouraged me to try the time honed technique of staring at the wall until the words come.

For those of you who are plotters, I understand that that sounds like the single most insane thing you’ve ever heard. I certainly doubted it. And yet I’m about to start chapter twenty. Since the end of October I have added forty three thousand words to my manuscript and each time I near the end of a chapter, it becomes clear what’s going to happen next. I can sometimes write outline sentences for two whole chapters, but that’s as far as I’ve ever planned. And it is glorious.

So my encouragement to you is this – if plotting isn’t working, be brave and try pantsing it. You just might be astonished. And delighted. Just like me.

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  1. Ah, you’ve been lured over to the dark side.

    Just kidding. I say, whatever works is what you should do. I’m not a serious plotter, but I always have a vague idea where my story is going to go. It rarely goes there, though, so I’m pantsing a little. Just a little.