The Pantser Plots

Alternate post title: I wrote an outline and didn’t die.

I am, by nature, a hybrid of pantser and plotter* when it comes to writing. I have an idea where I want the story to end up, and some important moments between beginning and end in mind. I might plan two or three chapters ahead, but rarely do I lay out what goes on in the middle.  In general, it’s worked for me, let me discover the crunchy bits of plot and character as I go.

Long and long ago, before I realized that do what works for you is one of the few actual rules of writing, I glommed onto this quote by Stephen King, and took it to heart:

Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters’ theses.

My idol was saying that, and sweet zombie Jesus I didn’t want to disappoint they person who has been a major inspiration to me, you know? Like somewhere in Maine, he was going to look up from his work and sneer southward, knowing teenage-me was sketching out the shape of a book.

I also drank the Kool-Aid of if I outline, it will destroy the joy of writing. And I go where my muse takes me. And writing is a beautiful, magical experience I will not sully with mundane tasks.**

Look, I was 17, okay?

So I didn’t outline. I turned my back on the idea, hissing at the concept whenever it came up.

Which meant for a long time I didn’t finish much of what I started, either, because my muse is not interested in carrying me all over the damned place, and when I got to that inevitable part of the story where my wordcount caught up to my initial idea and sputtered out, I waited for inspiration to strike rather than, say, thinking my way through it.

I got over that, eventually, probably helped by (in addition to getting the hell over myself) running a few tabletop campaigns. I might be a pantser in my fiction, but having to run a game for 4-6 people, keeping in mind their characters’ interests, where everyone was in the plot, what they knew, what they didn’t, and what their adversaries were up to required a lot more planning than You’re in the bar and a Hit Mark strolls in. Roll for initiative.

The trick, for me, was learning to leave enough room in the story that the players’ ideas could affect the plot without sending it off the rails, but keeping an eye on where I needed them to get to at the same time.

When I applied that kind of planning to my fiction, things fell into place. Looking ahead in short jumps left me the wiggle room to figure stuff out as I went and tweak what needed tweaking, all with an eye on endgame and how to get there.

For Ghost Town, I did a lot of thinky-facing about the plot, about where the characters were at the end of Night Owls and where I wanted them to end up. I have notebook pages and emails and scribbles on the backs of receipts reminding me of hooks left dangling at the end of book one, of tentpole moments, of characters’ epiphanies. But scattered about as they were, they didn’t quite do what I needed them to.

Then my editor asked for an outline. A start-to-finish, tell-me-what-happens outline.

I’ve written synopses for books that are completed. I’ve gotten to a point in others where I know what happens from there to the end, and scrawl out the important points so I don’t forget them. Hell, at that point, I had the end of the book fairly clear in my mind.

Still. Eep.

What if it sucked? What if I got partway through and realized my plot went nowhere? What if none of my characters were doing anything interesting? What if Rebecca takes one look at it and realizes I’m a fluke, a hack, and have no idea what I’m doing?***

But, well. Better to know it’s terrible now than when the draft is done, right? And I had the aforementioned notes and scribbles and emails oh my. So I did it. It took a couple days longer than I’d anticipated, because usually the middle part of my proto-outlines are variations on Cool shit goes here, and I worry about it when I get there. Except, this time I needed to fill in blanks and answer those questions.

I gave myself time to peer at it, to chew on a couple of gristly bits I wasn’t sure were working how I wanted them to. Laying it out let me excise a clunky subplot that would have been torn out later. It showed me whose book this is, character-wise, which made me pretty happy to see once it was staring me in the face. I left room for the characters to surprise me and notes where I need to work on the logistics of a plot point.

Then I read it over. Slept on it. Reread it in the morning and it still made sense. Shoved it off my desk like it was an unruly cat and sent it away to Rebecca.

And lo, a few hours later, she got back to me. And she didn’t hate it! And she agreed with the choices I’d made! And now, when I put my butt in chair to write, I know where I’m going!

I don’t know if I’ll do it for every project going forward. I might return to my terrible hybrid ways for other things, but it was pretty damned helpful for this book.

The reason I’m telling you this is because here it is November 13th, just shy of the halfway point of NaNoWriMo. Some of you are probably hitting that sticky point right about now, where you’re getting past those scenes that were so very vivid in your head as October waned. If your attempts at NaNo are anything like my own past attempts, you are quite possibly staring over the Great Abyss of Oh God What Happens Next, and the abyss is staring back at you and shrugging.

Chuck Wendig talked about the dreaded middle of the book yesterday, and I suggest you go take a peek for some words of wisdom.

My suggestion for you, if you’re stuck or think you’re heading toward stuck, is this: take one of your writing sessions, or part of it, take an hour or a day, and do some looking forward. Think it over while you’re heating up some soup, or walking the dog, or doing whatever keeps you from the keyboard and has your brain idling for a few minutes. Check in with the characters – where are they now? Where do you want them to end up? What are some plausible things that might happen between those two points? Do you have disparate elements of your plot a-dangling? Is there something that might connect them? Is one maybe a clue that points at the other? What needs to happen between now and your ending? If you haven’t thought about your ending, think about it now.

Write that shit down.

That’s wordcount, for NaNo. It might not be pretty wordcount. You’ll delete those half-sentence placeholders when you write out the full scenes. But it can help get you closer to that goal.

And just because you wrote it down doesn’t mean you’re now obliged for the plot to follow that path. Something cooler might come along as you write. You might discover a huge plot hole and need to rethink. That’s okay! Outlines aren’t contracts.

Good luck, NaNo-ers!

*For those just tuning in, pantser is as in “Writing by the seat of your pants” not “Yanking down the pants of the unsuspecting.” Plotters tend to outline the whole book to varying degrees.

**That’s what they say about going through puberty, too, especially the whole bleeding for seven days part. They’re liars.

***Hello, Imposter Syndrome, nice to see you’ve joined the party.

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One Response to The Pantser Plots

  1. Chris Bauer says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing it.

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