Reading through the first three posts in our series on the writing process, what strikes me the most is that no writer is really one thing or another when it comes to how they put together their stories. We’ve already heard from two self-proclaimed plotsers, and even plotter extraordinaire Jenna Patrick admits to winging it a little here and there.
I’m here to chime in as the resident die-hard pantser, but keep in mind: all plotters need flexibility and all pantsers need structure, and I am no exception. That said, improvisation and learning the story as I go are integral to my process. Thus, my cry of:
Everybody Pants Now
Like most writers, my plot bunnies start with little flashes of ideas, usually character-based. Sometimes I focus in on a moment from my life or from one of my friends’ lives. Sometimes something I’m reading tickles my imagination and I think about how a certain kind of character would deal with a specific situation. Other times I imagine how two purely fabricated characters would complement each other.
The spark of an idea typically resolves into some vision of a scene and a tone of language, maybe a setting. If it’s particularly vivid, I’ll be running for a scrap of paper right away to scribble out the basics of the scene. If it’s a little sketchier, I play with the idea in my head for a while—sometimes weeks. Sometimes as long as it takes to finish up whatever other WIP I’m currently in the middle of.
Setting Up The Loom
Once the idea has gelled a little, I turn my thoughts in a slightly more analytical bent and start trying to think about the general arc of the story. I make some notes about who the characters are, what they look like, how they are flawed, what they want, and how they will grow over the course of the story. I get a vague sense of where the plot will probably take me, and pantser or not, I come up with a loose outline. It’s usually hand-written on a sheet of paper, and I don’t think I’ve ever written one that takes up more than half of one side.
Like, seriously. The picture above shows the entirety of my pre-writing planning for Take What You Want. The little green-edged piece of paper is my ‘flash of inspiration’ note to myself with the general concept for the story. On one half of the full sheet of paper is a ten-point outline of how I thought things might go. On the other half is a rough character sketch of each of the main protagonists, complete with possible character arcs for their growth.
A big part of why I keep it loose is that I’m the kind of writer who learns my characters and my story through the act of writing it. Without fail, at some point in the first ten thousand words, I will discover something that informs the whole arc. In one book (still a work in progress), I threw in the random detail that one of my characters was afraid of heights – turned out that fear of heights became a central theme, a metaphor that paralleled his character arc, and a central focus of one of the climax moments of the story.
Words Like Stitches
The actual work of writing is a long, pain-staking process. Each word is a stitch in a weave that will eventually reveal the shape and size of the story I have in my head. As I write, I tend to do some short-range planning. Every maybe five chapters or so, I pause and figure out some more specifics of what the next five chapters will include. I write and I write and I weave and I weave.
Until one day I hit the end.
Darts and Tucks And Letting Out The Seams
I’m the first to admit that the downside of pantsing is on the back end. I know I will write things that will never end up in the finished manuscript, but the fact is, I need to write them to find my way. Sometimes, I let a manuscript sit for a few weeks to let it settle and to get some distance—then I dive back in with scissors and Tim Gunn in my head telling me to, “Make it work!” I cut out extraneous information and refine my arcs and go back to the beginning to seed in hints of what’s to come.
It’s like tailoring in a way. I have a complete garment. But now I need to make it fit and flow and drape correctly, and unlike my friends who measure twice and cut once, I have a lot more retrofitting to do at the end to make sure the whole story goes together with itself.
Work It, Move That Thing, Crazy
From there, it’s time to hit the runway. I give the book another read-through. I send it to my critique partners. And with the help of their invaluable advice, I put on some finishing touches, and send my creation out into the world.