Plotter or Pantser?

January 29, 2013

Forget-Something-Jessie-CleWhen I first started going to conferences and workshops, this was something I was often asked.

Are you a plotter or a panster?

I had no idea what this meant, but I had a suspicion that it was something naughty and as a young twenty something year-old, I was not going to answer.

But it turns out it isn’t something that’s naughty.  It’s something that can make or break your writing.

Do you write with the entire plot sketched out in front of you on notecards pinned to a bulletin board above your desk?  Is your storyboard covered in scribbles?  Are you, in other words, a plotter?

Or do you have no idea where your story is going when you sit down to write, but you do have a fabulous opening line and you hope that is enough to carry the rest of the tale?  Are you a pantser, writing by the seat of your pants?

I ran across this phrase in a novel by Jill Barnett called Sentimental Journey.  Turns out pilots sometimes fly by how the seat feels against their butts.  Well, I don’t know about you, but as I sit here at my desk, my butt is not feeling much from the seat other than it’s been a very long day, and my butt is tired.

But what I want to talk about is this.  What if you’ve been trying to be one of these but you’re actually the other?

I started writing my first full length novel in law school.  Mr. Zarr’s Civil Procedure class.  Back row.  Last seat against the wall.  Anything I could do to get away from having to be actually in that class without leaving the room.  During class, I was a panster.  I had no idea where the story was going.  I just let it go.  And it sometimes got me in trouble when I would write a particularly juicy part and laugh out loud.  This can draw stares in a Civil Procedure class.

My suggestion to you is to try the other side.  When you are working out in a strength training program, you are advised to mix things up through out cycles in your work out program so your muscles do not get overused to the same activity.  I think the same goes for writing.

Having been a panster for so long, my mind got overactive.  I started having thoughts about scenes in the future and having nowhere to store them in my brain, I would sometimes lose them.  So this is how I went from panster to plotter, and I hope the better for it.

First, I got a storyboard.  It’s a huge whiteboard stuck to the wall covered in dry erase marker that smells better than it should.

Second, I got software to help me manage the bulk that is a novel.  Ever finish a 90,000+ word manuscript in Word and wish you had shot yourself at word 49,999?

Allow me to suggest Scrivener.  If you don’t know about Scrivener, you’re writing under a rock.  (Which sounds very uncomfortable, so please get out from under it.)  Scrivener is a great software platform that not only allows you split your manuscript into manageable parts, it also gives you areas for reference, cross referencing sections, document storage, and a compile feature that converts your document into an ebook platform ready document.  Scrivener does more than I can discuss here, but you should check it out.  You can download a free trial for 30 days of use.  Trust me, it’s worth it.

Third, I read what other people did.  Check out blogs.  See what other authors are doing.  I recommend Inara Scott and Sarra Cannon.  These authors have been in the trenches of self-publishing.  Why not learn from them?

If you can’t take the plunge just yet and change up your writing style, I at least recommend that you think about it.  With the right tools, you can go from fabulous opening line to jaw dropping ending.  And when you get to the space in between, you’ll remember those kick ass scenes you thought of before the awesome opening line was even written down.  And you’ll name a character after me in honor of my brilliance.  Well, maybe not, but that would be cool.

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