WIP: I Want to be a Pantser in my Next Life

If you’re not a novelist, I bet the subject heading looks like Greek to you! Those who’ve read my blog for a while know that WIP means Work-in-Progress, but what is a Pantser?
Novelists fall into two general camps: Pantsers and Plotters. Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants.” They avoid outlines and anything else that–for them–takes the magic out of creating a story. They trust in the process and go with the flow. How I envy them!
Plotters outline. They also know their characters inside out and backwards before they even type the words Chapter One. They use a calendar to keep track of the action in their stories. They cut out pictures that remind them of their characters.
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know I’m a plotter. I’m not as obsessive as I used to be in the days when I created pictorial storyboards and filled notebooks with character sketches. (Probably my most over-the-top plotting activity occurred during the writing of my second novel. To begin with, I waaaay over-researched that book; I still had a lot to learn about storytelling. The story involved primatologists studying a fictional type of tiny monkey (like this irresistable pygmy marmoset) in the Amazon Jungle. I learned everything there was to know about the species, and tried to cram every fact into the story. And not only did I plot out every relationship between the characters, but all the relationships between the monkeys as well! Guess what? My readers really didn’t care about which monkey was attached to which. This wasn’t my best book, although I did discover how to create suspense by slowly revealing information to my reader, and that discovery has served me well over the years.) 
But I digress. My point here is that, in my current WIP, AFTER THE STORM, I’d hoped to be more of a pantser. I wrote a very brief outline–about 10 pages. For me, that’s very brief–and it was very difficult for me to write. Instead of spelling out every single scene as I usually do in an outline, I was more general in describing the action of the story. When I sat down to actually write, though, I only made it through four chapters before I had to stop. My plotter nature simply couldn’t take the loosey-goosey approach any longer.
So I spent yesterday and today returning to my old ways, writing scenes on index cards (color coded for each character’s point of view, of course). Ah, relief! Now I’m arranging the cards in order on my dining room table. It’s great to be back in familiar territory even if it means I have to slow down the actual writing. How on earth do pansters do it? I suppose if I had no deadline, it might work, but that’s never the case.
Funny thing is, aside from writing, I’m quite disorganized. Although I struggle to keep my house neat, my office is always a wreck. I have post-it notes stuck on every surface and I can’t read most of what I’ve written on them. My car is full of old magazines and water bottles and jackets and crumbs. But when it comes to writing, I need my charts and calendars and character pictures. And I need to know where I’m going and how I plan to get there. This doesn’t mean my characters don’t “take on a life of their own.” They surely do, and I love seeing where they lead me. I’m like their parent: I give them guidelines to live by, then let them have their freedom, standing by to bail them out if they go too far astray. That’s enough magic for me.
If you’re a writer, are you a pantser or a plotter? If you’re a creative person in another arena, does the pantser/plotter analogy apply to you as well? I’d love to know.
Pygmy Marmoset
Photo by SrimanAravin



  1. Tara on November 6, 2007 at 6:49 pm


  2. Kathy Holmes on November 6, 2007 at 9:38 pm

    I’m definitely a pantser who envies plotters. 🙂
    But I’ve come to embrace my being a pantser more after reading Julia Cameron’s “The Artist Way” trilogy. This spiritual guide to writing makes sense to me since it does feel like I show up at the keyboard and the words just appear. It definitely feels out of my control – like the story is already written in my subconscious and it unfolds in bits and pieces – both satisfying and annoying. But perhaps the difference in being a pantser and a plotter is about the technique we’ve been given and we just have to stop fighting it.

  3. Diane Chamberlain on November 6, 2007 at 10:15 pm

    Kathy, I’m so jealous! You go, girl.

  4. Julie on November 6, 2007 at 11:37 pm

    I’m afraid I’m a plantser. Or perhaps a potter. Maybe a plantsotter. (Which has to be better than being a plantSITTER.)
    I prefer to pants, but when I get stuck, I start plotting. I’m trying to finish my WIP for NaNoWriMo (I’ve created my own contest–NaNoFiMo, National Novel FINISHING Month. Heh.) I had been stuck in the middle for a few months while I contracted, and it’s like wading through sludge getting the juices flowing again. To get going, I had to brainstorm as many of the upcoming scenes as I could (a brief sentence or two about each) and then just start. The scenes I’ve written so far are pretty boring, but I know the more I keep at it, the more the pants will take over again. But then, I’ll go back and check off those scenes after I’ve written them.
    I have a master of library science degree, and my spaces in the house are a wreck. The degree didn’t help. 😀

  5. Margo on November 7, 2007 at 8:06 am

    As an artist, I think I’m both. With commission work I plan and map out many diff sketches with papers and paint samples all over my studio. I fine line everything before sketching onto the canvas….but I love spur of the moment painting on location. Paints & sketchpads are with me always so I can catch the magic of light at any given moment…these thumbnail sketches sometimes become the final piece. I’m a very organized person but right now I think my studio looks a bit like your office might look Diane! (-:

  6. Diane Chamberlain on November 7, 2007 at 8:19 am

    Julie, I think a plantser is a good thing to be, safely grounded in the middle of the road. Do you have a contract for your current WIP? That would be so cool. I know all about wading through sludge, but I liked that you brainstormed yourself out of it. Keep plugging away.
    Margo, looks like you’re a “plantser” too. When you get your website up, please add a picture of your studio. It would be fun to see where you create.

  7. Margo on November 7, 2007 at 8:48 am

    If you saw a pic of my studio last weekend you’d laugh out loud I’m sure…I was down on the floor drawing in my latest commission on a 36×60 canvas which is a very detailed piece…notes and sketch papers, paint samples all over the place and I was on the floor to make sure everything was fine lined & in proportion. I was a mess by the end of the day. Ah yes, the website…I’m trying to not think about that right now (-: (lol)

  8. Julie on November 7, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    Nope, I’m still a writer baby. I’ve been writing and learning as much as I can for the last 2 1/2 years and sitting at the feet of the pros. I’ve got a couple of first drafts hidden in drawers, and the one I’m working on now, I finally feel like I might be willing to part with and endure the submission/rejection process when I’m “finished.” 🙂 The pants finally started running again last night after I commented here, and I said, “Yes, THAT’S where I was going with those terribly boring scenes….” Yippee!

  9. brenda on November 7, 2007 at 5:28 pm

    Just checking in.
    I am a write as I go…
    Back to Stephen King quote–I feel like I have been through the wringer this week…grades in high school and getting close to grades in the college classes…I feel as if a lawn mower ran over me. I feel beat to death.
    Think of me.
    P.S. When did the world think we owe students “A” for doing little?????

  10. Diane Chamberlain on November 8, 2007 at 12:02 am

    Margo, I can’t imagine working on the floor, or on such a huge canvas, period!
    Julie, glad you and your pants had a breakthrough. (hmm, I just realized that doesn’t sound so good. . . ). You know what I mean. It’s exciting you’re almost to the submission/rejection and maybe acceptance phase!
    Brenda, you’re sounding overworked and underpaid. The weekend’s coming soon when I know you’ll catch up on your reading. Hang in there.

  11. brenda on November 8, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    Will read some this weekend, but research papers to grade from one of the college classes.
    It is hard. As far as to salaries-don’t ask. My state is one of the last in teacher salaries and as an adjunct at the small university, well, don’t ask.

  12. Ann on November 8, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    I think this blog is wonderful – I love it too!!! I feel like I have good friends right here even though I have never met them. Thanks to Diane.

  13. Diane Chamberlain on November 9, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    So glad y’all enjoy the blog! I love the give and take that goes on here.

  14. brenda on November 10, 2007 at 5:13 pm

    You’re right, Diane. After a day of shopping, mundane chores, and grading more research papers, I just finished Grisham’s latest…a little book about football in Italy. Finished N. Sparks’ THE CHOICE…I am reading Packard’s latest. So far I like it. As to the previous mentioned, I think, as we have mentioned before, that some authors are leaning on previous laurels. Thank goodness I have decided to use the library for these books. I am sorry…I try to be NICE.
    I am looking forward to Chamberlain, Delinsky…Siddons…Mary Alice Monroe-those new ones…
    Back to research papers…
    Hope you all have a good weekend.

  15. brenda on November 11, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    P.S. If you girls get the chance (and can get over the language) read SONGS WITHOUT WORDS by Ann Packard. I am not sure how the title and the front picture go with the story, but the story is intriguing. Thoughtful…provoking…I rec. it. (Remember the language…)

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