In Defense of Pantsers!

Today I’m pleased to welcome Jayne Denker, my agency-sister, to Off the Page chatting about pantsing and why it isn’t a bad thing.

Jayne_DenkerJayne Denker lives in a small village in western New York with her husband, son, and a lazy cat. When she’s not hard at work on another novel, the social media addict can usually be found frittering away startling amounts of time on Facebook. Check in with her there (“Jayne Denker Author”), at her Web site or on Twitter: @JDenkerAuthor.

Be sure to check out Jayne Denker’s latest book By Design…

By Design cover

“That’s Just Pants” (In Defense of Pantsers)

by Jayne Denker

Coffee or tea? Forget it. Star Trek or Star Wars? Pah. Dogs or cats? Please. In the writing world, the most intense debate is “plotter or pantser?” What do those odd terms mean? A plotter outlines the entire book in detail before writing a word, while a pantser starts writing immediately—perhaps with a few specific plot points in mind, perhaps not—and just lets the story unfold on its own.

I’m a complete pantser—and proud of it. I start with an idea, or a title, or a character, and just roll with it. In my first published e-book, the romantic comedy By Design, the main character, Emmie, popped into my head, foibles, insecurities, and all, and I just decided to start telling her story…whatever it was. All I had to work with at the start was one line of dialogue that kept running through my head: “She’s got my life.” Emmie was jealous of somebody. Now, who was it? And why was she jealous? When I found myself boggling at how the new-at-the-time intertubes wonder, Facebook, had gotten me back in touch with old classmates, I somehow knew that Emmie was envying a “perfect” girl she’d known in high school. That turned out to be the angelic-looking (but not angelic-acting) Juliet. I picked a profession for Emmie (interior designer) and just started writing to see what happened.

Fortunately, it turned out great. I’m a natural pantser. While I respect the heck out of plotters—I admire their discipline and patience—I do my best work pantsing. And I’m not alone in daring to walk that tightrope without a net. In a recent interview, Lauren Graham said she wrote her new novel, Someday Someday Maybe, just to have something to do on her days off during the taping of her TV series Parenthood. She wrote the first hundred pages for fun, but when a publisher bought the book (unfinished! ah, the perks of being a celebrity!) she realized she was going to have to make it all make sense and fit together, and the pressure was on.

I imagine there’s more security, more peace of mind, in being a plotter. Plotters are probably less likely to have a creative crisis of the “How do I get there from here?” variety, like pantsers do. Plotters have more time to spend working on details and nuance instead of the plot, while pantsers spend that time staring at a blinking cursor, trying to figure out what happens next.

Pantsers are more likely to write themselves into a corner, but they have a heck of a lot of fun getting out. It’s a scary way to work, but it’s worth it when you have a moment of insight, where an idea pops into your head (for me, it’s usually while showering—I need to buy those kids’ crayons that write on tile), and suddenly everything makes sense. It’s like finally spotting the puzzle piece you’ve been looking for for half an hour, and it was right under your nose the entire time (albeit lost in the shag carpeting).

Sure, it puts a lot of pressure on the writer to make everything “fit” by the end of the story, but somehow it all comes together, often in almost a magical way. I love those serendipitous moments when, without warning, your plot takes a turn that you never saw coming, or your characters do or say something completely out of the blue, taking over the story and relegating me to the status of court stenographer, merely recording their actions for posterity, as if they’re saying in exasperation, “Oh, let us do that before you make a bigger mess of things.”

In one instance when I was writing By Design, I was a bit apprehensive about writing the big “seduction scene.” Emmie invites Graham, the hero, to her house. She puts on some sexy lingerie, lights a fire in the fireplace, the whole shebang. I thought I knew where the scene was going, but all of a sudden, at Emmie’s most alluring moment, she and Graham sat back and started laughing. It broke the tension—in a good way—but I hadn’t planned on that! I left it in because it was better than anything I thought about doing, and it revealed a lot about the positive, relaxed nature of their relationship.

Of course, sometimes I wish I was a better plotter—usually when I’m up against a deadline and the brilliant ideas hide from me until the last minute. I do try. For my subsequent novels, Unscripted (publishing August 1) and Down on Love (publishing in November), I had to create outlines for each book at my editor’s request. But that didn’t mean I stuck with the outlines. Fortunately my editor’s an understanding sort who knows actual stories might deviate from the plan, and mine always do.

It’s not that I don’t keep notes on my stories, though. For each one, I have a chaotic-looking collection of ideas collected in a Word document, accented with arrows and asterisks and all caps and colored fonts. As the story develops, I proudly put a check-mark (Alt+V) beside each plot point or detail that fits into the final version of the story, and I bump all the stuff that didn’t make it in below a double line at the bottom of the document.

My notes are always an unholy mess, and I was embarrassed at my “method”…until I saw an article in the Daily Mail featuring photos of the notes famous authors like J.K. Rowling, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, and Sylvia Plath used to create their best sellers. Some of the writers had very clear, well-structured charts and diagrams, but other authors worked from amalgams of nearly illegible scribbles. Phew—I’m not so bad after all. And it looks like plotters and pantsers have always coexisted and apparently always will.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you think a reader can tell from the book whether the writer plotted or pantsed it?


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  • Very much a panster, here. Although I will admit to benefiting from having a fairly good idea of the major turning points within the story. It’s an imperfect roadmap, but it helps keep me focussed. Great to read someone pro-pantsing. It can feel like the lesser of the two styles…
    Sure, it can mean I make meagre progress some days (especially in the throes of the “boggy middle”, but when those moments of inspiration come, I don’t need to worrk how it will affect my outline… I just put it in and worry about tidying up the whole later.

    • Xaniver

      I’m quite the same – as long as I have a general idea of where the story is going, I’m happier pantsing my way through it 🙂

  • M J Wright

    I was trained in fiction but have mostly written and published non-fiction; the approach, structurally, is very similar and I usually work from a plan. The ‘stream of consciousness’ approach, I find, doesn’t work for a whole book – where structure is paramount – but comes into its own when filling in the details across the framework of the structure. It’s an individual thing, of course.

    • Xaniver

      I write non-fiction as well and there I find having a structure and plan for the work an absolute necessity.

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  • KateWriter

    I love this article. I am definitely a pantser. Trying to plot out stories for me felt boring. I couldn’t get my creative juices flowing. Story ideas would come to me, but they would flicker and disappear. At that time, I was convinced that if I didn’t have all the pieces,
    I couldn’t start; and especially if I had no idea where to start because I had no beginning.

    At some point I realized that for me the stories come in bits and pieces like jigsaw puzzle pieces that I have to fit together later. When I accepted that, I was able to write.

    I have a vague idea of the story that I want to tell, and I write what comes to mind when it comes.

    When I get about half way through the novel I then write out a sentence for each main plot point. I print them off and cut them up. I circle them around me and sometimes use this as a way to restructure the order of things and also to figure out what gaps I need to bridge. For sure this is the down side, finding those missing pieces. But it is the only way that works for me. And I guess at that point I am plotting
    because it becomes necessary.

    I think there are definite benefits to being able to plot out a story, and I keep working on being able to do that. It will always have to be a very vague plot though.

    On the other hand, the advantage to pantsing is that I am always able to ask the question, “What’s going to happen next?” I feel like I develop my characters and let them lead the way. Sometimes it feels like interactive reading. I am excited as I wait in
    anticipation to find out where my characters will take me.

    • Xaniver

      Fascinating approach – I think I might give that a try. I also do a sort of post-draft-plotting going back in to fill in gaps or shuffle things around to better fit the timeline.

      I completely agree with you though that not knowing what’s happening next while writing makes writing so much more exciting! I love handing the reins over to my characters 🙂

      • KateWriter

        It works for me. And I’m glad to know some others write this way too. 🙂

  • Pantser here. I never even thought about outlining when I started writing. I just sat down and started. I pretty much throw paint at the wall and see what sticks. It’s a very messy process that sorts itself as much brain turns the chaos into order.

    • Suzanne_Writer

      But I’m sure it’s a process that often results in fabulous works of art 😉