Friday, March 4, 2011

On being a pantser

The husband and I have been on a puzzle kick lately (currently we're working on a tricky 3d St. Basil's Cathedral). It's a good non-work-related activity, an opportunity to spend time together, and it gives us a nice sense of accomplishment. At least one thing our life is coming together smoothly!

But like any other couple, we can get on each other's nerves, too, and that's because, even when it comes to puzzle building, we have very different ways of working.

Phil will study the puzzle cover, figure out which orientation he's working from (remember, it's 3d). Then, based on the geometry of the section we're working on, he'll figure out what shape pieces he'll need, and search for those specific pieces. In other words, he starts with the big picture and moves inward.

I tend to start with a specific piece. Then I choose other pieces that are the same color, and look for ones that will fit with mine. Only when I get stuck do I look at the box to see how my little bit corresponds with the bigger picture.

In the real world, this results in us fighting over the puzzle box, stealing pieces from each other, and complaining about who got hair on the puzzle.

But later I was thinking about our different ways of working, and how, even though hubby's a scientist, not a writer, it's a classic illustration of the difference between plotters and pantsers.

For those of you who haven't heard those terms before, a plotter is someone who plots out her entire novel before she starts writing. A pantser, on the other hand, tends to fly by the seat of her pants, figuring the plot out intuitively as she writes.

Plotters can be a little dismissive of pantsers. I've often heard a confident plotter (or non-writer), assuming that the most complexly plotted books (mysteries, for example), must have been planned out beforehand, whereas those character-driven, philosophically wandering books must all be written by pantsers.

I wish I could remember which mystery writer (Val McDermid?) admitted to being a complete panster.

Regardless, in working on the puzzle it's occurred to me that no matter what method we use, in a few weeks, Phil and I will have a 3d St. Basil's Cathedral. And I think it's the same with plotters and pantsers. Some of us start with a seed, watch it grow into a tree, add a few more seeds, and end up with a forest. Others start with a forest, arrange it into an appealing shape, then figure out what that means for each tree. Either way, when we're finished we end up with a book. Or a forest. Or a puzzle? I think I lost my metaphor back there somewhere.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Did you choose to write that way, or does it come naturally to you?


  1. Plotter here. As a pantser too many clich├ęs find their way in to what I write. I have to plot first, then write. Otherwise I end up cutting so much that I get a bit discouraged. I'd rather plot first, and know that more of what I write has a chance of staying.

    Cool puzzle!

  2. Hi Anne! I'm visiting via Verla's. I love your description of the differences between you and your husband. I'm a pantser too, and also do puzzles exactly as you do. I've tried being a plotter, thinking it might save me some angst, but it doesn't work for me at all.

  3. As a plotter, I'm not remotely dismissive of pantsers - rather, I'm in awe. I can't imagine writing a whole novel off the top of my head. As someone who's lazy, I also can't imagine having to do tons of rewrites. Plotting, for me, makes it less likely that I'll have to scrap big chunks of the story, because it's mostly gone down the right road.

    It also makes the blank page a lot less frightening when you already have a vague idea of what should be on it.

  4. Elisabeth: Oh, I cut a lot and get very discouraged! ;) But if I plot first, I find myself deleting even more writing. When I'm living the story through my characters, whatever I originally thought was going to happen usually changes. Guess different minds work in different ways!

    Meg: Hi, thanks for stopping by! Love that you do puzzles the same way I do! It really is interesting to me how the same methods can bring such different results with different people. I'm such a wannabee outliner, too, and I've definitely tried, but it hasn't worked at all, not until I've finished a first draft.

    GF: Thanks, GF. I wouldn't say it's off the top of my head... there are lots of starts and stops along the way, much thinking, talking to my characters, long baths. ;) But my brain really resists trying to understand the big picture, and when I do, I usually make even more wrong turns. My story comes out much better if I organically follow my character's journey.

    But yes, completely agree about the blank page! I wish I COULD organise everything beforehand. It seems much less scary. =)

  5. A pantser here. I would love to plan and outline, but try as I might, it just lets the air out of the story for me. If I know what's going to happen, I don't want to make the journey anymore.

    I do puzzles the same way you do, too. :)

  6. Andrea: I assumed everyone did puzzles like me until I watched Phil! =) Now you've got me wondering if there's such a thing as puzzle tournaments, and how the pros do it! I wonder if they have as much variation in styles as writers do? Probably. But yes, I enjoy the journey a lot more if I write my way through it rather than plan everything in advance.

  7. I'm a plotter.

    With my first novel I was a pantser, but then I started with a rudimentary outline and my outlines have become more detailed ever since.

  8. That's great that you feel so comfortable in your method now, Medeia. I also started as a pantser, then tried plotting, and now I'm back to pantsing! Hopefully when I get a few more books under my belt, I can feel more comfortable with my method, too.

  9. When I do puzzles, I find some similar group of pieces -- edge pieces, a particular color, etc -- look for those and put them together. I'm not a writer, but in the rest of my life I'm very list-oriented and organized. I think I learned both from my mother!

  10. You know, Jennifer, it's funny... I explained all this to Phil, and he was surprised when I said I wasn't a plotter, because I'm not quite as obsessive as you =), but I do love my lists, too! So perhaps organization and pantsing (or micro-puzzling) aren't mutually exclusive!

  11. Hi Anne, I suppose I'm a 'pantser' though it's not my favourite word. [german tank connotations] I think of plotting as a more typically male approach [eg Steve Voake] though not worse or better. Because I'd like to create surprise for me and the reader, I prefer to hold the strands arising from characters and scenes and try to tie up the loose ends to make an unexpected pattern. Characters go diametricaly against the plan. The problem is that my characters start talking like novelists: 'So what do I do now?' lol

  12. Ni: I suppose if one thinks of gender in stereotypical ways (ie, men oversee everything and are much more controlling, women are more feeling and intuitive) then plotting / pantsing could be considered gender-based. However, obviously, I'm uncomfortable with those stereotypes, and you yourself, and many of the others who have posted, contrast with those expectations.

    I think characters talking like novelists is what rewriting was invented for. =)

  13. I've only written one novel so far and I definitely was a panster. I had a few major scenes in my head but the rest I made up as I went along. It never occured to me to do an outline. But this approach has led to tons of editing. For my next novel, I'm going to try to be more of plotter.

  14. Thanks for stopping by, Debra! It will be interesting to see how plotting works out for you, and what you'll do for your third book! I keep dreaming that I'm going to find THE efficient way to write, except at this point I'm not sure there is one, at least for me. But I guess the MOST efficient way to write is the one that suits each of us best. Good luck with the editing!


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