Plotting, Pantsing and Plantsing: Finding What Makes You Tick

Why did Polly Plotter cross the road? Because her well-laid plans said to.

Why did Pantser Pete cross the road? Because he felt like it. And heck, life’s short.

Why did Plantser Pat cross the road? Because it felt right, and no cars were coming.

I’ve been using the term ‘plantser’ since I first heart the plotter versus pantser debate in the writer-sphere. Though I’m by nature a pantser, flying free can come with a price. We can write ourselves into a web of unresolvable conflict, in several different directions, or realize on page 299 that the antagonist isn’t who we thought. That’s all fine, if we don’t mind going back to revise our…well, pants off. I learned these lessons while freewheeling my way through draft one. With my second novel, my strategies are a bit different.

First, they exist. My only “strategy” with book one was to write and keep writing. Boy was that ignorance blissful… *sigh* This may work for some of you brilliant folks, but I’ve learned that I need a few guidelines.

Second, I’m outlining—sort of. I can feel you pansters cringing. Well, un-crinkle your face. I outline after writing. I get inspired by writing, so after sitting down to get paragraphs and pages out, I add another chapter or note to my outline. This helps keep perspective of the whole story, as I write it. I also jot down notes and questions to address later. (Should “Fred” be female? Add car chase? etc.)

Third, I’m writing slower, but moving ahead faster. I’m no longer fearful of taking breaks or pausing at a game changer moment if I’m not certain how I want the next bit to go. I take my idea to the gym or to dreamland, where I do some of my best thinking. Rather than aiming to write as much as possible, I’m aiming for higher quality. Some days this means revising the last chapter until I dig it. Others days it means a bunch of chapters at once. I’m pretty sure that the revision process this round will be more like spreading smooth peanut butter than using PB to get gum out of my tangled-up hair.

Fourth, I’m letting myself pants more. After the intense revision process for my first novel—a bit like turning a turnip seed into an igloo then into a turning plant—I though I might turn into a plotter. Well, I tried, and was relieved to learn I’m not. I also learned that I had far too many cooks in my fiction. This time, I’m letting the story evolve and flow until I have a solid, confident draft. Until then, I’m not allowing others’ thoughts or opinions keep my pants from flying.

Last, I have a wicked-smart talk show host angel on my shoulder. Let’s call her Hope-rah. 😉 She continually asks the tough questions—the very questions my agent asked about my first (well, first he read) draft. Does this scene matter? Is so-and-so significant? Can you take this bit further? How is that even possible? Many times, I know the answer. When I don’t, I jot the question down on my outline-in-progress or take a break. And wouldn’t you know, the answers soon come.

The lightbulb moments happen if we let them.

I’d venture to guess that most writers fall somewhere between plotter and pantser. Most plotters I know allow themselves to change their outlines as they go, and fresh ideas to crop up while writing. Many pantsers know the direction they’re headed, and some make mini outlines, a few chapters at a time. Both methods are creative, exciting and challenging. What’s important is finding what works best for us personally.

To Plot, Pants or Plants? 5 Steps Toward Honing Your Style

1. Start with what feels most natural. If you feel most comfortable doodling in a notepad for a while before writing, do it. If sitting down and diving in seems preferable, go for it. You can always shift courses along the way.

2. Experiment. You’ll know pretty quickly whether outlining works for you if you write the outline then have no problem diving in and following it. Ask writer friends what works for them. Check out tips in craft books. Consider online support networks, like ROW80 or Fast Draft. If one sounds intriguing, try it. (Again, you can always stop.)

3. Get enough sleep—and observe what happens to your writing when you don’t. Yeah, sort of out of left field, but here’s the thing. I’ve noticed that I can write articles and blog posts somewhat sleep deprived. But my creativity and sharpness for novel work tanks quickly post-insomnia-fest. We can’t know what methods work for us if our brains aren’t working well period. (The same can be said for healthy eating habits.)

4. Consider the rest of your life. I never wear a watch and love a lack of schedule. If you’re a spontaneous free-wheeler in life, there’s a good chance you’re a pantser regarding the page. (You’ve probably also learned the potential downfalls of freewheeling extreme…;)) If you make and follow to do lists and keep a well-planned calendar, you’re probably more geared toward outlining. There are, of course, exceptions.

5. Give yourself think time. Let your stories and ideas marinate. You probably know yourself better than you realize. Those lightbulbs can flash at any ‘ol time. If one of those flashes suggests a shift from pantser to plotter or vice versa, try shifting.

If we can create entire worlds and adventures in our books, I’m sure we can create writing methods worth keeping. I wish you the best of luck as you hone and savor yours. 😉

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you a plotter, pantser or plantser in between? Have you changed your methods? What strategies work best for you?

**If you’re getting ready to pitch your novel, visit How to Slam Dunk Your 90-Second Pitch, by Debra Eve. I’m honored that she included bits from my experience in her terrific post.

Thrilling TV: What Rocks Your Tube?

This photo reminds me of a friend of mine. Back in college, she’d sit at her computer comparing her list of “future husband” traits to online profiles. Her list was equal parts long and specific. Tall, thin, light eyed, sensitive, artistic, dog loving, kid loving, financially well-off but not snobby, smart but not nerdy, loyal, never married or first wife died… I’m not joking. A few years later she met the love of her life—a short, stocky, divorced businessman from Saudi Arabia. Though he didn’t suit 80 percent of her proclaimed must-haves, he had the most important ones: loyalty, a loving heart, a sense of humor that tickled her and a penchant for her values. Years later, I doubt she could be happier.

Like Mr. Gump and his chocolates, when we open our hearts, we never know what we’ll get. Stories we fall in love with work similarly. 

I’m a thriller-oholic, and have been for as long as I can remember. But if I chose TV shows based on the cover and apparent genre, I’d miss out on some of my faves. I’ve noticed that shows that have swept me off my feet share similar characteristics, all of which suit, but aren’t limited to thrillers.

My favorite shows all have:

  • Captivating, relatable characters
  • Fabulous acting
  • Dramatic, emotional, suspenseful plots
  • Seriousness, some level of darkness
  • Surprising twists and secrets
  • Adult and family themes—family meaning blood-related or chosen units
  • High stakes—often life or death
  • Believable plots and endings (Events are often extraordinary, but they could theoretically happen.)

And tend not to have:

  • Kid focus (I wasn’t into YA, even as a YA.)
  • Alien life forms or cartoon characters
  • Endless violence or visual effects
  • Slapstick comedy (Funny moments, yes, but I prefer shows that enthrall me than keep me giggling or eye-rolling. ;))
  • Too many hum-drum, unhappy relationships (Everybody might love Raymond, but I find such shows depressing.)

We can learn a lot by examining the stories we’re drawn to. If I’d analyzed my tastes before writing my first novel, for example, I might have know it was a thriller from the get-go… What we’re drawn to in television, we’re often also drawn to in books, plays and films. They’re all, after all, story mediums. And I’m fascinated by what stories float others’ TV boats. If my favorite show attributes match yours, I bet you’ll adore these, if you don’t already.

My Top Three:

Lie to Me I nearly cried when Lie to Me was cancelled. It aired on FOX from 2007 to 2009, and features Dr. Cal Lightman and his colleagues, who together form an investigative, lie detecting team using applied psychological interpretation. Lightman is based on a real psychologist and body language and facial expressions expert, Dr. Paul Ekman. Ekman kept up with the show on his blog, which is still available and makes for a terrific accompaniment or followup to the show.

Criminal Minds is considered a “cop show,” but it’s far more. It centers around an elite group of FBI agents who analyze the most dangerous criminal minds in hopes of anticipating and preventing additional strikes. The main characters are sharp as whips and lovable, and having read the FBI’s criminal behavioral text (yeah, I’m nerdy like that), it’s extremely well-researched. CM focuses more on the victims than the killers, which would make The Gift of Fear author Gavin de Becker mighty proud. Season 8 kicks off next month on CBS.

Prison Break is a crime/action thriller that aired for four seasons on FOX, beginning in 2005. After Michael’s older brother, Lincoln, is sentenced for a murder he didn’t commit, he devises an elaborate plan for his escape. But that’s just the beginning… Prison Break is hands down the most suspenseful show I’ve ever seen, rich with surprising twists and drama, and believe it or not, a tear jerker. And the acting will knock your socks off.

More Faves Worth Mentioning:

  • Brothers and Sisters
  • The Good Wife 
  • Damages
  • Homeland
  • Revenge

Fabulous related posts:

Ellie Ann Soderstrom: The Best TV Shows in the World
Tiffany A. White and Amber West:  Why It’s Worth a Watch Wednesday: Suspense & Stilletos
Diane Capri Reveals Karla Darcy (Shhhh! Secrets!)
Jess Witkins: Deadwood: The Town, the TV Show, My New Guilty Pleasure

What do your favorite shows have in common? Which thrill you the most? Do your reading, writing and TV interests match?