I’m a panster. For those who don’t travel in writers’ circles, that means I write by the seat of my pants (intuition) rather than by a hard and fast outline. That puts me in the company of novelists like Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Hemingway (as opposed to outliners like JK Rowling, John Irving and my critique partner, Christine Lindsay).
For my part, I’d write by outline if I could. I’ve watched Christine put enough work into her planning stages that she was able to write a first draft in three months, and boy did that make me envious.
The thing is, for pansters, the magic happens when we’re typing away and behind the character’s eyes. That’s when the story starts talking, the characters tell us who they are and plot twists pop up. Details emerge, characters deepen, and new what-ifs suggest changes. (Christine says that makes her envious).
So does that mean I don’t plan, that I simply sit down at the computer and wait for lightning strikes of inspiration? Not at all. I suspect that there are very few pansters that extreme.
Here’s what planning looks like for me:
Before I begin writing:
I plan general character sketches, make notes on premise and conflict, and work out the beginning (inciting event), the major turning points and finale. However, I keep these general and don’t sweat them. I’ve learned that these plans are fluid and will probably be revised multiple times, sometimes drastically.
In the early stage of writing:
I write a few scenes to see if the characters have anything to tell me. If the scene falls flat, I change things and see what chemistry sparks. This is where I often revamp occupations, genders and backstories. Characters I planned or didn’t plan shuffle in or out. As needed, I go back to my notes and revise.
For example, in my current work, I wrote my main character as a doctor. But she refused to talk, think or act like a doctor. In one early scene I had this idea that she should sketch a portrait, and when I wrote that scene, the story exploded with fun details and new twists. Ember the doctor became Ember the artist. Sometimes the character just knows and runs off with your plot in exciting and unpredictable ways.
FYI, if your character refuses to cooperate with your plans, my advice is to listen to them.
As I write the first draft:
- I make notes before I begin a scene – main action, conflict, favorite points, how it leads toward the finale. You could call these mini-outlines.
- As I take walks and do the dishes, my conscious thinking relaxes and the storyline comes to me. As I type, I listen, and if something unexpected happens, I ask if this is something that’s going to redirect my story in a good way.
- After I’ve written a scene, I go back and edit (not to perfection, just to add in details). These added details feed the story’s arc, and send in course corrections like the following:
I was a fair way into my current story when I decided to write a scene in a secondary character’s point of view, not to put it in the book, but simply to get a better sense of who she was. The first draft was a bore, so I added a new character, a neglected toddler. Better, but it sill needed color. I had Cassie, my teen, struggle to remember a fairytale. Instead she took the little boy outside and under a harvest moon, told him about the moon breaking off from the earth eons ago.
There you go – a girl with a passion (astronomy), someone to love (a little boy), and a goal (to keep him safe). To make her a major character with a point of view complicated my outline in so many ways, but I couldn’t tell her no. Her character and story had grabbed my attention, and I knew I had to follow her to see where she was leading me.
I won’t lie. Writing a first draft this way, listening, always listening requires a great deal of mental energy, and it's time-consuming. The process is messy (much like the formation of the moon). There are no straight lines on my map, but it’s the only way I can work. If the writing dictates to me, I obey, and go back to my plan and revise.