Confessions of a plotter: why I’m “pants-ing” my novel

I KNOW, RIGHT.

Shut up. SHUT UP.

About me.

RAPID RECAP: You may or may not remember my post from back in July when I documented my decision to embrace the insanity that is early morning writing.

I  then did the 777 Challenge and shared a 7-line blurb from my current novel-in-progress hail the pumpkin kingwhich is sitting at a lovely 85,000 words right now and on the downward slope (please, God). I don’t usually do blog challenges, but then, I also don’t usually write first drafts that are shorter than 100K, so there’s a first for everything.

THE POINT: this novel has had me doing a lot of things that I don’t usually do while writing, including but not limited to:

  • Not outline
  • Write in the early mornings
  • Sketch my characters
  • Not outline
  • Post videos of myself live-writing part of a chapter
  • Create a “story bible” to help myself remember all the character names and world-building details I’ve totally pulled out of my… brain
  • Not outline

Most writers have heard that there are two kinds of writers in the world: the plotters and the pantsers. Respectively, these are writers who follow outlines and writers who fly by the seat of their pants and somehow emerge on the other side. We are generally expected to be one or the other, and not cross over to the dark side, because they do not have cookies.

I like my outlines. As in, I never write anything without one. This is likely due to the fact that my past two completed novels have been historical fiction (if you can write HF without an outline… you’re impossible and I loathe you).

HtPK has been my first stab at novel-length fantasy since a book I wrote early in high school about a princess who finds a magical baby destined to grow up and kill everyone.

(You read that right. A magical. Baby. If you’re getting serious Willow vibes, you are correct, sir.)

Willow1

If you don’t recognize this screencap, prepare to be cultured.

And yeah, I outlined that book. I outlined it good. And I did it longhand, in a green spiral-bound notebook that I kept in my closet because I didn’t want anyone to know I was writing a book about magical, homicidal babies (I mean, would you?).

I have not outlined the first draft of HtPK.

This could be potentially concerning for a few reasons. One, it is mostly high fantasy. Meaning it is partially set in an alternate world. Meaning I am preeeeetty much making everything up as I go.

Which explains tweets like this.

Which explains tweets like this.

Also a potential concern: I do not yet know exactly how this book ends.

I started HtPK almost exactly a year ago as an atmospheric short story with a plot that had zero conflict. Turns out, it’s hard to tell a story with no conflict, so I put the project on hold after about 10K meandering words. A few months later, I found the conflict but still didn’t have the characters to drive it, so I put off picking it up again. Then in June of this year, the voice of Winifred Cole, my main character, popped into my head.

It’s hard to explain. But I guess you could say that this book has always been something that just sort of happened to me.

And when I say I’m not outlining it, I mean my “process” looks like me sitting down at my dining room table in the morning, opening my laptop, rereading the last sentence I wrote the day before, and deciding, I feel like writing such-and-such scene with so-and-so today. I think I shall.

At the beginning, I kind of hated not following a masterplan. But the longer I’ve spent with this story, the more pants-ing has become kind of… liberating?

I still don’t think I could do it with any other novel but this one. Pants-ing has caused this draft to become something that is just as wild and unpredictable as the characters themselves. I’m sure when I reach the end of it, I will find myself with a tangled, confusing mess of a draft on my hands and potentially regret all of my choices.

But I will have spent my first draft season really, truly enjoying it.

Writing this first draft has been so fun. Genuinely fun. This might sound sad, but I can’t honestly remember the last time I was having this much fun writing a first draft. Privateer of course had its super fun moments, but I also was dealing with the added pressure of 100+ Figment.com beta-readers waiting for me to post new chapters, and while that was an amazing thing, it also did a number on my first draft psyche.

Plotting is another kind of pressure, I think. For me, over the years, my outlines have slowly gone from being mere guidelines to evil freaking drill sergeants that make me feel this need to write the thing right the first time.

Probably me.

But shouldn’t first drafts be fun?

Shouldn’t first drafts be wild, tangled, ridiculous messes with scenes that don’t make any sense beyond that they were super fun to write in the moment?

I’m not saying that every plotter out there feels this same pressure, but for me, going from plotting to pants-ing has been like remembering what it was like to write stories when I was eleven and furiously scribbling ideas onto hundreds of sheets of loose-leaf paper I crammed into a single folder. And I really needed that.

After going through this draft, I would submit to you that there might actually be three camps of writers in the world: the plotters, the pantsers, and the largely confused.

This draft has me hella confused. But also happy.

And THAT is why I’m okay with not knowing the end of my novel. I am in the midst of a months-long exercise of relearning to trust my writing brain to know where to go.

Besides… I know the general feel of the ending. Just like the rest of this book, the details will probably come eventually.

Probably.

Check out the HtPK storyboard:


Where do you fall on the plotter/pantser spectrum? Has there ever been a time when your process changed because of a project or a period of time in your life (*cough* perhaps NaNoWriMo *cough*)?

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15 thoughts on “Confessions of a plotter: why I’m “pants-ing” my novel

  1. Alyssa @ The Devil Orders Takeout says:

    I have actually always been a pantser! Kind of. I used to hold all the ideas in my head and that was it. I even managed to pants a dual-PoV in past and present novel, and there weren’t twenty thousand contradictions, so I thought it worked for me. Until I outlined for Camp NaNo and GOSH, that made things so much easier. I still deviate from the plan now and then, but I’m definitely much closer to the plotter end of things now.

    Always wonderful to hear about your writing process, Samantha!

    • samchaffin says:

      Wow! I feel like I could NEVER be a pantser all the time. I would be so stressed about not having a plan. It’s just the way my brain works, haha. But I love that you switch back and forth—I think it’s actually really valuable to learn how to work both ways. Even if we end of defaulting to one or the other. 😉

  2. aimeemeesterwrites says:

    Ha, I’m a hardcore pantser. I plan nothing. Ever. For the longest time I didn’t even plan edits which is why I’m starting Draft 9 soon and this story still needs a ton of work. So I guess I’m paying for being reckless. *sigh*

    • samchaffin says:

      Wow, you pantsers are seriously amazing. And DRAFT 9?! That’s also amazing. I totally get the exhaustion of revising though—I revised my last manuscript 5 times, and realized recently I’m going to have to change the beginning because it’s full of suck. Haha but I BELIEVE IN YOU YOU CAN DO IT DRAFT 9 YAAAAS.

  3. Kim says:

    LOVE this post! Thank you for sharing your journey into the pantsing territory! I’ve been dying to read HPK ever since you first devised it, and it’s exciting to hear about how different the process has been for you than with your other manuscripts. I firmly believe that each manuscript has its own process, and the sooner you figure out what it is, the better, haha!

    I’m currently trying to go from pantser to (a little more of a) plotter. I’ve discovered that with the other facets of my life taking over, outlining and planning more heavily actually eases my writing process, rather than tampers with it. THIS IS A FIRST. Me and planning have never gotten along before now.

    So with my current project, I’m trying to find a happy medium since it’s a rewrite. Pants my way through the first 20k since they don’t require big revisions, and then when I reach the gaping hole that is the New Middle of the Book, I will outline like a boss. Wheeeeeeeew. Fun times.

    Sounds like you’re enjoying the process and that’s a WONDERFUL WONDERFUL sign. It’s how writing is supposed to be 🙂

    WILLLLLOOOOOOOOW. Yay magic babies.

    • samchaffin says:

      Ha! I think it’s so funny that the majority of the people who are reacting to this post are pantsers. 😉 Everyone is like, “Yiiiiis join us.”

      I also LOVE hearing about your pants-ing vs. plotting process. Especially for revisions… that’s super interesting. I always outline my revisions, because I will forget everything I planned to do during the revision otherwise. LIFE.

  4. E.R. Warren says:

    Brave girl. This was such an interesting little post! I’ve always plotted novels, mostly because I write fantasy, I guess. But it feels like flexible plotting. It must be pretty liberating to make it up as you go. Maybe one day I’ll work up the courage and give it a shot.

    • samchaffin says:

      Thanks, Emily! I am all for you trying out pants-ing… although you were actually physically present to witness me starting out the pants-ing process, haha, and you probably remember my initial misery. BUT if it’s any consolation, I’m much better now that I’m used to it. Mostly.

  5. Anna says:

    I think I lean more on being a pantser. I do make a list of what’s going to happen next and that list isn’t too different from a to-do list. Haha. I like what you said about how you open your laptop, read the last sentence you wrote and then basically just thought you’d write this certain scene at that moment. That’s exactly how I go about my writing. 😀

    • samchaffin says:

      That’s so interesting! Again, I don’t think I could write this way most of the time – but I so admire people who do! It’s really amazing to me. 🙂 I feel like, in many ways, pantsers actually trust themselves more and take MORE risks than plotters do. But at the same time, pantsers also end up with potentially more work in revisions? I mean, that’s the idea behind plotting, right? That you’ll have less work at the end? Haha. Ha.

  6. Daniel says:

    I love this post! I really like seeing the behind-the-scenes conversations (with yourself) and the decisions and process which goes into your writing. It’s really fun.

    I’m really glad to see you are having so much fun with this project. The details will work themselves out. Trust yourself! 🙂

    • samchaffin says:

      Thanks, Daniel! 🙂 glad to hear somebody liked the behind-the-scenes…I always wonder whether these kinds of posts are actually interesting for anyone other than me. Haha

  7. Topaz says:

    WELCOME TO THE CAMP OF THE LARGELY CONFUSED. We have cookies and group therapy sessions for those awkward moments when you slot yourself into a defined camp for a week, tops, and then come running back, because life is better lived when it is lived as a plantser. 😉

    But I am so happy to hear that you’re rediscovering the joy of writing – I think that is one of the loveliest things, and in total honesty, as an awkward pantser/plotter hybrid, we get the best of both worlds. The wild, untamed happiness of first drafts + the relative safety net of a sketchy outline – what’s not to love?

    • samchaffin says:

      A PLANTSER. OMG. PERFECTION. I am dying and this is amazing. You have literally just described my life for the past 6 months. 🙂 I am so glad to hear I’m not alone in the awkward in-between-ness.

  8. my holistic life says:

    I plot a general outline, then I pants the story. NaNoWriMo is the only reason I’ve finished any first drafts. I guess I work better with all that pressure. 😛

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