Turning points: Devoted pantser learns to plot (maybe just a little)

So, who isn’t trying to survive this week’s massive East-Coast heat wave? At least in Virginia, we have air conditioning pretty much anywhere you go. My parents’ (in western PA) only form of AC is a good breeze. Most of the restaurants there don’t even have air conditioning units. Hoping everyone is managing to stay cool.

As I complete draft 2 of Blake and Zoe’s story (a whopping 102K at present, but I’m already cutting), I’ve started to plan out my writing schedule/goals for the next year or so, one of which is a novella that’s been spinning in my head for the last few months.

That novella is the catalyst for this post’s title. I had been jotting ideas down for months in one of my handy little notebooks. Yesterday, I rewarded myself by typing out the bits and pieces of scenes for that novella. What emerged really surprised me. I realized that what I’m witnessing with this new story is a break from my writing process in the past, courtesy of the learning process I’ve gone through while writing about Blake and Zoe.

I found that, thanks to plenty of brainstorming, I had actually created a fully outlined plot without having to write a full draft or two to get there. I’ve always been a dedicated pantser, believing that my plots needed to unfold as I wrote—which usually meant I wrote sometimes hundreds of pages that would never be used. Lots of meaningless chatter on the parts of my characters.

My pantser approach resembled that Sidney Harris cartoon of two men looking at a chalkboard. “I think you should be more explicit in step two,” one of them says. Step two reads, “A miracle occurs.” (The cartoon is copyrighted, but available for viewing here). I’ve learned that my process works better when I’m just a tad more explicit about what needs to happen between steps one and three.

Now, my experience writing Blake and Zoe’s story wasn’t just about one novel; during the process, I developed an entire world where many future stories will be set. I met plenty of new characters in that world who have stories waiting to be told. But I also learned that I can, in fact, start out writing with a much firmer idea than I had in the past. As a result, I hope my first drafts will be more cohesive and more polished.

That doesn’t mean I know every detail of what happens. Sometimes I’ll know that x will happen. I don’t particularly know what shape x will take. I’ll say, they go to y, or they meet z. I haven’t figured out everything about where y is or who z is. But I have an overarching view of what needs to happen. I can discover the particulars along the way.

So, am I a reformed pantser turned dedicated plotter? Like many writers, I’m probably somewhere in the middle. Like most of us, I’m not where I started out a few years ago, just stumbling into a fictional world without a clue of what’s going on. My brainstorming process has grown stronger, and my desire to outline, however roughly, has increased. I’ll blame it on my own learning process, plenty of writing books, playing careful attention to the plot and structure of books I enjoy, and reading about other authors’ writing processes.

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