One of the most common questions I’m asked at author-reader events is about whether I’m a Plotter or a Pantser. For those uninitiated in these terms, a Plotter is a writer who carefully lays out the story lines
in her books, giving each chapter a goal, and sometimes even sub-goals and the steps to get there. Many Plotters have tools they use to keep these elements straight; some use complicated systems of poster boards, sticky notes and colored markers.
A Pantser is a writer who flies by the seat of her proverbial pants. I find this kind of a derogatory term, since it insinuates that Pantsers are just writing willy-nilly, with no real aim or focus. Pantsers can’t always tell you how many chapters their books will have or what will happen with every character. As a matter of fact, some Pantsers will end up with unexpected characters in the story.
I might be a tad biased, as I am totally a Pantser.
I wasn’t always this way. I was never a strict Plotter, but I used to lay out my stories. When I began a new book, I had an idea of how it would progress. This worked well with my YA books–mostly. I found that no matter how well I planned, though . . . things popped up. Twists and characters and unexpected dialogue . . . it all happened. At first I was disturbed, but then I realized that my unplanned stuff? It was actually some of my best work. The dialogue was more organic when I wasn’t trying to manipulate my characters, and when new characters insinuated their way into a scene, often they changed the entire direction of the book–for the better.
I leaned to embrace this way of life. Now, I should caution the new writer: being a Pantser is not for the
faint-of-heart. Not knowing exactly where your story is going can provoke anxiety, particularly when people ask you about your work. You learn to hedge. You learn to laugh and act mysterious: “Oh, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen!” Readers assume you’re just protecting your work, when in reality you really don’t know.
If there is one valuable lesson I’ve absorbed during the past three years, it’s that I can trust my characters. I don’t have to know precisely what’s going to happen. I’ll usually have a rough idea, but what happens is infinitely cooler than anything I could have consciously planned.
My favorite example of this happened with my Perfect Dish series. I intended Best Served Cold to be a stand-alone book, the story of what happened when Julia’s planned revenge on Liam Bailey went awry, thanks to her falling in love with Jesse. Liam was a character whom I planned to be totally without redeeming value, and Julia’s roommate Ava was meant to be a small occasional character. Someone to help Julia plan her revenge, someone with whom she could chat and expound.
And then . . . the unexpected happened. I was happily and blissfully ignorant, writing a pivotal chapter, when Ava, in the middle of a conversation with Julia, revealed something that not only changed the direction of that book but kicked off (at least) two more books, making Best Served Cold not a stand-alone but rather book 1 in a new series. What was even better, the next two books were two of my very favorite of my own books.
So now? I trust the process. When I began to feel anxious (“WHAT are they going to do? HOW in the &%@$ are they going to get from Point A to Point B?”), I remember that I can trust my characters. They know their own stories. They know what’s going to happen.
That’s why I have a new motto now: Embrace the Pantsing. Trust the process.