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Thursday, May 7, 2015

Plotter or Pantser?

I had written three books before I ever heard the phrase ‘plotter or pantser.’ It’s a common question asked of writers, “Are you a plotter or a pantser?" I’d never been to any writing workshops, conferences, or retreats, though…or really ever interacted with other authors.

I read and I wrote. I knew what I liked to read, what I would make different in a novel (fewer adjectives, more action, and a bit of humor), and well, I just went for it.

Three books later, when I was asked whether I was a plotter or a pantser, I had to ask what that was all about. So, if you don’t know, here it is:

A plotter plots her story—as in outlines it—from start to finish. I heard J.K. Rowlings did that for her Harry Potter series.

Then there are pantsers. 
Jackie Ivie, author of The Vampire Assassin League and loads of historicals, is a pantser. She will write and write, and when she gets stuck in the storyline, she either distracts herself with other projects (she’s quite the artist in many areas), or takes her dogs for another walk. She doesn’t skip over any scenes; she writes linearly.

Me, I’m neither a plotter nor a pantser.

I’m a piecer. That's my own terminology, by the way. Yup. I write when inspired and about whatever. ‘Ooh, what happens if my guy finds out about…’ And there I go, creating a chapter. I know my characters well, so I don’t have to worry about consistency. Events and reactions are right now; time and settings can be manipulated later.

And that’s where we get to the piecer part.


Everything I write is broken down into several lines in an Excel spreadsheet. Here are the headers I use:
Chapter number. Word count. Chapter name. When? Where? What happens (in twenty words or so)?

The chapter numbers I initially assign are arbitrary: I can cut, copy, and paste them into a different order later. Recording the word count while writing is a great way to find out how far I’ve gone, too.

Let’s say my guy is having an argument with his girlfriend. Oops! He hasn’t met her yet. They’re still in different countries (or centuries or whatever). No problem. I just insert a chapter number, maybe give it a chapter name (The Spat), and then skip over to the ‘what happens column.’ I’ll insert a very brief description as a hint (they argue over ?), and then proceed to write whatever inspires me next. 

Or walk the dogs.

Sometimes when I’m uninspired (that hated malady called writer's block) and know I need to write something (or go nuts because I don’t), I open up my spreadsheet and update my word counts. That's when I often find out that I hopscotched to point Q without writing about points L, O, or P.  Since I’ve usually included my very succinct chapter description in the chart, I have my work assignment. Not really inspiration, but definitely motivation, complete with a generalized road map.

While writing, I sometimes go off topic, stray from the storyline. I still include the chapter's who, when, where, and what in the spreadsheet. That is where and how my novellas are born. My characters are often so intense, I have to give them more space. Their backstories are fascinating, but really don’t fit into the rhythm or theme of the novel. So, I highlight those chapter rows. If there are enough of them—or they’re broad enough that they can be expounded upon—BAM!—there’s a novella! Ha’Penny Jenny is one example. It would have taken away from the flow of action to find out more about her when she first appeared in Naked in the Winter Wind. Metaphorically, she just popped out of the closet without being asked, arms crossed, and refused to leave until her story was told. 

How could Jenny be so brazen? 

It's not just me, either. I've heard other authors say the same thing: their characters are real.

Okay, so they don’t have flesh and freckles, hair and hangnails, but they have distinct personalities and physical traits. We may not know all about them, but the more we delve, the more complex they become. Are they the way they are because of a rotten childhood, lost loves, shell shock? That revelation may not come out in the (first) story, but those ‘life’ experiences define them more than just 'he was an angry man,' and sharing those aspects is sometimes like a fine frame, setting off the painting on the wall. It completes the portrait.

Take an hour or two and read more about the waif Ha'Penny Jenny. I think you'll agree, it's fast, fun, and wee bit insightful about the power of hurtful words.
Ha'Penny Jenny available on Amazon:

Thanks for your time.
Your literary maverick,
Dani Haviland,
author of The Fairies Saga