To Pants or Not to Pants: The Age-Old Question

After two + years of post-grad education, a year of working 12 hour days, Christmas holidays, and shoulder surgery, I’ve decided to work on the 10th reincarnation of my MFA thesis.

I’ve always prided myself in being a pantser. Characters grew organically on the page and forged their own conflicts and resolutions. And while that’s great, more often than not, those stories were a million miles away from my original visions. I read recently in Damon Knight’s Creating Short Fiction: The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction, that there are four stages of writing:

creating short fiction

  1. The daydream stage when you are basically writing for yourself.
  2. The trivial stage when you are trying to break free from your fantasy shell but you haven’t quite cracked it yet.
  3. The technical stage when your stories are reasonable but lack structure or character.
  4. The professional stage when you have finally arrived as a writer.

Looking back, I think, in a way, that pantsing my past novels had actually hindered my goal of reaching stage four. I, as the author, was not in control of what I was writing. I relied on my characters to tell me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do, and I know every writer longs for having this type of automatic writing experience, but it doesn’t allow the writer to tell the story only he or she can.

In fact, every time I tried to go back and rewrite or revise my finished novel, I couldn’t do anything with it because I didn’t like the main character or the story line. What else is there, you ask? I loved my setting and I loved my original idea of having a modern-day-Jack-the-Ripper-type murder mystery set on the English moors. Unfortunately, my novel didn’t even have a murder; it only had a disappearance, and it had more to do with The Phantom of the Opera than Jack the Ripper.

So after years of frustration, I decided just to rewrite the whole damn thing. And when I say “rewrite,” I mean start from absolute scratch. New characters, new plot, new everything. It took me years of not reading my original novel to be able to get it out of my head long enough for me to come up with new ideas that had nothing to do with the old ones. It’s a really hard decision to trash an entire 300+ page novel that took two years to write and two years to shop around to publishers and agents, but I wasn’t happy with it on any level. Because some (read “most”) of the story had autobiographical overtones, it was necessary to get that story out in writing, put it behind me, and start from a place unencumbered by personal emotion.

My decision to go from pantser to plotter came about after reading First Draft in 30 Days by Karen S. Wiesner.

first draft

It’d been sitting in my writing book cabinet for I-don’t-know-how-long. I don’t even remember when I bought it. But I noticed it, started reading it, and thought, hey, if I can make an outline so detailed it could pass as a first draft, then I was willing to take up the challenge. Though I haven’t kept the same schedule Wiesner recommends, I have learned that my characters and my plot can grow organically through the outline process while still holding true to my original vision. Organic growth doesn’t just have to happen during the writing phase. And while some people may consider outlining a pre-writing strategy, it is just as valid and, I am convinced now, even more necessary than what we have come to call the drafting phase.

For the next several posts, I plan to write about my process of going through Wiesner’s system, using my own variations of her techniques, complete with images of my writing. I do this so that, if you too are at a crossroads in your writing, you can make the transition from pantser to plotter without the fear and shame that you are cashing in organic storytelling for prefabricated stories.

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