The Realities of Being a Pantser

There are two kinds of writers in the world. The ones who plot (plotters) and the ones who don’t (pantser). I guess some people can fall in between these two categories, but I have yet to meet anyone.

I’m a pantser. This means I start a story with a single line, an image, a scene. A small idea that I set down while I let my mind do its thing. It’s brilliant and amazing. And wholeheartedly frustrating at the same time. I have tried plotting novels or stories before. It doesn’t typically work because my mind always wants to go off the outline, and I tend to let it. Which honestly, is fine. Every writer has a different process, and it’s important to acknowledge what your process is and how it works for you.

I love writing the way I do. It lets me discover the story as I go. The issue with my process is that it leads to a lot of editing on the back end. Once I finish a story, I usually let it sit. For a few days, a few weeks (and yes, sometimes years). I can’t look at it objectively when the story has just finished. I need to put a little bit of space between me and those words. Usually, I start a new story and then flip back to it when I know I can look at it with clarity.

When I go back to edit a story, whether a short story or a novel, I find the plot holes that come from pantsing. There are threads to every story. The more threads you create, the more you have to close. I actually often think of this in how it relates to video gaming. Your character gets their main quest. This is the story of the game. As a gamer, it’s your job to lead your character through that main quest and storyline. But on the way, they meet other people. They get other quests- side quests. Sometimes you can even play as other characters, and they have their own quests. They should all tie together in the end, in some way. But you can’t just start fifteen quests and then not finish them. If you did this in a video game, you’re not going to get the rewards. Your character may not level up. You might miss an important storyline.

In a novel, this leads to the reader going…wait, what happened at the end with this bit that the author never got back to? I definitely don’t want that reaction to any of my stories once they’re finished from readers. This week, I started participating in NaNoWriMo. The first day, I had a great word count, and it went so well. But then, as I walked away from the story for the rest of the day, I realized that the story was going in a different direction than I originally thought it would. I like the new storyline better. The story is stronger if I take it in the way it kind of unraveled out of me.

The issue I realized is that the three previous chapters I wrote from this specific character’s POV had to be rewritten. I had to dump about 12,000 words and go back to rewriting them. This left me feeling irritated and frustrated, but I also knew that I had to lose those words to get the story back on track. Part of me wanted to rewrite those chapters later, after the whole book was finished, but that wouldn’t really be helpful. I started rewriting those three chapters this week. I’m through of two of the three. I really wanted to make a significant word count progress on my novel. I thought I would be able to hit 70K words this week, but it didn’t pan out.  But the story is back on track, and I’m happy with that.

When I went back to rewrite these three chapters, I had an idea jotted down about how they would need to go. It wasn’t an outline, but kind of a summary. I don’t really consider that plotting because most of the details weren’t figured out, but I went with it. The first chapter rewrite went really well. I’m proud of it, even while I acknowledge it will need several rounds of editing to get where I want it to be. (Editing is no joke, people. It’s like laundry and dishes. It seems to never end).

The second chapter I had to rewrite was like pulling teeth. I spent over an hour writing and realized I’d barely put down 500 words. I groaned in frustration. I was also very distracted by Taylor Swift’s new album and kept spacing out. I maybe wasn’t all there at the moment. I shut the music off, and I finished writing the second chapter. The ending is better than the beginning and middle, but the bones of the arc are there, so I can keep going and rewrite the third chapter that I need before moving the rest of the book forward.

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly: sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”

-Ernest Hemingway

I think when I’m in the throes of writing, editing and let’s face it, struggling, I can’t help but stare at the bookshelves lining my walls filled with amazing books by amazing authors. Writing gives you enormous respect for the writers who have finished, polished, and published their stories. Being creative is enormously hard. Whether you’re a writer or an artist, it’s so easy to go back and look at a piece and see all that’s wrong with it. Instead of what should be there.

With this draft of my novel, I’ve had to pause a few times to rewrite sections, rewrite scenes and figure out where the story is going. I’m looking for what needs to be there, instead of all the things that are missing. I already identified another chapter today in my writing that needs to be rewritten, but it’s one I can’t even look at until I figure out the end. (I have some of the end figured out, but not all of it). The process is a struggle, but it’s also immensely rewarding because of all the moments when you get it right.

These are the moments when the characters are doing exactly what you wanted them to do. They are crying or laughing or falling in love, and you get goosebumps because the emotion you poured into the story is there, finally. The scene goes exactly how you wanted it to, and you can relax a little because it validates that you can really do this. Write a story and write it well. But it doesn’t come easily, and it isn’t meant to. But the moments that are the hardest to get through, those are the ones that make the story the best in the end, at least for me.

One of the biggest mantras I’ve heard in my life are the best things in life are the ones you have to work the hardest for. Writing is one of the hardest things I want to do. Editing is even harder. But I believe in it, and I know no matter how many plot holes I dig myself into, that I can dig myself back out.

If I ever get plotting, I will definitely share how, but until then, I’m going to let my brain pull the stories out of me, one word at a time.

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