Between Panster and Plotter: Finding a Middle Ground

look downstairs into stairwell whirlWhen it comes to writing, I’m a “pantster,” as they say; I spit out drafts of a story in one forward motion, without looking back.

That’s the kind of writer I started out as, anyway.

The first essay I wrote (and submitted…poor editors) was a cathartic experience, in which I hardly glanced back even to edit. And, the novel I’m working on right now poured onto my computer screen during a frenzied dash to win a NaNoWriMo banner in 2009. Or, was it 2008? It’s a little murky now, sort of like that first draft.

But lately, I’ve been reading James Scott Bell’s book on plot and structure, and I’m discovering a middle ground between writing a first draft with one eye open and pre-planning a story scene by scene. Bell’s book gives writers a look at the basics of plot and story structure, using a set of principles he calls “the LOCK system.: Lead, Objective, Confrontation, and Knockout.

“That novel,” as I affectionately call it, still needs a lot of work, so I picked up this book with the aim of applying it to my draft — to see what I was missing, figure out what might be holding me back. What I’m discovering is that, even though I haven’t finished Bell’s book, understanding the LOCK system is changing the way I see this WIP (in a good way) and giving me new insight on how I approach all of my fiction.

Seeing how my novel incorporates the four LOCK principles, I’m more confident that the plot can work. More interesting, though, is the new perspective I have on an upcoming short story deadline. I was invited to join a group of writers and contribute a 10,000 word story to an anthology, and now there’s more than a self-imposed deadline looming on my calendar. This short story will stretch my skills as a writer, I’m sure, and I love a challenge (she says, knees shaking). If this were pre-Bell days, I would sit down with a main character and a first line and go with them, face my fears and see what happens. This time, though, I’m brainstorming more before I write, thinking through the lead and his objective, considering confrontations and a possible Knockout ending.

Whether or not pre-planning will change the outcome of the story, I don’t know. And, I’m not giving up on writing by the seat of my pants completely. There’s something about this simple planning, though, that gives me a teeny bit of confidence as I approach this story. And, maybe…just maybe…all the “thinking time” (as Roz Morris calls it in her excellent book, Nail Your Novel) will mean less time at my computer.

Since finding time to sit and write at my laptop seems almost impossible these days, I’ll take the “writing” however it comes.

Has your approach to crafting your stories changed lately?

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12 responses to “Between Panster and Plotter: Finding a Middle Ground

  1. Jack Campbell, Jr.

    I’ll have to check the book out. I know in past experience that a full outline doesn’t work for me. Instead of writing in the moment, I find myself writing to the next bullet in the outline. It almost always feels rushed and not fully realized when I read it. At the same time, as a seat of the pants writer, I sometimes find myself killing entire scenes in the re-write because they didn’t serve a purpose. It would be interesting to find a middle ground.

    • Jack,
      I know for me, too, it’s difficult to think about the writing that I will cut in the end. That’s partly why some pre-planning appeals to me. Even so, I remind myself, again and again, that no writing is wasted writing. On a good day, I accept that thought 🙂 Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I think I’ve always been somewhere in the middle ground. Even for my first ms, I knew what my knockout ending would be. Funny thing happened along the way, due largely to the pantser in me: I couldn’t get to the knockout in just one book, and the darn idea turned into a huge trilogy. Now the trick for the rewrite process is to strengthen each element of LOCK (actually I’m using another, seemingly similar 4-part structure) into each of the three books. Unfortunately for me (speaking of current challenges) Book 1 has the weakest structure of the three. But no one is going to read books 2 or 3 without making it stronger.

    Don’t you love when a craft book makes you see your work in a whole new light? Good luck with your short story. I’m betting your new tools and enthusiasm will make it a home run, Christi!

    • Vaughn,
      I can’t imagine writing a trilogy. But, I’m guessing, if you have books 2 & 3 in good shape, you’ll whip book 1 into a strong story as well. And, yes, I do love when I find something that helps me see the work I’ve done isn’t without merit. Especially when it coincides with a renewed love for the story as well!

  3. LOCK sounds similar to the tools I use for plot. It comes from “Immediate Fiction” and although that book doesn’t provide an acronym, I made one up: CARES. Conflict (want+obstacle), Action, Resolution, Emotion, Showing.

    Okay, that’s not all plot, but it helps keep me on track for checking those elements in each scene.

    Good luck with the story. You know we’ll be waiting to hear how it went with your evolving approach.

  4. I’m right with you, Christi! I am by nature (and habit) a panster who is slowly learning the value of deliberate plotting. I do think that it’s probably easier for folks like us to adopt some plotting skills than for committed plotters to learn to take the risk of chaos. It does seem that mid-life is a time when we explore our shadow selves and become “more whole” (at least that’s my experience.

    Best of luck! You sound wonderfully grounded and in sync (and thanks for the book recommendation).

  5. I’m a panster at heart but do spend quite a bit of time thinking and taking notes while forming the skeleton of my novel.

    Bushels of good luck to you, Christi … from your #1 fan in Kentucky!

  6. I hope your new method works beautifully for you, Christi. I think we probably should approach each writing project whichever way seems best for that particular project. Sometimes the writing comes fast and easy and pantsing works just fine. Other times, we almost have to pull the story out word by word, and plotting helps.

    I did a bit more plotting with my WIP, but like Vaughn said, I started feeling like I was not fully into the scene, just putting down words to work toward the next scene, but that’s a problem with me, not the system, so I hope it works well for you.:-)

    • Linda,
      Yes, I think you’re right about keeping our minds open to more planning or more organic writing, depending. Like you and Vaughn, I’ll be smart to keep my eye on a happy medium between the two processes.

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