Writing Without a Compass - The Pantser

For some years I've given a workshop on Writing Profiles. After years of writing and talking with other writers about the writing process, it was only while teaching 1st and 2nd graders writing that I discovered that even at a very early age, our patterns of writing are set. It's almost like a fingerprint that stays with you for life. In other words, how you approached your writing when you were 6 is how you approach your writing now. No fooling!

There are 4 basic Writing Profiles; Linear Writer, Plotter, Pantser, and Puzzler. When I refer to these profiles, I'm talking about the way a writer approaches writing their FIRST draft. Revisions are a whole different ball game.

As a first draft writer I am a puzzler through and through. When I'm working on a story it comes to me in pieces. I have an opening, possibly a scene in the middle somewhere and the ending. I can't even tell you how many story ideas are sitting on my hard drive with an opening and ending already written and nothing in between. They'll get written eventually. (If I can add a few more hours on to my day, maybe a little sooner.) Some writers would be boggled by this process. For me it works.

Over the coming weeks I'm going to go into detail about all 4 writing profiles. But for today I'm going to talk a little bit about the PANTSER. As you might have guessed from the title of this blog that a pantser is a writer who writes without a compass.

Pantsers are cool. They constantly live in the ZONE. No walls. No barriers. The whole world is open to them. They're the writer that loves to sit at the computer and let inspiration take them from Massachusetts to California and zigzag back before they reach Ohio. Never mind that they never had to drive through the Rocky Mountains at all. But they do it to find their way. And they eventually do find their way.

It's not uncommon for a pantser to set out to write a 400 page manuscript and end up writing 500 or 600 pages before they reach the end. They throw everything in there as it comes to them and just cut what's not working when they get to the revision stage. If you're a pantser you'd better be really comfortable cutting chunks of your work out, even if what you've written is brilliant. If you've goine to California and California doesn't belong in your manuscript, it's got to go.

Another problem pantsers have is writing that dreaded synopsis BEFORE the book is written. If you need to write a full manuscript before you go to contract, no problem. Write the book and then write the synopsis. But once you get to a point of selling your work on proposal or even using a treatment/synopsis, you need to be able to put together a story that has a cohesive and compelling beginning, middle and end in order to get that contract. For the pantser, this is torture. Many pantsers would rather give themselves a root canal than write a synopsis.

One author that has had much success being a pantser is Hannah Howell. During a workshop on Writing Profiles that I did for the Rhode Island RWA group, she told me that she learned a long time ago that she needed to make a list. That list consistent of what she needed to have in her manuscript and in what order. We went back and forth over whether or not that was her way of making a road map/synopsis and she said no, it's a list. Just a list. Whatever you want to call it, it works for Hannah Howell and her books are fabulous. Rock on, girl!

I'm a firm believer in graphic organizers, be it the 3 Act Structure template filled in with scenes and turning points, or sticky notes posted on a wall. Whatever works. It really doesn't matter which "tool" you use. Any tool will work. But if you're a plotter you're going to approach that writing tool different than if you're a pantser.

For instance, let's take a character chart. A plotter will fill in every single detail of that character chart and still want more room to add what the character's favorite food was for breakfast when he was six. Not that we really need to know that. But the plotter will add it. A pantser may know the color of the character's eyes and color hair. Where a plotter will have ink all over the page before even sitting down to write, a pantser can use that same character chart to fill in detail along the way as inspiration strikes. At the end of the manuscript the pantser knows almost as much about that character as the plotter did at the beginning. They both get to Ohio.

Pansters sometimes have difficulty with revisions, too. Since they're all over the place, it's hard to see the entire arc of a story without going off on tangents. While it may be time consuming, it's really not a waste of time. It's just their process.

Are you a pantser? What writing tools do you use? What works and what drives you crazy? Let me know!
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