From Pantsing to Plantsing

From Pantsing to Plantsing

If you’re a writer, you probably know the terms “pantser” and “planner” (or “gardener” and “architect”), but if you’re not, know that these refer to two different styles of writing. The planner likes to build a plot outline ahead of time, whereas the pantser is writing by the seat of their pants.

Both have their pros and cons. The planner spends a bunch of time detailing the trajectory of their story and often has to swing back in on later revisions to add more characterization and emotional depth. (Gross overgeneralization.) The pantser often figures out what’s going on in the story only by writing it, realizing what’s wrong, and rewriting. They spend longer in the actual prose, a lot of the time. (Again, gross overgeneralization.)

I’ve always been a pantser, which I find obnoxious. πŸ‘– I’ve been learning about storytelling, character arcs, and plot structures for the last several years in an attempt to become a hybrid plantser — someone who can exist in both worlds.

And I think I’ve figured out part of the key.

The genre matters.

I’ve heard both Mary Robinette Kowal and Dan Wells teach on this subject, so I’m not sure who to credit with the concept. But essentially, there are two broad types of genres. Structured genres (like cozy mysteries or romances) have specific beats that the audience expects, and that the story should give a nod to (or intentionally subvert) in order to fit within the genre. Aesthetic genres, on the other hand (like fantasy or cyberpunk) rely on a specific atmosphere or type of world or tropes that really make it fit within the genre.

Nearly everything I’ve ever written is fantasy, with a bit of science fiction and horror thrown in there. And that means I’ve always written in the realm of aesthetic genres.

When that’s the case, all a writer has to rely on to figure out their plot is the rules of storytelling, itself. Three act plot structure, seven point plot structure, story circles, save the cat, the hero’s / heroine’s journey, etc. Plus pure instinct from spending so much time reading. But at least for me, this process is as vague and overwhelming as it is freeing. Which is why I’ve always really struggled to plot up to this point.

Until my current work in progress (WIP). πŸŽ‰

The journey of a novel.

Let me give you a glimpse into the weird, winding road that has led me to where I am now on my plantsing journey.

A little bit more than a year ago, I started writing my current WIP.

First, I envisioned it as a story set in the board game world of Gloomhaven with an Oceans Eleven feel. My main character was Riff, a down-on-his-luck human mercenary, and from the beginning, I was envisioning a strong social justice theme. I wrote the first 10,000 words or so, had an ending in mind, and trusted I’d be able to connect the dots in between. I sent off a pitch and the first few chapters to the fine folks at Cephalofair Games to see if they’d be interested in making the story part of their canon. They gave me a very kind not-at-this-time response next-day — and honestly, I was excited to get a response at all! They were very supportive and generous in their answer. That company’s awesome. Go play some Gloomhaven.

So then, I was left with a choice between continuing to write my story as fanfiction, or adapting it into something unique. I chose the latter. Between digging into planning tools like Campfire and Fabula, I revised the world and plot into something unique. My main character was still Riff, but now he was a down-on-his luck thief.

Over the course of NaNoWriMo 2020, I churned out 50,000 words of the new manuscript. It told the tale of a desperate quest across the countryside, where Riff danced between being a fugitive from the law and trying to reinsert himself into society.

And wow, I was getting lost in the writing. So I joined a critique group specifically for speculative fiction writers. And one of the critiquers said something that really stuck with me. He said, after reading the first two chapters, “This is going to be a great heist.”

And I was like, oh yeah… a heist. Oceans Eleven. That was the root of the inspiration for this thing all along. That’s what this novel is supposed to be!

So then I asked myself, “How do I write a heist?” πŸ€”

And, miracle of miracles, Mary Robinette posted this:

So I jumped on her Patreon and attended the class and… lightbulb. πŸ’‘

Leaning into a structured genre.

All of the sudden, I was writing in a structured genre (heist) embedded within an aesthetic genre (fantasy).

I had beats to write to. All within the rich world and set of characters I’d already developed. Riff’s still being his swashbuckling self.

It was like, all of a sudden, the cast had something to do other than just mill about and hope for a character arc to slap them in the face.

All of a sudden, there was a conduit for me to explore the ideas of classist inequity and racial injustice.

All of a sudden, I was having fun again, because I’d finally found my footing. 😍

As of right now, I’m only 16,000 words into drafting this novel, but I’m getting great feedback from my critique groups, I’ve written an entire synopsis that’s actually coherent (thanks to the Futurescapes Workshop), and I feel more confident writing this book than I ever have with any previous manuscript.

For me, the journey from pantsing to plantsing looks like combining a structured genre with an aesthetic genre to help me build more structure into my process.

I’m hopeful that what I’m learning by writing this book will equip me to go back to the world of pure aesthetic genres with more confidence.

But first things first. I have a book to write. ✍️

I’d love to hear from you. If you’re a writer, are you a pantser or a planner? Are you trying to find a hybrid position in the middle? What has your writing journey looked like to this point?

2 Replies to “From Pantsing to Plantsing”

  1. I plan my story arcs and pants my characters. My WIP also started as a thought-experiment of how I would write a sequel to Disney’s The Rocketeer. It would involve the protΓ©gΓ© of an air racer in the 1930s who becomes an ace combat pilot under her mentor’s tutelage. Obviously Disney isn’t knocking on my door with a dump-truck full of money, so I developed it into an original novel…you’ve seen the result.

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