I wake to write and take my writing slow (Or, Why I don’t like the term “Pantser”)

Enfant écrivant-Henriette BrowneDoes it matter whether you are a plotter or a pantser?

Short answer: So long as the book gets written and the reader cares enough to turn the page, who cares?

Longer answer: It can matter because the latter term seems to be used in a pejorative sense, even though both terms are simply ways to describe the two main workflows that people use to write a book.

Much longer answer:

For the record (or the CD, or the DVD), I do not care for the term ‘pantser.’ It conjures up an image of two writers. There’s the plotter over in that corner, busily outlining and setting up scenes. In this corner, we have the pantser, slumped over her desk idly waiting for an idea to surface.

Not an accurate picture, methinks.

I can’t answer the traditional question of where an idea comes from. Everywhere, nowhere, Schenectady. If you keep your eyes open, an idea will wander by. But once I’ve got an idea, a question, a problem, an opening scene, I grab a pencil and scribble it down, as much of it as I can see. Often, the act of writing it down causes a couple of additional scenes to wander up and introduce themselves. So I write them down. Then I sit and stare at the pages.

It is at this stage that many writers would start working on an outline. Writing without a plan seems to go against the puritanical work ethic, as if you’re not taking your writing seriously. Who starts a journey without looking at a map?

Well, I do. I cannot impose a structure on an idea.  Stories are created, not constructed.

Creation requires the subconscious. My conscious mind is where the ordinary ideas swim. I’m concerned with getting to work on time, making sure the cat is fed, taking out the garbage at least three minutes before the garbage truck comes by my house. The ideas that lurk down in the dark waters below the sunlight hold meaning. The trick is to lure them up into the light. I can bait little lines with tempting hooks, but I can’t describe the behemoth until it surfaces.

Reading the initial idea over again, getting my mind into that world, sparks questions. Trying to find answers to these questions brings up associated images and ideas. I see a pretty scene and write it down. (Or a pretty intense scene. So long as it sounds interesting, I write it down.) Reading that scene over again leads to the need to write X, Y, and Z scenes as well.

After I’ve done this, I arrange the scenes until I see a pattern. This is the inverse to what a Plotter would do, as I understand the process. I don’t start with an outline and fit scenes into it. As I write more scenes, the pattern I’m seeing leads me to an overall picture.

The nice part about this approach is that writing the glittery scenes first is like always eating dessert first. (Except it’s better for the waistline.) If I’m interested in what I”m writing, there’s a better chance the reader will be as well.

No book is all dessert, of course. There are interstitial scenes that are required to stitch the pretty scenes into a whole quilt.  Once I’ve gotten enough of the book written, I can see where I’ll need to stitch scenes together. These scenes can be tough to write; they’re usually dry as dust in the first draft. (And sometimes in the second draft.) Whether a scene was fun to write or not, I always need to go back and tweak to make everything flow together, but I think most Plotters need to do that as well. Most writers have to do some revising.

I probably should’ve started this post with the usual disclaimer about everyone’s path being different, many roads to Oz, your mileage may vary. If your writing process is different, and you’re happy with the result, then I am happy for you. This is a description of what works for me, right now, and it does involve work. It is not just sitting around waiting for inspiration.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.


We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
-Theodore Roethke, The Waking


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