Do you even know what I'm talking about? Before 2021, I had no idea either. These are writing terms, used to describe the planning phase of a story, novel, memoir, or other writing project. "Plotters" are those with timelines, outlines, scene inventories, and character descriptions, all laid out before they even begin to write. "Pantsers" are so called because they like to "write by the seat of their pants," without much planning. I've been thinking about how these things translate into life itself.
In life, I'd say I'm a plotter. I make lists and schedules, keep a calendar, take great pleasure in crossing off items or ticking off boxes. I plan ahead, I'm usually on time, I'd likely be described as organized (at least until menopause hit). Some writers are like that, too: at the Ottawa Writer's Festival, author Terry Fallis spoke about his engineering background, and how he always has all of the chapters outlined right down to paragraphs and bullet points before he starts writing. By the time he sits down to write a draft, he's more or less filling in the gaps; the entire plot lies ready and waiting. Doesn't that sound easy?
Interestingly, as a creative writer I'm a pantser. I remember the joy of making an essay outline (remember? Thesis statement, 3 paragraphs with at least 3 supporting points, linking sentences, conclusion). How elegant was that? The thing basically wrote itself. Can I apply that to a short story, or a novel? Absolutely not.
Believe me, I've tried. I have cloud diagrams and flow charts and I've attempted supposedly infallible strategies from books like "Story Genius" and "Save the Cat!" As soon as I try to force my characters into boxes, as soon as there are walls and limits, everything starts to sound forced and wooden. Plus, my very favourite part of writing occurs when a character does something surprising. What? That goody-two-shoes is cheating on her husband? I did not see that coming! I realize the idea of a character doing something unexpected seems completely crazy, but it happens, and it's fantastic.
Being a pantser, as a writer, or in life, leads to inefficiency. Real-life pantsers are the ones constantly forgetting things, arriving late, rushing out because they've forgotten to meet the school bus or just remembered the oven is on. Their desks are disastrous; they miss payments, deadlines, they can't find things. On the other hand, they seize the moment: spend time with them, and you'll end up on a spontaneous hiking adventure, enjoying an unexpected weekday gourmet meal, or somehow walking away in an outfit you'd never put together yourself.
As a writer, being a pantser means a lot of revising, or tossing aside perfectly good sections because they really don't add to the story. Sometimes, an entire character must be added or removed, which is difficult and time consuming.But, like the real life pantsers, by going with the flow, the magic sometimes happens. Normally, I hate inefficiency, yet here I am: a Plotter in life, but a Pantser in writing. Maybe, at some point, one will flow into the other, and my balance will be perfect.
Hi, I'm Karen. This space is a chance for me to get some of those notebook sessions out there: Motherhood, medicine, writers and writing, the state of the world. Non-published, sometimes non-polished, just a chance to open a discussion. Let me know what you think!