Finding Your Voice: Plotter or Pantser by James M. Jackson
Every author is told to “find your voice,” as though they left it under the hydrangea in the side yard. I suggest that if you write enough, your voice will find you. Voice is what comes naturally to you: the cadence of your sentences, the richness of your descriptions (or how sparse they are), how you use dialog, internal dialog, setting, and so on and so forth. Pick up a Hemingway novel with the cover pages removed, and you won’t confuse it for William Faulkner.
I propose that one aspect of your voice is whether you are a plotter or write by the seat of your pants. (And if you don’t like the term pantser, you can use the politically-correct term “organic author.”) I recently read a blog by someone who wrote a complete novel in less than a month. She had, however, earlier created a twenty-page outline.
For her, it was a great experience. For me, it would have been terrible. She is a plotter. Plotters are uncomfortable starting their writing until they have sorted out the major plot issues. Some need to also understand the subplot before they can begin to compose. I took an online course from a well-known author who plans his novels using a spreadsheet. If he anticipated writing an eighty-thousand-word novel, he’d have roughly sixty-six chapters averaging 1,200 words. HIs spreadsheet would divide the chapters into three equal-length acts. He’d have so many action scenes, so many reactions scenes, so many set up scenes. He’d put in the key events and then populate his scenes with characters and actions until his spreadsheet was completed. Only then could he begin writing.
Following his structured approach during the class was like strapping myself into a strait jacket. There are very few plotters who strictly follow their outline, even if it runs twenty pages. Most change their plots as the write because they have a better idea along the way. Later, their story editor may suggest additional changes that they incorporate before the final manuscript.
I wish I were a plotter. I think it’s a more efficient method—but it’s not how my mind operates. In the Lowen Profiling System, I am a Conceptualizer: I build worlds out of abstract concepts. My process of figuring out a story is to start with an initial concept, put the characters in place, and let them take it away. I may not know who the victim is; I generally don’t know who the killer is. I figure it all out through my writing. I don’t write quickly. I may write 1,000-words a day and then move on to marketing tasks or revising an earlier story. Even though I am not consciously working on the story, my brain is mulling over the open questions and, like a mischievous genie, presents possible solutions when I least expect them.
Plotters find my approach chaotic, and for them it would be. My scenes can vary from a hundred words to twenty-five hundred. False trails I lay down in the first draft turn into red herrings. I joke that readers can’t guess ahead of time whodunit because I didn’t even know! Most important for me is that once I’ve completed my first draft, I understand what my novel is really about on an emotional level.
After we’ve completed our drafts, plotters and pantsers both must rewrite to sort out plot points, make sure every scene is effective, modify dialog, and deal with all the other aspects of rewriting. But the way we laid down that first track of the novel influences its final shape—and that is part of our voice.
If you are not sure if you should be a plotter or pantser, try writing both ways. Which feels more comfortable? More important, which leads to a better final result? When I tried plotting a short story, even the final product felt blah to me, lacking the spontaneity my pantser manuscripts maintained through their final edits. After a couple of misbegotten plotting attempts, I learned to embrace my pantser self, quit wasting time trying to plot, and stop worrying about it.
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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series consisting of five novels and one novella. Jim splits his time between the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Georgia’s Lowcountry. He claims the moves between locations are weather-related, but others suggest they may have more to do with not overstaying his welcome. He is the past president of the 700+ member Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and/or Amazon.
You can order paperback versions of his books from your favorite physical or online bookstore (or from his website if you’d like them autographed). You can find his Kindle books here.