Guest Blogger James M. Jackson – Finding Your Voice: Plotter or Pantser

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.

17 comments

  1. Grace Topping says:

    You make a good point about trying it both ways, Jim. I’m a plotter, only because I haven’t tried being a pantzer. I’ve been afraid I would waste a lot of time not knowing where I was going. But I might surprise myself. That’s true about other aspects of writing fiction. I worked for quite some time on a manuscript using third person point of view. When I tried a chapter using first person, it came alive. Don’t know why it took me so long to try that.

  2. Grace — Experimenting caries the risk of wasting time, doesn’t it. Yet, if we want to grow as writers, we need to try new things. It’s great that you discovered changing from third to first person allowed the story pop.

  3. Heidi Wilson says:

    James, I found this essay fascinating, because it addresses my current creative problem. I have a complete mystery novel written, which I pantsed with great pleasure. Some professional commentators have praised the writing. However, once finished, I found that a particular plot thread wasn’t logically consistent. When I tried to fix it, the resulting writing was (a) leaden and uninteresting and (b) agonizing to do. Any advice?

  4. Heidi — one problem we pantsers usually have after our first drafts are plot inconsistencies. Good job at finding your miscreant thread. When I started writing, no one told me that I would spend considerably more time rewriting than on creating the first draft story. I needed to learn to embrace the rewriting process — now it’s my favorite part of writing, because I know it’s what makes writing good!

    You might try applying your pantser approach to writing to fixing the plot thread. If there are scenes that need considerable rewriting to accommodate the changes — start from scratch when rewriting the scene. It will fell fresher that way.

    In a weeklong workshop I took with Donald Maas, one of his strong beliefs was that authors often tried to correct a problem by making as few changes as possible, but would have much better results if they rewrote the scene from scratch. That approach allows the subconscious to incorporate its feel for what needs to change along with the conscious “I need to fix this plot point.” And for pantsers, it has the added advantage that you don’t feel like you’re writing from an outline.

    That said, eventually you get to the stage where you need to self-edit scenes that are good but need to become great. That’s work you need to find a way to embrace. Chocolate can help.

    The other thing you can do is look at your leaden writing and compare it to an example that sparkles. What’s different? Learning that can help you be aware when you have to rewrite in the future — you can catch the issue as you are writing and correct it more easily.

    Best of luck with your novel.

    • Heidi,
      Thanks for stopping by today. Have to agree with Jim — and throw in my two cents that sometimes one does have to throw away precious words and rewrite the scene pantser style to regain the flow that works.

  5. vicki says:

    I’m a pantser and a slow one. I fix and fix and I think that’s okay. It is what works for me. I couldn’t plot for the life of me. And always thought I couldn’t write because I couldn’t plot.

  6. Ellen Byron says:

    Great post! As someone who writes a fluid outline, I do object to pantsing being called “organic writing.” My outline is also organic. It’s the same thing as pantsing – making it up as I go, throwing in stuff.

    I don’t know if other outliners feel this, but I often find myself on the defensive re: this topic. Writers will say, if I’m not surprised, my readers won’t be. You can be as surprised in an outline as in a pantsed first draft. And by that fifth draft, no matter what your style, no writer’s surprised anymore, LOL!

  7. Vicki & Ellen — The thing I object to is anyone who says there is a preferable way to accomplish writing — and they, of course, have that way down pat. I tune them out. I want to understand how other people do it, so I can take from them what works.

    For example, the strict outliners know exactly where the changes to acts two and three should occur. They often shoot for 25% & 75%. Experienced pantsers may hit their targets because the basics of the three-act story-telling model are part of their psyche– less experienced may find their first act doesn’t end until 40% of the way through the novel. Without the plotters’ structure, that author may not be aware they probably have too much back story in the first act.

    And Ellen — I use as a joke the line that if I don’t know who done it, the reader can’t. However, as one who received a 100 on his college logic course final, I am here to tell you that A implies B does not mean that B implies A. [In English “I don’t know (A), so the reader can’t know (B) does not imply, the reader doesn’t know (B), so I can’t know (A).] A writer who knows who done it, can successfully salt the story with false clues, red herrings, plot twists, and the like to keep any reader up later than their bedtime wanting to know!

    And, as Ellen points out, that’s what a pantser’s later drafts are doing.

  8. Amy Denton says:

    Debra,
    You and I could be sisters (at least in writing a novel).
    I get a scene in my head and start from that. I’ve grudgingly adopted what I call a ‘kinda’ outline because I’ve discovered that I need SOME kind of structure or nothing is ever going to get written.
    I’m intrigued by the profiling system you mentioned. Lowen Profiling System? Where can I find information on that?

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