Pantsing, plotting and persisting

The start of a new year always gives rise to reflection.

What went well last year? What could we do better next year?

How can we fine tune the balance of our lives to better fulfill our creative dreams and to better care for ourselves and others?

What creative works can we bring to fruition in the year ahead? What should we begin, and what should we complete or drop?

If a new year promises growth, how do we wish to grow? What skills most require our focus?

When I first started writing fiction, I just put one word after another. Like a toddler taking first steps, I wandered all over the place with scant regard for readers or literary conventions. 

The characters and their conflicts found themselves in impossible predicaments. Extricating them became more and more difficult.

Image courtesy Steve Johnson

So, quite aside from the research I carried out to inform my historical novels, I attended writing conferences and Australian Writers’ Centre and other workshops, and read more carefully about creating fiction.

I realised with some delight that I was a “pantser” – writing by the seat of my pants, and that I was not alone. 

Pantsing was so much fun!

Then again, a spot of plotting did assist. It helped me imagine a beginning, middle and end. I began to understand that a protagonist and her or his challenges had to be believable enough to “hook” the reader in the first few pages.

I realised that characters who had to take risks and dig deep within themselves and change within the “arc” of the story to overcome conflict and other challenges were far more interesting to readers than those to whom things just happened.

I was thrilled to learn about the “dark moment”, the one big “all is lost” part of every great novel which propels the reader forward, desperate to find out how the protagonist will handle their biggest challenge of all.

Photo courtesy Jonas Jacobsson

Plot advocates such as Savannah Gilbo and Blake Snyder who wrote Save the Cat! helped me learn to slice and dice my offerings into three or four “acts” or “turning points” and 15 or so key “beats”.

Never again will I read a work of fiction without checking the spine at the most dramatic moment.

Did it come half way through or two thirds of the way through? Aha!

Gradually, I’ve brought this knowledge to my own works in progress, coming to understand that my earliest works were spun from far too much “pants” and with far too little regard for “plot”.

Kind beta readers tell me my works are improving, that keeping at least half an eye on structure is reaping some benefits.

Image courtesy Unsplash

And yet I find myself resisting the temptation to turn entirely from pantsing to plotting. 

For a pantser, pure plotting could become deadly. For me, such minute dissection threatens to drain the lifeblood of any creative work. 

Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspirational work Big Magic reinforces the beauty of free creativity, of pure “pantsing”. This highly recommended creative work of non-fiction includes six delicious sections: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity.

She’s managed to create so many entirely different and popular books, she can’t be entirely wrong. 

I never want to lose that feeling of excitement – the sheer wonder at what can emerge.

Outside my writing life, I’ve been experimenting with the culinary art of baking sourdough. 

Finding the right mix of flour and water to create and nurture “starter” depends so much on temperature, humidity and timing. It needs to be fed. It needs to be kept alive. 

Then there’s the mixing, kneading and resting of the bread dough, not to mention the art of baking. 

Image courtesy Bruno Thethe

So far, every loaf is different, and though all have been edible at some level, I’ve had better and worse results, even when following recipes.

It’s a rewarding quest, and an age-old one.

Next year?

More plotting and more pantsing, I hope. 

As for “persisting”, that sounds a bit like hard work. Instead, I’ll be writing and editing for the pure joy of it, learning all along the way. 

More research. More stories. 

Best of luck with your own pursuits as the new year unfurls!


Follow me on Instagram @jakemanamber and Twitter and Facebook @AmberJakeman


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