Please Pants Responsibly (Paper Notebooks FTW)
|10 min read
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By PinkyMcCoversong   |   Watch
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Published: June 13, 2013



There are two ways to write a novel.  Plotting (you make an outline, a plan, a roadmap if you will, and then you sit down and write it) and pantsing (you write "by the seat of your pants, throwing caution to the wind).  So when I get asked if I'm a plotter or a pantser, I'm all like er, uh, hold on, let me?  Pantser?  I think?  But I kind of, um, do planny things?

And it gets kind of awkward because in these inarticulate moments I have managed to confuse everyone including myself. And probably spilled a drink.

In recent discussions, however, I've had a bit of a revelation, silly as it is. I've realized that I -- like many writers -- am a plotter/pantser hybrid.  And perhaps what I'm doing is something we could call Pantsing Responsibly.  And, maybe, just maybe, I could share some of my responsible pantsing tips with other writers. Starting with paper notebooks.

Anyone can find a notebook.  If there isn't already one in your house (for shame!), you can get a notebook for like ninety-nine (American) cents at your grocery store.  Or you can splurge and get a fancy Moleskine or something (I do, sometimes). Notebooks are as cheap as you need them to be, easy to come by, and presumably easy to use.  But I guess with a lot of people doing the bulk of their writing on computers, using a paper notebook doesn't come as naturally.  So here are some plotter-esque things that any pantser can do with a notebook in hand.

Some of my novelling notebooks. 1.AUGUST TIDES, aka NaNoWriMo 2010; 2. April of this year's Camp NaNo,  ANDI & VINE, cowritten with Priya Chand; 3. 1999; 4. GRUNGE, which I may never finish; 5. ME AND THE JERSEY DEVIL; 6. My first novel, MYSELF BEHIND MYSELF, back then just called "Jody Book;" 7. FOOL's GOLD, which is no longer a novella (NaNoWriMo 2011); 8. COME ON EILEEN, aka Camp NaNo August 2012, cowritten with Priya Chand; 9. my current project, CHARLOTTE, AFTER.
Some of my novelling notebooks: 1.AUGUST TIDES, aka NaNoWriMo 2010; 2. April of this year's Camp NaNo, ANDI & VINE,
cowritten with Priya Chand; 
3. 1999; 4. GRUNGE, which I may never finish; 5. ME AND THE JERSEY DEVIL; 6. My first novel,
MYSELF BEHIND MYSELF, back then just called "Jody Book;" 
7. FOOL's GOLD, which is no longer a novella (NaNoWriMo 2011);
8. COME ON EILEEN, aka Camp NaNo August 2012, cowritten with Priya Chand; 
9. my current project, CHARLOTTE, AFTER.

1. Set aside a notebook for your project. Right now.


This might seem silly and self-indulgent, but the point is to organize all your thoughts and ideas for the project in one space.  Now that I say it, it seems kind of obvious, right?  I have a different notebook for every novel I've finished (and even some that I haven't).  And when I get feedback on drafts, and do revisions, I can go and keep all of that information in the notebook, too.

The cover of my CHARLOTTE, AFTER notebook. I like to prettify my notebooks.
The cover of my CHARLOTTE, AFTER notebook. I like to prettify my notebooks.

2. Write a mini-synopsis.


Maybe you can't write the whole thing.  But if you can at least come up with a tag line (like what would be on the cover of a book or in a movie trailer), or a bit of a blurb (like the back of a book) it will be super helpful to you as you write!

The synopsis page from COME ON EILEEN. Lots of these things changed as we wrote, but it was a good place to start.
The synopsis page from COME ON EILEEN. Lots of these things changed as we wrote, but it was a good place to start.

3. Make a page for each of your main characters.


These are not character sheets.  Okay, maybe a bit about how they look, bust mostly about how they think, their points of view, how they might act and talk. If there are important things you're likely to forget (I forget stuff about cars all the time), write those down. I always note what kind of car my character drives (if they drive) and usually some hobbies.

This is the character page for Kelsey aka Ethan (name changes happen a lot) in ME AND THE JERSEY DEVIL.
This is the character page for Kasey aka Ethan (name changes happen a lot) in my ME AND THE JERSEY DEVIL notebook.

4. Brainstorm.


Everyone's style is different, but when I'm starting a book I like to have a few ideas on things like theme and voice and character development.  But I also like to think about roadblocks a lot. I always say that the three things you need to know are who your character is, what she wants, and what's in her way.  One of the things I brainstorm either right after I start or even before is a list of possible roadblocks. The things that get in your character's way are what add tension and excitement to the story.  So having a list there is super helpful!

The "Possible Crises" brainstorm page from my current project, CHARLOTTE, AFTER, which is a road trip book.  (I like bears.)
The "Possible Crises" brainstorm page from my current project, CHARLOTTE, AFTER, which is a road trip book. (I like bears.)

5. Journal.


Every day can't be a sit down and know exactly what to do with your story from the second you open the file day.  When I'm stuck, one thing I do is journal about my writing, about the book, where it's going and what loose ends I have to tie up. If you let yourself kind of freewrite about the story, you might realize where it needs to go, what happens next, or even get an idea for something new to try. Even when you're not writing the novel, you're thinking about it, and that thinking is much more effective when it's written down and stored somewhere tangible.

A page of journalling from AUGUST TIDES (working title VISITED THE SEA). There are many more pages of journaling like this, especially after I got revision notes from my agent. (This is the book that landed me said agent.)
A page of journalling from AUGUST TIDES (working title VISITED THE SEA). There are many more pages of journaling like this,
especially after I got revision notes from my agent. (This is the book that landed me said agent.)

Everyone's notebooks will be different.  From the kind of notebook you buy -- I like smaller skinnier notebooks with pretty covers, you might like a legal pad -- to what you do with it.  But I don't think any writer should be without one.  I hope these tips are helpful for you pantsers out there looking for a way to organize.  You don't have to write a 50-page outline to prep for a new novel (though I know writers who work this way!), but life sure is easier as a novelist when you have some ideas to fall back on when you get stuck, and a bit of direction along the way.

Happy notebooking, y'all!

https://www.ekristinanderson.com




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Comments106
anonymous's avatar
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dierat's avatar
dieratHobbyist Digital Artist
Great article! I'm a definite plotter but I can relate to your process a lot. The way I've been working is I have one really long google doc file that I write everything in - questions about where I'm going, notes about what I have left to do, general ideas about themes and story direction, etc. It's kind of a mixture of brainstorming and journaling, and I like it because every idea I have, even stupid ones, are recorded and can be used at a later date if they turn out to be helpful. And just going over what I have left to figure out often leads to new ideas and solution. Then I have separate google docs for stuff that I've (tentatively) decided are going to be used, including character descriptions, a plot synopsis, game mechanics (because this is for an RPG), etc. I used to use notebooks when I was younger, but these days I've moved to digital because I never have to worry about misplacing the documents and I can access them from any computer. Thanks for taking the time to explain your process! :heart:
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
Glad you got something out of the article!
KaizenKitty's avatar
KaizenKittyProfessional Writer
Interesting article. To be honest I don't think pantsers and plotters are that different. Pantsers also plan/plot, only after they have written a first draft. So in effect, the first draft of a pantser is the same stage as the brainstorm stage of a plotter (prewriting).

...if you're interested, I've written an article about it: creativewritingblogs.deviantar…
WinteroftheSoul's avatar
Danke schon, Pinky! Faved for future reference! :)
RoxasTheRanger's avatar
Well, that's not the kind of pantsing or plotting I do...Muahahahahahahaha.
Riemea's avatar
RiemeaHobbyist General Artist
This is a really awesome and helpful article! Thanks a lot for writing it! :)
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
You're welcome! Glad you enjoyed!
Riemea's avatar
RiemeaHobbyist General Artist
:heart:
Near-Kitten's avatar
Near-KittenHobbyist Traditional Artist
This is a great idea, thank you for this journal!!
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
Glad you got something out of it!
Braxton-T-Rutledge's avatar
Pantsing responsibly should probably include getting to know the characters so well that you can inhabit their voices. Instead of forcing them through actions to achieve plot points, they create their own plot points by naturally living in the fucked up universe you provide.

I've heard a lot of people use music or art or locations to help them do that, embody the voice of that character.

I'm not a fiction writer. That shit is too much like work for me. But I do know a few things about reading fiction, and plotty fiction is predictable and boring to me. The characters are always flatter (even if well developed) than in fiction in which the author allows a character to live, and in living screw up, and in screwing up create conflict, and the through whatever motions are natural resolve (or not) the conflict(s).
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
I'm not sure if you read the post? Because the point of this is little things you can do to make your life easier while writing without an outline, including character development.

As a reader, do you really think you know how a story was written? Whether the writer used an outline or not?
Braxton-T-Rutledge's avatar
I absolutely read the post. I was throwing in an addendum. I had a much longer response, and realized it was a waste of both our times to post it.

I can generally tell if a writer used an outline, and I can generally tell if they are a plot writer or a character writer. There are extremely good writers that make it impossible for me to tell, yes.
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
How can you tell?
Braxton-T-Rutledge's avatar
If the character seems to be pushed or "shuttled" from one event to the other, or if they make a choice or take an action that didn't 'have' to be taken unless you finish the book and realize that without that choice or action, the ending resolution couldn't have happened.

It boils down to that. There will be moments in a story written from an outline that will scream "this had to happen or the plot\ending\conflict\resolution in my outline can't happen".

This happens a lot in genre fiction. That doesn't mean it is a bad thing. The story can be entertaining, the prose style can be good, but the events of the story take priority over the characters of the story. And if that happens, I can always see it. There's a really good book called "City of Theives." The author makes the choice to let events take precedence (even though he does A LOT OF WORK trying to hide that fact), but it makes sense. He's writing a fictionalized account of his grandfather's time in Leningrad during the seige (1941 - 1944). At it's heart are distinct events that need covering, and those events must be arrived at, because those events are more important than the character.

The key to making me unable to tell is to do both things, spend a lot of time with the characters, embody them, and find out how they'd respond, and make sure it shows up on the page. It wasn't because the story was ALWAYS heading to a conclusion, the conclusion of a story needs to be BECAUSE of WHO the CHARACTERS ARE.

Even if that conclusion and every other action was mapped out beforehand.

Look at Fight Club, or Cat's Cradle, or Fahrenheit 451. I can only tell you that the authors did a lot of hard work creating them, and that it took years to create those two hundred or so pages.
The-Inkling's avatar
I think the point being made here was that character/plot driven stories aren't necessarily influenced by outlining or a lack thereof. They are completely unrelated issues, and are ultimately determined by the style and ability of the particular author (and indeed the particular story, since each one calls for something different). So sure you can tell if it's a character driven plot or not, but planning (which is what this article was about) is a more fickle and ephemeral beast than you might think.

To use your example, (which was all I initially intended to say here, ha) Fahrenheit 451 was actually written over 18 days (divided into two 9-day periods) on a rented typewriter. So while the concept evolved from a number of short stories he had written over a longer period of time, the actual planning process for Fahrenheit itself (if there was any process at all) was quite short. If anything it makes the work even more remarkable!
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
I think you'd be surprised to find out which authors outline and which don't.
Braxton-T-Rutledge's avatar
You are entitled to an opinion.

How fortunate that the opinion allows you to dismiss me with fourteen words.
lion-essrampant's avatar
lion-essrampantHobbyist Writer
Notebooks are the best things ever. I have a notebook for each of my novels too, but I really like the way you have yours set up; I'll have to try it out and see what works for me and what doesn't. Thanks!
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
Thanks! I think different set ups work for different people. Just like my friends who write 50-page outlines write successful novels, and I'll never be a 50-page-outline person!
lion-essrampant's avatar
lion-essrampantHobbyist Writer
You're welcome. Oh definitely. Haha. I love finding out how other people set their stuff up. Wow! That's insane! They're very planny! Haha. Don't worry: I never will be either!
mirz333's avatar
mirz333 General Artist
I have only started using notebooks again after many years. Not even that I never wrote anything out, but I just got it in my head that typing was faster and if I did write it out, there was some defect in it (my wonky neurosis). But now that I am forcing myself to write while I commute and such, it's been nice to go to my notebook. Now if I can just keep it up.

Nice article.
PinkyMcCoversong's avatar
PinkyMcCoversongProfessional Writer
Yeah I think the fact that you have to go slower when you're writing in a notebook helps sometimes.
anapests-and-ink's avatar
anapests-and-inkHobbyist Writer
I use my notebook for everything, and I think some stuff gets lost in the mix. I like the idea of separate notebooks for each project; I might need to try this out. :)
anonymous's avatar
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