Confessions of a (soon to be) Reformed Pantser

Hello, SEers! Mae here today with an overdue confession. Perhaps I should explain how it came about…

Even writers who carefully plot, plan, and meticulously outline their novels have the unexpected happen. For authors who routinely pants their books, it’s common to have twists pop out of the blue. But what about characters? I’ve found that when a character appears unexpectedly,  an earthquake usually occurs with fault lines splintering everywhere.

As an example, while working on my last novel, End of Day, this popped from the keyboard:

Jillian had no intention of taking him fishing, or of getting involved and becoming friends with his mother. Getting involved was how people got hurt. How Madison ended up with a shattered mind and a life spent staring at four walls.


Who knew Madison had a shattered mind and spent life staring at four walls? Certainly, not the author (a favorite phrase of mine). Up until two pages earlier, I didn’t even know Madison was Jillian’s sister, but it sounded good, so I went with the flow. I’d pantsed characters before. As a writer, every book I’ve written (except for one) was pantsed from start to finish. No worries then, right?


exhausted woman with head on desk in front of open laptop

It took a while to figure out Madison’s story, a twisted thread which developed over the course of the novel. She ended up introducing me to three additional characters, all of whom became central to the plot. That meant more threads to work and rework. Her story grew from footnote to key element. Good, but bad. I had fault lines splintering everywhere.

As a panster, this is where it’s easy to get into trouble. The more Madison’s story developed, the more I had to change. Pantsers are used to mopping up after themselves, but the work usually requires a tremendous amount of backtracking and rewriting—not to mention making repeated apologies to critique partners for constantly shifting things around. The two ladies who work with me are saints. I can’t begin to count the many times I started a segment for critique with:

 I changed this . . .
I had to rewrite the ending of chapter one because . . .
I added an extra scene to explain why . . .

I can honestly say End of Day wore on my last nerve and made me envious of authors who plot. I know I will never outline my books in minute detail, but I now see the benefit of having a story line in place. I went into End of Day blind, knowing who my lead characters were and that I wanted the tale to revolve around archaic legends involving church grims and folk memories. Other than that—dum-de-dum, dum-de-dum—I figured something would pop up.

New Story Chapter One printed on a vintage typewriter.

There’s nothing wrong with creating under pressure. A part of me must thrive on it (or used to). When you have a deadline looming and a book to deliver, there is no I’ll-think-about-it-tomorrow phase. Every waking moment is devoted to scrutinizing your WIP, whether visibly or mentally.

There is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

And then a brief span of blissful relief—before the whole cycle starts over again.

I’m going to do things differently this time. I’d like to have a map, even if only sketchy,  to avoid quake zones and far-flung fault lines. I will never give up pantsing completely, but moving forward I’m going to make a concentrated effort to plot.

Confession signed and delivered. Hopefully, I can stand by it.

I know plotting vs. pantsing is a discussion that has been hashed around ad infinitum, but I believe there’s always something new to learn. If you’re a pantser, how do you handle reworking plot threads? If you’re a plotter, have you ever had an unexpected character hijack your work and spin it in a new direction? Plotter or panster, does the grass ever look greener on the other side? Have you thought about switching camps?

There is a lot to chat about, so let’s hear your thoughts in the comments. Ready, set, go!

Bio banner for author Mae Clair

68 thoughts on “Confessions of a (soon to be) Reformed Pantser

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 2: The Story Bible | Story Empire

  2. No, say it ain’t so, Mae! LOL! I do a rough outline like many here, enough to get from point A to point B and still make a few sight-seeing detours on the way. It give me the notable points of the plot, so I know the direction I need to go. I have used Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days process, but only parts of it. I think we writers learn it’s okay to change our methods as we learn more and practice more. My very first books (trunk novels now) were done on the fly (pantsed), but I’d run through the whole story in my head before I wrote them. Now I like to do a rough outline–a few sentences for each notable scene–then a timeline-based outline to make sure if I have muliple POVs that each character gets enough “screen time”. Also helps to make sure certain things happen with enough time between (you know, like flying from LA to NYC in less than 2 hrs). I suspect most writers use a combination of both panting and plotting (plantsing? 🙂 )

    Anyway, congrats on EOD. Can’t wait for Cusp of Night to come out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you nailed it when you said that most authors do a combination of pantsing and plotting. In the past, I have REALLY flown by the seat of my pants in all novels except one (and even then I only had the first 5 chapters figured out), but that crap is wearing thin. As a writer, I’m growing and branching out in different directions and I now realize the value of plotting, even if only a rough outline like you mentioned. I think I’m going to stick with that method (or more) going forward. End of Day really sucked the life out of me, more so than any novel I’ve ever written. A major learning experience.

      So excited you;’re looking forward to Cusp of Night. That one came to me fully-fleshed one night when I couldn’t sleep 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, the wheel turns, we make adjustments, and life goes on. Will your newly found need for more structure last over the long haul? It will be interesting to see. Personally, I say do what works best for you on any given book. Maybe it was that THIS story needed a bit more plotting and a bit less winging it, but the next one could thrive on the making it up as you go along? Or not. 😀 What counts in my mind is the story you end up with. If it’s good, then whatever you did worked, right?

    For myself, I always know who my main characters are, what main adventure/drama/calamity is about to happen to them, and where they need to end up. Pretty much everything in between, they tell me as I go. (You should hear the way Rabbit talks to me! He’s full of surprises I never saw coming.) But then again, I’ve only been writing five years, and I’m not even AIMING at the kind of commercial success that puts authors at the top of various best-seller lists. I just want to tell stories that a certain segment of the reading pool will enjoy. As long as that keeps happening, and I improve my story-telling skills with each book, I’m happy. What can I say? I’m a simple soul. 😀

    Pantsing or plotting or plantstering. Whatever works best for you is probably the way to go, especially if it makes each book easier. Good luck with your reformation!! 😀 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wisely said! Although I am bound and determined to give plotting a try. So far, so good. End of Day was nearly my end, LOL. Maybe it’s just that I’m using my time a little more wisely these day,s too. As for hitting that brass ring of best seller lists, well, that is my dream, but the reality is, I’ll be happy if I can supplement my income with writing when I retire. Published or not, deadlines or not, I’ll never stop writing. Like you, I love what I do entirely too much, headaches and pantsing rewrites included 🙂 Happy writing, my friend!

      Liked by 2 people

      • NOTE: I wouldn’t turn DOWN landing on the best seller list, by any means. 😀 I’m just not worrying about it. I write because I love it, as you say, and because I’m finding there’s an audience for the kind of stories I tell. That makes me very happy, in and of itself, so anything else would be gravy! (And yes, I DO want to supplement our retirement income, for sure!)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links | Staci Troilo

  5. Well, this is all fairly new to me, the new kid on the block. I just had to reverse the entire order to my book and then found that my character was the wrong age at the end which required a fair bit of rewriting. It has been a great learning experience so I am not complaining. Actually, I think I just thrive on a challenge. Happy Friday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good for you, Robbie—er, not the rewriting, but thriving on a challenge. I think I know what book you’re referring to and believe you made a wise choice. And as far as writing, learning and growing as an author, I don’t think we ever stop learning!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:

    I prefer plotting but I find I’m working so swiftly these days that I end up just scripting details out and pushing forward. Both of my longer WIPs were fairly well plotted and the current novella already had it’s basic plot established, but I am pantsing it a little. How about other writers out there?

    Liked by 2 people

    • You sound like me, Bette. Or at least me in the last book, LOL. I’m going to mosey on over to the other side of the fence and see if the grass is greener. Whatever works–plotting or panting—for the each of us is the way to go. Happy writing!

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Say it ain’t so Mae. You use the term Reformed. That is like saying there is redemption in being a plotter. To each his own I say. This panster is happy with the surprises and rework. It makes is interesting and so much fun to have to write my way out of a situation that some dumb shit character got me into. I do love your Earthquake analogy.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You do an awesome job of pantsing, John. You were actually one of the writers I thought of when I wrote this post. You’ve got it so together with those characters who pop up unexpectedly and the story lines that veer off course.The last book of mine nearly did me in, hence my “reformation.” I pulled it together but it was TOUGH and that never happened to me before. I’m gong to experiment on the other side of the fence but I’ll never completely abandon my panster tendencies. And I look to authors like you,Joan and Harmony to show how excellent pantsing can be done!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post and comments! I’m not patient enough to be a pantser. I tried it a couple of times, just sitting down with an idea, a setting, a few characters, and an end, then taking off. But I had to stop so many times and readjust where my story was going that it drove me crazy. I like enough dots on my story’s roadmap that I know I’m going in the right direction with enough substance to avoid sagging middles. Since I’ve started writing mysteries, I especially feel the need to plot, so that every chapter moves the mystery forward with some new clue or development. With a plotline, I can concentrate on my characters and bringing a scene to life instead of trying to figure out what should be happening. And my characters still surprise me. They just don’t throw me completely off track.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Judi, I can’t tell you how many times I had to stop and readjust with End of Day. Everything came together in the long run but it would have been so much easier with those dots to connect. And I do agree that plotting is especially essential in mysteries. I used to think you had to be patient to be a plotter, but now I see the reverse is too. Pantsing takes a lot of patience. It’s so true of going back and having to rework threads. Again and again. I like the idea of having enough of everything in place to focus on characters and scene setting rather than what should be happening. I’m clambering over the fence to the plotting camp! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I have an outline – not extensive, but a general road map. That being said, I’ve had new characters sneak in or surprising revelations from them, but those things usually had a positive effect on the story. I’ll try to think it through and make adjustments as needed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • A general road map is good. It’s enough to lead you from point A to point B and so on, while still giving you room to explore twists and turns. I had no road map at all for my last one. Talk about a rocky course, LOL.

      It sounds like you have a good practice in place, Teri!

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I always outline my novel before I start, and I also create character bios and setting descriptions of the main places. None of this restricts me. I often make changes. But I find it’s easier to make those changes in a planning phase than a second draft phase. I think whatever keeps us writing is probably the best method for us. We all work differently.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So true, Carrie. What works for one won’t necessarily work for someone else. I’ve been pantsing so many novels for so many years I thought I’d never want to plot. But I have to admit that the easiest time I ever had with a novel was the single book I did plot–at least part way through.

      Even as a panster, I did/do love making character bios. That’s always my first step before starting a new project. Thanks for dropping by today to share your thoughts!

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I’ve kind of done all of it, and some odd combinations nobody’s ever heard of. Consider this for the sake of discussion. A detailed plotter has all the same issues. The difference is they deal with the “fault lines” during the outlining and daydreaming phase. The actual draft becomes no more than assembly. I’ve had to modify many an out line for the same reasons you added sections and reworked bits. One of my books was written with an extended outline, and I drafted it in a month. My happy place is with a loose storyboard, and sometimes it’s only partially finished when I start. I kind of like letting things develop on the page. Now that I have multiple storyboards going, I have a new character for Lizzie to interact with, but an idea of her being forced to kill him in a subsequent story. I like the guy, and don’t want to lose the niche he fills, but there is some heavy drama if I actually do it. (This is daydreaming out to 2020 at least.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Your storyboards really work for you. I find it amazing that you can juggle multiple ideas and storyboards at one time. I can only concentrate on a single project at a time. Even so I plan to do more of the daydreaming phase so I can develop an outline before the writing phase. All those fault lines are far easier to deal with if they don’t happen 10 chapters into a novel. I learned that the hard way with the last book!

      It sounds like you have some cool ideas for Lizzie (and complex too). Lots of daydreaming to do! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  12. I ruined a couple of great ideas… least I thought they were great….those two experiences caused me to put on the breaks and think about what I was doing.

    To me, being a pantser was all about the finish line. Just get it done and don’t worry about it. That’s kind of my personality anyway but I knew if I wanted to create a novel that people wanted to read I had to slow down.

    A few months back to brought back one of my two novels that I ruined. The idea was there. The plot was fun. The foundation was doable. All I needed was careful planning. A direction and lots of patience.

    I’m now at the point where I can see it. The protagonist, the side characters, the beginning, the ending. I have literally created a map that I can follow. But most of all I’m calm. Being a panters caused me to be a nervous writer. Not anymore.

    Excellent post. This is a topic we can all agree or disagree with but most of all this is a post we can all relate to.


    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Bryan! Thanks for dropping by and sharing your experience. It sounds like you found what works for you by learning from what didn’t. It’s an incredible feeling to reach the finish line and complete a novel, but it does take time to get it right.

      In many ways it sounds like you did a bit of a NaNo writing experiment, just not in November when National Novel Writing takes place with everyone trying to hit 50K in 30 days. You pansted/blitzed through your books. As with NaNo, now you can go back and take the time to clean them up–edit, fix the threads that don’t work, flesh out ones that do. You know the story, the characters, start and finish, etc. Taking the time to polish will definitely make it shine in the end. I know a few writers who do self-imposed NaNo’s from time to time, then go back and wrangle what they have into shape.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and took the time to share. It’s great to hear how everyone else works and what they’ve learned from their personal experiences. Happy writing! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I really enjoy learning about an author’s writing process. As a writer of poetry, I’m definitely a pantser! 🙂
    Thanks for sharing, Mae! I’m going to drop back later to read the comments as they come in. Cheers!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Natalie! I’m glad you’re interested in the comments too. 🙂
      For poetry I always thought that was born from feelings more than planning. It’s a different kind of writing, tapping into the soul. I can fully understand where you would need to be a panster to write poetry—and you do it so beautifully!

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Months ago I listened to an author interview on NPR. He talked of his attachment to the characters and how he cried each time he finished a novel. His months of following his characters had ended, and he felt bereft of these friends. In my current WIP, I sometimes feel I’m running a marathon behind these amazing phantoms. Thank you for sharing your “confession,” Mae. Brilliant, as always, it has added confirmation to a process that is fairly new to me. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • That must have been a great interview, Gwen. I can so relate to that author’s feeling. Every time I finish a book (or a series) it’s hard saying goodbye to the characters I’ve grown attached to. They are friends and family. After “living” with them during the length of time it takes to create a book, constantly having them in my head, it’s sad to turn off those voices. Focusing on new characters helps bridge the gap to the next book, but it’s different, as I’m still getting to know them.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed my post. Our characters are indeed “amazing phantoms” that force us to chase them and learn their stories! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I can’t say which method I prefer yet, Mae. I’ve only completed the one book. I started with an outline because it was all there in my head and rolled out that way. I did pants it (which I’d never heard of til today and I love it) in the end, and that turned out pretty well. Sooo, I’m doing a little of both on my current WIP and I may be pantsing too soon. Without my outline I don’t know where I’m going. Still, it’s fun being in another world.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Linda, it sounds like you might be a planster—part plotter and part pantser 🙂 I guess that’s where I’m really headed too—plotting but with enough room to let characters and plot threads veer off course. I do think having an outline (or synopsis) before heading into a work is a huge help, even if you do end up pantsing once you start writing. And it does sounds like you’re doing a bit of both with your new WIP. I’m glad to hear the series is continuing! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  16. I am a card-carrying outliner. If I let my mind run free, I’d have 400,000 words per novel with 16,000 plot threads and twice that many characters. I have to have structure before I sit down to write, or I wouldn’t be able to edit that mess into shape. I don’t know how pantsers make sense of things. The fact that you wrangle your characters and develop plot so beautifully astounds me.

    Even with the outline, I still give my characters a little latitude. They know themselves better than I do; if I’m leading them astray, they course-correct on their own. Sometimes that results in a new character or a slight plot adjustment, but the changes are always manageable.

    Liked by 4 people

    • And I am astounded at how you sit down and plot out a novel from start to finish. You’ve inspired me to learn. End of Day was a struggle to wrangle into shape with all the unexpected characters and twists that developed. That book truly exhausted me!

      I like the idea of outlining but giving characters the freedom to make adjustments. I think I can manage those changes. The other way feels like catching the tail of a comet and seeing where everything ends up.

      Liked by 2 people

      • If I tried to catch the tail of a comet, I’d get burned. Or frozen out. (I guess it depends where the comet is!) Either way, I couldn’t do it.

        My outlines are very sparse. One or two sentences per scene (sometimes per chapter), just to keep me headed in the right direction. There are authors whose outlines are in binders—almost as long as the book itself. That, to me, is useless work. It’s writing a book twice. I think of outlining as plotting a route on a map. I know how to get from Point A to Point B, but I can still stop for coffee or to see the world’s largest ball of twine… even take a detour or two. But I don’t veer too far or for too long, and I always reach my expected destination.

        Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve seen how you outline and I really like your system. I might try something like that with book 3, or just follow my road map of a synopsis. At least this time I know the direction, LOL.

      I worked with an critique partner once who LOVED to outline–of the long binder variety you mentioned. The problem was she spent so much time outlining and reworking those outlines, she never got around to the actual writing. I agree that is waaaay too much work and writing the story twice! Besides, I want to veer off course occasionally and catch a glimpse of ball of twine, too! 😀

      Liked by 2 people

  17. Been a plotter since high school and never really considered that the other side was greener. Mostly because I did character and plot designing when I wasn’t able to do the actual book writing. This problem explains some of my grades too. Since college, I’ve always prepared myself for an idea not working out when I try to flush it out or a character running wild. Closest I’ve come to one who demanded a book rewrite was Kira Grasdon in ‘Legends of Windemere’. She started as a background figure and then evolved into a main supporting cast. She didn’t force me to alter the overall plot, but I had to rethink one of my main hero’s development since she came off as a better girlfriend than the one I had originally. Part of this was because he changed in personality soon after I started writing him, so outlines and plans really don’t survive intact unless you force them.

    I will admit that I occasionally do pantser things in my books. This is usually with minor characters who are only for one or two scenes, but there have been times a semi-main one will turn up. In my second ‘War of Nytefall’ book, an unexpected villain appeared and changed a few aspects. I had nothing in my notes about this vampire and designed him on the fly. Guess it’s best to be a combination instead of choosing one school.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like the idea of a combination school. That’s what I’m going to adhere to moving ahead. I now see the benefits of plotting, and have already started in that vein on my next novel, but I also want wiggle room and freedom when the unexpected happens–like your villain vampire. Or Kira Grasdon. She sounds like an extremely strong character who made her presence felt. Isn’t it weird how characters can force their way onto the scene in ways we didn’t expect? I had a vague synopsis sketched of my last book before I started writing. It didn’t have a single mention of Madison or the underlying plot threads that developed because of her introduction. I should have learned to plot in high school like you did, LOL. I guess it’s never too late to learn!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wiggle room is a necessity. A few of the strict plotters I know don’t do this and it results in some odd responses to the unexpected. Usually a total junking of the entire story and a weekend of sobbing into coffee. Honestly, my plotting skills changed a lot over time. They were insanely detailed in high school and now their closer to core concepts and goals. Maybe some detailed explanations of world building pieces like how the magic system works. For the most part, I hit a chapter with a beginning and end then let the middle develop in real time.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Charles, I think that change in how you plot has also come about through your years of writing experience. Now you know exactly how much you need before starting and what isn’t necessary. You’ve grown so much as a writer (I know I have from those long ago high school years and first forays into novel writing).

        As for those strict plotters—eeesh! I’d be past sobbing and into wailing!!

        Liked by 1 person

  18. Oh, I’m a panster. Or can I say “planster?” I have a general idea of where I want the book to go, but I love to allow my characters to take on unexpected twists and turns. Just the other day, while writing, a brand new (and unexpected) character popped into my head. Not entirely sure where I’m going with her but I have a general idea. The problem I’ve had with my current WIP is the fact that something I had planned for it, I used in book two of my series. Had to rethink the whole thing but I think now I have a believable storyline. Now to find the time to write!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Oooh, a new and unexpected character! That’s what happened with Madison, and now she’s getting her own book. I do strongly appreciate the panster element that allowed her to develop, as I’m sure you do with your new character. I also understand your dilemma of having something you planned used in an earlier book. I had originally planned other leads for book 3 of my series, but after completing book 2, their stories pretty much came to a wrap. And the main plot element I had planned to use in book 2 had too much attention in book 1 so that was ditched too. That’s where I could have benefited from more plotting.

      Congratulations on the new story line! It’s wonderful when the pieces being to fall neatly into place. As for time—ack!–I’m right there with you on that one, LOL!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Harmony has already warned you. 😉 I’m a plotter. I love structure. But my characters have a mind of their own, and they had a blast messing up my perfectly created outline. Lol! One of my characters in my series, Meg, was supposed to die at the end of book one, but her sassy self wasn’t having that. So, as I was writing her death scene, I realized that she couldn’t die because her mother, father, and potential boyfriend (all character who had yet to be created or given a story line) needed her alive for book 3-5. So, if I could give you advice, I’d say plot away, but do so in pencil. 😉

    Liked by 4 people

    • “plot away, but do so in pencil.” I love that! And it is the way I plan to move ahead—with an outline of where I’m headed, a nice road map to get there, but also prepared for the unexpected detours that come up.

      You had a HUGE change with Meg. It’s a formidable character that can make you alter their fate to the extent that you did. Amazing how she put her foot down and got her way, LOL.

      I’m kind of excited about plotting and structure. It’s something new to try and I like new experiences 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • I just realized that auto-correct changed Mel to Meg. Ugh! Lol! You still knew who I was talking about. Yay! 🙂 I love plotting. It helps me flush out scenes and see all the prospective detours, as you put it. I think you are going to have fun with this new way of story-writing. Enjoy! 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  20. Oh, Mae, I’m sitting here laughing my socks off, lols 🙂 🙂 I’m a true-born pantser. Tried plotting and it still gets hijacked by my characters. A part of the reason I ended up with an unreliable narrator in The Glade was because the reader only knew as much as my main character, and that didn’t turn out to be much right up until near the end, lols. A lot of those great twists and turns in there came because of those rather naughty characters doing their own thing. I tell you, you think you know somebody!!! he he he. And that sassy teen from Finding Katie didn’t have the patience to let me plan. She kept dragging me out of bed at 3 in the morning until I had her story told. The only novel I planned with a full and complete outline is the one I haven’t published even though it’s finished, lols. My WIP has a rough story outline giving beginning, middle, and end, but even now (at about 10k in), it’s morphing it’s own way. All of a sudden, the inherited house seems to have an unwelcome something in there! Um, I didn’t outline that 🙂 Happy writing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Characters can certainly be naughty when it comes to leading authors astray! It always amazes me that they can be so forceful about getting their own way. It sounds like you’ve had a lot of experience with that in multiple novels. I do love unexpected twists and turns when I’m writing, though (in this last book) I wish I’d had a road map in place of where I was heading before the detours started popping up, LOL.

      You certainly sound like a dyed-in-the-wool panster, Harmony! 🙂 I’m dipping my quill on the plotting side with my newest WIP. I don’t have my chapters and scenes outlined, but I do have a full synopsis this time and that feels like such a relief. I think I’m still in recovery mode from my last book, LOL.

      The inherited house and the “unwelcoming something” sounds awesome. Can’t wait to see how that turns out! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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