Confessions of a Reformed Pantser

Once upon a time, in my eternal quest to figure out what the heck happens next, I checked Chris Baty’s No Plot, No Problem out of the library. If you haven’t read this book, it tells the genesis of National Novel Writing Month. I read it in October, 2010. NaNoWriMo starts in November. I decided it was A Sign.

I pantsed my way through the 2010 and 2011 NaNos, passing the 50K finish line by Thanksgiving weekend each time, but the resulting stories had so many holes in them they could double for a pair of screen doors.

But in 2012, two things happened that fundamentally changed my process.


First, in January, I purchased Todd Klick’s screenwriting book, Something Startling Happens: The 120 Story Beats Every Writer Needs to Know. There are a number of excellent books on macro story structure, but Todd’s addresses micro structure. He analyzed more than three hundred films and television episodes and identified the essential action that takes place in each minute. It made a radical difference in the way I brainstormed plot events, because I finally had a cheat sheet – something that told me the kind of things that should happen and in what order, a sort of topographical map of a story’s shape.

I set Todd’s beats up in a Scrivener template and used them to write Northern Light, my first sale.

Then, in October, the month before NaNo, I took Suzanne Johnson’s Quilting 101: Patchworking the Perfect Plot (Even if You’re a Pantser) class. Holy light bulb, Batman! Suzanne’s approach, a character-driven method that lets you sneak up on your plot, growing it organically until you have a blueprint of your story, resonated with me in the same way that Todd Klick’s book did – and they dovetail perfectly!quilt_nov_2013

Using Suzanne’s Patchwork technique laid out over Todd’s story beats, I was able to zoom through my 2012 NaNovella in twenty-one days, and start on a second one. I hadn’t laid out the second story using the same system, and it was unbelievably painful. I wanted my beats! I wanted my relationship arcs and story threads! Later, I started that second story over, using the Patchwork/Startling methods and was able to finish the first draft in less than two weeks.

I had always believed I was a pantser to the core, but with the results of using these two strategies, I discovered that blasting out five hundred, five thousand, or fifty thousand words is a lot easier if I have a freaking clue about what I’m doing and where I’m going. That means preparation. That means something that looks one heck of a lot like an outline.

Know what? I can live with that.

I pimp Suzanne’s class whenever she’s teaching a session (I’ve taken it three times now). I likewise point people to Todd Klick’s book and website to see the magic of the story beats.

I know that everyone’s writing process is different, but if you ever have trouble figuring out what the heck happens next… Take this class. Buy this book.

Seriously. They’ll change your life.

This post originally appeared at See Jane Publish. In honor of November’s National Novel Writing Month, the Janes tackled how we wrestle our first drafts to the ground.