A Pantser Turned Plotter

Writing ToolsI took a research trip in mid-September. The trip itself was amazing. I spent time with archival information. I saw photos of the woman whom I’m modeling my protagonist after. I felt my main character in that room with me. I felt the story flow around me. I observed and learned the ticks and mannerisms of the people I am writing about. I also learned, or relearned, something about myself – I thought I was a pantser, but I’m really a plotter. How did I figure this out in that archive room? I didn’t. It was while I was using the GPS on my phone – the first time I’ve done so on a major trip I’ve taken by myself.

My destination was Morristown, NJ, a town four hours away. It’s a simple trip – a few major highways, and I was pretty much there. I printed out directions, packed a map (I happened to have it laying around, so I figured why not), and programmed my GPS. I got in the car and started to sing to In the Air Tonight, a song that gets an awful lot of air time these days on rock stations, happily on my way, listening to the woman in my phone leading me down the highway while I consulted my paper directions to make sure she was right. I missed a turn and was thankful that she put me safely back on the highway. The Lady of the GPS was a-okay in my book.

I arrived at my destination pleased by my first major interaction with a GPS system. I met with the archivist, who already had a stack of copied articles for me. As I touched yellowed pages and viewed the oddly swift-moving video of those early “moving pictures,” the bones of my book solidified. The story I wanted to tell was possible and what was in this chilly room with its mechanical noises emanating from the ductwork would help. I could see the beginning, parts of the middle, and the end. Still considering myself a pantser, I was astounded that the scenes seem to be lining up in front of me, telling me my story. It felt good. My novel was plotting itself.

Up until now, the thought of an outline filled me with dread. I could not possibly try to bullet point my story to where I knew how I got to the ending. It would take the joy of discovery of story away, would it not? At least, that’s what I told myself.

After two days my time in the archive room came to an end. I programmed the GPS for my return trip letting thoughts of yellowed photographs and the smell of old books fill my car satisfied with the direction my novel was taking. I let the Lady of the GPS guide me as I considered future scenes for my story.

Then the Lady of the GPS told me to go south at the same time a big green sign along the same highway bid me north. What? How could that be? I consulted my printed directions, and they agreed with the sign. I tried to relent and just follow her voice, but I couldn’t. I had no sense of my place on the landscape. As much as I wanted to, I could not blindly follow. I pulled off the highway, into a Howard Johnson’s parking lot, and unfolded my paper map. I could see where I was, where the highway wanted to send me, and where the Lady of the GPS wanted to send me. I had the whole picture. I understood and was able to get back on the highway and back to dreaming words.

Much of my life is like this: I need to figure out my bit in the greater scheme before I can effectively do my part, so why did I think outlining was so abhorrent? My guess is how I thought of the outline itself. It could be rigid – a definitive set of actions taken by each character in each scene that make up specific chapters – kind of like my printed directions, which gave me one route to get me to my destination despite multiple choices. Or the outline could be looser, less defined, more of a guide that can be changed when needed for the best possible outcome, like my GPS. For me, I chose an outline that is nothing more than a list of scenes in the Binder in Scrivener. I can see the arc of my book, but knowing how flexible Scrivener is, I can change direction at any time.

As I see it, here are the advantages to outlining:
1. I can see the path forward. I can more quickly assess whether what I am writing leads me forward on that path or not.
2. When I’m stuck on a scene with my protagonist, I can easily move to another scene somewhere else in the line up of my Binder. There is no need to write linearly.
3. I don’t have to think about where to go next.
4. I have a predefined box in which to write, limiting somewhat the infinite number of choices we have for the direction of our stories.
5. I can visualize the final product. I can see the possibility of an ending.

I am fully embracing the idea of outlining so for now, for this project at least, I will call myself a plotter.

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4 comments

  1. Jean Gogolin

    Loved this! But it left me wondering whether the GPS lady was right or wrong, and whether you followed her advice or not. 😉

  2. Kelly Robertson

    Jean – The GPS lady was right. I, however, decided to follow the highway sign, thinking it might be a prettier trip. The outline needs to be adaptable, right? 😉

  3. Bonnie Waltch

    I like that, too, about Scivener. It’s very freeing to plot out a few major scenes and then be able to focus on particular ones without having to think linearly. Good luck!

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