Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Plotter + Pantser = Plantser

Ruth E. Walker

Some writers are plotters. They develop outlines and character sketches. Spend time in archives researching long before putting words on the page. When they sit to write, they are prepared. They have a plot in mind.

Some writers are pantsers. The follow the shiny object of an idea, a snippet of overheard conversation, the allure of an intriguing character. When they sit to write, they are happily adventuring into the unknown.

Which one is right?


If you had asked me earlier in my writing career, I’d be all for pansters. Write by the seat of my pants, that was my motto. I’ve done some fine work that way, writing I’m quite proud of. And it is my way of getting to the page, of discovering the story, the layers of personalities in emotions, actions and reactions. I’m excited to follow their journey. If I had it all mapped out, it would deflate some of the energy that feeds me in the writing.



After a retreat weekend with author Andrew Pyper, I’m thinking maybe my pantser approach led me to too many half-baked novels that languish in my drawers. Sure they are full of wonderful, quirky characters and great beginnings and even some exciting endings. Yet the middles are not so clear. In fact, that early excitement that led me to the page seems to have led to some deadends. And maybe if I’d had some plot in mind, the story of each might have been different.

But I’m not ready to declare an all-out allegiance to plotting my novels. Instead, I’ve come up with a kind of hybrid. A Frankenstein-ish patchwork that continues to serve my artistic needs as a writer. This method also offers satisfaction to my less-confident left brain approach to writing a novel. I end up with a plot that gives a solid foundation to my characters and themes.

How plotting marries pantsing

It starts with the midpoint of a novel. As the author of 10 successful novels, Andrew knows a thing or two about plotting a novel. He’s clear that the midpoint comes pretty much in the middle of the novel and that getting it right is crucial to the rest of the work. In fact, if the midpoint isn’t smack dab in the middle of the book, well, you’ve likely either not correctly identified your midpoint or put it in the wrong place.

The midpoint needs to do important work with your characters, especially your main character. It’s the place in which you need to deepen your characters or change them. A place of revelation or challenge. A spot where threat rises, opportunities present themselves or choices have to be made.

It also needs to be where the story moves forward or, at least sets up the forward movement. The midpoint can also be the starting point for a writer, with the beginning and end to come to the writer later on.

No write or wrong about it

Working with a midpoint is not prescriptive and this is where the pantser in me gets excited. I can write as a pantser with an awareness of the midpoint. I don’t need to have a detailed outline or even a firm sense of where the story/character is going. I just need to know that at some point in the process, I have to stop to consider where my midpoint is. And then consider if it is strong enough, if it carries the weight the novel needs to pull the reader along as well as pull me along.

You know those half-baked novels in the drawer? Well, I think I have an idea about how I might get them out of the drawer for a second chance. Maybe they will get sent back to the Island of Unwanted Manuscripts. And maybe not. But it won’t be because I didn’t know what to look for.


Following the Pyper

Following the Pyper

Ruth E. Walker

Over the past few years, it’s been my pleasure to take three workshops with best-selling author Andrew Pyper. And I can tell you that those workshops were incredibly helpful to me in terms of craft and technique.

I first met Andrew in 2000. It was shortly after his first novel, Lost Girls, came out. He was a guest at Words in Whitby, a magical reading series that sadly no longer exists. Fortunately, Andrew’s books last—both on the bookshelves and in the memory. On the bookshelves because they continue to sell. In the memory because they haunt you.

The same can be said about his workshops. But that haunting is a good thing because he offers writers the opportunity to understand elements of the craft in approachable and human terms.

An “Artiste” at work

I’m a pantser. Meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I follow my characters around like a love-struck puppy. I’m content to let them tell me their stories. I write scene by scene and the hell with what kind of book I’m writing—it’s MY book so leave me alone World.  Of course, all that is in the first flush of creativity—that beautiful first draft that glows in the dark and suggests how perfect it is.

Then I have to turn it into a real book with plot and character arcs, engaging themes and all those scenes in the best possible order. I figured I wrote it scene by scene so why wouldn’t it all be in a good order?

My critique group, on the other hand, often points out things like: Why is there so much backstory in the beginning? And This is not the best place to slow down the pacing. And Are you certain you want this climax so early in the book?

Pshaw. What do they know?

They know a lot. Which is why I value them so much. But still, I fought against the tyranny of plot and the three-act structure. Enter Andrew Pyper and his plot workshops.

What Andrew taught me

Plot is not a four-letter word (even though it technically is.) And any pantser who avoids thinking in terms of plot (like I used to) is not doing themselves any favours.

From Andrew, I learned that analysis of structure is an excellent way to understand plot. Whether you use the standard 3-act structure triangle image of rising action, or a straight line divided into three separate acts, or Post-it Notes on the wall…

…you will come away with a visual picture of the frame on which your gorgeous prose hangs. It took me two different workshops with Andrew before I allowed my tentative plotter into the room.

But once I did, it opened up a whole new vista on actually seeing and, more importantly, understanding the frame that plot offers. Once there, I was ready to tackle the next bit of knowledge Andrew shared: the three-act structure is not just three acts.

Act Two = Two Acts

Imagine all three acts; now, divide Act Two in two. Why? Because the middle is the majority of your book. Consider the novels you love, the ones you cannot put down. Are they all relentless, never-ending races through the middle to get to the climax—the big scene, the moment you were dying to reach, the discovery of who the murderer is, of the at-last togetherness of the gal and the guy, that final battle with the monster…?

No they aren’t. In fact, the great books open up even more questions and several smaller crises in Act II, the middle section. They often let you THINK the monster had met its end only to discover the sacred ring was no longer in the protagonist’s pocket and, oh my god, the monster is still alive and the protagonist is trapped in a place she’ll never escape from.

She’s doomed. They’re all doomed.

That is the middle of Act II. Dividing it into two “mini-acts” makes perfect sense. As Andrew pointed out more than once (I was sometimes slow to catch on to this) Act II is always much longer than Act I (the set up/moment of change) or Act III (what Mark Twain called The burying as in let’s get it done quick.)

If you’re going to keep the reader engaged for that big chunk of your book’s middle, pull out some big guns of crisis. Not the BIG crisis; you still have to save the “ultimate battle” scene for the end.

No point in having Inigo skewer Count Rugen or Westley save Princess Buttercup in the middle of the book. But why not kill Westley in the middle of the book and keep Inigo and Fezzik busy trying to bring him back to life in time to save Princess Buttercup? (Yes. I just finished The Princess Bride and recommend it as a great novel for plot analysis.)


So pull out your current work in progress. Can you apply a three-act structure? Is your middle Act II nothing but the road to one big crisis, with no rest stops along the way and subsequent crisis to threaten everything?

If so, take the time to look closely at the story and see what you need to add to the middle. Maybe move some of the action in Act III and see if it really belongs in Act II.

If you still resist the call of your inner plotter, pull out some of your favourite books and analyze their plot’s structure. Then think a bit about why you loved reading them. More than just great characters and fantastic scenes; it’s how and when and where those scenes appear and those characters behave. In other words: plot.


Registration is now open for Turning Leaves, our annual fall retreat. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary in 2018 and we are tickled to confirm that Andrew Pyper (yes, that Andrew Pyper) will be joining us for three days of focus on the craft and practicalities of writing fiction.

On November 2 to 4 at Fern Resort near Orillia, Ontario, this all-inclusive retreat includes Friday night fireside chat with Andrew about the writing life and an intense morning workshop. He’s an award-winning writer, a master of dark and disturbing mysteries and fantasy, and excellent workshop facilitator.

Our limit is 20 participants. A $250 non-refundable deposit will guarantee your spot. We expect there will be a waiting list.



Six Simple Resolutions for Writers

Six Simple Resolutions for Writers

Ruth E. Walker

Resolutions can be hard to keep. Often, it’s because the resolutions we make are either too complex or too unrealistic.

And sometimes, it’s too hard to even choose a resolution. Should I resolve to submit my novel this year? And should it go to an editor or agent first? And should I resolve to start writing the sequel to that novel or maybe I should wait to hear from the publisher first?

Don’t worry. Gwynn and I are here to help. We kept it simple for you. And we kept it doable.

Here are six resolutions designed to enhance your creative skills in the coming new year. And bonus! You only need to choose one for New Year’s Eve:

#1 Resolve to devote one day exclusively to the craft

Think about it. Just one day. C’mon, you can do it. Pack a lunch and head to the library. Or stay home, unplug the phone and the Internet, and spend the day writing. Maybe you can pretend it’s a snow day. Or maybe you can book a one-day escape at a hotel or B&B, or check out Gwynn’s writing getaways at her Northumberland home on Lake Seymour.

Consider what the word “craft” means: In Old English (pre-900 CE) cræft meant strength. Giving yourself a full day to focus on the art and skill of your craft can only strengthen your words on the page. No matter what option you choose, make sure you schedule your day devoted to writing. And then make sure you show up, as scheduled.

#2 Resolve to write while travelling

We didn’t say “write a book” when travelling. We only suggested that you remember to write when on a journey. “Writing” can be a restaurant napkin with a snippet of overheard conversation recorded next to the smudge of hot sauce. “Writing” can be jot notes on a map or guidebook: stopped here and ate weird-tasting burgers at Fast Eddy’s Eatery. Nobody got sick.

The point is that there are all kinds of ways to “write” while travelling. You’re creative. In 2017, see what you can do to write while travelling.

#3 Resolve to write something different from your “usual”

Step away from the familiar and head down the rabbit hole. If your passion is fiction, go for non-fiction or poetry. If your comfort zone is poetry, try your hand at playwriting. If non-fiction is your go-to, start a graphic novel. Science fiction writers, take the time to meet romance. Mystery writers, shake hands with erotica.

There’s a strange chemistry that happens when you shake up your pen and at the very least, you’ll return to your writing nest with some fresh ideas. And maybe you might find that trying something new opened up a whole new “writer” in you.

#4 Resolve to read something different from your “usual”

This one is easy. You don’t even have to choose a book. How about a bodybuilding handbook or an article in a finance magazine? Or a graphic novel, or modern play, or a children’s board book? Or a corporation’s annual report, or a technical how-to manual.

The object of this resolution is to teach your eyes to see what you might have skimmed over in your own work. What made this particular piece of writing publishable? Where is the strength in the writing? Who is the reader or audience? And why do they need this publication? What changes, if any, might you make to improve it?

This analytical approach might prove useful in your own writing. At the very least, you introduce your eyes to a way of writing or to content that is not what you normally choose to read. An excellent exercise to expand your writing horizons.

#5 Resolve to devote at least one day to NOT writing

A counterintuitive resolution? Actually, this is a great resolution for those who have trouble leaving their desk, or pen, or computer. It’s great to be a devoted writer, one who writes every day without fail, one who will forgo lunch if a plot point needs adjustments or a character is sitting a bit too flat on the page.

Nonetheless, a daily writer might be surprised what might happen when you give up just one day of working at the craft. The tension of staying away from the writing could fire up your pen in ways you hadn’t imagined. The “day after” may be something you choose to indulge in from time to time. At the very least, it’s a worthwhile experiment for the relentless writer to try out.

#6 Resolve to pay attention. Yup. Maybe you think that you already do this just fine. But we’d like to suggest two different approaches in case there’s one you’ve not yet tried:

Be objective: I attended an Andrew Pyper workshop where he suggested that paying attention without judgement is a great way to discover characters and ideas. I think he called it “writers’ reportage.” Take a seat in a public space and people watch. Simply record the facts of what you see. No emotion. No subjective consideration. e.g.: Young woman in red halter top and white shorts pushing dark blue stroller without a baby inside. Man in yellow hat and biker jacket runs up library steps and goes inside then exits almost immediately.

Be subjective: Gwynn Scheltema suggested that there are benefits to being subjective when noticing, and that it really is a kind of art. Her “Art of Noticing” was posted to The Top Drawer a couple of weeks ago. Gwynn nudges you to bring the five senses into your observations. Can you describe the taste of coffee? Did you hear what your fellow passengers discussed on the bus? And what is the colour of snow, exactly?

No matter which approach you take to your paying attention, both Andrew and Gwynn remind writers that there is writer’s gold in observations. So take the time to mine some for yourself in 2017.

Happy New Year! May your muse stay close, may your imagination be ever ready to receive and may your pen never run out of ink.

Registration for Turning Leaves 2018

Registration for TURNING LEAVES from November 2 to 4, 2018.

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