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Friday Speak Out!: From Pantser to Planner


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by Stephanie Dethlefs


I love lists. I love maps. I love schedules, routines, and plans. I’m spontaneity-challenged. I want to know what’s coming, always. I know these things about myself (and, perhaps more importantly, my husband knows them about me.) I’ve always leaned into this characteristic in all areas...except writing.

I hated prewriting activities when I was in school. I just wanted my stories to emerge from the pencil like water from a faucet. I would avoid writing outlines with a pout and a touch of procrastination. I turned in first drafts and pleaded innocence.

In elementary school, this plan worked fine because I had no inner editor. As I got older, that voice got a little louder, turning the stream of words into more of a trickle or – on the worst of days – not a drip.

But still, I remained a “pantser." I wanted my characters and topics to shape themselves on the page. Scenes would arrive in my mind with no context, and I wrote stories around them. I wrote my first middle grade novel backwards, with the climactic scene being the first thing I wrote. I had no idea who these kids were or how they got there, so I had to write my way out of the predicament.

That’s what worked for me for the first half of my writing life. But last year, as I rounded the bend toward 50, I took two actions which changed everything.

First, I read Lisa Cron’s Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel ((Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere). It had been recommended to me and, if I must admit, it had taken me longer than three years to write a first draft of that middle grade novel. I’d gotten stuck over and over (and over and over), quitting more times that I can count.

The second thing I did was enroll in a rigorous book coach certification program. I’d been working with writers in several roles for decades, and this seemed like a perfect next step during an uncertain year. Alongside learning the curriculum, I decided to put the tools to the test with my current work-in-progress. I was shocked at what I uncovered. Not only did asking important questions help me understand what my book was about and who it was for, I was shown how to create a roadmap for the story in an intuitive and emotionally engaging way. I now know exactly where my book is going and, more importantly, why it’s going there.

Will my next book be better than the first one? I don’t know. Do I believe “pantsing” your story is wrong? Not necessarily. But I’ve discovered the power of intentional planning, and it fits beautifully with everything else I know about myself.

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Stephanie%2BDethlefs.jpg
I am a writer and book coach living in Pacific Northwest Washington with my family and a pandemic puppy. I enjoy writing middle grade fiction and creative nonfiction essays. My writing has been featured in numerous publications and my first book was published last year. A free course and additional offers for authors of contemporary fiction for middle grade, young adult and adult audiences can be found at https://hellowriters.net.
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Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!
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