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.

Something Startling Happens

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.


Posted on November 25, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Two great suggestions that I think will open any writer’s eyes to the benefit of being open to change. 🙂 Love Suzanne’s class. I only wish I found her years ago. Write on Ellen!

    Ravenne Law


  2. Ellen- I LOVED your recommendation for Suzanne’s class and have made it almost all the way through my book because of the work I did there. So, given that, I just downloaded the book recommendation too! I too used to consider myself a pantster, but having had two unsuccessful NaNo’s, and so much success with this one, I am a convert! Thank you for sharing your process and success! You are wowing me on your NaNo wordcount! Go Ellen!


  3. Oh, I am absolutely a plotter! Heaven help me if there’s a thread I haven’t figured out ’cause I end up in spin cycle hell!

    Great post!


  4. I looove plotting and I especially love hearing about new ways to plot, especially when endorsed by writer friends. Klick’s book sounds perfect for me since I tend to like screenwriting books. Screenwriters make every minute count and I could use more of that. Thanks for sharing!


  5. Can I say, I remember when you were the die-hard pantser. Heh! I think you have found what works for you personally as a writer. I also believe that’s really the important lesson, if there is a lesson, to be understood here. I’ve seen it work for you and heard your joy when it did. You go girl!


  6. Am ordering the Tod Klick book right now. He should start giving you commission. 🙂


    • He sent me a very nice DM on Twitter! He’s actually quite generous with his analyses — he regularly posts the beats for new movies on his blog, so you can see lots o’ examples.


  7. Your comment about Suzanne’s Class: “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…” made me go Ohhhhhh. I am a pantser-plotter. I absolutely pants through the first 50-75 pages. That is my organic growing, figuring it out part. I always start with a big idea in search of a character to exemplify it. So those pages are me getting to know that character. After that I kind-of plot, in that I layout turning points, including the climax. But that’s as far as I go.

    I’ve tried the outline method from time to time and it seems redundant to me, as well as extremely time consuming. Using Suzanne’s approach, how much pre-planning did you do? How long did it take you? I’m willing to spend a day or two, but not weeks when I could be writing.


    • Hey, Maggie.
      Suzanne’s process isn’t a two-day event, unless you’re really speedy. It involves expanding your idea from the basic kernel all the way through a pretty detailed list of events (“story threads”) that move your characters along their arcs in conjunction with the external plot. For me, because I’m a total failure at the “what-if” game, this is a great brainstorming process. I’ve got the whole day job thing going, so it takes me about two weeks to get through the combination of the Patchwork method and the Startling beats, but once I’ve done that preparation, the actual first draft goes very quickly — I have no trouble hitting 2K words per day, and can go up to 5K-plus if I’m in the zone and don’t have left-brain day-job stuff to do.


      • I was afraid of that. I have no problem getting my words in, have hit 10K in a day when I put my mind to it. I have to admit, my process wouldn’t do well with that much detail. Thanks for letting me know though.


  8. Thanks for this reminder, Ellen. I only got through half my book using Suzanne’s method before I had to start writing. Now the writing has slowed down to a crawl. Like pulling teeth. I ordered Todd’s book. Will get it Wednesday. After Thanksgiving I’ll use his beats for the rest of the story and see how that goes. I’m not winning NaNo but I will get this book written. Thanks again for telling us about Suzanne’s class. She’s a gem of a teacher.



  9. I know, Jamie! I can’t tell you how many I tried before I hit on the combination that worked.


  10. Welcome to the plotter side of the writing life. Book and class both sound great. I will check out the book for sure. Funny how we all have our favorite beat “maps” to get to THE END.


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