If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, the annual National Novel Writing Month, you’re no doubt familiar with the self-affixing badges you can award yourself depending on your preferred method of storytelling: Pantsing or Plotting. Pantsers are spontaneous beings who like to fly by the seat of their pants. They don’t waste precious writing time crafting a story structure. They just write. Pantsers like to get everything out on the page and figure out the story as they go. Plotters, on the other hand, are planner people who need a rigid structure to organize their thoughts. They spend a large amount of time carefully outlining the narrative and breaking the story into sizeable chunks. Plotters like to know where the story is going so they don’t waste time on tangents or extraneous scenes. I have tried both of these approaches in my own fanfiction writing. So, which one worked best?
The first Harry Potter fic I wrote was through a Pantser (or, perhaps, Gryffindor) approach. The novel-length fic all began with one scene in which my two main characters met at an underground pub in Hogsmeade. I was amazed how quickly my fingers flew across the keyboard. Reading it back, there is so much emotion (oh, the feels!) in those first few scenes – the ones I wrote without any thought of three act structures or plot points or character development. I just let the words pour out. I felt like I was actually embodying the characters I loved so much. It was a thrill to get all the swirling thoughts in my head down on the page. I wrote scenes out of order like some sort of chaotic puzzle that slowly began to fit together, piece by piece. 115,000 words later, my first draft was finished.
But it so totally wasn’t. Not by a long shot. To use the puzzle analogy, I realized a lot of the pieces I’d written didn’t actually fit. One of my edge pieces was really a middle piece and it took a painful amount of rearranging to line it up correctly. Then, to my horror, I discovered all these extra pieces that didn’t fit anywhere. And, even more annoying, I had several gaps in my puzzle in need of a matching piece. In my haste to get everything in my head onto the page, I had written both too much and not enough. Thus began a tedious (but often enjoyable) editing process, whereby Scrivener’s cue card layout saved me from going as loony as Gilderoy Lockhart. I wrote and rewrote, cut and cut some more, changed character POVs, deleted entire subplots, and it still didn’t resemble anything like an actual novel. I winced as I cut pages upon pages of some of my most emotional material because, well, it just didn’t advance the plot. Funnily enough, I ended up cutting the underground pub scene that had started it all. (“Kill your darlings,” that Daniel Radcliffe film says.)
To this day, I am still editing this glorious clusterfuck of a masterpiece. Although now I’ve worked in throughlines, cause and effect, subplots, intrigue, and suspense. Slowly but surely, it’s all coming together. Soon, I may actually have some semblance of a readable draft. One I can send to a beta for spellchecking, britpicking, and (I imagine) more cutting. It has been an utter bitch to edit this monster, but much like The Monster Book of Monsters, if you stroke the spine in just the right way, the story begins to unfold.
For my second Harry Potter fanfiction (which just happens to be a sequel to the aforementioned monstrosity), I decided to take a different approach. I decided to become a Plotter. And not just a “here’s a rough idea of what happens in acts one, two, and three” sort of writer. No, I went full Slytherin on this one. I became obsessive and determined to plan out my entire novel before I put even one word on the page. This time I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of my former Pantser days. To avoid the overwriting, pointless subplots, extraneous details, and maddening reshuffling of nearly every scene in the damn thing. This time, I would be a perfectionist.
Before I wrote a single word, I researched the heck out of the Hero’s Journey, Three-Act Structure, Story Arcs and Subplotting, and, incidentally, the rules of time travel. I made sure the Call to Adventure was strong enough to push my protagonist past the First Threshold. I planned out exactly how the plot would shift at the Midpoint Reversal, when everything your protagonist thought they knew is upended. I made sure my time-travelling character followed a logical set of rules that would prevent plot holes. In short, it was a long time before I actually sat down, opened a blank document and began to write.
This time, unlike my stint as a Pantser, the words came slowly. They didn’t burst onto the page like they had before. My scenes weren’t as emotionally resonant. Perhaps I had gone too far, planned too much. I feared some of my creative spark had been lost. After all, Harry himself was a Pantser: he always worked best figuring things out as he went along (and he was the Chosen One, for Merlin’s sake). But I stuck with it. I kept plugging away, following my stringent outline, and writing linearly (except when I was feeling particularly adventurous). Eventually, I fell in love with my neatly crafted story. The one that was more of a slow build. The one where all the puzzle pieces fit together.
I’m still writing that story. I’m still editing its forerunner. And it’s exceedingly difficult to decide which one I prefer working on. Am I a Plotter or a Pantser? Perhaps I’ll never know. But the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is how to utilize the merits of both approaches. So, when I finally begin the third in that Holy Trinity of fanfics, I’ll be ready.
If you want to try your hand at a ficlet challenge before NaNoWriMo, sign-ups for our September 1 Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Flash Fic Festival are still open.