Clarity after a long break, Part 3: Structure vs pantsing it out

In my second to last and last posts, I talked about harvesting the initial spark of enthusiasm when an idea strikes and how to preserve this spark during the marathon of completing a project. Now, I want to talk about balancing the willfulness of this initial energy with the structure and discipline one needs to accomplish a goal.

I started on the Illumination series as a complete pantser (i.e. winging it without an initial plan). After an inspiring road trip through Ireland, I came back with a head full of something I could not quite articulate and just started writing. What this resulted in was a first draft that was plain scary. In fact, it took me a year to revise the first book in the trilogy because I had to rewrite half of it and fix extensively the other half. Thankfully, I was excited enough about my initial idea to have enough motivation to carry through this task.

The plot and structure of the book crystallized out over time, and, in the end, things ended up tidy enough. But, my oh my, was it tough to get the project to that level. I know that there are vehement advocates of either pantsing or plotting, but I reached the conclusion that the truth, at least for me, lies midway.

I stand by what I said in my last post: during the initial conception of an idea, I would rather look inward and figure out what I want to do before considering any external constraints. This first stage is a chaotic process where ideas and intentions spark up randomly, and I usually end up writing long, disorganized bullet point lists of plot points, characters, etc. I might indulge in this stage for weeks without even writing anything down, just letting the idea live in my mind until it takes shape. But later, when the crazy, semi-redundant and often contradictory list is done, I would let it sit for some time while I do something else and come back to it with a set of dissection tools.

After having soaked in the primal energy of creation, it’s time to make sense of the glowing debris from the initial blast. Things need to coalesce. From my initial list, I pull out a rudimentary plot and characters. I try to figure out a direction for the narrative, themes, etc. I don’t go into too much detail. I still want things to be fun and to have space for improvisation, but, in this way, I try to prevent the emergence of a monster first draft.

And the further along I go into the writing process, the tighter the structure gets. I started with the euphoric spewing of ideas, then added the minimum of a backbone for them to structure along, which backbone gets richer and richer the closer I come to completing the first draft, and then, I come to the revision stage.

Now that I had some direction already at the start, the first draft is not as scary. But for this first draft to become readable to other people, I need to get organized. In the revision stage, I add more and more structure to the writing process. I go through different stages of revision and only when the plot, characters, themes, pace, setting, and all such big categories are well shaped, do I go to the tinkering stage i.e. editing.

This post concludes this series. I have found it immensely helpful when other writers and creators share their own workflows and experiences. Their insights illuminate my own struggles. So, with these three posts, I hope to have added a little something to the common pool of wisdom.

Published by Adriana K. Weinert

I write novel-length speculative fiction with the occasional short story to boot.

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