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Can a Panster Become a Plotter?

By Sherry Harris

In Northern Virginia wishing I was somewhere warmer

I’m a panster. For the three books I’ve written – two in the drawer and one, Tagged for Death, with the publisher – I wrote them without plotting first. I knew what happened in the beginning of each and how they ended, but the middle was a mystery. This method worked for me. But now my contract required a synopsis to be turned in thirty days after I submitted Tagged.

I knew how book two would start but after that I had a blank page. I spent seven days of my thirty catching up on everything I’d ignored the last couple of weeks before submitting Tagged. I hoped something was percolating in my subconscious that would come to me as soon as I sat down in front of the computer. I sat down in front of the computer – nothing, no percolation just a bit of panic and a lot of self doubt.

I worked in fits and starts. I soon realized I was writing the book not the synopsis. So I wrote the Wickeds. This is what I said: How do you turn a panster into a plotter? I tried but I’m afraid it will be easier to write the whole damn book in the next few weeks instead of doing a synopsis.

This is what Barbara Ross wrote back: The person who can write the ending of her book before writing the middle can’t do a synopsis? I don’t believe it. Here’s the advice I give everyone:

  1. Pretend you are in a bar with an old friend you haven’t seen in awhile.
  2. Start like this, “You wouldn’t believe what happened to my friend Sarah. Yes, she’s the one who was involved in the yard sale murder. But this time, something even more crazy happened. She… then start the story. Go as far as you can.
  3. Don’t be afraid to say, as you would in the bar, “Oh, and I forgot to tell you this part…”
  4. When it gets boring, say “That wasn’t even the craziest part. After that she…” and go as far over the top as you can. That’s the climax.
  5. Write that down.
  6. Go back, straighten it out.
  7. Go back and put her arc in, and some personal stuff.

Barb ended by saying: It’ll be a mess, but it’ll be a rough draft.

I tried it. It was working! My imaginary friend (notice the resemblance to Barb Goffman) is enthralled with the story until I got stuck. I went at it from another angle but got stuck in the same place. I kept thinking about something I heard at a Washington, DC chapter of Romance Writers of America conference last year. Bob Mayer was doing a workshop. He said he thought plotting groups were more valuable than critique groups. He knew a group of four authors that went a way for a weekend once a year. They divided the weekend into four sections and helped each other plot. That intrigued me for obvious reasons.

I didn’t have time to set up a weekend away. Fortunately, I went to lunch with SinC Chesapeake Chapter members Barb Goffman and Shari Randall. So I poured out my tale of woe to them. They said tell us your story. More came out of me than I knew was in me (thank you Barbara Ross!) but I was still having trouble connecting a couple of key events. They questioned me about the plot. Then Barb Goffman looks at me and spouts something off – something brilliant that connects the two events in a simple yet crafty way. I came home and finished the synopsis using Barb R’s story telling technique and Barb G’s idea. So a panster can become a plotter with a little help (a lot of help) from friends. I’ll let you know how things turn out next August!

Have you ever had to become a plotter or a panster? Which worked best for you?

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