Can pantsers plan? Getting things moving in the right direction! (Archived)

My creative energy is all over the place. It zigs and zags and jumps sideways, endlessly entertaining… but how do we harness lightning? How do we keep things moving in a productive general direction without squishing our muse?

Tiny coloured cards chase each other across my walls. They group and cluster, then scatter off in new directions. No, I don’t have a poltergeist and my sanity hasn’t cracked from self-isolation. I am a very visual planner — I need to touch and move and organise things in a visual space to map order out of the chaos of spluttering gouts of creativity.

As I tripped into the exciting new world of working from home, one of the first things I had to do was clear down the wall directly behind my work-station for video chats. The walls of my study are covered in pieces of coloured card. Over the past year I have arranged and rearranged systems to track my writing projects and goals.

Like most seat-of-the-pants (pantser) writers I have started dozens (hundreds?) of projects at once. Some are fragments of ideas, some ideas overlap, some are almost complete and some require editing. Files on a computer or a spreadsheet simply cannot track this for me. I need a way to ensure everything is flowing in the right direction, even as I remain free to chase the new and shiny.

Each story, whether it is a spark of an idea, a tangle of plot leading somewhere, or a completed project requiring miles of editing, is written on a separate small rectangle of cardboard and bluetacked to my wall. If it’s finished, I include the word count so I know if it is a short story, a novel length story or something in between. These cards feature the working title of the piece (titles are hard!).

Over the past year I have modified my systems. I get great joy in rearranging systems to better suit my needs.

I have set aside a portion of one wall as my ‘Plot Pot’. This is for stories that are on the boil, that are roiling and bubbling away nicely but need a good deal more cooking before they are finally done. I visualise these projects like a soup or a stew: not everything is boiled properly, I’m missing a few key ingredients and it needs a lot more seasoning and herbs.

These projects have potential, but I need to set aside long hours to figure out what is going on where and why and what’s missing. There is a cute crowd of purple cards waiting patiently for their time to be tinkered with under a bigger pink card labelled ‘Plot Pot’. I have even included a helpful sketch of a pot on the boil. I told you I was very visual!

I have a separate cluster of ‘Finished/Edit’ pieces. This is an elite club to which the eager Plot-Potter mob aspire. When an opportunity presents itself, this is the crowd I consider. A few days or weeks of effort could get some of these projects to a place where I would consider sending them out into the world. These are the gems that need a good polish, or a firm re-polish. It’s from this section that cards spin out into publishing opportunities.

Being productive, of course, involves far more then just shifting coloured pieces of card across a wall and arranging them in clever patterns. I need to invest time into each section. I need to actively force the projects through the various stages, from where they are parked as I begin them as a bright and shiny idea, through the Plot-Pot for a rigorous boil, sift and season, into Finished/Editing and then out into the world. From there they must be actively cycled and re-cycled through opportunities (and often back through the Plot-Pot and Editing section after the whiplash of rejection).

I achieve this push through the use of a diary/planner. I prefer a paper one as I appreciate how tactile it is to open my planner it at begin a day, smoothing it flat and consulting my list. It sits open as a guide and companion in my work (although there’s usually a cat sitting on it). I love the feel of snapping my diary closed at the end of my writing time, signalling an end to my creative day. I use coloured pens to track various aspects of my work between days and weeks and months (pink for the bliss of rolling about in a shiny new idea, a pale solid blue for diving elbow deep into a half-finished project and giving it a good tinker).

Working on a dozen things at once won’t work for everyone. There will be dozens of ‘planners’ (writers who plot their project before they even start) appalled at the idea of such a messy, cluttered system. If your mind allows you to focus on one piece of work from beginning to end I have so much respect and envy. My mind and energy does not work that way.

It is possible, however, for a ‘pantser’ (a writer who writes by the seat of their pants and goes with the flow) to become more organised. It is possible to to keep everything on track and flowing in the same general direction.

Is it time to try something different in your systems? Could a visual system track the ebb and flow of your projects and ramp up your organisational skills?

(Posted 23 Apr 2020. Follow me at: https://nicolewalshauthor.com/)

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