Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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August 26, 2016

Craft Books for Pantsers

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog.
You can only see as far as your headlights,
but you can make the whole trip that way."  E.L. Doctorow

Y'all know I have process envy, right? I think most of us do. I always thought I'd be a plotter. I loved outlines so much that I actually enjoyed diagramming sentences in seventh grade!  (not that I remember much about it now). But alas, when it came to writing, my creative mind gave my logical mind the finger.

As an inveterate pantser, one of the most frustrating things is the lack of craft books. The first one I discovered when I began writing was, The Writer's Journey (which puts forth the concept of the Hero's Journey) by Chris Vogler. It made logical sense to me when I heard it, but it turns out, that's not how I conceptualize my characters.

The next I tried was Save The Cat, by Blake Snyder (I was lucky enough to be in the audience for the last talk he ever gave). That made even more sense to me - but I don't plot. So where I could see the 'beats' after I wrote the book (and luckily, they fell about where they should), it didn't help me write the book.


My craft bookshelves . . . and my Biker Chick Barbie.

I jumped from craft book to craft book, based on the rave recommendations by writing friends. It took me filling almost two full bookshelves to realize something wasn't right (hey, I'm a slow learner, okay?)

Inspirational books -

I DID find a few along the way that helped me - books that I term 'writing inspiration'. They are amazing, and I highly recommend them for pantsers and plotters both. My top faves are:

On Writing - Stephen King  *My all-time favorite*

Bird by Bird - Anne Lamott

Among many others...IMG_0015

Those were great for getting me fired up for writing, but then I found myself sitting in front of a blank Word doc. Where to start? I had an idea of my character, and I knew he had to go on a journey, but how? To where?

I needed a book to help me, the pantser!

Well, since then I've found a couple of excellent ones, and I wanted to pass them along to other pantsers, so you don't have to go on a long, fruitless search.

1. Anything by Donald Maass

He's an agent, but more importantly, he's a brilliant teacher in regard to what makes a story unputdownable (yes, I just made up that word). He had me at:

"Constructing an inner journey for any character starts with discovering where that character would least like to go."

"Visible actions are stronger than internal moments. Acting is stronger than reacting."

"The rich woven texture of breakout scale novels comes more often from a tight weaving of plot layers than from the broad canvas sprawl of subplots."

'Every protagonist needs a torturous need, a consuming fear, an aching regret,a visible dream, a passionate longing, an inescapable ambition, an exquisite lust, an inner lack, a fatal weakness, an unavoidable obligation, an iron instinct, an irresistible plan, a noble idea, an undying hope..." (not necessarily all in the same character).

Doesn't just reading that get you fired up to start a project?  He doesn't show you how to plot, but he shows you how to build a compelling book from the premise up. I can't recommend his books highly enough.

IMG_0031 (1)

Don Maass is Boomer approved

2. Janice Hardy's Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure

If you're a faithful WITS reader, you already know Janice from her posts here. To get an idea of what she teaches in her book, check out her past blogs with us:

That's not even all of them, but it's enough to give you an idea. Again, she doesn't try to change you to a plotter (although there's lots of great stuff there for plotters, too), but she helps you conceptualize a better novel.


3. Lisa Cron.  My last recommendation, and latest author-crush. Her first, Wired for Story, lit up my world. Her latest, Story Genius, is on the way to me now (come on, UPS man!)


She made me see Story in a whole new way. A way that opened up my creativity. I'll never write another book without reviewing this first. Don't believe me?  Watch her TED Talk:

I was so excited about this that I pulled it up on my phone and made Fae Rowen listen to it while she drove us home from the RWA Conference!  Lisa is just starting an intensive 10 week online course I signed up to get info on. I think it's going to be expensive.

I also think it will be worth it.

 Okay pantsers (and plotters), what craft book is your favorite? Did any ever change the way you saw writing?

107 comments on “Craft Books for Pantsers”

  1. Craft books are my Kryptonite! I can't read for falling asleep. Don't ask me to apply the lessons. I don't remember them for long. Did I tell you I'm a Pantser? 😀 Oh, well. Hand me the inspirational ones. I'll try Lisa Cron again.

        1. I love story structure and have a dozen books on it, but Wired for Story is the one that crosses the boundaries best. Also, just plain brilliant.

          Though, there IS my own plotting-for-pantsers tool which I created for just such a contingency.

  2. You already mentioned some of my favorites. Add to that list: For inspiration, Jane Yolen's "Take Joy: A book for Writers" and GMC by Debra Dixon.

    Thanks for an inspiring blog. 🙂

  3. I started writing as a pantser. I am now a hybrid. Pantser/plotter. Maybe that sounds impossible but believe it or not, though I now start with an outline and Laurie Schnebly's Fantastic worksheet for all important characters, there are things that I write that I never expected to happen in each of my books. And oh yes, I love craft books. Maybe I'll finish that Wired for Story one now.

      1. It's called "pantser with suspenders." I holy pants the first draft and plot the hell out of the revisions. 🙂

        1. I did the pendulum thing: pants pants pants plot plot plot and finally, finally, after a series of posts at Steven "War of Art" Pressfield's site, I've realized the "get your pants on, then straighten them out" method.

  4. I have Stephen King's On Writing. I haven't read it yet. I've always felt the best way to learn how to do something is to do it, or do a simulation. When I learned how to prepare tax returns, I worked on practice returns. It's the same way with writing. The best way to learn writing is to write.Write practice exercises that will never see publication. Work out the issues there. I sometimes get inspiration from TV and movies. I look at their structure and plot for inspiration. Sometimes it's an example of what not to do.

    1. Oh Joseph, I envy you - never having read King's On Writing! I'd love to read it for the first time, again.

      It won't try to convince you how to write - promise. It will make you want to write!

      Do yourself a huge favor, and go read it!

      I think I just talked myself into rereading it....

  5. For inspiration, I loved Nine Day Novel - Authorphobia by one of my favorites, Steve Windsor. When I gave up on my first book, this book made me start again. Maybe part of it was because I laughed through every page (and relaxed) - Steve Windsor is a VERY funny man!

  6. I'm a plantser (since we're making up words) I need an intervention when it comes to craft resources and reinventing my process. Lisa Cron's book is as fantastic as you think it will be and I have been through it multiple times since I got my copy. I've even created a Scrivener template so I can work from there. I'm going to be taking the 10 week course and yes, it ain't cheap. They do have payment plans for the mid and high levels of the course. I figure I spend plenty of money learning how to market my book, learning how to get the stories down faster and better just makes sense.

  7. Very impressive list. I struggle with trying to tie my stories together as I am very much a pantster, I just ordered Lisa Cron's books. Thank you so much for sharing these great books and the TED Talk.

  8. Ok, first off, I LOVED diagramming sentences in midde school, too! I always wished there were diagram-the-sentence workbooks I could buy just like a crossword book. I looked at your pile of inspiration books in the picture and recognized most from my own shelf just above my writing desk which only confirmed for me that we are kindred writing spirits. I suppose most writers are book junkies, but I've already ordered two of the books you mentioned. My personal go-to book for writing novels is The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt of the LA Writers' Lab (plus his 90-Day Rewrite). While I'm a panster completely, he pushes me to write a loosey-goosey, maybe/maybe-not outline which is almost always helpful, but the character questions and the daily you-can-do-this are the best parts of the books. I always go back to The Right to Write by Julia Cameron when I need to something to get me writing. Thanks for the ideas!

  9. Yep, I've loved diagramming sentences, too. The more intricate, the better. STEIN ON WRITING, which I got less than thirty-six hours ago, may just turn me into a "hybrid" pantser/plotter.

    1. You know I'm shuddering, just reading your comment, Fae! But if it works for you, I'll give it a shot. I'll be following your progress with interest.

  10. Laura Drake, I am more convinced than ever that we are the same person. And I agree - I loved Story Genius. FINALLY someone gets my story-building neural pathways! 🙂

    1. Hon, if we're the same person, how come I didn't get your gorgeous hair? (I'm not even starting on the thigh disparity).

      Yes! It's like she reached into my subconscious, pulled it into the light of day, and said, 'Here, is this what you meant?' How often do you find a tool like THAT?!!!

    1. Yes, yes, yes! Having felt guilty for almost 30 years because I didn't write according to conventional methods, I felt such sweet relief and validation when I devoured Dean's book. I am a "three-draft" writer, too. Thanks, Barbara!

  11. I ordered Story Genius and need to find the time to dig in. 🙂 I saw you had a photo of Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones which I place up there with anything by Anne Lamott. Thanks for the resources! Off to watch the TED talk.

    1. Writing Down the Bones was the first craft book I EVER read, Debbie and it changed my world. Doing those exercises opened up my young writing mind. It's still one of my favorites. It always makes me want to more to an artist community in the mountains and hang out with creatives all day. 🙂

          1. Actually, I just bought a cabin in Maine to do that very thing. 50feet from the river, wifi, no tv and only intermittent cell service. It is sort of a tiny house McMansion at 750sf but it will sleep 6.

  12. Laura, you probably are not going to like my answer. But here goes. In line with what Joseph said earlier, I've find that "doing" is important and HEARING AND SEEING is even more vital. When I left RWA Nationals in San Diego, I must have looked like a lighthouse at the dead of midnight...high-intensity shafts of light beaming out of my head. So many lightbulbs were ignited. Everyone learns differently. I do best when I hear and see. Some of the workshop leaders wholly and completely "Edisoned" me. I need anecdotes...and before-and-after examples. That drives it home for me. Especially in a classroom setting. As I now edit my WIP, I hear how and where my voice is flat and passive. And, even better, I can see how to make creative fixes fast. I'm still on the lower rungs of the writing ladder. But I'm looking up. I'm climbing. For those who can get that same kick-in-the-ass impact from reading a craft book, that's just dandy. For me, it takes warm bodies and sizzling examples. And it takes writing. A Thanksgiving feast of it. Oh, that makes me hungry. Hey! You down there! Please pass the candied yams!

    1. Sounds like you're an auditory learner, Chris. You're in luck because there's tons of help nowadays on Youtube, etc. Lots of podcasts too.

      And I'm off to buy some stuffing.

      1. Chris, when you're looking at the YouTube vids, go here!!


        Stephen J. Cannell (creator of the Rockford Files) is one of the best speakers ever to come to OCC and he was life changing for me. And he did a whole web series!! WOO!!! If you look through his website, there is an entire screenwriting course there. All free. 🙂

  13. I'm a fan of "On Writing" by Stephen King. Wonderful book. I recently read "Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t," by Steven Pressfield. It's a quick read, that has helped me to rethink editing, by searching out the key moments of my story so I can rein in my characters and streamline the plot.

  14. I had just about decided writing was not something I could do because I was not good at grammar. Then I attended the Red Dirt Writing Conference in Oklahoma (Red Dirt where else) and attended a workshop by Charles W Sasser. Changed my entire thinking about writing. I too have 2 shelves in front of me full of craft help books. In my new office the book shelves containing the "help" books is behind me. Sasser's book "Magic Steps to Writing Success" opened so many doors for me. Since I got it stays on my desk top. Pantsers could save a lot of $$$ if someone told us this before we drowned in Character building, plotting, and outlining. I tried all this but when I finished I was through with the story. I had no interest in writing the book. It was all figured out already. Charles Sasser showed me it was OK to just sit down and write.

    1. YES! That's exactly how I felt about it, too! If I know exactly what happens, all that's left is the boring stuff. And I don't want to slog through boring stuff. That's what I retired from!

  15. Great, great post, Laura. Yes, Stephen King's book is the best, far and away. I met Donald Maas at a conference years ago and spent some time with him, sharing a taxi and chatting later at the conference. He definitely gets it. My favorite writing book? The Writer's Book (1950), a collection essays I read in college. Who's in it? Oh, Pearl Buck, James Michener, Thomas Mann and others. Whoa, this is later. I pulled the book off the shelf and flipped it open. It opened to "Plot or Character -- Which?" by Lajos Egri and I have written a note at the end of the essay --:"Plot is secondary to and formed by the characters of the individuals in the story." 1968. Thanks, Laura. I would not have seen this otherwise.

      1. First published in 1950. I have the tenth printing. I fear it has been unavailable for some time.

  16. Okay, Laura. I'm a total beginner. I wrote my first draft of a novel in 2013 with the NaNoWriMo. I laughed, I cried and loved the whole process. But now I need to get serious. Without attending conferences or courses (personal responsibilities don't allow it), how can I get started? There are so many books out there to help with the crafting and skill of writing. Is there a progression of reading I should undertake? Help!

  17. Laura, all these books are wonderful and I have many of them. What I would add are the reference books like the Reverse Thesaurus or Angela & Becca's Emotion Thesaurus. When you're a pantser, just being able to look up the words you want is amazing.

    The book that I read early on that made the biggest impact on me was Jesse Lee Kercheval's "Building Fiction." It let me understand what all the parts of the story were about so I could internalize that and move on to the writing. Especially when you are writing short, it's a great book for understanding how to get into and out of the story and what elements MUST be there.

  18. I have quite a few of the books listed here, but one that's elusive is King's "On Writing." Can't get my hands on a copy. But I will definitely order Lisa Cron's books. Thanks for another great post, Laura!

  19. I like to see my writing on paper, or on a computer screen. To me, it makes it more real. It's no longer just random thoughts in my head. It has some substance. It's easier to work with that way.

  20. I'm surprised no one has mentioned Dwight Swain's Secrets of the Selling Writer. So much good info there especially when you are getting started.

  21. We didn't diagram sentences when I was in school. It's not exactly a skill you would use in the real world. If you're like me, and you write primarily dialogue or first person narration, you can get away with some grammatical errors. We don't always speak in complete sentences. We don't use completely correct grammar all the time. As long as everyone understands each other, we can live with that. I do tax accounting, so I work with tax regulations and tax laws. It would take you several pages to diagram one of those sentences.

    1. I was a CFO, jm, so we have that in common, anyway (though, tax? *shudders*)

      Incorrect grammar, broken sentences - That's what Margie Lawson calls, 'being the dude', and it's very powerful! That's voice, my friend!

  22. You had me at 'process envy.' 🙂 I do a lot of technical writing in my day-job, and it's all rigidly plotted. But fiction? Pantsing all the way. I'm jealous of those who actually know where they're headed! Thanks so much, Laura, for such a great list of resources--Wired for Story just got added to my reading list. I look forward to meeting you at the WFWA Retreat!

    1. Oh Rebecca, a double treat! Wired for Story, AND the retreat! You are going to LOVE it! I met so many people who are now my friends - impossible to remain a stranger very long!

      1. the WFWA retreat will be such fun. And next year we have Lisa Cron ... Hello Story Genius!!!!!! 🙂

  23. I, too, am a pantser with a aching desire to plot. When I do the outline and the character sheets the story dies for me. How do you convey in words that your character has this or that fear without telling after you already know it? Egg and chicken conundrum to me.
    My inspiration board is full of quotes and charts from most of these books and a list of books and websites I need to search and absorb. Thanks for this great list everybody.
    My contribution is Austin Kleon's, Steal Like and Artist. I have it beside my computer and whenever I need to remind myself the words need to be on the page (not in my head) to count as written I flip it open.
    Thank you Laura for this discussion. (I am off to watch Lisa Cron!)

  24. I loved this post. I have two post grad degrees and was never able to outline a single paper, so plotting was never for me. I agree completely with he statement that if I know where the story is going and how it got there, there's not point in writing it. That said, when I first started writing I was looking for a place to start, and found Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. Like many writers, I bought all sorts of other craft books, but that book had the most impact.

    I shared on FB and Twitter.

  25. Laura if this piece does nothing else it bolster my desire to continue writing. I never knew there were so many of us pantsers. I thought I was one of a dinosaur type. I didn't think I would ever get anything published. This is the main reason I was never very anxious to submit any thing. I thought only the plotters had a chance unless they were a master writer that was a genius that wrote as a pantser. So many chimed in on this I am so impressed at the number and the names that are pantsers. Thank you all and Thank You Laura for this.

    1. Oh jeez, 50 - isn't it funny the assumptions we make, then assume they're fact, when they're not? What a huge discovery for you! Now, go dust off those old manuscripts in the drawer, and get to work! So happy for you!

      The only right way to write is the one that works for YOU!

  26. oh, just remembered one of my fave craft books, "Hooked on Fiction" by renowned crime fiction author, Les Edgerton. His words of writing wisdom ring true, for everyone, but especially for pantsers like myself!

    1. I didn't mean to intimate that her books were only for pantsers, Alice. They're great for both sides, and everything in between! Before the most inveterate plotter begins outlines, they need a character. And Lisa Cron shows you how to build a great one, from the ground up.

  27. Lisa Cron is set to appear at our bookstore, Vromans, here in Pasadena, on September 8th at 7:00 p.m. It is described as a mini workshop. I am so looking forward to it!

    1. Lisa Ciarfella, yes although the author always makes the books available for purchase and signing. Warning though - Vromans has a policy that for signing the book needs to be purchased at their store. This is the first workshop that I am aware of that Vromans is putting on. Maybe see you there?

  28. I was at Target today, and I picked up the paperback edition of James Patterson's Cross Justice. In the back of this edition, which is a Target exclusive, he gives part of an outline for his next book, Cross the Line, which is coming out later this year. Part of this is promotional, I know, and he did clean it up for publication, but it is interesting to see how a successful author outlines his work. Again, it's only at Target.

  29. Laura, I just signed up for the Story Genius course about to begin. It is expensive. And I believe it will be worth it. I'm terrified! Thanks for this post. Good books, good tips. Breathe and sign up for Lisa Cron's course.

  30. I'm a pantser in need of a serious intervention. I always know the beginning, and the end. From there, plot lines arise. Tried every note and plotting process known to man, but I like sitting down after the last chapter and stepping on the gas. Thanks for the recommendations, I do follow Janice Hardy religiously, and Stephen King's "About Writing" is never far from reach. If I do one thing without fail, it's make copious use of Word "Comment" boxes on a manuscript when an idea hits or to remind me to "check this with ..." Thanks again.

  31. I'm a pantser with a craft book addiction. I have shelves and shelves of them. I love Save the Cat but my favorite book that embraced pantsing was Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He doesn't just talk about pantsing, he embraces it fully and argues it can be the best way to write a story. He gives great tools to use to work with pantsing, how to build your characters. and what to do when you get stuck, etc. I made worksheets from it, lol. It's fantastic.

    1. Entrancing the pantsing ... *scuttling off to buy that book*
      Thanks for the recommendation, Roni!

  32. Lisa Cron was here last Thursday, September 8th at our local bookstore, Vroman's. She presented a mini workshop based on Story Genious, answered questions, and did a book signing. She is amazing! I am hooked!

    1. Ha! Don't you just love the wedgie you get after all that pantsing? Feels good to settle into the plotting revision phase after that. 🙂

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