Plotting and Pantsing Their Way to a Debut

This month, I told the authors and illustrators of the Soaring ’20s debut group that it was time to come clean…about their writing process that is. So I asked them, are you a plotter or a pantser? Here’s what they said about writing their debut.

***Click on the author’s name to find out more about them.

DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT

by Angela Burke Kunkel, illustrated by Paola Escobar.

Random House/Schwartz & Wade, September 8th, 2020.

Angela Burke Kunkel: I’m a planster! I definitely want to be a plotter, especially when writing nonfiction or novel-length works, but I’ve also recognized a pattern: my favorite scenes, moments and lines that stay in my work from first draft to final have all happened when I’m pantsing. I’m learning to embrace that my strongest writing comes in spontaneous flashes, but I need a plotter’s structured habits to see me through the rest of the process.

LILLYBELLE, A DAMSEL NOT IN DISTRESS

by Joana Pastro, illustrated by Jhon Ortiz.

Boyds Mills Press, October 20, 2020. 

Joana Pastro: I’d like to say I’m a plotter, but I fall somewhere in between a plotter and a pantser. When I have a new idea, I usually know the beginning and the end. Then I roughly plot the middle just for some guidance, but most of the time I don’t stick to it. The process wasn’t different for my debut. I knew that LillyBelle was happy learning to be a damsel, and that in the end she’d prove capable of saving herself. The middle changed a lot, at one point she even attended the Knights’ Academy to learn less feminine skills. In a conversation with my agent, we realized the story would be better if LillyBelle remained true to herself by using her damsel-y skills to reach her goal.

BEATRIX POTTER, SCIENTIST by Lindsay H. Metcalf, illustrated by Junyi Wu. Albert Whitman, September 1, 2020.

NO VOICE TOO SMALL: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley. Charlesbridge, September 22, 2020.

FARMERS UNITE! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices by Lindsay H. Metcalf. Calkins Creek, November 10, 2020. 

Lindsay H. Metcalf: I’m proudly a plantser. I start with an outline and general plan, and cavalierly modify as I go. By the time I’ve reached the middle, the original idea for the ending usually won’t work. And then when I reach the end, I think of an even better idea than my plan B, which means the middle or the beginning no longer work as written. Here’s what I know for sure: Thinking about writing is still writing. Often it takes me forever to finish a first draft because I’m working out all the details. I would MUCH rather revise than pull words out of thin air. I used to be a newspaper editor, and now I freelance edit for other picture book writers. Editing is my sweet spot, even for my own work.

LOUIS written by Tom Lichtenheld, illustrated by Julie Rowan-Zoch, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 6th, 2020;

I’M A HARE, SO THERE!, words and pictures by Julie Rowan-Zoch, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 16th, 2021.

JULIE ROWAN_ZOCH: Full on, fly-by-the-pantser here! I keep notes of words, phrases, or images, or sometimes I just start writing as the idea strikes. I’m not sure I can explain the process well, but I just keep all the mind-windows open and see what blows in! A very rough draft is all I expect, but there have been rare occasions where the whole manuscript flows out with pretty decent structure. In general I keep coming back to what gets jotted down until there is enough to begin the revision process. Sometimes the process may look like I am forming an outline, but that’s just a procrastination maneuver! I am pretty darn good at keeping myself fooled!

COW BOY IS NOT A COWBOY 

by Gregory Barrington.

HarperCollins, October 20, 2020.


Gregory Barrington: I’m only a plotter in knowing that I need a beginning, middle, and end. After that, I’m pure pants. I would actually call myself a wordoodler. Sometimes ideas bloom from the text and other times from a doodle. For Cow Boy Is Not A Cowboy the very original idea sprouted from a sketch of Merle. From that drawing I created a little goat to potentially be his friend. What would the goat say if she met him? “Howdy Cowboy!” And what would be the reply? “I am not a Cow Boy” And from that little misunderstanding/wordplay element the seed of the story was born and the rest of the story (including many, many, many revisions, overhauls, do-overs, and dummies) was written swirling around that single moment of interaction.

I AM A BIRD

written by Hope Lim, illustrated by Hyewon Yum. 

Candlewick. February 2, 2021. 

Hope Lim: Ideas come to me at unexpected moments. I watch them, wait for them to grow, and then allow them to make their own path on paper. This process, my ideas turning into stories, is organic and unstructured. I am a pantser at least in this phase. However, as a story develops further, after multiple rewrites, I often don the hat of a plotter to ensure that the story has all the elements it needs to deliver on its early promise. The idea for I AM A BIRD came from my emotional response to a stranger and I let that response spill onto paper until I found a character who could carry the emotion and mold it into something positive. At that point, I became a plotter in an effort to revise my story effectively. My conclusion? I am both; a pantser in spirit, but a plotter in practice when my story enters the revision phase.

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