Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Welcome, Patricia McAlexander

The Old Debate: Pantser vs Plotter

A “pantser” is the novelist who writes by the seat of her pants, just letting words flow as if transcribing a vision or dream, while the “plotter” carefully outlines the plot before writing. Plotter critics say that meticulous planning ahead of time takes the life out of the novel; there’s no discovery or inspiration.  Pantser critics say that just grabbing a pen or sitting at the keyboard and letting words flow can result in a wandering, muddled draft.

I have always proudly declared myself a pantser—after all, it’s part of an old and respected tradition of creativity. Robert Moss, who writes about “active dreaming,” believes that “creators in all fields are dreamers, not only in sleep but in twilight states of reverie where connections that escape the ordinary rational mind come easily and contact with higher intelligence is often made.”


Many great writers of the past describe inspiration from dreamlike supernatural beings. We see this in the ancient myth of the Muses, the goddesses of inspiration and art to whom the Greek and Roman epic writers appeal. In both the Iliad and Odyssey, Homer asks the Muses to tell him the story. At the beginning of the Aeneid, Virgil writes, “Muse, help me remember ….” Milton tells us that Paradise Lost was dictated to him at night while asleep by the heavenly muse whom he calls Urania; Robert Louis Stevenson said he received his stories in a state of “reverie” from spiritual beings he called “brownies”; in his "Philosophy of Composition,”  Edgar Allen Poe writes of hyponogogic images or "fancies" he experienced " on the brink of sleep And to get away from literature for a moment, even Einstein drew inspiration from dreams and developed the ability to slip into twilight states of consciousness.


When I write the first draft of a novel, I admit that I experience the story as a sort of dream. I believe the “dreams” come from memories of my past—they are like fragments in a kaleidoscope forming new designs—or like those slips of answers and comments floating up in toy gypsy balls when shaken. Perhaps this phase of my writing can also be compared to Method acting, when actors make use of experiences from their own lives to bring them to the experience of their characters. 


I can’t turn on such inspiration like a faucet. For me, it’s magic. Sometimes no answers float up, no kaleidoscope design is formed. But looking back at the experience, I see that my characters and settings are inspired by a combination of movies and novels, pictures in magazines, and perhaps most of all, places I’ve lived, people I have known—including myself. Sandy, the protagonist of Shadows of Doubt, has some of my traits: I like photography and an alternate career for me would have been as a journalist. Sandy’s mother is based in part on my teacher mother, who turned for support to my sister and me when our father died—and who sometimes did not approve of our boyfriends.  In childhood knew a family who owned an upstate New York farm near my parents’ lake house—an intelligent, strong, practical father and his sons. I am sure I based Jeff and his uncle at least in part on them. And while writing Shadows, an image of a friend from long ago came to my mind and I thought, Wow, he was handsome. That’s how I’ll make Jeff look! 

But the two types of writer--pantser and plotter—are not an either-or; their characteristics can be mixed. Sometimes characters run away with a plotter’s story: I’ve heard that happened with Hawthorne’s Hester in The Scarlet Letter. And pantsers have a planner-plotter side. Just as when a person wakes from a dream and tries to make it make sense, pantsers look at their drafts and rationally revise. I revisit content, shaping it like sculpting clay to make story flow logically, cut out boring parts and contradictions, make sure it’s believable (would the character say that?). I do research to be accurate in what I portray. For Shadows, I had to get information on the youth drug culture—reading books, googling, clipping newspaper articles, interviewing people. I rewrite individual sentences to eliminate word repetition and grammar errors, improve word choice. I get friends to read, comment, then revise some more.


And so when someone asks me, “Are you a pantser or a plotter?”, rather than saying “pantser,” perhaps a better answer would be “Yes.”




Former grade school bully and, later, amateur drug dealer Jeff Hudson turns his life around and is pursuing a degree in agriculture. His future, as well as a budding relationship with fellow student Sandy Harris, is threatened when a former dealer threatens to expose Jeff's past to university authorities if he doesn't rejoin the ring. 

Realizing that Jeff is no longer an angry, misunderstood boy, Sandy must take a stand against her family and friends who swear he is no good and will only cause her unhappiness. Together, can they escape the past in order to forge a future?




Bill, standing there dabbing at his pants with a napkin, turned angrily and spoke so that only Jeff and Sandy could hear. “Do you want a rematch?” 

Jeff turned and glared at him. “What do you mean—a rematch?”

“Another round of that fight we had in fifth grade.”

 “You know, I’d really like that. When it’s just the two of us.” 

As Jeff guided Sandy toward the door, Bill followed them. “It would be more equal this time.”

 “I sure hope so.” Jeff opened the door for Sandy and walked out behind her. Bill watched them go.

They’d reached Jeff’s car when they heard footsteps coming toward them fast across the pavement. Bill’s tall shadow loomed in the lights as he grabbed Jeff’s arm. “How about now?”

 Jeff jerked his arm away. “If that’s what you want.” He reached in his pocket, pulled out his car keys and wallet, and handed them to Sandy. “Get in the car, behind the wheel.” 

Her hand closed around what he had handed her. This was crazy. “No—Jeff, Bill—” Before she could get anything more out, she heard a thunk, then another as Bill swung his fist first into Jeff’s jaw, then into his solar plexus. 




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Patricia McAlexander earned a bachelor's degree from The University of New York at Albany, a master's from Columbia University, and a doctorate from The University of Wisconsin, Madison, all in English. After moving with her husband to Athens, Georgia, she taught composition and literature at The University of Georgia. Now retired, she has edited local newsletters and enjoys hiking, travel, and photography. But most of all she enjoys writing novels. Her first thriller-romance, Stranger in the Storm, set in upstate New York, was released by Wild Rose in June 2020. Shadows of Doubt, set in Athens, Georgia, is her second.










  1. Welcome to my blog and good luck with your book!

  2. Great post. My first books are pantster, 2nd in the series needs to be plotted for me.

  3. Thank you for having me on your blog, Jennifer. And Donna, as far as genre, I think romances can be more panster, mysteries need to be more plotted.

  4. I enjoyed your post! I'm definitely a pantser. That's what makes it fun, for me.

  5. I tell people I'm 3/4ths pantser and 1/4th plotter these days, but as I write more mystery now than I used to, I've got to solve the crime and that's the plotter's work. Can't understand how anyone would want to write an entire plot out ahead of time. That would be ruining all the fun!

  6. I agree with you on being a pantser. I tried to plot on one of the books, and I kept changing my mind as I went along. Best on your book!