A Room of One’s Own

by Janis Patterson

I belong to a number of writers’ groups, some of which – at long last! – are starting to meet in person again. The particular group of which I speak is composed of all kinds of writers from working professional to stark-beginner aspirant, and was finally having a real meeting after two years of Zoom-ing. The conversation level was astounding as we all talked full speed full volume catching each other up on what had happened since our last real gathering. (As good as Zoom is for the meat of meetings, it is not up to personal interaction and exchange!)

One woman, who had joined the group only a few meetings before the shutdown, was holding forth, proudly showing photos of her new office. She had acquired one of those monstrous L-shaped desks that can eat half a room. It was festooned with several shelves of reference books, plaques of inspiring quotes, beautiful pictures, a few lovely little objets d’art and even a gorgeous silver vase of fresh flowers. A large brand new Mac computer took pride of place in the typing area and – to the envy of my uncertain back – a new, bright red X-Chair sat in front of it. I will it admit, it took a great amount of discipline not to drool openly over that.

“Now,” she concluded with pride after finishing a highly descriptive virtual tour, “I can be a professional writer.”


When pressed for an explanation she said, “Well, one has to have a professional office in order to be a professional, doesn’t one?”

The eyeblinks in the room were almost deafening.

“It’s lovely,” someone said. “It must make writing so much easier. How many books have you done?”

“None yet.”

Double huh?

When The Husband and I inherited our house, we turned the guest bedroom into my office by the simple expedient of adding a small desk and a cheap office chair. Even though I have been publishing for decades I had never had a real office before and it was heavenly. For a number of family reasons, though, it ceased to be an option and I moved my writing center onto a table in the family room, a room shared with our animals, the TV and a newly retired husband. My output did not drop, though – at least, not significantly and not for long. I know a prolific multi-published novelist who writes at the dining room table, and another who has a card table squashed into the corner of her bedroom. There was one who turned the built-in bar in their home into her office and another who has a day job stays late every night for an hour and a half or so to write simply because she cannot write in the chaos of her home. In fact, I know more professional writers who do not have dedicated offices than those lucky few who do.

“You mean you haven’t written anything?” another asked incredulously. “It’s been two years since we last met.”

She looked offended. “How,” she replied only a little huffily, “could I have written anything? It was only delivered last week.”

There was nothing any of us could say to that. We separated into other conversational groups, metaphorically if not physically shaking our heads. This woman had had two years of what basically amounted to house arrest (she does not have a day job) and while many of us had taken advantage of the enforced lack of external activities time to write even more apparently she hadn’t written at all. I myself wrote 1 ½ more books than I would have normally done in that time span, and many of my professional writer friends did even more.

This woman had obviously spent her time poring over design magazines and websites. Now, she proudly proclaims to anyone she can get to listen, since she has a professional office she is a professional writer.

Hey, lady, professional writers WRITE. We write in dens and dining rooms. We write while waiting at the garage and in line waiting to pick up children from school. We have been known to scribble facts and ideas and scraps of dialogue on paper napkins while at lunch. Some of us even write on our phones wherever we happen to be.

I am not a total grinch. Her office is lovely (how I do truly envy her that red X-Chair!) and I wish her much joy in it. It will not, however, make her a professional or any other kind of writer except a wannabe. Only writing and selling makes a true professional. The agents/editors/publishers/readers won’t give a flip if she writes on a huge L-shaped desk or a card table. What matters to them is the story, the words, the worlds she creates… and you can’t order them from any design house.

The Perplexities of Pantsing and Plotting

by Janis Patterson

In one of my discussion groups not long ago the perennial discussion of pantser vs plotter came up. Again. It rears its head every couple of months, and each side has its devoted and vocal advocates. One member – a downy little newbie – asked what the names meant and how were they different, a simple request for information that ignited a lively discussion of the various virtues of each.

Basically it boiled down to the facts that plotters like to have everything planned and laid out in varying degrees of exactitude. Some even use detailed cheatsheets to create their characters, some covering everything from their eye and hair color to their favorite flavor of Jello. (Don’t laugh – I have seen this.) The story is laid out in either a paragraph or outline form, sometimes going three or four or even more layers deep if it is bullet-pointed. Plotters say it keeps them on target.

A pantser is one who writes ‘by the seat of their pants.’ They have a basic idea, or perhaps even just an opening line, then sit down and write from there, letting the story and the characters take them wherever they want to go.

Full disclosure : I am – and always have been – a definite pantser. Even in school I loathed outlining, thinking even then that it was the best way I could think of to kill creativity and spontaneity. Yes, I was a very precocious child!

There is danger in pantsing, though, especially for the newbie – unseasoned? marginally skilled? – writer. It gives one the opportunity to wander all over the place with no story structure. One of the hardest things to convince newbies is that pantsing does not mean writing without structure. It only means no preconceived, written out structure. The story has to be a cohesive whole, with proper foreshadowing and rational action and reaction as well as a beginning, story arc and an end (yes, even in fantasy/scyfy). Otherwise all you’ll have is a great number of words – not a book.

Another danger with pantsing is that of writing yourself into a corner – meaning you have not set things up properly. A story has to flow as a whole, not just be a string of really nice scenes. Everything has to interact and work together. When newbie (and let’s be honest, not-so-good) writers find themselves in this corner, all too often they fall back on the old ‘and the cavalry rides over the hill’ trick. In other words, something happens to save the day but it’s never been set up properly or integrated into the story or even foreshadowed. That’s not only a cheat, it’s a cheap cheat, and the readers know it.

I’m always trying to hone my skills, so a couple of years ago I took a plotting class about which everyone was raving. It was quite good – just not for me. You took ten boxes; then in each box you would put five plot points. Under each one of those you’d put two minor plot points. Seems like there was another layer with plot points under each of them, but it’s been too long and I don’t remember. Theoretically when you finished you would have a very detailed outline for a 100K book.

I did all this. Came up with a really nifty romantic adventure involving a female race driver, her murdered brother, a dirty bomb, a terrorist plot, two luscious men… a story that will never be written. Oh, everything is there, and it hangs together beautifully, and I am bored to death with it before writing the first word.

I do not take boredom well. Also, as someone intelligent whose name I cannot now remember said, no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. One of my perennial strong sellers was pantsed, and two of the main characters were not in the original concept of the book. They just walked in and took over. Had I been slavishly following an outline they never would have been born, and the book would be so much the poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong – writing is hard work, whether you outline or (especially) if you are a pantser. Perhaps more if you’re a pantser. Reining in a rampaging imagination while giving it enough freedom to create is not easy. If you’re a newbie writer, or a writer who’s hit a rough patch, I’d suggest trying both and see which works for you.