The Quintessential Quilter: An Alternative to Plotting or Pantsing by Tamsen Parker


Plotter vs. pantser: it’s the great debate in genre writing circles. Plotters are orderly,  mapping out their plots and character arcs, sometimes just by chapter or scene but frequently in  more detail. You’ll frequently find them scribbling on wipe boards or rearranging Post-Its. 

Pantsers are, well, flying by the seats of their pants, although frequently they write linearly, from  the very beginning of the book to the end. You’ll find them typing madly with intermittent interjections of “Aha! Yesss….”

But to tell you the truth, that distinction never felt right to me. I’m more inclined to think of just about anything as a spectrum or a buffet of grab-whatever-looks-good, but this division seemed particularly awkward. When we’d have debates about it at NECRWA (New England Chapter of Romance Writers of America) meetings, I could never pick a side. Instead I was over in my own weird little corner, making books in my own peculiar way. I thought I was the only one who wrote books this way until one day when one of my chaptermates talked about being a quilter. While labels aren’t always helpful, this is an instance of a word helping me find a home. 

You may be asking yourself—fairly—what does quilting have to do with writing? More than you’d think. When I sit down to write, particularly at the beginning of a new project, it’s usually with a very clear idea in my head: a fully realized scene that’s come to me while I’m in the car, in the shower, or just when I’m going to sleep at night. Dialogue, emotions, characters, they’re all there. So what’s the problem? 

It’s almost never the first scene in the story, as it might be for a true pantser. What it forces me to do is ask questions: Who the bleep are these people? Why are they doing what they’re doing? How did they get where they are? Why do they have these fears/desires/feelings? 

How can I explain their personality traits? How am I going to get them into this situation that they’re in? 

I write scenes out of order, and move them around as I go along—picture me hacking away at half a dozen pieces of fabric with scissors and then sliding them around on a table like a mad person. When I have a few things down, I can use them as plotting devices: if this scene is Point A, and my next scene is Point E, I need to fill in Points B, C, and D. So I cut more blocks of fabrics, write more scenes and put them where they belong.

After I’ve “finished” a draft, it’s not actually finished. What I’ve got is a bunch of blocks I have to arrange to my satisfaction and then stitch together. I often realize at this point in the process that something is missing, maybe even an entire row of my quilt! This stage of building my book is slower than the drafting stage, generally more painful, and requires exponentially more chocolate.

At the end of the stitching stage, it’s time for my manuscript to be sent off to my critique partners. They’ll take a look at my fledging panel and suggest changes, ask questions, and say nice things about the pretty parts. And then it’s up to me to rip out some of my stitches, add a block or six, adjust the pattern, and sew it all back together. 

Then it goes to the editor, and it’s pretty much the same process. When all that’s done, hopefully I’ve made a whole story quilt out of what started as a few scene blocks, and I can do the finishing touches like proofing and formatting. And at the end, poof! It’s a book. (The poof makes it sound so easy, doesn’t it? Ha.)

Some writers will preach that there’s only One True Way to write a book. That’s nonsense. The one true way is whatever works for you. While I’d never recommend quilting, or offer a workshop on it (because frankly it’s time-consuming and haphazard), it’s the only way I’ve been able to write books. And it was a relief to learn that I’m not the only one.

What about you? Are you a plotter, a pantser or a quilter? Something else?  Whatever you are, good luck and happy writing!


Tamsen Parker is a stay-at-home mom by day, USA Today bestselling erotic romance writer by naptime. She lives with her family outside of Boston, where she tweets too much, sleeps too little and is always in the middle of a book. Aside from good food, sweet rieslings and gin cocktails, she has a fondness for monograms and subway maps. She should really start drinking coffee.

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