“Pantser or plotter?” It’s a question that inevitably surfaces on any writing forum, because discussing writing process is a fine way of procrastination.
A ‘pantser’, you see, discovers the story as they’re writing it. They write ‘by the seat of their pants’, you see. These are nice ways of saying ‘they make it up as they go along’. Pantsers (in my experience) write complete drafts very quickly, and often go through quite a few revisions in the process of turning those drafts into a completed work. Pantsers often talk about the story writing itself, they talk about characters taking over or going their own way. They are just the vessel for their stories, and often they really, really love the process of writing.
I know a lot of pantsers. A lot. Professionals and amateurs alike. It clearly gets the job done.
A ‘plotter’ plans the novel out in advance. Some people may call themselves a ‘plotter’ if they know a few major events in advance (but a lot of pantsers think they know that too) but they still have to discover what happens on the way to those events. Some plotters have a detailed mental checklist of what needs to occur in the novel and meticulously work their way through it. And some write an outline a quarter as long as the final novel.
I don’t actually know many plotters personally. I’ve heard a few speak, I’ve seen it mentioned as a casual aside, but in general plotters seem to either be lot quieter about their process, or they’re a noticeable minority. Which seems a bit odd to me, because every pantser who talks about their process on blog always seems to preface with, “I know plotting is in, but I can’t help it, I’m a pantser. Planning drains the life from my work!’
Possibly a lot of plotters never finish the manuscript? I can see how the constant work of planning and developing backstory and worldbuilding could really be a drag!
And yet– the only novels I’ve ever completed to my marginal satisfaction have been heavily pre-planned. I’m the one up there who wrote a 50k outline for NIGHTLIGHTS. I am a plotter. I plot. I plan. I structure. I develop character arcs in advance. I have a list of scenes and I know what happens in each of them. I don’t know if you CAN be more of a plotter than I am.
And– I know this will surprise the pantsers out there– I don’t actually always know everything before I start the book. I think I do, but there are still details to fill in as the scenes are written and those details may illustrate themes I hadn’t consciously considered, and may even provide new plot elements or twists. The stories always go where I want them to go, but the map I’m following doesn’t show me all the details along the way. I have to actually travel the road to understand the journey. This is partially why I have to write the story in order, despite planning the story out in advance so extensively.
I don’t, admittedly, do a lot of revisions. My usual process*is outline, write a draft, go through the draft and add a few scenes and details, polish a bit, send it to a publisher.
Okay, so you’re wondering: if you still don’t know everything in advance, if it doesn’t save you from having to throw everything away and start over, if you can’t even write out of order, what do you get from the process? Why does it let you finish the book?
And I have an answer! Knowing where the book is going helps me end or even abort boring scenes quickly and move onto more interesting ones. I have a much better grasp of pacing when I can look at the whole story from above and see that unless I set something up in Chapter 3, I’m going to have the entire story pause for six months in Chapter 9. And then I can set that up in the outline. Also, I have a tendency when I’m not sticking to an outline to let things go right for my characters. It’s easier! But it also kills the story. When I outline I can make sure nothing really goes right and also that when things go disastrously wrong, I have a plan to keep the story moving forward anyhow. And I don’t write soul-crushingly dull scenes where the characters fumble around trying to decide what to do next purely because I don’t know what to do next either. (I used to do that, when I was writing as a teenager. Ugh.)
Incidentally, a good outline lets me write faster than a bad one, but not as fast as when I’m making it up as I go along. But when I make it up as I go along, the story runs out of go juice! It’s very sad. So I have to stick to making good outlines if I want to produce books people enjoy.
Are there any other plotters out there? What’s your process like?
*Can I be said to have a usual process while working on what I expect to be my 5th publication-worthy book? I’m dubious because 2 of my 5 novels have involved throwing away upwards of 40k words and creating a new outline and starting over from scratch. Of course, I was way off outline by the time that happened, both times…