Last updated on May 13, 2017
Pantsing and Plotting: A Never-Ending Debate
Pantsing (also known as discovery writing): Flying by the seat of your pants while writing, letting the stories and the characters come to you as you go.
Plotting (also known as outlining): Planning the details of your book—the plot, the structure, the characters, the settings, the theme, everything—before you write.
Pantser or plotter? Which one are you? There always seems to be a battle over which is best. However, rarely are writers completely at one end of the spectrum because that’s what this whole thing is: a spectrum. Plotters often find some bit of instantaneous creativity creeping in and messing up their well-laid plans. Discovery writers often get stuck and need to take some time out to figure out (i.e., plot) where the story is going.
This post is about my journey with pantsing and plotting and how I have found a tentative balance between the two.
When I really got serious about my fiction writing, I was terrified. I had spent many years writing nonfiction and editing other people’s writing. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten it into my had that I couldn’t finish a novel. I had started so many times over the years with a brilliant idea, only to get stuck at 500 words or 5000 words, sometimes even 10,000. The problem was, I’d always reach a point where I came up blank. I didn’t know where my story was headed or I’d get overwhelmed because I couldn’t figure out the perfect plotline. It was usually the former. In other words, I was a total pantser, and when it came time to plot, I’d freeze.
A friend helped me realize that I could write the worst thing ever, and it wouldn’t matter. I am an editor by trade. I can fix almost anything. What I can’t do, as they say, is fix a blank page. Another friend helped me realize that fear was holding me back, keeping me from coming up with those stellar endings. Funny how that revelation lifted the very fear that was stopping me.
I decided then that I would finish my novel, Strange Bedfellows, no matter how bad it was. With my new friends from the Twitter monthly writing challenge to keep me accountable, I started writing at least 500 words a day. At first, I would skip days when things were too crazy. But before long, I was writing every single day.
By the the time three months has passed, I had finished the first draft of Strange Bedfellows, a lesbian paranormal romance. It was a fantastic day!
Of course, I really wanted to jump right into editing, but I knew better. Author blindness is nothing to trifle with. I needed time away from my manuscript, and it was October 31. Everyone on social media was posting about National Novel Writing Month, which starts every November 1. Honestly, I had always thought NaNoWriMo was crazy. Fifty thousand words in one month? That was 1667 words a day! But when I looked at my writing log from the month before, there were plenty of days when I had capped a thousand words. Maybe I could do it, but I had only the barest idea for a story, the vision of one character in my mind. I didn’t even know if it was epic fantasy or urban fantasy, and I had one day to begin writing.
The Beginning of My Plotting Journey—Well, Sort Of
By that time, I had learned more and more about writing structure, among other things. Self-education is important in my line of work, especially since I work for indie authors in an industry that is constantly changing. I knew enough about the whole pantsing and plotting debate that I knew I wanted to try more plotting.
However, I didn’t have time to outline an entire book, but I decided to take a structure that already had the major plot points mapped out for me: the Hero’s Journey. I printed out a road map to that famous story structure and made each plot point (ordinary world, call to adventure, refusal of the call, etc.) a scene in my new novel’s Scrivener file. It was the barest of structures, yes, but it got me through NaNoWriMo. Every once in a while, I’d stop and write notes for a few days ahead using The Hero’s Journey. It worked! I won NaNoWriMo, reaching 52,359 words by November 30! With a little bit more plotting, in December, I finished the first draft of Flight of the Ceo San, a heroic fantasy, which was closer to 80,000 words.
So with mostly pantsing and some plotting, I had finished two first drafts.
I Really Need to Plot More
When it came time to revise that original first draft, I was tentative. By then, I’d had an alpha reader tell me that it had no plot and that he didn’t care for the characters. While I was trying to take the feedback with a grain of salt, I knew my story had problems. I couldn’t ever quite get a handle on my main character’s motivation. I had just kept pushing her forward in the story because I just needed to finish it.
To be honest, I never even started to edit it. Instead, with the characters in my head, I decided to go full-on plotter for the revision.
Plotting Is Hard
Over the course of six weeks or so, this is what happened. At first, I filled half of a Moleskine notebook with the answers to the character interviews in K. M. Weiland’s Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life. I ran out of steam after finishing my two protagonists but still managed to fill another ten pages or so with my antagonist and a side character.
Then, it was time to figure out motive, conflict, and effect. Here, I turned to Rachael Stephen’s How to Build a Novel. I also used K. M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel, and a favorite of mine, The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester. I wrote down lots of ideas but couldn’t get to the point where I could map out scenes containing the magic Goal/Conflict/Disaster (Motive/Conflict/Effect) trifecta. Sequels, I could handle, but scenes? My brain felt like a pile of mush. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of the story. It changed from one day to the next. It seemed like maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a plotter after all.
Part of my problem was that I wasn’t able to kill my darlings—those scenes and ideas that weren’t fitting but that I couldn’t let go of—yet.
I got so desperate that I considered taking off my pants.
Continued in Part 2.