Pantsers vs Plotters

There’s a lot of hate going around regarding “pantsers” – the type of writers that write by the seat of their pants.

I started out as a pantser.

For me, there is no right or wrong way to write a book, so long as you actually sit down and write the damn thing. So many people get caught up in the thinking and editing and re-editing that they never finish.

So to avoid this, you need to figure out what kind of writer you are. Are you an outliner, someone who plans? Or are you a pantser that just lets the ideas and words flow, prepared to edit at the end? Or are you a mix?

Oh yeah, it’s not black and white, you can be grey. I happen to be grey.

I just finished writing my fifth novel and with each book I have found that my writing style has evolved just as the stories I’ve written have evolved.

When I first sat down years ago and tried to write my first novel, I was convinced, CONVINCED!, that it had to be totally outlined before I sat down to write even one word. So one night I figured out the entire story, plot point by plot point. I knew when it started, when it ended and every twist and turn in between.

Sounds awesome, right? Wrong.

I would spend the next three years trying to write that story. I only ever got to around 35,000 words. By the time I hit around the 25,000 mark I was two-thirds through with the whole thing. Not good since this wasn’t a short story or a novella.

It took me a long time to realize that, in my mind, I had already written the story because of how detailed my outline was. There was absolutely no urgency for me to tell this story so I couldn’t. When I realized that and was able to let it go, the backstory of Earth, the first book in my Elemental Series, blossomed, fully formed in my mind.

I sat down that very day and wrote more than 9,000 words in less than three hours. Remember, it had been over 3 years and I had only written 35,000 words of that first story. I have never written anything that huge, in that amount of time since, but I finally knew what I had been doing wrong.

As a pantser I accept that there will be a lot of editing and revising when I’m done. As a pantser I accept that I cannot allow myself to go back and edit as I write; I have to just write myself a quick note on a piece of paper to remind myself when I am finally sitting down to edit. But that’s all okay with me because it makes it so much easier for me to write. I have the urgency I need to tell the story and that urgency comes across on the page.

For me, I see the final scene of a book in my head when I first sit down to write; then I write to it. My stories are a map to that final scene and we follow it together. I don’t always know what characters are going to walk on stage, I don’t always know when my characters are going to fight, but this allows for my characters to behave more organically because I’m not fighting with them to stay in an outline. For me this works.

Now, I said I was grey earlier because recently I have had to do some loose outlines to stay on track.

Fire, the fourth book in my series, was one of the hardest, most emotional books for me to write to date. As a matter of fact I wrote about 75% of it and then suddenly walked away from it for about six months, unable to go on. I think because I was afraid of the ending. Anyway. When I finally sat back down I had no idea how to get from the point where I had left off to the end and just trying to write wasn’t working. So I took out a pen and wrote out full sentence outlines for the final chapters leading up to the last chapter.

I did not outline that last chapter. I knew that one had to be totally organic. But I managed to write the last 25% of the book in less than a month.

So see? Sometimes outlines will work and sometimes they won’t. You have to decide what works for you. Can you successfully plot a whole novel without a map? Can you drive this novel by sheer instinct and find your way home? Or do you need an outline to act as your map, taking you through the twists and turns and safely out the other side?

Answer those questions and you’ll probably figure out why you haven’t managed to finish that illusive first draft.

9 thoughts on “Pantsers vs Plotters

  1. I definitely agree that it’s about what gets you to the end, and that the needs will change sometimes. I’ve done some of each myself, but I find that if I totally pants it, I never finish. I get lost in the middle. But I always say that everyone has to be their own sort of writer, whatever works for them. I’m always skeptical of claims that there’s a “right” way to write a novel. I don’t care how successful a writer becomes, their process is the one that works for them and might not for others. I spent years trying to pound myself into the processes of others. Freeing myself of that was one of the best things I ever did, because it allowed me to find the one that worked for me.

  2. “My stories are a map to that final scene and we follow it together.” – I love this line. Great post!
    I’m a pantser most of the time. Plotting out the whole story makes me feel bored with the idea. As long as I have a basic concept and let my imagination run wild, the writing process becomes more fun. I only try to plot when I get stuck at one point in the novel, and even then I don’t necessarily stick to the outline I drew up. However, I don’t usually have an ending in sight when I write. I just let my characters take me to it. =]

  3. I was a plotter, breaking my book down into chapters before I started – this was the way the book was going to go and that’s that! But I think you miss out on other possible characters when you write like this. Over the years I’ve become a bit of a panster myself. I have evolved! I have an idea of how the story is going to go (can’t be doing with writer’s block!) but I will not shut the door on other characters who suddenly appear and who want to get some of the action. I throw the door open wide to them now – they’re great fun and really improve my stories (in my humble opinion).

  4. Who’s been hatin’ on my pantsers?? I hope my post on plotting didn’t have an anti-pantser tone; I didn’t mean to imply that pantsers are “wrong”! You’re absolutely right. As long as it gets you to the end, there’s no right or wrong way to write a novel. Personally, I can’t do super-detailed outlines because it takes all the fun out of writing for me. But I know writers who make mini-books before they write their big books. Different strokes, eh? 🙂 Great post!

    1. Shauna Granger says:

      Absolutely not! Matter o’fact after your post I downloaded the trial version of Scrivener and am gonna see how I like it for my next project.

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