Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Pants or To Plot: That Is The Question

A little while ago (ok, fine, like a month ago, but as I noted shortly thereafter, I've stopped making promises about what I write about next on this blog, because I have the attention span of a drugged, concussed goldfish when it comes to planning my blog posts) I promised that I would talk some more about this theme that's been popping in some comments: pantsers vs. plotters. For those crafty readers who are keeping track of the subjects of my posts (and why would you do such a foolish thing?), you'll notice that this is my way of digging myself out of the pit of editing - also known as being certifiably crazypants, or wallowing in massive insecurity - and emerge back into the world of crafting a novel. You know, the stuff you do long before editors appear with giant red markers and destroy your darling words help you make your work better.

A pantser, by the way, is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer. In short, that's someone who does the polar opposite of what I do when I'm writing. The writer L.G. Smith describes the pantser process on her blog (which is fantastic, and which you should follow like I do): "I'm mostly a pantser, meaning I don't plan out my novels in advance of writing them. I tend to jump in the deep end and see how long it takes me to either drown or swim. Knock on wood, I've managed to swim back to shore with my last two novels."

Essentially, what this means is that a pantser writer doesn't need an outline or need help with a plot skeleton, because she doesn't have a skeleton at all. She has a big glommy viscous mass of ideas, sort of like a giant jellyfish, that she plops onto a page, and plucks words and scenes and characters out of with magic elf-fingers and crafts into a beautiful story with a few waves of her mysterious magic elf-wand, and if by some small, weird chance there are problems with the story or basic things that just don't make sense, she pushes on through her jellyfish-idea-pile and sorts that little unimportant stuff out later.

At least, this is how I imagine it works.

I used to write this way, so you would think that I would know how it works, but considering the fact that I always ended up sobbing on the floor by my computer, banging my head against giant unsolvable plot problems and begging my characters to cooperate, I think it's safe to say that I have no freaking clue.

I do not understand how people use this non-process and make it work; or, to continue with L.G. Smith's metaphor, how they don't end up drowning in an immense confusing ocean of a plot hole.

But they do. They write novels and get them published, and the novels are pretty amazing, and I'm willing to bet that they don't sob through the entire process. I admire these writers the way I would admire a pink fairy armadillo: with a lot of amazement and disbelief, and also a big dose of jealousy, because who doesn't want a cute little pink shell of their very own???

And then there are people like me: the plotters (a word which looks and sounds suspiciously like "plodders"). The anal-retentive, neurotic, process-driven people who make outlines for fun and derive great satisfaction from organizing their books by subject matter, then alphabetical order by author within each subject.

Am I just describing myself? Oh...

I've already detailed how my process works in a series of posts, but here's an overview: 1) get a seed, 2) develop and research it, 3) psychoanalyze the hell out of your characters, 4) develop a basic story based on those characters, 5) create a plot skeleton, 6) flesh out the skeleton, 7) write each scene on the outline until you have a complete draft, 8) REJOICE AND DO GREAT DANCES OF CELEBRATION TO THE GODS OF WRITING, and then 9) edit and edit and edit and edit and edit and....

You know, I'm really glad I wrote out my process like that, in a mini-outline, because now I see at least two or three things I haven't written blogs posts about yet! Now I have new ideas! And I know what to write! Let me just jot down my ideas so I don't forget about them -

See how that works?


  1. Of course you outlined your process!! Ha!

    Actually my first completed novel was one that I outlined. It took me five years to write it. Most of the feedback said it was too contrived, so my next attempt I decided to just wing it and see what happened. I loved the experience of not knowing what was going to happen next and having to find my way through the wilderness.

    I really think it's just a matter of what kind of brain and attitude a person has. Some people write great outlines and come up with amazing stories that make complete sense. And, really, thank goodness we're all different. :))

    1. I know, right? I wrote that mini-outline and re-read it, and really did suddenly get some ideas just from looking at it. I guess I really am a plotter!

      I think it's interesting, actually, that you started out as a plotter and realized that you do better as a panster. You're right; it's probably just who we are! Although I do have a little bit of envy for you pantsers and how REALXED you seem ;) But I do agree, it's way better for us all to be different - that's part of what makes for diverse, great stories.

      I wonder if anyone could ever tell whether a writer is a pantser or a plotter, just from reading a book? Probably not,but THAT would be interesting.

  2. Replies
    1. Hee. Panster, plotter, or somewhere in between, I should have said!

  3. Hey Liz!

    I figured I'd better get my arse over here and read a couple of posts before it gets any later; I planned to come by yesterday, then the evening, then before I knew it, bedtime. I was tuckered! And today had me out and about most of the day.

    So...pantsers v. plotters (and I liked the play on plodders). I think I plot everything; whether the outline ever makes it down on paper, and how intricate that outline might be is a different story.

    Usually for something short, I'll put notes on the page up top...words or phrases I want to use, key ideas, and some semblance of order (meet, fall in love, get married, she eats his head on the honeymoon).

    For longer works, I have index card with key points and a short description. Post it notes. Side notes. And tons of research.

    Yeah...I guess I'm a plotter for the big stuff, but for the short stuff, when I'm doing it in my head, I feel like a pantser. But it's still plotted.

    Good topic!

    M.L. Swift, Writer

    1. Thanks for making the time to come by!! And I love that you used the word 'tuckered'. That's a great word :)

      Plotting does feel an awful lot like plodding sometimes, doesn't it? On and on we go, step by step, to the next number on the outline, and then the next...yawn...

      I think I might try your semi-pantsing approach for shorter stuff. It would be a nice change. Then again, I have a hard time writing anything briefly!

      I want to read the story about the woman eating her new husband's head on the honeymoon, by the way. Maybe a flash fiction contest in the making?

      I hear you on the research. It's part of the fun, isn't it?

      So glad you came by! :)

  4. Don't worry - I'm an over-planner like you. I spent five months plotting out the outline for my next book and less than that writing and revising it. But hey - those of us who plan ahead and do all that extra work don't have to go insane with edits because the manuscript is cleaner.

    1. HA. You know you're a plotter when you spend more time plotting than writing. I love it.

      And yes, the editing process has included a lot of cutting, but very, very little rewriting, which IS nice. I'm not really ready to trust that it'll stay that way, but I hope so!

  5. I definitely ride by the seat of my pants. I sit at the computer and pray!!

    1. Haha. That's a great picture: I imagine you holding on to a computer chair for dear life as you tumble through a plot :)

  6. I'm mostly a pantser until I get a ways in and then I may do a little plotting ahead, you know, like sending a scout out to see how things are looking on the road ahead. I also use character interviews, which I find very helpful. I did plot one novel but when I tried to repeat...FAIL.

    So mostly I'm a pantser :)

    1. So you're a panster with a scouting party. I like it! I wonder how many pantser DO end up doing a lot of character development, like interviews. Do you spend a lot of time on that, but not on plotting?

  7. I have the same exact relationship you do to pants. Erm... as in I started half a dozen books, sometimes even getting well into them, but would then flounder and give up because I didn't know where it was going. My solution though, hasn't been as extreme. I'm a statistician by day, so if I plot TOO carefully, I sound like I'm submitting to the Journal of Pain (which I occasionally do, by day, no fooling). So I have adopted a 'timeline + notes' approach. I change my timeline ALL THE TIME (mostly adding, but occasionally changing direction) but at least I always have 'one way to the end' so I don't get lost in a bog and die.

    1. "I have the same exact relationship you do to pants."


      Oh, to pantsing, yes, right ;)

      I looked up the Journal of Pain, by the way, because I couldn't figure out if it was a medical journal or some kind of e-zine for stuff I shouldn't talk about on this blog. Turns out it's a medical journal, and one I actually find interesting, no fooling, because I try to help people manage chronic pain by day. So, thank you for that reference, as well as for stopping by, and sympathizing :)

      Oh yes, the timeline changes! I wish it wouldn't - as in I wish my ideas were PERFECT right away - but it's a good lifeline, isn't it?

  8. Liz - I love reading this stuff. Since I'm not writing a novel, I can't help but see parallels to managing an organization - the pantsers are those annoying folks who just brainstorm and wait for things to get done...the plotters are those who bring death by workplan. For me, I always learn something from the plotting, and usually I find the reason to plot after too much pantsing. I'm a hybrid...what would you call that? :)

    PS: I'm looking at a job in Boston and just realized that if I got it, I'd get to visit you from time to time. That makes me happy.


    1. BOSTON??? YES PLEASE!!! I would love that!!! Keep me posted?

      I totally hear you - I remember those types from my office days! It's good to know that some of this stuff is applicable over other disciplines. If you're a hybrid, does that make you a pantotter? A plantser? They both sound like they should have very different definitions...