Pantser Versus Plotter

Ever go into a room and you forget why you went in there?

Yeah. Me too.

Used to happen when I would go into record stores, too. Remember those? You’d saddle up the ol’ Triceratops and head on out to buy some “used CDs?” I’d go into the store with a head full of bands and albums I wanted to check out, and soon as I stepped through that threshold — whoof. Gone. Kaput. Brain: tabula rasa. Then the clerk would point to my crotch and be like, “Dude, you just wet yourself.” And I’d be like, “Shut up!” and he’d be like, “I’m just saying,” and then I’d get some urine on my hand and go quick wipe it on his face. Hipster asshole. Now you got pee on your face! Boom!

It’s easy to forget little things. Especially if you’re me. If I try to go to the grocery store without a list, dude, I am fucked three ways from Sunday. I will come home with an armload of jelly beans, Swiss chard, cat food, and Clamato juice. Meanwhile, all the stuff we needed — milk, bread, eggs, uranium for my particle accelerator — is stuff we still goddamn need because I didn’t pick it up.

What the hell am I trying to say, here?

I’m saying, if I can’t remember what the hell I was supposed to do in the kitchen, if I can’t remember a band’s name or that we need to pick up milk, how the crap am I supposed to keep an entire unwritten novel straight in my head? Short answer: I’m not. And neither are you.

My name is Chuck Wendig.

I am a reformed Pantser.

The Disclaimer Before The Froth Flies

Many excellent writers are pantsers. (If you aren’t familiar with the definition — a “pantser” writes without doing outlines or other prep-work, while a “plotter” tends to outline and perform other preliminary planning efforts before diving into the book. Good? Golden.) Stephen King reportedly writes without an outline. Great writers and great minds tend to have no problem just springing forth like a whipped gazelle and tearing ass across the open meadow without fear, without concern, without a plan in sight.

For them, I say, well done.

I am not a great writer. I think I’m a good one. As a good-but-not-great writer, and similarly as a guy with a brain like a porous swatch of moth-eaten cheesecloth, I must advocate planning over pantsing.

I have in the past gotten a little zealous over the subject, and in this post I will again get a little zealous. Because who wants to read wishy-washy advice? Isn’t it more fun for you if I pound the lectern and throw chairs at the students? Well, it’s more fun for me, anyway. That said —

I do not seriously believe that pantsers cannot write excellent novels. They can. They do.

What I do believe however is that while some writers are natural pantsers, others are pantsers-by-default, pantsers-by-laziness. They do not plan, they do not outline. They don’t because it’s hard. And frustrating. And irritating. That’s why I didn’t used to do it.

But if not writing an outline works for you and has earned you the result you’re looking for (ideally, publication), then keep doing that. I don’t care if you wear a hat made of raccoons when you write — if that hat gets you the stories you want, wear the hat. But if you find yourself hitting a wall, if you find yourself spinning around in circles until you throw up, may I offer a suggestion?

Try doing some planning.

Now? Time to throw some chairs!

Stand Up Straight, You Lazy Slobbering Muckabout!

I wrote… mm, I guess five or six novels via the Pantser’s Execution. Actually, the novel that’s on submission with my agent, Blackbirds, was initially written without plan or direction, too. This is in addition to the two or three dozen completely unfinished novels that, you guessed it, all underwent the “Let’s Just Open The Word Processor And Run Amok!” method of writing.

They were all awful. Only when I finally was told to step back and outline Blackbirds did I suddenly gain the ability to see the story for what it was. Only then could I line up all the pieces and make the plot work. Since it has at its core a kind of reverse murder mystery, the plot elements needed to line up for it to make sense and ‘click.’ By plotting, I drew a path through the maze before I had to walk it. Before I could get lost.

But I resisted. Oh, Lawds A Mercy, did I resist. My gut trembled. My sphincter tightened so hard I could’ve shattered a ruby. I had my excuses. “But it’ll steal the creative spark.” “But I’m not writing a term paper.” “But then there’s no sense of discovery!” What it really translated to was:

“I’m actually quite lazy. I might even be allergic to work. Also: I don’t wanna.”

Then I cried and threw my sippy-cup across the room.

Then I did the outline.

Then I learned the truth:

Planning and prep-work may cure what ails you as a writer. How, you ask?

First, Let Me Shoot Some Myths In The Head

Outlining does not steal your creative spark. In part because “creative spark” is not a real thing. It is a myth, like Bigfoot, Nessie, the Muse, and Writer’s Block.

I liken it to the notion that finding out the sex of your baby before the birth somehow “ruins the surprise.” Pfft. It does not ruin anything. It merely changes the timing of that surprise. So too with outlining and prep-work. You’re still “writing” the novel and still going on that path of discovery, you’re just doing it in a tighter, more truncated way.

Planning doesn’t limit your sense of discovery. It isn’t a prison. You don’t have to religiously stick to your plan. Planning won’t write the book for you. It just puts down trail-markers. I planned a drive and hike for us in Kauai, but planning isn’t the same as experiencing. I didn’t experience beauty in the planning phase, but I did during its execution. Your writing is still a journey. Doesn’t hurt to have a map is all.

So, then, how does planning help soothe your ills?

Planning Helps Strike Down The Fear Of The Blank Page

One of the worst feelings is the “Blank Page Syndrome.” You open the story in the morning. You stare at the white snowy expanse of screen. You are overwhelmed by both the raw potential your story holds and your inability to pluck a single cogent thread from that hoary no-nothing nowhere void. You void your bowels. You take a nap, quivering in your sleep. You dream of your mother’s safe bosom.

An outline will go to great lengths to defeat this.

Imagine that in the morning you open the file, then you look to your left and you see, “Oh, here I am, on Chapter 14: The Dragon’s Barbed Nipples, wherein the hero must steal the goblin milk from the craggy peaks where the Hell-Harpies hold their infernal book club.” You know where you left off. You know your place. You know roughly where you’re going next.

You have a map. You have a safety net. Every day is not a sudden crush of cold water as you dive in to deep, dark channels. You have breadcrumbs. You have torches. Move forward without fear.

Planning Will Crotch-Kick Your Self-Doubt

You get in the middle of a longer work and next thing you know, you’re crippled by uncertainty and self-loathing. You just want to close the file, delete it, format your hard drive, then hit yourself in the nuts with a ball peen hammer. No. No. Don’t do that. Fuck that shit. Get shut of the doubt. Don’t let the doubt crotch-kick you. You need to crotch-kick your doubt.

Planning will help you do that.

When you plan, you lay the story out. You build confidence in it before you even truly begin. It’s like this — say you have to get up and give a talk in front of 1000 people. Would you rather give that talk utterly unprepared? No notes? No research? Nothing? “Just gonna wing it!” As you gain confidence in the topic, you gain confidence in your ability to execute.

Further, you can have others look at your outline, make sure it gets a thumbs-up.

It dissolves some or all of your doubt. Trust me on this.

Planning Helps You Write Faster, Like Meth-Cranked Ninja

Without planning, some of your time must be spent in deep thought. Often a day of unprepared writing is accompanied by that period of, “Uhhh. Well. Hmmm.” But, with a map, with an outline and some prep-work around characters and worldbuilding, you can move more swiftly. You already spent time in the contemplation chambers. Now it’s just time to write, write, write.

Planning Will Cut Down Number Of Drafts With A Machine Gun

Your first draft is your worst draft. This is true whether or not you’re a pantser or a plotter. Ah, but, your first draft will often be a better draft if you’re a plotter. Why? Because you had a map. Because you had focus and direction from the get-go. What this means generally is that you won’t need as many drafts to get to the final one. It’ll tighten the draft. It’ll cinch up the middle (generally, the second act). A little work on the front end saves you a lot of nasty gruntwork on the back-end.

(Heh. Back-end. Grunt!)

(Shut up.)

Planning Will Hone Your Discipline To A Hair-Splitting Sharpness

Writing requires discipline.

Creativity is raw and flickering like fire — you want to make use of it, you have to bring often ugly, unpleasant metals to it and forge that shit into the shape you desire. It’s hard, sweaty, sometimes grumpy work. Nobody wants writing to be about discipline. We all would love it if it were the equivalent of catching fireflies in a moonlight meadow. We wish it were fun and goofy, like icing cupcakes in zero gravity.

But it’s not. It’s tough work. Satisfying work, yes. But tough just the same.

What many writers struggle with is the ability to find the sticktoitiveness necessary to complete something. Discipline isn’t gained overnight. It’s farmed over time — sown, seeded, grown, harvested.

Discipline is the product of your habits.

You plan your work, you’ve started a habit. That habit is itself a kind of discipline. It reinforces itself. Discipline begets discipline. No, really, it does. You feel good for having completed something — an outline, a synopsis, character notes — and that impels you forward. It helps you put your ass in the chair every day and write. It’s what helps you belly crawl through the mud and the blood.

And that means, ultimately…

Planning Will Help You Finish

Planning draws the map. Outlining shows you the end of the road. And it helps you get there.

After all, that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? To finish something?

Try planning. Never mind the fact that someone is going to ask you to do it someday anyway and so you might as well be prepared (no, really, someone will demand it of you — don’t believe me? I’ve often been asked to provide an outline before committing to the work). It’s good for you as a writer. It’s good for the story, too. You don’t have to be an outline lawyer. Nobody’s forcing you to marry it. I’m just saying —

Try it.

I hate to do it. I still do. But I’m always happy when I have it, and cranky when I don’t.

Fuck laziness. Eat your vegetables. Drink your milk. Do the writing.

And if planning doesn’t give you the results, then I would say… fuck it, try pantsing that bad-boy, instead. (Pants it good and hard. Nnnngggh. Yeah. You like that? You like that.)

Do what must be done to complete the work.

ABW.

Always. Be. Writing.

79 comments

  • Willing my creative mind toward being a pantser – see I can’t even spell it correctly! – but have to admit I fall to my comfort zone the organized notes taking, gathering categories of reference material, maintaining lists of all things to use in filed stories to come, analytic nature to plan. It keeps me on track and moving forward to The End.

  • How I stopped worrying and learned to love the outlining; methinks a lot of the surprises and unexpected events that happen when pantsers are writing the first draft happen to plotters during the outlining process. Characters can get all uppity and talk-backy in an outline as much as in a first draft. (Especially mine, I think.) Anyway, another way to think of it is as a first draft with weird syntax. (OK. Enough procrastinating.)

  • This is encouraging to me. I’ve always been an obsessive outliner and I told myself it was just laziness on my part. This helps me to see that maybe there’s a real strategy to it, that maybe it hasn’t all been time wasted.

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