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.

69 comments

  • As a reformed “pantser” I definitely understand intimately the truth you’ve spoken about planning in this post. If i had taken the time to “plan” this book I started in 2006, maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised by the fact that the story needed double the room i originally anticipated it would to grow properly. Or surprised about the eventual roles of the less prominent characters that become extremely prominent by the end. Or surprised about the fact that the story was meant to have two timelines to be told properly. Learned my lesson by 2007. Devised a plan that was malleable and carried me to the completion of the first draft in 2008. Have not gone back to “pantsing” since.

  • Awesome post. If it’s not already in the works it would be great to see how you lay out a story plan.

    Also, I need a cup of your blood and three of your beard hairs.

  • My writing group talked about this at our very first meeting last month – we called it gardeners vs architects. Possibly not the best metaphor as many gardeners plan a bit, but anyway… I am here to accuse you of sitting in on our meeting and listening. Hidden in the corner, under the unsold copies of the Guild’s latest anthology. Taking surreptitious notes and then adding a few swear words so you can claim our deep thinking as your own.

  • I fell ill a few years ago, what we used to call a mental breakdown in the old days. It was the result of overwork. I burned out and far worse than anything I’d experienced before. One of the symptoms was severe short-term memory loss. I would walk out of the living room to make a cup of coffee and go to the loo instead and then when I finally made it into the kitchen I’d forget how to make the coffee. I’ve never experienced anything like it before and it took a long time to get over it. The problem was I was halfway through a novel when this happened and couldn’t do a damn thing about it because I couldn’t keep the stuff in my head. I did manage to write, as long as I kept the stuff short, and that’s why I started blogging nearly four years ago now. About nine months ago I suddenly got better, the brain fog lifted and the book’s now finished.

    I’m afraid I’ve never been able to outline. I’ve written five novels now and in only one did I know how it was going to end; after a few chapters of Milligan and Murphy the ending was obvious and so I wrote the last chapter; then all I had to do was get my characters there in as interesting a way as possible. I think if I was more interested in telling a story I might do better but most of my characters do next to nothing anyway. Also I don’t write draft after draft. I write a thin version of the book, get my characters from A to B as quickly as possible and then I start to graft in details, descriptions, back-story, flashbacks etc until the thing says enough. And then I stop. Only with this last novel have I written something that might be called a draft: I wrote 10,000 words and then scrapped what I’d written and began again but I really think of that as a false start rather than a draft. Then, after 23,000 words I rewrote the text changing it from third to first person. Other than that it was business as usual.

    • @Jim: One could argue that the “thin version” is actually a highly-involved outline — a treatment of sorts. That’s ultimately the thing, anybody who writes more than one draft is ultimately writing a “plan” or “outline” anyway — it’s just your zero draft. Which is fine, and if that works for someone, then more power to them. I’m not going to poop in someone’s cereal. But I also know a lot of writers have trouble in certain arenas, and I think that planning/plotting can help them conquer some of those arenas (if they haven’t tried it). It certainly helped me in mine.

      @Natalie: Sure, gardeners do “plotting” quite literally, I guess (garden plots), but I’m digging up what you’re burying. :)

      @Andrew: I will email you some blood and beard.

      @Amanda: Sounds like we have similar paths, then. Thing is, I’m not advocating that happy pantsers switch to becoming grumpy plotters (though I do think plotting and outlining is a skill that a writer should master, even if it’s not your primary methodology) — but I am advocating that troubled pantsers try to switch, no matter how frustrating it may be at first.

      — c.

  • EDIT:

    Oh! Snap, here’s another one I forgot:

    Planning helps you keep multiple projects around, and helps diminish the “Holy Crap I Just Had An Awesome Idea And Now I Want To Quit This Novel For The Next Novel” Syndrome.

    How? Well, when you get that second idea for that second book while you’re in the middle of the first, *write it down.* Plan it out. Even loosely — hit some tentpoles, write a few critical beats, identify some acts or major sequences.

    It’s like lancing a boil. Or, even better, trepanation. Drilling a hole in the head to relieve the pressure and release the “demons.” (Mmm. Brain demons.) It allows you to refocus on the story at hand but then *also* allows you to, when done with the one project, return to the new idea which is already half-formed because —

    *drum roll please*

    You already planned some of that out.

    *takes a bow*

    *takes a nap*

    — c.

  • I have never been able to write “straight through” or even plot straight through, so I use a more random approach to both plotting and pantsing. Oftentimes when I come up with an idea for my novel, it is a vaguely disconnected scene, like an action or love scene, that takes place at some point in the book. I will often add it to my outline in a cloud (I recommend mind-mapping software), giving thought to good “what might have brought me here?” and “where will I go from here?” tapers on the cloud. Oftentimes, i will look at my cloud-filled sky and suddenly see how Cloud A could lead to Cloud B and then to Cloud C even if they didn’t originally have those designations.

    This not only helps with some of my plotting as far as blocks are concerned but, to use a food analogy, gives me a well-stocked fridge for the day’s writing. Am I in the mood for something mushy? I pull a ‘love’ cloud and write on it, actually getting more detail in the story in the process. Am I craving action? pull one of those clouds instead. In my experiences, one of the BIGGEST causes of my blocks is my inner child of a writer being forced to eat what is on his plate when he’s not hungry for it, especially because my thoughts will wander off of the forced topic and I will spend the bulk of the writing time thinking about what I really want to write about instead. Why not indulge that, is my opinion.

  • I agree with most of your points above, but I do believe that you can get bored with a story and suck half the joy out of it if you work too hard and too long on just the outline. I think of it as a primer coat of paint: You want to do it quickly, neatly, and at most give it like two passes. At the very least, it’s worth stopping to write a few scenes, to get a feel for it and try it on for size. To catch its scent.

    Also: There’s an old academic paper on writing ( Hayes, John R., Flower, Linda, 1980. Identifying the organization of writing processes. ) that divided these groups up into Mozartians and Beethovians — planners and pansters, respectively, as apparently musicological lore has it that that’s how they worked. It’s a nice way to feel all august and shit whilst we scribble ;)

    • For me, @John, I get bored of a story and find places without joy whether or not I plot/pants. I think that’s a sad fact of the form — a novel is very long and some days are better than others. From that, I’ve discovered two things: either —

      a) I’m the one who’s personally off his game for that day of writing, and generally if I write through it, I’m golden (again, true whether pantsing or plotting)

      or

      b) Something about my story (whether pantsed or plotted) just isn’t working, and I need to fix that thing to reclaim the energy.

      Ultimately, I can’t rely on boredom or joy to be my bellwether — I have to push through it and keep writing. Plotting helps me stay on track.

      Of course, this is all YMMV. But I don’t think working too hard on an outline has the power to kill my joy — for me, I have two fairly detailed outlines and I’m actually excited as hell to attend to those projects, and I’m further excited that I’ll be able to hit the ground running because I was smart enough to do my work ahead of time, which will allow me the luxury of just jumping right in. If I had to keep those two novels in my head for the time it’s taking to write DOUBLE DEAD, they’d either fade into memory or I’d get bored with them. As it stands, I’m excited again to dig back into them and get working.

      Ultimately, I’d love to be the type of genius who can just leap into the storytelling process. I don’t say that snarkily, despite how it may sounds — I genuinely consider it a mark of talent and intelligence to be able to do that. I had to come to terms with the fact that, despite wanting to be that (and thinking I was for a long time), I’m not. I have to do some homework. Like Albert Berg says, I have to eat my lima beans.

      — c.

    • (Though, I should also add that I don’t plan out scenes in super-detail, either. I do a rough chapter outline — yesterday and today on DOUBLE DEAD I’m writing about a cannibal abattoir at Wal-Mart set in the zombie apocalypse. I know what needs to happen in this big chapter, but I only used four or five sentences to describe it. That leads me tons of room for discoverables — for instance, I’ve got to handle a whole fight scene, and the mechanics of that are in no way pre-scripted, so I get to make that shit up as I go. So, I think you’re right that there’s joy to be found in the writing process — I just can’t use that as my only way through, y’know?

      — c.

  • But I can shop without a list, cook from memory, and keep events of novels lined up accurately in my head. I also used to remember whole equations and paragraphs of text from sight back when that sort of thing was useful. Now that brain power goes to combos for fighting games.

    Does that mean I’m one of the few superhuman automatons that’s exempt from outlining?

    Ok, ok. I’m kidding of course. And to balance out my bravado, I’ll also mention that I have a habit of getting up to get a drink, stuffing the remote in the freezer, and going back to the couch wonder where my glass of water went. Also, I walk into walls. A lot.

    I tried outlining. I tried character bios, chapter breakdowns, scene breakdowns, rearrangements, maps, mind maps – an entire arsenal of prep work for a few novels. It wasn’t nearly as agonizing as you say. In fact, it was quite fun. But at the end of the day I felt like there was not much wiggle room. I’d spent all those hours at work; my ego wasn’t going to let me change it now. And I like wiggle room. I like a lot of wiggle room. Without it, it sort of killed my enthusiasm for those stories. They were “written” enough for me. (A problem more with myself than the process, I suspect)

    Also, not having an outline or an explicit plan doesn’t have any effect on my writing. Actually, I tend to write faster without one. Now, I’m not going in blind (well, actually, If I break another pair of glasses …) I do my deep contemplating out of the chair – cooking dinner, taking a bath, at night in bed because I can’t sleep without a healthy round of daydreaming before. I know where I’m going, at least in the short term. That’s enough to propel the word count forward.

    Although I agree wholeheartedly with your edit. I’ve got notebooks and files filled with blurbs, lines, and names for later use. Some more than others. If you don’t get that stuff out of your head, it’s just going to keep percolating and drive you batty.

    Ultimately, what works for me is the middle ground. I know about my characters (at least the major players), I have a notion of where to end (however vague), where I begin, and some grand ideas for high points (usually 2 or 3 to start). Then I play connect the dots, dreaming up new possibilities as I go. I don’t always write it down, but with so much other stuff going on outside my desk at the moment, I have been. Stuff gets done that way.

    • @Kate —

      Heh, you’re like CHAOTIC NEUTRAL in the plotter/pantser debate.

      Again, if you’ve found the process that works for you and gives you the results you want — completed works headed toward publication — then, high-five, thumbs-up. Do not shake that tree. Don’t fix what ain’t broken.

      However, to play the Hardcore Plotter (which sounds like I am a comic book serial killer) for a moment, here’s a story:

      DOUBLE DEAD is only going to be a published novel because of outlining. I don’t mean that as in, “I needed to make it part of my process,” I mean it as in, “The publisher demanded it of me.” I pitched the novel and had to give Abaddon a chapter-by-chapter outline along with other synopsized elements (characters, arcs, etc.). And let me say how glad I am that this is the case. Right now I’m coasting along because I’m following my outline — an outline that gives me a lot of wiggle room but still puts all the plot elements in place. It’s not claustrophobic, but rather, the opposite.

      I know of novelists (Stephen can correct me, but I think Herr Doctor Blackmoore falls into this camp) whose publishers asked for an outline before committing to getting him to write a second novel for them.

      Plus, outside the novel arena, all my game writing has been based off of outlining (generally one someone else wrote, but sometimes I wore the Trademarked Developer Panties), and so too has my scripting been subject to outlines demanded by the project managers and producers.

      That’s why I advocate at least coming to terms with and overcoming the personal biases against outlining and plotting. You don’t have to use it necessarily on your own personal projects if it’s not demanded, but it remains a valuable skill that one day someone may very well put to the test. For many — and it was this way for me — my anti-outline bias was a problem as you say, “more with myself than the process.” But I swiftly had to come to terms with the process because I wasn’t going to escape it professionally.

      — c.

  • With novels and short stories, I’m a pantser, but I’m also a research addict, and maniacally driven finisher. My first draft is essentially my outline. I generally have a general idea of where I’m going, but over-planning will work against me if I focus too much on where I’m supposed to be rather than trusting that my story will precipitate out of the ether. I know that seems vapid and dreamy, but I like the thrill and sense of magic that comes from uncertainty.

    I know it means more drafts, but for me it works, you won’t find me whining about writer’s block like some useless git.

    Professional writing on the other hand, I sketch out a framework and then fill that in. It’s easier and faster because it’s more structured, and I do, depending on the project find it pretty fulfilling.

    I don’t think plan or pants is a question of “greatness.” Some of us just can’t think in straight lines, and I know plenty pf people who get so caught up in the planning and outlining they never get around to writing the damn story.

    It comes down to what works.

  • I’m a hybrid pantser/planner. I start with a ton of notes that get shuffled around into a rough outline. And I do tend to write a “thin” first draft that is, as you said, better than the one I might have written without it. In fact, it’s sometimes a fairly decent first draft. I think of the outline as a central path with little sidepaths that eventually lead back to the center, making it a bit wider and with more of the leaves and dead twigs swept away.

    • @Catana:

      Yeah, by that definition, I’m probably more hybrid pantser/plotter, too — while DOUBLE DEAD is by necessity outlined chapter by chapter, I don’t necessarily do that for all my projects (and in fact, different projects get different treatments in terms of “mise en place”). A lot of the time I prep character arcs and tentpole plot points/pivot points.

      — c.

  • @Chuck

    There’s a reason I play a Chaotic Neutral character in ever game I’ve ever played. It’s the most fun! (So I take it as a compliment)

    I’m sure when I get to the point that people want me to pitch them projects and going after for-pay projects, I’ll change my tune. Though I will admit, when I took a few screenwriting classes back in school, I hated the endless treatments. I could grok why it was necessary, and I get why it’s a necessary evil in the novelist’s world. I don’t think I’ll ever make peace with full outlines.

    Although, with the trouble I’ve been having with writing decent query letters, I might apply plans and outlines to those. It certainly can’t hurt.

  • If only I would’ve read this like 4 drafts ago! I wrote the first version of my WIP not plannning a thing and it was a hot mess! Now that the publication deadline looms, I had to bite the bullet and do some serious planning, chapter by chapter and boy does it really help, especially when you have to write and write fast!

  • I am a pantserplotter. This effectively means I pants like a Panzer (Crush the underbrush!) and then write down cool shit I can’t fit in now to fit in later, like some giant game of 4-D Tetris but with sentences.

    I am scared shitless that one of these days I will pants my way into a plot hole that will not be fixed, twisted nor filled, but it has yet to happen, so I keep doing it because I get giddy from making up complicated problems and then solving them.

  • Yes, chaotic neutral! I walk into walls, too.

    I can’t pants to save my life. I get anxious and feel all lost and forlorn and go hide in a corner. But I’m not a Hardcore Plotter, either, I do a thin draft, too. I make sure I know my set piece scenes and write toward one and then toward the next and voila, draft.

    My favorite piece of advice semirelative to this is from Lili Saintcrow: Discipline builds momentum. It’s kind of my mantra now. I write around 2k a day when I’m drafting, and I have it done by 9AM every morning (I start at 7AM and take multiple breaks.)

  • Riduclously nice of you to link to my blog good sir.
    I am coming to understand the importance of planning, but I’m still a little uncertain as to the “how”. How much outline do I need? How many words is each planned point going to take up? What if I don’t plan enough material and I end up finished at 35,000 words? (Wordcount envy is a personal demon I face on a regular basis. I never feel like my books are long enough.)

    • @Albert:

      Is it wishy-washy to say, “Whatever suits your needs?” It probably is, but it’s not inaccurate, really. Or, whatever suits the project’s needs?

      If you have, erm, “length issues” (man, that sounds dirty), then you might be served by a chapter-fed outline that gives some loose sense of how much word count should fit each section.

      — c.

  • I never thought that I needed an outline and was totally basing that thought on laziness. Also, I figured I could just wing it, ya know it’s writing I’ll make shit up. Then one day you’re 50K words into the story of your life and you realize fuck fuck fuck this should be written in the first person. I hit that point and it has screwed me up pretty bad, it’s like I put in all that work for nothing. It was disheartening to say the least.

    Now I am thinking it was not written for nothing, I can use what I had and just rewrite it from start to finish. There were at least some things I liked about it. I will try your crazy outline idea, now I just have to figure out how to make a good outline. This damn story is gonna get done, one way or the other, IT WILL GET DONE!!!

    ~John

  • My first published book, THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, was totally done in the “pantsing” style. For the second book in the contract, my agent said the publisher wanted to see an outline.” Newbie that I was, I asked “What’s an outline?”
    So he told me: it was a plan of the book.
    “Including how it ends?” I asked in a horrified voice.
    “Well, yeah,” he said.
    “But I don’t have any idea how it ends!”
    “Well, you need to do the outline if you want to get paid.”
    So I did the outline. They liked it and said “okay.” At which point I realized I had absolutely zero interest in writing the book any more. I knew what happened. There was no joy of discovery. It was pure torture. With the deadline fast approaching, I confided in a friend.
    “Dusty,” he laughed, “No one’s going to remember what your outline said. They’ve moved on and it’s in a file drawer somewhere. Write whatever you want.” That broke the jam, and I finished GOOD DAY IN HELL. Oddly enough, it actually ended up hewing closer to the outline than I expected.
    Now I always do at least a rough outline, planning out what the act climaxes, midpoint, etc are going to be. But sometimes, the characters take one look at it, go “as if,” and take off on their own. As a tolerant parent, I let them. so long as they don’t go too far afield.

    • @JD:

      A good story — yeah, an outline is never a thing that is immutable. It can in many ways be more the thing you “fall back on” than the thing that “guides you completely.” In that way, it’s a good safety net. Like having a GPS to help get you on track even though you suspect you know exactly where you’re driving.

      — c.

  • I’m a panster, i sit and do it very organically and go by the “two days staring at a wall = one day hardcore writing” rule.

    I have tried plotting, and i don’t look down on it, it’s just not the best fit for me right now. There’s a project on the go that requires a plan, because i’m co-writing with someone else and we each need to know that the other one isn’t digging in the wrong place. (“very dangerous. you go first.”) So I CAN do it. But getting me to plot is much like getting a plotter to pants. It gets messy and slow, and lacks character.

    I’m sure i’ll change. Each project is different. Sometimes i’m sure i’ll plot, other times i’ll be out front on the plane with my nipples painted blue and my pants over my head going WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

    A slight cheat though is that i research. I don’t sit and plot, but i approach a project knowing when and where it’s set, and what basic facts i need to know, then i go and do some research.

    But it’s all about finding what works for you, and then not making yourself any excuses for not getting the job done.

    • @Stringer:

      Word. I think the ability to plot is one worth having — doesn’t mean you have to use it, but having it as a tool in the ol’ toolbox can’t hurt.

      And trust me when I say that plotting can just as easily *become* the excuse for not getting the job done. So, there’s that component, too.

      I look forward to whatever story of yours demands the painted nipples.

      — c.

  • For those stuck on “how to plot” may I recommend some blog posts by my good friend and fellow blogger over at Murderati,com, the lovely and fiercely talented Alex Sokoloff. She does a whole lot of classes and articles on “sceenwriting tricks for writers” . They’re built around elements of classic three-act structure. You can find them at http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/, and also at the aforementioned Murderati.com.

    Nothing, including three act structure, is graven in stone, but it’s a place to start.

  • I’m a natural pantser. It’s just that I’d rather sit down and just write. I agree that I have to rewrite more as a pantser, simply because I have to refine my ideas. However, I tried outlining before and I ended up staring into the blank page instead of writing. I was like, how am I going to do it now? I think about it over and over and get into a mental lockdown. Being a pantser gives me more freedom. When a sudden thought comes to me, I write them and sort them out later.

    In terms of college papers, I didn’t outline outline most of them. This was before I even know what being a pantser was. I just write after reading what I have to read and do subsequent rewrites and my grades weren’t bad, either. If I did outline, I tend to put it out later (not good if I have to turn my paper the next day) because I can’t write. If I just write, I could rearrange my words and put my thesis where it belongs and add the details on the subsequent paragraphs.

    So, I guess it depends on the person. Somehow, pantsing worked for me because it allows me to start writing.

  • Just plotted a new one last night. I expect more plotting ahead. Then I’ll plot another one.

    Every point you make is rock solid, Chuck, though I’m not a convert but a lifelong schemer. All my childhood heroes dreamed of Weather Control machines.

    Another excellent one.

  • I’d say you’re not a reformed panster because you never were one. You were a plotter looking for an easier way, and that’s why you struggled as much as you did.

    I really do appreciate that you don’t claim that successful pantsers should also reform. Thank you thank you thank you for that. The typical take of such articles is that pantsers are in need of a cure.

    I am a panster, I have published/sold 14 books to print publishers so it’s not a fluke. My ONLY doorstop book is the one I tried to plot. I wrote a 70 page outline, I did charts and character bios, I tried all the cool office supply methods of breaking down scenes and it was an utter failure — for me — that book will never sell. After that I went back to my seat of the pants methods and wrote and sold the next book and have written eight and sold the next 10 books after that, too.

    By all means, if you’re trying to write by the seat of the pants (which doesn’t necessarily mean NO advance plotting) and it isn’t working, then try the plotting method.

    Conversely, if you’re plotting and outlining and the like and your book isn’t getting written or it’s boring as heck, then come to the dark side where, if there are outlines, they’re really really short. We have cookies.

    • @Carolyn:

      I do not believe successful pantsers should reform — I mean, why would you? It’s like being a backseat driver and telling someone what route to take. You have a path, take it. I’m offering a post like these to those “drivers” who are looking back into the backseat and saying, “Hey, how the hell do I get from Point A to Point B?”

      I understand where some might read a pejorative in this post against pantsers, but it’s not really against that school of thought so much as it is against those who espouse that school of thought without it being a philosophy that in practice is successful for them. I see a lot of writers who don’t finish their books, who can’t find focus, who have issues with procrastination or distraction and they claim to be pantsers. Well, okay, but it’s not working. You have to try something else instead of just thumping your head against a locked door, y’know?

      Hence, try plotting.

      Same goes vice versa, though.

      — c.

  • I’ve always been a plotter. Even with short stories I like to have a rough outline so I know where the sonabitch’s going. With novels I’d much rather do the tough heavy lifting in outline form and write really detailed scenes so that when I’m writing my first draft it’s really just adding in descriptions, dialogue tags, and complete sentences.

    I have a WIP right now where the outline is 45k, a little over half my word goal for the book. Do I feel that having such a detailed outline hurts my creativity? No. I was creative in the outline stage. Really an outline just forces you to use some of that creative brain juice a little bit earlier. And of course, my outlines aren’t set in stone. I can always ignore them if I feel like it.

    Great post though, Chuck.

  • I struggle regularly with the planner/pantser dynamic both creating my own novels and teaching aspiring writers. We just covered this in my craft workshop at the DFWCon last weekend.

    As you say, you have to know what your strengths are and plan to do everything you can to make turn weaknesses into assets. I teach my students to focus on what they avoid most in their process (planning, drafting, rewriting) and work hard on improving that weaker area–it’s your greatest opportunity to grow the most in your journey. That’s what my critique partner and I focus on each Wedensday in our How We Write blog series.

    For me, it’s drafting blind that stalls me out. But I love the planning and rewriting, so I’ve worked hard to get myself to and through the drafting process as quickly as possible, so I can move on to what motivates my writer’s soul the most–the creativity of rewriting.

    It’s great how you offer an organic option to planning, so it doesn’t seem so clinical to those who avoid the analysis that comes with that step.

    Great post! I was happy to retweet it as soon as I’d had a chance read ;o)

  • How can I not know about you and your blog? You’re hilarious! And I’m not just saying that because I am a plotter and agree with you. Okay, maybe I am. But still – you’re hilarious.

    I did NaNo for the first time. Also the first time I wrote without a good solid outline. The result is an embarrassment of Great Aunt Sadie proportions… you know. The crazy relative you pretend you don’t know when you’re at a family function.

    Now. Curious to learn what method of outlining you use?

  • I am also a reforming pantser. I finished my first manuscript last summer. Did a few edits and thought I was done. Then I realized I wasn’t even close. I had more holes in the story than swiss cheese. I also set the story in the ‘regular world’ when I really wanted to create my own. But because I was lazy and didn’t plan it out, I didn’t create the world. Now I’m back at it, with a plan. I’m doing heavy rewrites to include the world and make it the story it should have been the first time around. If I’d planned in the first place, I might actually be finished by now. Even a rough plan is better than no plan.

  • Another benefit of planning is gauging engagement factor. I have a few ideas for novels that have half-baked outlines, because I can’t wrap my head around some detail of the story and I lost interest. It’s FAR better to crap out of a few pages than to crap out of a hundred – I know going in that this idea is half-baked, and I can sit and think on it some more instead of feeling like I have to finish a story I’m not engaged in anymore.

  • @Chuck — that’s a good point, a writer writes regardless of being bored or not. And you’re absolutely right that it’s possible (easy!) to get bored at other stages. Midway through the first draft of a story of any length I get into the doldrums and start looking at those other shiny projects (good tip on outlining those distractions, BTW)

  • I’ve done both. My first book took something like two years to write with no outline and the second, with an outline, got me a readable draft in about 5 months. The second one is actually a little longer than the first.

    Ultimately though, I ended up writing outlines for both of my books. The first was retroactive. My agent suggested a small change that had huge implications for the rest of the story. He recommended I write an outline for what I had, change that and then use that as a guide for the rewrite.

    I hated it but he was right and it worked a treat.

    So when he finally sold the book the publisher wanted an outline for the second one. So I hammered something out and sent it to him and he came back with a very polite form of, “This sucks, do it again.”

    So I did it again. And again. And again. And a few more agains. And a couple after that for good measure.

    And every single time he sent it back to me he’s been right. The bastard.

    Anyway, I finally had an outline that was 31 pages, which appears to be somewhat unusual. I keep hearing things along the lines of, “Really? Shit, mine was only four.”

    Now that doesn’t include the thinking I had done months in advance. The little bits and pieces and scene chunks I either had in my head or wrote down to use later.

    For me, and I suspect for a lot of writers, it’s not a clean process of outline first, write second. I had a central scene already in mind for the second book that everything else sprang from long before I wrote the outline. It’s survived largely intact.

    I don’t think about it a lot especially when I’m doing it. Something I’ve been accused of in pretty much every other aspect of my life, come to think of it.

  • Jess, there’s a similar quote by maybe Ursula Le Guin along the lines of “I get inspired by sitting down at my desk.”

    I’ll add another “eat your vegetables” sentiment to the lineup: a lot of people haven’t written enough to be as wedded as they are to their method. Mix it up a little, try something new, see what happens! We’re supposed to have good imaginations, and bytes are cheap.

    • …a lot of people haven’t written enough to be as wedded as they are to their method. Mix it up a little, try something new, see what happens!

      Dang, Ann Marie, I’m just going to let you write my blog posts from now on. Much more succinct. Far fewer profanities.

      And thanks, too, to @Stephen for chiming in. Now somebody convince him to put his pants back on; we didn’t mean those kinds of pants.

      — c.

  • This is a phenomenal post. It comes from a personal place and in some ways it does offer up advice. I always fly from the seat of my pants. The work becomes more spontaneous and organic. I revise only by changing the sequence of the lines.

    I let the work flow spontaneously… and yes, I am a huge Jack Kerouac fan.

  • I’ll put my pants on when you pry them out of my cold dead hands.

    Wait. That’s for guns, isn’t it? Dammit, I keep getthing those confused.

    Which explains the scorch marks come to think of it.

  • Having started all number of stories that I’ve never finished, specifically because of just pantsing it, and then either losing interest or getting stuck in the middle and going “fuck it, I know the end.” and giving up on it, I’ve recently started planning.

    Since doing that, I’ve finished a couple short stories for friends, am almost done my WiP RPG (it needs editing…bad, but you get the drift), am almost done rewriting/editing my first motherfucking sale, and have a near complete outline for what is going to be my first serious attempt at getting a real novel published.

    Pantsing was fun, and I made some worlds, characters, and stories that I really liked. But, I also wrote myself into corners and ruts where everything – or at least lots – would have to be scrapped to get out of the rut. So, for now, I do plotting. I hope to someday return to those stories, as I liked them a lot. Rumor is though, that’ll likely never happen.

    Out of curiosity, any chance of getting a “how to” to do an outline the Wendig way?

  • I used to cling to the whole “Stephen King doesn’t outline” thing. I mean, if my favoritest writer of all time didn’t need ‘em, didn’t it mean my aversion to them was justified?

    But somewhere in the last year or so, I gave the outlining thing a try. Well, that might not be entirely accurate — I definitely have long-term plans and notes when I GM for our gaming group, so I guess I had at least some practice when it came to outlining, but I’d never really used it for my own maybe-someone-will-buy-this-if-I-finish-it writing.

    I have a notebook that I picked up for extremely nerdy reasons and a pen that feels damned nice to write with, especially in that notebook. The ending to a story was kicking my ass, so one day I sat down and just scrawled down what I needed to happen next. And it worked.

    I’m definitely on the hybrid side of things now. My current WIP started out heavily-pantsed. I wrote a loose outline for it and it definitely showed me some weaknesses in the plot. What I’ve been doing, mostly, is working from that loose outline and doing shorter, tighter ones every few chapters. That gives me an idea of where I’m headed in the short-term while letting me keep an eye on the long-term. Doing the tighter outlining in five-six chapter chunks also helps me adjust the overall outline to accomodate those little revelations and plot twists that I figure out while I’m writing.

    I’ve also become a huge fan of Scrivener for that reason. When I have the short-term outlining done in ye olde notebook, I neaten it up and plug the chapters and scenes into Scrivener. It gives me a better visual of where I’m at and where I’m going than pages of my tiny handwriting.

    So far, it’s working pretty well for me. I have another round of plotting coming up in the next couple of days, and (somewhere, 16-year-old-me is rolling her eyes…) I’m… I’m kind of looking forward to it.

  • I’m a happy pantser! But, I must admit that after Elizabeth White called me out as one I didn’t know what she meant. When she sent me a personal message with an explanation and then shared with me her method for doing things, I thought…”hey, that might work for me…” I’ve been trying to be better, but I’m afraid of the process. Maybe with practice I’ll become better accustomed to such things. I do take mental notes as I read through books. Other than that- I’m a happy little pantser learning to plot. =)

  • Another wonderful article!

    I gotta say that I had never really considered it, but I think I safely fall into the “hybrid” zone too. My first draft is always pantsed two ways to Sunday. I then write out an outline, even going in-depth enough that some chapters have an entire page of notes and scenes scribbled down. Then I go back through and bridge the gaps, fill in the holes, etc etc. It seems to work for me, so I’m happy to stick with it.

  • I hope you don’t mind, but my comment was getting WAY LONG so I chopped it and stuffed it onto my blog. It’s all about how I went from pantser to plotter, and the process I use to organize the muse vomit :)

  • I prefer Pantser or Pacifier. Plotting sounds like work, pacifier sounds, well, pacifying. HAR! I write a chapter number and a one-line description of each scene before starting. Write the book in a psychotic flurry of keystrokes, and marvel how it in no way resembles my plo… I mean, pacifier.

  • I’m not a novelist, unless you count that I got a graphic novel published by a major company in the past, but primarily an animator, but I write my own stories. Here is what being a “plotter” did for me. I write this outline. I detail it out. I revise, add new coolness and make it great. It’s an exciting process. Then, I find I am DONE. I feel the project is finished. The fire is gone. I have no desire to make it. Not a single image gets drawn nor a single frame animated.

    Granted, this may be fine if I have a staff to pass the actual animation work off too, as I do now, but when it comes to my own personal projects, it just doesn’t work. Both in comics and animation, when I am doing my own thing, I have to do it by the seat of my pants, or it never gets done (or started for that matter).

    So why are sites like this always down on pansters? You clearly mention that there are many successful pansters out there who do great work, so why do people feel like they have to hide in the closet if this is their way of creating?

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