There are a handful of fundamental debates that cycle through the writing community: indie vs trad, wide vs exclusive and plotter vs pantser. Some of these debates have obvious answers, others less so. Where writers may flip between indie and trad or wide and exclusive, depending on where their business model sits, there’s less movement in our methods of creating the stories themselves. Writers tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum of plotter or pantser and sit there. But ALLi blog manager Sacha Black tells a different story.
What’s the difference between Plotting and Pantsing?
I like to think of plotting and pantsing as a continuum. On the one end, you have plotting: a structured and planned approach to writing. Typically a plotter will know as much as possible about their story before they begin. Before a plotter starts writing, they might have written:
- Character profiles
- Detailed outlines covering the story as a whole
- Chapters or scenes outlines
- Story arc outlines
A pantser takes a more fluid approach. They might not know anything before they start writing. Just the fragment of the idea that sparked the story. Of course there are many writers who mix the two and sprinkle a little of each method into their process. And in reality, whichever method you prefer doesn’t really matter. What matters is finding a method that works for you and helps your creative mind spill words onto the page.
My journey as a recovering plotter addict
When I first started writing, I was a hardened plotter. I made the rookie mistake of ‘assuming’ I needed to know everything about my story before I could start writing. Something that led me to not write for over a year because I was too busy killing trees and creating reams of notes. Thankfully, I bumped into the National Novel Writing Month challenge and promptly wrote 57k in a month. Ironically, I didn’t refer to my notes once during that month of writing. Which left me wondering: had I wasted the last year plotting?
That very logical question didn’t stop me continuing to plot – apparently I’m a stubborn old mule. So stubborn, in fact, my writing friends used to say my home was the place where post-its came to die!
But each time I plotted a manuscript, I’d get a few chapters in and realize the story was veering off into the wilds of my imagination, the characters weren’t toeing the line and I didn’t have a clue what was going to happen anyway.
Then I read Writing into the Dark by Dean Wesley Smith and my eyes were opened. A couple of things really stood out to me, the first was that not having an outline gave you more creative freedom to change things. Now, of course, as a plotter you’re still free to change anything you’ve planned. But something struck home about the efficiency of that. It’s more efficient not to plan if I’m going to change the story anyway. Why waste my time?
The second concept was the one that tipped me over the edge. If you don’t know where your story is going, the reader won’t be able to guess either. *queue a magnificently cliched cackle* That’s the kind of book-mojo every author dreams of. I was sold.
I then spoke to Dean as part of the ALLi’s #SelfPubCon, aka the Self-Publishing Advice Conference (and if you haven’t registered for the Fall conference, you really should).
You can register here.
His session solidified my move towards pantsing – something Dean refers to as ‘writing into the dark’. If you missed his conference session, I highly recommend catching up with it right here.
Top tips for recovering writing method swappers!
If you’re like me and you’ve either changed (or are) changing it currently, here’s some top tips to help you:
- Acceptance – whether you’re moving towards plotting or pantsing, you need to except that change is okay. In fact, change often sparks new ways of thinking, creates motivation and brings new ideas.
- Experiment – changing your method will upset your writing process which means it will take some experimentation to figure out what works best.
- Beat block – If you find yourself getting blocked because you’ve changed your process, then switch back to your old method. Whether that’s planning the next couple of chapters or free writing a thousand words, try mixing and matching until you find what works.
- Sprint write – sometimes putting myself under time pressure forces me to write words, especially if I time myself along with another writing buddy.
Top tips for recovering plotters!
- Find a critique partner – one of the biggest issues for me as a pantser is that I think in an ‘out of brain’ way. In that I like to physically writes notes or create diagrams to work out what I think. When I stopped plotting, I lost that ability. However, I now have a trusted critique partner who I phone if I get stuck so I can bounce ideas around and talk through character motivation. It helps that she will question decisions and motives which prevent me from writing myself into a corner.
- Early critique feedback – this is going to be controversial because I know lots of advice is to get to the end of your first draft without sharing it. But that doesn’t work for me. If I pants, I’m more likely to create a plot hole if I don’t have a set of objective eyes on my work before I get to the end of the first draft. I like to avoid major rewrites where possible. So I send my manuscript in chunks to my critique partner. It varies manuscript by manuscript, sometimes it’s at the end of every chapter, others not until I’m over half way through.
- Edit as you go – another controversial point. But I find writing a few chapters and then cycling back through them to pick up major errors, continuity problems and tightening up the language means I keep the earlier parts of the plot fresh – so I don’t make mistakes – and when I get to the end of the first draft, it’s more like a second or third draft and more or less ready to go to the editor.
OVER TO YOU
Have you changed your process as you’ve progressed through your writing journey? Who out there is a plotter and who’s a pantser?
If you enjoyed this post, you might like these from the ALLi archive.