How I Plan a Book: Of Plotters and Pantsers

So this is actually the first part of a series I started over on my blog for my NaNoWriMo Bootcamp (feel free to join!). However, I wanted to share it here as well to make sure all the awesome Pub(lishing) Crawl readers don’t miss out on something they might find helpful.

If you’d like to read other parts in the series, here is part 2 (Before I Start Drafting) and part 3 (Scene-Level Planning). And a 4th, final part will be coming on Monday. 🙂

Now, onto the introductory post!

I’m not a traditional outliner when it comes to writing my stories.

Actually, up until a month ago, I actually would have labeled myself a straight-up pantser (i.e. writing a novel entirely by the seat of my pants). But I realized that wasn’t really true.

I also realized that many of my so-called “panster” friends were actually outlining—they just didn’t see it that way.

And I also realized that many of my “outliner” friends  were never actually adhering to their outlines—it was just a fluid roadmap.

In fact, it turns out that a lot of us authors are doing the exact same thing but labeling our method different things.

But a rose by any other name is still a rose, right?

The simple truth is we all plan to some extent or another, and much of that planning involves mulling for weeks at a time, jotting ideas down long-hand, chatting with trusted critique partners/friends, listening to music, and generally behaving like a serial killer (minus the killing part).

Now, I should quickly note that NOT ALL writers plan (though every published author I know does to some extent), and there must be some writers out there who create detailed outlines to which they strictly adhere (again, I know none of those writers). Yet what I tend to see most often are authors who know generally where they’re headed yet are willing to constantly let go of what they’d planned in favor of something that resonates better.

Likely you’ve heard the phrase, “headlights outlining” which refers to knowing just as far ahead in your story as your headlights can see—and then writing according to that sort of short-term outline.

But the truth is that most authors I know still have an ending in mind as they write–even if that “ending” will probably change a hundred times before they reach it or even if that “ending” is just a vague gut feeling they’re shooting toward. I would definitely qualify myself as a headlights outliner, BUT I also always have an idea of my midpoint and my ending before I start drafting.

Ultimately, “outlining” can come in many forms and you may not even recognize it as such—which is why I think so many “pansters” aren’t really pantsers at all.

Some more traditional forms of outlining:

  • Writing scene summaries on notecards
  • Making a bullet-point list of scenes
  • Writing a synopsis

Some non-traditional forms of outlining:

  • Writing any ideas on post-its, in notebooks, on scrap paper, in your phone, whatever
  • Making playlists that correspond to your story
  • Daydreaming scenes and snippets
  • Writing a terrible first draft of pure drivel and then rewriting based on what you discovered
  • Talking out ideas with a friend/CP
  • ANYTHING that involves thinking ahead in your story

Keep in mind that you might start 100% pantsing–pouring out dialogue and action without any clue where it’s going—but almost always, that approach will run out of steam. You’ll write the characters into a corner or realize you have absolutely no idea what happens next. Then, inevitably, you’ll either abandon the project (that was TOTALLY me in my early-early days of writing) or be forced to start planning so you know what to write next.

Also consider that you might start 100% outlining with something that you think is the most perfect organization of scenes and plot points. But then, as you write, you find it harder and harder to keep your characters on the train track you’d designed for them—maybe the actions you’d planned for them to make just don’t feel natural anymore. Or the love interest you’d crafted holds zero interest for you. Whatever the situation, many people come up against an outline that makes each word start to feel more and more forced. And yet again, you’ll either abandon the project or be forced to toss the outline and start writing what feels natural.

I have been in both situations many times—a despair-filled cave of not planning enough and a depressing pit of being stuck with an outline I hate. It has only been with my most recent few projects that I finally started to understand how I operate best—what sort of planning I need to do in order to write a first draft as hiccup-free as I can make it.

You tell me: Have you firmly labeled yourself as a panster or outliner? Do you think maybe you could actually fit into both camps a bit?


7 Responses to How I Plan a Book: Of Plotters and Pantsers

  1. Julie Eshbaugh Oct 18 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    Great post, Susan! I firmly believe that the plotter vs pantser debate is blown out of proportion, and that, as you say here, most writers are a bit of both. Maybe we just like to identify with one approach over the other? Thanks for getting me thinking about the different ways I can approach planning a new story!

  2. Cheyenne Oct 19 2013 at 10:03 am #

    You always give some of the clearest, most spot-on advice and this is no exception!

    I thought of myself as a pantser with a vague picture in mind until my most recent story. I started out (after the idea simmered awhile) using your post about how to write a synopsis. Coupling that with the snowflake theory, I wrote a one-sentence summary, then a two- and three-sentence summary, then a paragraph. Then a 2, 3, 4, and 5 paragraph synopsis. Building on it until I could fill in enough information for each major section of the book was how I managed to move from mostly-pantsing (is that a verb? 😉 to realising how important an outline is. Even if the details aren’t there, I need to know where I’m headed, as as you say, the road can change while you’re on it, but the important part is having a direction.

  3. Robin Hall Oct 19 2013 at 3:18 pm #

    I’ve always considered myself a pantser, but by your definition I am somewhere in between the two extremes. I always know (at least vaguely) where I’m going with my story (the ending) and usually a few highlights, and then I write forward, surprising and adjusting my thinking as I go. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely outline. The one time I wrote a detailed synopsis I never wrote the book-I already knew everything and I didn’t care. I’ll continue my somewhere in the middle, leaning to pantsing side. Great post, as always, thanks! I’ll have to check out the series on your blog.

  4. Jenna Oct 23 2013 at 9:43 am #

    NaNoWriMo 2012 I straight-up pantsed. I had only the vaguest of ideas, no outline and no synopsis. And you know what?

    That draft was AWFUL.

    Sure, I learned a lot and I did make it over 50,000 words but, when I looked at it to see whether or not I wanted to revise, the thing was utterly hopeless. The novel that I’m writing now, on the other hand, I planned obsessively, scene cards, synopsis and all. Now I’m at 71,000 words (and counting) and it’s been smooth sailing the whole way. Not to mention the fact that the writing has improved so very much.

    So, while I think pantsing can work for some people, it doesn’t work for me. It just requires a lot more revision when a draft is finished. But planning is a lot easier on one’s poor brain 😉

    • David Jón Fuller Oct 23 2013 at 10:52 am #

      I am right there with you. Pantsing for too long just wore out my metaphorical pants, and made revisions murky and extremely difficult.

  5. David Jón Fuller Oct 23 2013 at 10:51 am #

    I pantsed everything for years, before just getting exhausted with successive drafts that got longer and longer and, while each one was better, never quite worked. I was struggling with story structure. I read up on that, and thanks to two particularly good books on it, outlined my WIP before starting the next draft. It not only cut the story to the right length, it also helped me incorporate everything I liked about the previous drafts — and get it done in matter of months, rather than taking a whole year or more.
    So now, I plot. I do it according to a three-act structure, and finesse the outline before I start writing scenes, including coming up with opposing motivations, good twists, etc. This works well for short stories too, and is so, so much faster — meaning I find I get to the draft that “feels right” much earlier int he process without rewriting successive drafts to solve macro issues. It has also resulted in much greater success in publication — since adopting this approach in January, after I finished my novel I started working on new short stories and have had three accepted or published since then.
    I do also “wing it” a bit even while writing, even when I have outlined; I never turn down an idea that seems to work better. But getting the outline down first saves so much time and effort, I can get to better versions of the stories I want to tell sooner — and meet those submission deadlines.

  6. Alexa Y. Nov 6 2013 at 3:25 am #

    I used to label myself as a plotter, then I transitioned to labeling myself as a pantser. Nowadays though, as you’ve touched upon in this post, I have realized that I’m truly a combination of both. I plan a little bit when it comes to writing a story, and then I also allow myself to fly by the seat of my pants whenever I can. It’s interesting to realize that I can incorporate both into making my stories!

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