Plotting versus Pantsing

Today I would like to talk about my feelings regarding the age-old controversy: Plotting versus Pantsing. For those of you who are new to the writing game, or who have been living in a hole feeding your muse with banana slugs and rainwater you collect in an old floppy hat, let me define those terms.

Plotting is the term used to refer to those authors who plan out their stories, sometimes in great detail, before they even start writing. They like to work with a plan, and get all their ducks in a row before they shoot them out of the sky.

Pantsing is the term used to refer to those authors who “fly by the seat of their pants”, often careering into a story with only a bare minimum of an idea and no clue of where their tale will take them in the end.

Some authors can’t work without having a detailed outline planned out in advance. They say it helps them focus their writing and makes the story stronger because they have closed all the plot holes before they even start. Others say that having an outline is too restrictive and kills the creative flow. They are more comfortable getting to know their characters and their story as they write, and that if they tried to outline then the thrill of deflowering the virgin story would fade into the tired, once a week motions of an old married couple.

I have tried both ways. Kind of.

Let me tell you a story about my first NaNoWriMo. I finally made the decision to participate in late September, early October. All I had to do then was come up with a story. By mid-October I had figured out a little of what I wanted to write about. I had at least one character, and an idea of how I would start the story. So I began planning an outline. I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, because I didn’t really know my characters (even though the main character was a thinly veiled version of myself), and I hadn’t figured out how I was going to get them out of the trouble I was putting them in. So by the end of October I only had about a third of the story outlined.

I didn’t let the incomplete outline stop me, and I started strong with the ideas I had. I was hoping to work on the outline as the story revealed itself to me. Even though I didn’t know the terms at the time, what I was doing was switching from plotting to pantsing in the middle of my book. The outline got me started, but once I had the rhythm, I didn’t think I needed it anymore. And so I finished the book in three weeks, and I was still so invigorated by the experience that I immediately started writing another story, without even bothering to start an outline. My second and third attempts at novel-writing went fairly well, and I was thinking that this might be something I could do with regularity.

Then March rolled around and I took a closer look at my NaNoWriMo effort. I had put it away for those few months, but it had been simmering in the back of my head and even though the friends and family that I had given it to had said that it was good, I knew that it was a first attempt at a first draft by a novice author. In other words, I was pretty sure it sucked. And I was right.

When I took it out again, I saw gaping plot holes, several truck full’s worth of info dumps, poor character development, and lousy dialogue. The only good thing I could say about it was that my prose was much better at the end of the book than at the beginning. And when I looked at the other books I had written, the dialogue was a little better, but the other issues were still there. And when I did NaNoWriMo again last year, I once again attempted to write without an outline, but I knew going in that the story was going to be bad. And when I stalled out halfway through it was no surprise.

I have read a few books about outlining your novel, and most of them agree that the big difference between plotting in advance and pantsing your books is that when you have a plan you usually don’t need as many drafts in editing to fix any problems that come up. Most of the work is done before you even start writing. Whereas with the books that I wrote without an outline, I am stuck essentially dissecting the entire story to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t. And to be brutally honest, what I am finding with all of them is that most of it fits into the latter category.

The last few times I tried writing something I stalled out. Even though they were only short stories, they started as only a glimmer of an idea, or a half-remembered dream, and by the time I reached the end of the first page I no longer felt like it was something worth writing. That doesn’t lead to a productive career as an author.

So what should I do? If I keep going the way I have been it will be years before anything I write (or have already written) is worth publishing. But if I try to outline I don’t feel the same level of enjoyment as I do when I am winging it.

Of course, there are many different ways to outline. Some people will nail down every last detail of their books in their outline. Others will just slap together some highlights and fill in the blanks as they go. And then there’s everything in between.

I think I will try to plan out my next book. I don’t know yet how much detail I will go into for it, but I may use the tips provided by the book “First Draft in 30 Days” by Karen S. Wiesner as my guideline. The first time I read the book I was impressed by how well she organizes her ideas into a workable outline before she even starts writing. She states in her book that by the time she is done planning her novels, her outline essentially serves as her first draft. I’m not sure I want to go into that much detail, but I am willing to give it a try. It certainly can’t hurt.

I was thinking about deconstructing my last NaNoWriMo book and using the outline method to plan out a second draft. I think that there are going to be enough changes from the original draft that I may as well just write the whole thing again, and so I could use a good outline before I start. However, that would be an awful lot of work, and I am getting tired of looking at the dreck that I produced last November, so maybe I will just start a whole new book.

I have several different ideas, including one for a major series about a group of immortals that has been influencing the human race since before the dawn of time. A little like the Highlander movie series, or the “Casca” series of novels by Barry Sadler. The idea was to place the stories in many different eras and show how these people have influenced the course of human history. Something with that grand a scope would definitely need to be planned in advance, but it is also a project that frightens me with its possibilities. I don’t think I am ready for something that large at this stage in my development as an author.

So what I think I might do is to either give my Valkyrie series another shot with a new heroine, or maybe bring out something unlike anything I have done before. Maybe a murder mystery or a spy novel. Or maybe I should try some kind of highbrow “literary” fiction. I’ll have to think about it for a while and let you know what I decide later. Feel free to leave a comment with suggestions, no matter how strange. I’m always up for a challenge.

If I am going to do the 30 day outline plan, I intend to start on June 1. I’ll gather my thoughts and figure out what I am writing and who I am writing about before then, and begin the heavy lifting at the beginning of the month. If I stick to the schedule I should have at least enough of an outline by June 30 to let me get started writing on July 1. I hope you all stick around to see what happens!

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8 Comments

Filed under NaNoWriMo, The Writing Experience, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Plotting versus Pantsing

  1. vtrippel

    For this last NaNoWriMo I tried pantsing (never heard these terms before–I like them!) and the exact same thing happened to me where it kind of fizzled halfway through.
    Outlining works for overall plot curve, but I find it lacks the NEEDTOWRITE enthusiasm that makes writing so rewarding. I would suggest a combination of both forms. I have heard from several people that they like to work on something for a while and then let it marinate for three months so that they can get a clearer view of how good the work is. Maybe you could try plotting a bit, pantsing a bit, marinating, and then revising.
    Cheers!

  2. I am firmly in the plotting camp – but….

    In my latest novel writing exercise I had a well-planned outline and a pile of notes on characters and scenes and all the good stuff associated with pre-planning your novel. About half way through the first draft I found myself drifting further and further from the outline. New and unexpected characters appeared and demanded their time in the spotlight.
    I was tempted to force myself to stay with the outline but I got some great advice and just went with the flow for a while. It improved my book immensely. A couple days later I took out my outline and redid it with the new characters and ideas.
    I think in the end the best choice between plotting and pantsing si to do both and go with what works best

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