Plotting, Pantsing and Plantsing: Finding What Makes You Tick

Why did Polly Plotter cross the road? Because her well-laid plans said to.

Why did Pantser Pete cross the road? Because he felt like it. And heck, life’s short.

Why did Plantser Pat cross the road? Because it felt right, and no cars were coming.

I’ve been using the term ‘plantser’ since I first heart the plotter versus pantser debate in the writer-sphere. Though I’m by nature a pantser, flying free can come with a price. We can write ourselves into a web of unresolvable conflict, in several different directions, or realize on page 299 that the antagonist isn’t who we thought. That’s all fine, if we don’t mind going back to revise our…well, pants off. I learned these lessons while freewheeling my way through draft one. With my second novel, my strategies are a bit different.

First, they exist. My only “strategy” with book one was to write and keep writing. Boy was that ignorance blissful… *sigh* This may work for some of you brilliant folks, but I’ve learned that I need a few guidelines.

Second, I’m outlining—sort of. I can feel you pansters cringing. Well, un-crinkle your face. I outline after writing. I get inspired by writing, so after sitting down to get paragraphs and pages out, I add another chapter or note to my outline. This helps keep perspective of the whole story, as I write it. I also jot down notes and questions to address later. (Should “Fred” be female? Add car chase? etc.)

Third, I’m writing slower, but moving ahead faster. I’m no longer fearful of taking breaks or pausing at a game changer moment if I’m not certain how I want the next bit to go. I take my idea to the gym or to dreamland, where I do some of my best thinking. Rather than aiming to write as much as possible, I’m aiming for higher quality. Some days this means revising the last chapter until I dig it. Others days it means a bunch of chapters at once. I’m pretty sure that the revision process this round will be more like spreading smooth peanut butter than using PB to get gum out of my tangled-up hair.

Fourth, I’m letting myself pants more. After the intense revision process for my first novel—a bit like turning a turnip seed into an igloo then into a turning plant—I though I might turn into a plotter. Well, I tried, and was relieved to learn I’m not. I also learned that I had far too many cooks in my fiction. This time, I’m letting the story evolve and flow until I have a solid, confident draft. Until then, I’m not allowing others’ thoughts or opinions keep my pants from flying.

Last, I have a wicked-smart talk show host angel on my shoulder. Let’s call her Hope-rah. 😉 She continually asks the tough questions—the very questions my agent asked about my first (well, first he read) draft. Does this scene matter? Is so-and-so significant? Can you take this bit further? How is that even possible? Many times, I know the answer. When I don’t, I jot the question down on my outline-in-progress or take a break. And wouldn’t you know, the answers soon come.

The lightbulb moments happen if we let them.

I’d venture to guess that most writers fall somewhere between plotter and pantser. Most plotters I know allow themselves to change their outlines as they go, and fresh ideas to crop up while writing. Many pantsers know the direction they’re headed, and some make mini outlines, a few chapters at a time. Both methods are creative, exciting and challenging. What’s important is finding what works best for us personally.

To Plot, Pants or Plants? 5 Steps Toward Honing Your Style

1. Start with what feels most natural. If you feel most comfortable doodling in a notepad for a while before writing, do it. If sitting down and diving in seems preferable, go for it. You can always shift courses along the way.

2. Experiment. You’ll know pretty quickly whether outlining works for you if you write the outline then have no problem diving in and following it. Ask writer friends what works for them. Check out tips in craft books. Consider online support networks, like ROW80 or Fast Draft. If one sounds intriguing, try it. (Again, you can always stop.)

3. Get enough sleep—and observe what happens to your writing when you don’t. Yeah, sort of out of left field, but here’s the thing. I’ve noticed that I can write articles and blog posts somewhat sleep deprived. But my creativity and sharpness for novel work tanks quickly post-insomnia-fest. We can’t know what methods work for us if our brains aren’t working well period. (The same can be said for healthy eating habits.)

4. Consider the rest of your life. I never wear a watch and love a lack of schedule. If you’re a spontaneous free-wheeler in life, there’s a good chance you’re a pantser regarding the page. (You’ve probably also learned the potential downfalls of freewheeling extreme…;)) If you make and follow to do lists and keep a well-planned calendar, you’re probably more geared toward outlining. There are, of course, exceptions.

5. Give yourself think time. Let your stories and ideas marinate. You probably know yourself better than you realize. Those lightbulbs can flash at any ‘ol time. If one of those flashes suggests a shift from pantser to plotter or vice versa, try shifting.

If we can create entire worlds and adventures in our books, I’m sure we can create writing methods worth keeping. I wish you the best of luck as you hone and savor yours. 😉

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you a plotter, pantser or plantser in between? Have you changed your methods? What strategies work best for you?

**If you’re getting ready to pitch your novel, visit How to Slam Dunk Your 90-Second Pitch, by Debra Eve. I’m honored that she included bits from my experience in her terrific post.