Vectors: Plotter or Pantser?

Our question this week: Plotter or pantser? Have you changed your position on the spectrum and if so, how?

Tina Connolly

tina_connolly-300x450I used to be a total pantser. Not the sort of pantser who describes their process as “following the headlights down a dark twisty road”, but a terrible sort that involved seeing one little image that might be part of a story someday. It might be a sentence, it might be a character, it might be a moment. And then, seeing another little image. And another. And maybe the first image is the end of the story and maybe the second one is in the middle and maybe the third one is also in the middle, but a different middle, one that exists if the story goes somewhere else. (But in the meantime, you’re going to need this non-canon 3rd image in order to find the 4th image, and the 6th.) And then, trying to put all these things together.
This worked . . . okay . . . for short stories.

This was terrible for novels.

I have a trunked novel written this way. It’s a glorious mess, and maybe someday it’ll come out of the trunk and try to reform. But basically around the time of Ironskin (my 7th novel), I had to learn to start writing linearly. There were still many times in that novel I would jump sideways and write another piece of the puzzle that had occurred to me, and then go back. Copperhead got a little better, process-wise. And then with the last novel, Silverblind, I was finally able to just write it from start to finish. No jumping around. And I think it’s my strongest novel yet.

My current process is somewhere between plotter and headlights. I start by figuring out the loose overall arc to the story. About as much as would go on the back of a book, say. Then I start writing, finding the voice, finding out things I didn’t know. I go back and refine my outline, adding more detail. Back and forth. I’m enjoying this process much more than the floundering connect-the-dots I had before, and I think it may stick with me for awhile. . .

E. C. Ambrose

E. C. AmbroseI used to write only when the inspiration took me–so I might not write for weeks, then suddenly I would spend days on end working on the novel. Each time, the spaces seemed to grow–I’d spend more time doing nothing, then more time writing. But the books that resulted from this tended to be rambling and jumpy. I did sell one of these books, which was submitted at 220K words, and published at 167K–ouch! Painful revision!! Two big epiphanies lead me to my current process.
First of all, I had a bunch of friends doing NANO. I couldn’t take off the month of November (I was running a wholesale gift business at the time) But I could take off most of January into February, so I did a personal chapter-a-day challenge. I wrote 38 chapters in 35 days, the book that became Elisha Barber. I think this approach allowed me to maintain the energy of the work during the whole time I was writing. On the other hand, the book has a single protagonist, and a fairly tight plot structure. I would get ideas about things to happen later and jot them on old business cards to keep a sort of loose, running outline. The equivalent of a GPS for that dark, windy road where I could see a few turns ahead, but not the whole roadmap.

By the time I sold Elisha Barber, as book 1 of “The Dark Apostle” series, I had written 4 more books to follow it, and wrap the series. Unfortunately, the editors loved the first book, but wanted the rest of the series to be bigger, more epic. They wanted. . . an outline! Gasp. So this dedicated pantser sat down and brainstormed a new series structure. They weren’t crazy about it. They had suggestions. I wrote a new outline with those suggestions. I wasn’t crazy about it. I wrote yet one more outline–this time really working each major turn, especially developing a climax worthy of the whole series.

And lemme tell you–far from making me lose steam on the books because I know how they end, having that big, amazing moment to work toward has fired me up about it. I still make changes as I go–usually moving around parts of the outline rather than ditching them entirely–but the outline gives me confidence about the work. I just finished developing an outline for a new series, taking my time with the R&D, then doing a lightning draft for the first few chapters, combining the big-picture structure tools of the outline with the energy and excitement of the writing flow. Can’t tell you how jazzed I am to get to work on that!

M. K. Hutchins

MK HutchinsWith short fiction, I usually write a scene-by-scene outline before drafting. Every scene carries so much burden of the story that I feel I need to carefully plan it out for the story to flow and make sense.

With novels, I used to wing the entire thing, but the results were not always pretty (or even salvageable). Now I start a book with a very rough outline — maybe a page or two of notes, often along the lines of Dan Well’s 7-point-plotting system, which makes a lot of sense to me.

But “outlining” isn’t just something to do before writing a book. Whenever I finish a chapter, I go summarize it in my ongoing chapter-by-chapter outline. I usually outline the next chapter before I actually write it as well. Having a broad framework to hang the story on, then keeping track of what I’m actually doing, helps me a lot. But digging in and just writing gives me ideas for what should happen next. I also love writing a character into a horrible bind with no idea of how they’ll survive, because then I’m pretty sure my reader won’t know, either.

So, plotting and pantsing are, for me, both valuable tools.

Fran Wilde

Fran2014It depends on the story. Quite often, I write a scene or a voice because it wants to be written — so a complete pants — and then I block out what kind of story that scene is trying to tell — plotting. The first novel I wrote was loosely outlined. The second was pantsed, then plotted, then the last third came out in a completely different direction than I’d expected, and that was great too.

Story’s gonna story.

J. Kathleen Cheney

screenshot2Definitely a plotter. I’ve rarely had any luck just ‘going where the story takes me.’ When I try that I usually have to go back and rein in all the subplots that want to go off in every direction. So in interest of being efficient (which is my goal these days), I’m working harder on the front end. I hope that saves me headaches on the editing end.

Not that I’m perfect. I usually write an outline and fall off the outline wagon somewhere about 1/3 of the way through. By 2/3s I’m hopelessly off….so I re-outline the rest of the book then and try to fix it. In fact, this has always been a problem for me, so much so that while I do outline the story and I know where it will end, I’ll generally only produce a detailed outline for the beginning of the book. The middle third is lighter, and the last third of the outline is sketchy at best. Why spend the time creating an elaborate ending when I know that by the time I get there I’ll have to redo the outline?

That doesn’t qualify me as a pantser, though…

Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. UnderwoodI see plotter and pantser as two extremes of one continuum. I’ve swung from 95% pantser to 80% plotter over the course of my writing career. Before I wrote my first novels, all of my short stories were 100% pantsing.

My first novel was 90% pantsed, with only the vaguest structure in mind. When I wrote Shield and Crocus, my third novel (before Geekomancy, but published after), I built out a bit of an outline, a ‘lamp posts in the darkness’ structure that gave me landmarks but little in the way of connective tissue or points in-between.

Each novel since then, and in a big way in the last year, I’ve moved more and more toward being an outliner. Attack the Geek was broken out down to the scene, and Hexomancy, which I’m writing even now, Is broken down to scene and beats within. I still go off-outline, and frequently, trying not to be afraid to let my imagination lead me down unforseen paths on the day and in the moment.

My next step is not to outline more, but to outline smarter, to look at the arcs, sub-plots, and to have more of a sense of the shape of the story in addition to the beat-by-beat of ‘this happens, and then that, all leading to this’ outlining that I do now. I know that I’m only operating at the low levels of plotting, and I’m hoping I can get better and smarter at it to produce even stronger first drafts and to be able to look at complete drafts and get better at identifying where the structure has gotten lopsided and needs to be corrected to create more beautifully-shaped stories

Beth Cato

BethCato-steampunk-headshotI’m totally a plotter, but then, I’m even a plotter in real life. I’m the queen of to-do lists and planning out my day, researching restaurants before I will eat there, etc. It only makes sense that this carries over to my writing. I even do little outlines for flash fiction.

That said, I’m flexible within my plots, too. My writing tends to surprise me, especially as I near the climax. There’s often a point as I write or as I rewrite when the proverbial light bulb clicks on over my head and I realize, “Oh yeah, THAT is what I was writing.” My novels in particular are this way. I heavily outline plot and subplot up to the climax. At that point, I have vague ideas of the event and definite ideas about the result, but no clue how it actually happens.

That said, my poetry is my one area of spontaneity. I start with a prompt or first line, write, and have no idea where it will go. My rough drafts tend to pour out all at once.

Lawrence M. Schoen

Lawrence SchoenIn thinking about my answer this week, it felt a bit like being enrolled in a 12-step program and attending a meeting. Imagine yourself in a room full of cheap folding chairs occupied by a menagerie of authors, a table with bad coffee and donuts at the back, and some writer standing at the front who introduces himself by name and then adds, “And I’m a Pantser.”

When I first started writing, my fiction began with a cool idea and a character. That was enough to begin the engagement for me (and ideally, for my reader). It’s that teaser at the beginning of a television show before the first commercial break; if they did their job you’re still watching after the commercial ends. Beginnings are crucial.

With a Beginning in hand, I’d then turn to the Ending. How do I want things to look when it’s all over? Where will my character be and how is he different now (which is not the same as how did those changes come about)?

Once I had a rough idea of my Beginning and my Ending, I was off! This for me is the very definition of being a Pantser. As you stand at the start of your tale, there are an nigh infinite number of ways for you to get from Point A to Point B. Who needs a map? Turn off the GPS and just head out. The adventure will unravel.

The problem though is that while you can often get a satisfying story this way, I’ve found the the odds of actually doing so go way up when you have a clear (which is not necessarily the same as saying “detailed”) outline before you begin.

The thing that converted me was spending two weeks on top of a mountain and learning from master plotter Walter Jon Williams. I refer to his master class, the Taos Toolbox. That experience set me on the road of recovery (to continue beating the 12-step metaphor).

The last thing I’ll say about being a (reformed pantser) outliner is that when you have an outline and you get stuck on the part of the book you’re working on, you can skip ahead to another point along the line and keep on going. Which allows me to turn the unrepentant pantsers in the room and go “neener neener” when they get stuck.

Steve Bein

Steve BeinI’ve always been a plotter, and I wish to hell I wasn’t. Plotting is the hardest part of writing to me.

I’ve tried it the other way, and writing by the seat of my pants, I can churn out lots of snappy dialogue. Nice descriptions of settings and characters too. Cool fight scenes, interesting philosophical problems, all that good stuff. What never, ever emerges is story. It’s all just rambling.

So I’m a plotter because I have to be. I think of it this way: I need to log a flight plan before I take off. I need to know my destination in advance. That said, unexpected turbulence can force me to depart from the plan. I always outline, but I rarely end up following the outline point by point. The flight path evolves as it progresses, swerving to avoid problems as they arise.

So where are you on this continuum?


  1. I love reading these! Especially Fran Wilde’s “Story’s gonna story.”

    I’ve thought I was almost purely pantser for years now, and I definitely started out that way, but reading this I think I’m further along on the outlining scale than I thought. I do usually start a novel with a one or two page point-to-point outline which goes wildly off course in short order, and I note-outline a few chapters ahead as I go. Any more than that and I get twitchy. I love the sheer discovery. But I’ve learned from some wonderful disasters that it’s good to have a least a bit of a plan, or at least something to anchor to. So, 60-70% pantser?

    And if the trend here seems to be pansters shifting more to plotters, I wonder if it’s in direct relation to grasp of plot and structure?

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