Plotter or Pantser?

Jun 18, 2019

 

One of the eternal, fundamental debates among the community of writers is between the "plotters" and the "pantsers." Plotters stand on the side of order behind a phalanx of outlines, character sketches, and spreadsheets, while pantsers stand on the side of chaos, poised over a blank page, ready to spill words.

Someone recently asked me what kind of novelist I am:

Are you one of those terrifying people who start with an image or a notion and just plunge into the thing without a roadmap, or are you a serious outliner who knows where they’re going before they write the opening line?

I started work on Rogue Planet several years ago as a NaNoWriMo project with minimal preparation. I developed the story idea from a remembered image of a broken moon hanging in the sky, from the events that might lead to that situation, and what might follow such events. I thought about the unlikely characters to be found in the aftermath, such as a retired soldier and his adopted daughter, or the first family on Mars. I also did a bit of pre-writing in the form of a character sketch of two of the main characters in a different situation, but apart from that, I thought I could wing it and power through a rough draft with only a beginning and ending in mind.

I quickly found that the writing was more difficult than I’d imagined, that time was short, and that I wasted, either from apprehension or procrastination, what time I did manage to scrape together. I quickly fell behind in the NaNoWriMo word count, and after a time I had set the whole project aside.

A few years later, I determined to pick it back up again, and this time came at the project from a different direction—I made an outline. Starting with broad strokes, I summarized the novel’s three acts. From there I continued breaking down by threes until I had a rough plan for more than 20 chapters. I determined the word count target for the whole novel and used that to figure out the approximate chapter and scene word count. I mapped out scenes for the first few chapters and started writing.

With a roadmap in place, the writing went more quickly. I still struggled with time and procrastination, but I was no longer guessing where the characters needed to go, or what they needed to do. I continued breaking down future chapters into scenes as I went, making notes for revisions as I realized the need for them. A few years later, the first draft was complete, and even though the story deviated from that first outline, it would not have happened without it.

Now, after those years of work, and of studying other storytelling methods, I always make some plan at the beginning of a new story, and trust the outline to light a path, whether or not the muse or I follow it.

Books

Reading Notes cover
the Christ of my Confusion cover