The Writing Life

…a literary journey

Planner or Pantser?


outline or pantser

Depends on the medium.

I will always be a planner when it comes to my novels, and unfortunately I have no wiggle room in this belief. I usually hate when people can’t see both sides of something, but this is one topic on which I can’t see myself budging.

Be assured, it comes from a good place! First of all, my own experience being a positive one, and the failed attempts of other writers I know who refuse to outline, thinking it’s not creative. When someone asks me for advice because they’re not sure where a certain passage goes, or why they find themselves repeating information – I  ask them if they outline.

“Nope,” they say. “I’m a pantser.”

They’re flying by the seat of the pants, writing in Word and now wondering why their story has no continuity or they can’t remember what type of music or food their character likes. What was that job your main character had and hated, leading her to joining that cult? Why is his kid sister now a redhead when in the first chapter you likened her dark locks to an exotic Greek belly dancer?

I get that you want to get that story out as quick as possible, but you will delight yourself with the result if you take time to think about the entire storyline and your character’s moves throughout the story.

I write what I think my three acts will be upfront. Why? Because I need to know that I have a possible beginning, middle and end. Or else, guess what? There’s no story. That belief is generally confirmed by friends who tell me that they get stuck in the middle – they know exactly what happens in the beginning and how it should end, but no idea what should happen in the middle. Outlining is great for creating ideas for middle scenes & chapters.

I’m the first to admit that by 20-30,000 words in, I’ve strayed from the original plan. And it’s better than what I had originally, but that’s okay – at least I had a map to where I want to end up at. The whole “it’s not creative” is a load of crap; having the original story idea is creative, mapping out the characters is creative, ending up a good storyteller is creative! I don’t need to free flow 100,000 words plus to feel creative. *One common misstep of first-time pantsers is that their story never ends, it goes on and on and on, with no regard to genre or thinking about the near impossible chance that any agent will want to look at a 170,000 word debut novel. And how can they help but write too much – what with no planning, it would be challenging to keep up with where you are, let alone know when to stop.

OKAY – I’M A TOTAL OUTLINE SNOB – I’M SORRY, BUT READ ON…

Remember what I said about the medium? When it comes to my short stories, it’s pure adrenaline and imagination.

 HOW CAN YOU SUSTAIN THAT FOR AN ENTIRE NOVEL?

 I don’t  think you can. But with a short story, it’s like a drug with me. Some random thought will come into my mind and it turns into a story. Or I see something on television, or something outside strikes me. It is the strangest feeling, but I love it.

The last story I wrote is called The Four O’clock. And how I got there from the inciting incident, I have no idea. But as usual, it stemmed from something that struck me. In this case, I just finished watching Manchester by the Bay. It was a beautiful story, but what did I take from it – me, this girl who has spent her entire life in Texas or Florida? The image I couldn’t get out of my mind was that when someone dies up north, it may be too cold for a burial…and that there’s times when a funeral is held, and it’s not until months later when the family finally lays the body to rest. SMACK ME IN THE FACE! I was shocked; I had no idea. I would have no reason to know that fact, but wow it just stuck with me for weeks. Of course, I started researching it (See, I never get away from all the planning, because I’m a stickler for making my settings, especially ones I haven’t visited, realistic.) I read all about the laws some counties try to pass to prevent cemeteries from closing during the winter months etc…

It was fascinating, and the story rolled on from there. Nothing as touching as Manchester by the Bay…in fact, it went in a dark direction, but so much fun to write.

ARE YOU STILL WITH ME?

In the end, the great thing about writing is you choose how you want to do it. But the great thing about great writing is having your readers enjoy the ride you’re taking them on; never having to re-read a section or a page to try and understand what was meant, or why something is out of place.

I think there’s a place for both philosophies – we just have to know which one works when. And I’d love to hear from those of you who disagree, give me some insight into great books whose authors were pantsers by design!

write on…

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