Plotting and Pantsing

In the writing world, there’s a lot of talk about two kinds of people – the plotters, and the pantsers. There are the people who plot out every step of the novel from beginning to end, with scene cards and post its, while others sit down to write with almost no plan at all. And, of course, there are people in between.

Plotting is in my nature. I’m the kind of gal who wants to plan each meal she eats, who has to do lists about which to do lists to focus on each day, who wants to have her next ten years planned out by the hour (okay, not quite that bad). But plotting in writing, doesn’t seem to come naturally to me; in school, I detest writing outlines for my essays because I’d rather just finish the thing and reorganize as I go. For my story that I’m working on now, I’ve had the basic concept of the series idea in mind for at least three years and yet there’s only about fifteen post its on the wall to corral the material of four whole books – and most of those post its are about the historical context and not the story itself.

And maybe that’s because Pantsing is also in my nature, despite the fact that I want to be a plotter – I want to have control over (or at least know) where my story is going. While I certainly have a lot of lists and plans for my life, I do get distracted along the way, getting pulled towards plenty of shiny objects that aren’t my main goal. When that happens, I end up missing the mark of a lot of the plotted out ‘points’ or goals I’d been hoping to achieve. And yet, it’s these moments of ‘pantsing’ that make me real and spontaneous and human – a being that can’t be charted.

And the more I work on these continuously evolving stories, the more I realize how important ‘pantsing’ has become to my work despite my desire to plot. My characters are not going to follow the line I set for them if it’s not in their nature; instead, when I try to force them down a path I will encounter their resistance. And this resistance, while frustrating, has pointed me in the right direction now more than once.

Pantsing is frustrating because it means 30-50K words can go away like ‘poof’ when you realize something new about your plot or characters. It would be nice if I knew them well enough at the outset to plot their lives like they would actually live them; and yet this exploration is so fascinating, so decidedly not self-directed despite the fact that all the words and characters come from me, that I can’t quite find the will to be upset about it for long.

Are you a pantser or a plotter? Somewhere in between? What strategies do you use to keep your writing on track? Let me know in the comments below.

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