Pantsing Plotter or Plotting Pantser

It’s long been said in many writing discussions that there are two camps of writers: Plotters (Outliners) and Pantsers (Writing by the seat of your pants). Just as long as I’ve known the terms, I’ve wondered which camp I squat in. Like many aspects of my life, I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I warm my butt in one camp while roasting marshmallows in the other. Some people say that any plotting, any outline at all, makes me a plotter. Fine, fine, but know that those camp members think of me with the affection of a camp robber come to beg for scraps, or not receiving that, swiping stuff off the table and flying away again. Oh, when I say camp robber, I’m not talking about a homeless person who skulks from campsite to campsite. I’m talking about a bird.

This post is largely inspired by the project I’ve been struggling to finish. It’s gone through a lot, and I mean a lot, of revisions. I’ve tried a variety of tactics. Plotting. Pantsing. Revising. Re-ordering. Scrapping, starting over, trying to impose order on it later. My poor husband has often declared, “Just finish it already!”

I’d love to. I would. But every time that I read it, it said something that was good (or goodish) but not right. It was the wrong story, sometimes being told with the right characters, sometimes being told with some of the right plot beats. I would also love to just scrap it and continue on with my life, but this is one of those stories which has been maturing in my head since 2010. I didn’t realize it until I was going through my old papers, and I found the synopsis for the story I would write and re-write in 2013 and 2014. I also found two other attempts to write it dating 2011 and 2012.  The early renditions were with different character names and the world was different enough that I knew I had not actually tried to write the same story. Three times in my life I wrote what I thought were three different stories, but they were really the same tale trying to come out of my subconscious again and again. In 2013, I added a fourth time I thought I was generating new material but in reality I was expanding on previous attempts.  The plot felt forced and I decided to re-write throughout 2013 and again this year, but it was only this year that I saw all those old renditions, and I knew this is one of those stories that I have to tell.

When I realized this, I opened up another new document (yes, I know!) and I remembered what was important from all those other times. And I started writing.

I had no outline for the first 6 chapters, and frankly I got stuck on Chapter 4 until I forced myself to type out 7,000 words in one day. That gave me a kick start, and had me clipping along until Chapter 6, when I made a brief list of what needed to happen, and I ordered them chronologically according to the cause-effect relationship. Then I wrote those out. I finished up those scenes on Chapter 9, and in Chapter 10 I realized I was plotting knocking over the metaphorical dominoes. I was only on Chapter 10, it was too early to start whacking them down. Yesterday I wrote another list of scenes. Today I realized half of them were settings, and not scenes, and the other half were events without the need for a particular setting. So I paired them up. Hence “cleaning the streets up after the storm” combined with “brief meeting with Resistance”–let’s face it, an organized meeting of the Resistance is a sure-fire way to get caught, whereas a less-than-chance meeting in a busy setting makes a deal of sense. And then I started to fill in the gaps, and included in the scene describing what is important that happens. Suddenly I have a paragraph narrating what happens in the next 14 beats. Add 14 to 10, and you get 24 chapters. I was planning on having this be approximately 25 chapters, at about 3,000 words in a chapter or about 75,000 words for a book. This fits my ideal range of between 60,000 – 90,000 words. It’s what my mother would call “a vacation book”, something which may be read in a couple of days with plenty of time to do other things.

You can see how I debate if I’m writing by the seat of my pants, or actually plotting. I do a lot of both. I think that plotting is more efficient, but I also think that I get more rewards by pantsing. What about you guys? Do  you outline, or do you just take the leap?



2 thoughts on “Pantsing Plotter or Plotting Pantser

  1. Were I to call it off the cuff, I’d say I’m a plotter, but the truth of the matter is it depends on the project as each so far have had their own unique set of demands. I notice that the more I like a central idea, the more my muse is in tune with it, the less I plot. My prior project required a minimal amount of manual outlining as the story and its characters seemed pretty complete in my head. On the other hand, the less enamored I am with an idea, the beefier my outline becomes. Presently I’m struggling through a story that has been haunting the shadows of my mind for some time now, something I feel I’ve got to exorcise and get out on paper before I can go on to explore other manuscript ideas. The only way I could even approach the slippery-bugger was via an outline. In this particular case, it began, as usual, with a small scratch plot line, a basic Freytag’s Pyramid. As I continued to work it, however, it evolved and presently is several pages long. That being said, I never feel so slavishly tied to an outline, large or small, that I can’t enjoy those exhilarating flights of fancy the muse sometimes supplies. More than once while in the midst of composing, she’s hijacked me and we’ve gone careening off into the unknown to learn new and glorious things about my story I had no idea were awaiting discovery. So pansotter…plotster…I guess a bit of both.

    1. I love the invented terms! And I’ve been hijacked by the muse with unrelated stories sooo much. Like you, I’ve learned the best way to get back on track is to write down the essentials in as abbreviated form as possible in order to return to the task at hand. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a several page long outline before, maybe a page or two, but I have difficulty with more than that. I have a tough time expanding stuff out to the Snowflake method. Anything more than a couple paragraphs for a major beat, and I struggle… It’s been a while since I’ve heard the term Freytag’s Pyramid! I’m glad you posted the link. Brought me back to high school English class. For the muse hijacking, I have to do a synopsis, quick overview of characters, and whatever plot bits stand out. Then I feel better.

      …and I think I like the term plotster the best.

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