Sorry it’s been a little while, but welcome back to another Ask a Writer blog post! Today’s question might cover some familiar territory, but it actually references a bit of writer slang I’ve seen thrown around on Twitter a lot and have never directly addressed.
@may_davenport: Are you a pantser or a planner?
Okay, so first of all, for the uninitiated who may be reading this, let me attempt to clear up what’s being asked here. The idea is that when you’re writing a book, there are two types of people: one is a “pantser”, an allusion to a “fly by the seat of your pants” style whereby the writer doesn’t have a lot of established ideas about a story and simply makes up much of it as they go along, going where the story and their natural course of writing takes them. In comparison, the second type of person is a “planner”: someone who makes a detailed outline of a story (or maybe just a given chapter) before they ever start writing it, with a hard, set mapping of what’s going to happen when, characters involved, events, details, dialogue, etcetera.
Obviously the two styles each have their own pluses and minuses. Personally, I’ve always felt a bit nervous when I sit down to write, no matter how prepared I am, so the idea of just having a completely blank page in front of me would make me very uncomfortable indeed. That said, I also believe that some degree of spontaneity is necessary in a good story, and a lot of the best ideas I have simply come to me as I’m writing. By contrast, I also have a lot of good ideas randomly during the day that I’ll jot down so I don’t forget them and later on think of where best I can slot them into a given story, if they work at all. Or maybe I’ll save it for a different book altogether. Either way, I am most definitely a note-taker–always have been, always will be. If I don’t write something down, I’ll forget it and be kicking myself for the next week for not doing it. I also do have a love of organizing things (or if you ask my mother, a lack thereof–trust me, I have my own definition of “organization” at work here), and I like to have something established in my head when writing–a list of goals, for example, or ideas for the given chapter I’m working on.
Based on all of this, I’m not sure I can truly answer the question–I guess I’m a little of both, really. So a “planser” if you will?
If you look at any given in-progress manuscript of mine, you’ll find under the chapter name (provided I’ve established one yet) a probably short list of goals, developments, events, and other things that I’ve determined need to happen at this point in the story. I’m trying to see if I can fit them all in convincingly and in a reasonable amount of space. Take this one from my current WIP, “Jack Ferguson Strikes Back”, for example (SPOILER ALERT!)
Chapter 8: Outlaw Country
Barstowe meets with Drake and encourages him to switch sides—he is unsure of what to do
Drake conscripts Lucas and Danny into helping him go back in time to recover the Dragon Sword using the Closet—ends up in frontier town on site of camp in the 1800s
Finds Dragon Sword under care of the pioneers, who are also pacifist wizards—encounters a relative of Tessa and of himself, who is the nicest man in town and is ripped off by everyone
When town is attacked by outlaws, Drake uses the artifact to defend them, but ends up absorbing its power into himself without realizing it
Influences his relative to start ripping people off and being generally evil
Rest of the group forces him to give up the sword—Drake realizes they don’t trust him
ALSO: Establish Drake’s love of country music
So there you have it: that’s what most of my chapters look like before they’re written. I’m not sure if that makes me a plotter by definition–I was always under the impression that a plotter would have a bit more details in their outline than that, or plan a whole book out in advance which I don’t really do. My outlines, such as they are, are constantly changing as I rework storylines, reconsider what characters need to be involved where, and add elements from previous chapters that didn’t quite fit. Also, as you can probably tell, I don’t plan for dialogue most of the time–unless I have a particularly good line or funny joke that I write down because I need to use and want to remember, I want my characters’ conversation to flow naturally, and making it up on the spot tends to help with that. In short, action scenes and big plot details–yes, I take notes. Conversation and dialogue–normally not.
So does that make me a pantser or a planner? I don’t know. I’d say I’m somewhere in between when all’s said and done, but I had to pick one label or the other, I’d lean on the side of pantser probably. But different things work for different people! Whatever makes your book the best it can be.