Plotting V.S. Pantsing

You know how at the beginning of each how-to post the author tells you why you should listen to them? Why they are uniquely qualified to speak to you on this subject? Well. Here is a short version of that.

In the plotting and pantsing world I am not exactly in either camp. Nor am I one of those enlightened people who sit squarely in the middle of the line with their novels. I am a metronome. Sometimes I swing all the way to the pantsing side of writing, sometimes I swing the other way. It really depends on the day.

So do I know what I am talking about when I say plotting or pantsing? Yup. Been there done both. Whether that makes me qualified to write about this is another matter altogether. I will leave it for you to judge.

Lest you become confuzzled, let me define these terms. Ones that are bandied back and forth in the writing world all of the time. Sometimes sparking an interesting discussion, sometimes a heated debate.

In simple terms, plotters plan out their story before the first draft. Pantsers plot it out while they are writing the first draft. Plotters figure out their characters, plot, and setting waaay ahead of time. They are the ones with multiple notebooks dedicated to different elements of their story. Pantsers sit down with the germ of a story idea, a pen, and a piece of paper, and figure it out as they go along. Plot outlines? Character worksheets? What are those?!

The most heated debates come when writers begin to discuss which one is better. To plot first, or to plot later, that is the question. To which I say, depends on the day?

Pantsing Strengths

At this particular moment, the novel I am working on has been completely pantsed. When I began writing it I had a phrase, and half of a character. As I wrote I found more characters, and eventually figured out what on earth was going on with this story. That is the magic of pantsing. It is like a movie going on underneath your fingers. No one knows what is going to happen next. Least of all yourself. Everything is a surprise, and the magic that keeps us writing is everywhere. It is the first blush of that story, untainted by planning, that gets you through that first draft.

Also in pantsings favor is the fact that you can start right away. No waiting until every plot point is filled and every character question answered. You don’t even need to know the theme before you write those first words. I love that. I love that I can sit down and begin, and somehow that first bit of a story idea becomes a full story.

Plotting Strengths

Now while my current WIP is being pantsed, I have many many many plotted stories in progress. Ones that were plotted withing an inch of their life before I even started the first chapter.

As with pantsing, I start with the first blush of an idea. And then I figure out what on earth I am going to do with this idea. Which means all the worksheets, all the character questionnaires, and all the theme wonderings. What I love about this method is that I get to answer all of my questions before hand. There is something breathtaking about creating a character arc and watching it unfold before your eyes. I don’t have to wait for the end of the book to find out what is going to happen to all of my characters. I can figure it out right now! Then there is writing out each and every plot point and deciding what happens when. My organized self gets a thrill out of that part! When each character arc connects to the plot points, and it is all tied together by the theme, that there is pure magic.

I must say that the actual writing of the story goes much smoother when you have it all planned out before hand. There are less writing block moments and way fewer times that your characters have backed you into the corner with less than no ways out.

Pantsing Weaknesses

What, did you think I was going to let you leave without telling you the dangers of each method? Nope! Prepare to be overwhelmed.

If you absolutely hate writers block, if even the mention of it wants to make you hide under your bed with chocolate, then don’t pants. Trust me. When you barely an idea with where you are going to go with your story, writers block springs up often. Yelling ‘surprise!’ and then wondering why you are running away screaming.

It is easier to write yourself into a corner with pantsing. You eagerly follow each and every rabbit trail, and then wonder how on earth your characters ended up on the edge of a cliff with no ways of rescue. Hm, maybe I should write in a flock of eagles?

Also, you will have to edit many many times. There is no first then second then finished draft with pantsing. Unless you are a writing genius of course. You will have to do way more after the first draft to make sure that it all goes smoothly. And that includes refining character arcs, filling in plot holes, and foreshadowing. Things that you would have already done if you had plotted. So if you hate editing, try to have some of the planning and questioning done before hand.

Plotting Weaknesses

Even with your mega plans and color coded plot your novel still might fall flat on its face. Or never get written in the first place.

The greatest weakness I have found in plotting is the fact that you are never done planning. There are always more questions to answer about your character, always more bits to find out about your world, and always more research to do. You may find yourself always plotting and planning and never getting to the first draft. And if you don’t get to the first draft, you don’t have a novel. Only a well planned project that you will get to, someday.

Also, if you have created a multi faceted plot that has planned for every eventuality and filled every plot hole and put every character in a firmly defined box, your characters will grab the reins and run away with the whole story. It seems to be the rule of all plots. The more you tack them down, the smallest thing will upset them. If I don’t make sense, I apologize.

You see, writing is a creative process. Which means you are using the creative side of your brain most of the time. You know, the side that wakes you up at 2:00 AM with a great idea. That side will refused to be tamped down, and when you least expect it will pop up with this great idea that will send your perfect plot careening off course.

Pantsing Ideas

I thought this post was long enough, but I didn’t want to leave you with all of this dismal news. My hope is that these how-to posts are useful, and so I want to give you a few ideas to make each side easier to write. To avoid each pitfall and tap into the strengths.

I have found that pantsing becomes more manageable when you take notes while you are writing. Whether those notes are in a different color within your draft, or in a different notebook, or even at the end of each chapter, write ’em. Notes will save you from wondering where your characters went, and keep you from hours of finding where you wrote down what color your MC’s eyes are.

If you are writing notes, you have a quick look at what you will have to edit later. Possibly saving you a draft, or at least a bunch of time.

This idea is to keep writers block in the corner. Keep the ending in mind. No, this isn’t me trying to finagle you into plotting. Know where you are going with your story, at the very least you will know when you need to end it. Chances are, you already have an idea of where your story is going, just fine tune it a bit. What is the goal of the characters? Are the characters going to get their goal? Or not? Figure that out, and your pantsed novel will end right on time.

Plotting Ideas

Don’t plan too much. That about sums up my advice for this side of the question. If you plan too much, your novel won’t be written. Which isn’t quite what you want, is it? We all want to finish our stories, so do yourself a favor and stop planning. Find a point that you can stop, and stop. Decide beforehand what that point will be. Are you going to plan until you have a basic idea? Until you have the whole plot finished? Answer that question, and when you have hit that point. Stop. Don’t let yourself plan any more.

Again, if you plan too much and too tightly, one small thing will make it all crash off course. Okay okay. I might be exaggerating. Your plot will probably not go crashing into a mountainside and shatter into smithereens.

However, when you are plotting, leave breathing room. Room for your characters to do unexpected things, and for unexpected people to show up. And if the unexpected happens, don’t sweat it, or try to erase it. It will be easier to put toothpaste back into a bottle than to stuff your idea back into your brain. Play with idea a bit, let it percolate. Maybe it will make your story better, even if it means that your plot will have to be adjusted a bit.

Phew. If you made it to the end of this ridiculously looong post. Congratulations! Take some chocolate strawberries. I hope it was helpful, at least a little. So go out, finish those stories! I will be over here trying to end my pantsed novel. I need to take my own advice and figure out what the ending is for this thing…

Shaina Merrick

Why I am Keeping my Day Job

Like many writers living today, I have what is called a day job. A job to pay the bills and support me while I write. My ‘true calling’, writing, will eventually take over and I will stay home and write all day. Spending my days in bliss as I churn out novel after novel. The end goal of almost every writer is to get to the point that their writing is financially able to support them so they can quit their day job and come home to write full time.

Well, the goal of every writer except me. I would prefer to keep my day job thank you very much. And it is not because I am a pessimist who thinks she will never make money from her writing. (only sometimes) Nor is it because I want to keep my writing at hobby level.

I will keep my day job because I like it. Most of the time. Now, being a PreK teacher is no walk in the park. There have been more than a few times that I have wondered why I signed up for this. However, there have been plenty of times that I wondered that about writing too. Why on earth did I think it was a good idea to put the stories in my head down on paper?

I enjoy what I do, so I don’t see myself stopping it any time soon. But even if I did quit and found myself with hours a day to write instead of snatches of time here and there, I think I would still find a job.

Sometimes, I think creative people believe that creativity exists in a vacuum. We are story writers, poets, artists, and musicians who spend hours upon hours holed up in a room pouring our hearts out into whatever medium we have chosen. Creating art is a solitary process, it has to be. But I don’t think our creativity comes from that tiny room. It comes from all around us, from our experiences, our lives, the things we have seen and the things we have heard.

I put this idea forth to you; that the stories we find ourselves thinking about are in a large part influenced by our lives. Who do you know? What do you do? How do you live? Where do you live? All of that will affect the stories you write. Whether you mean it to or not.

Writers are often told to write what they know, and the second best thing to knowing it is researching the stuffing out of it. So many writers spend even more time holed up in their room googling random, or not so random, things because they want to know it so they can write it.

Well, I for one do not want to settle for second best. I would rather do than read. So I have done, and done some more. I have traveled, explored, gotten lost, made friends and lost them, worked for myself, gotten a job, and done lots of random things. I have failed a few times, and done a face plant in life. But hey, at least I know what it feels like for my characters! (my poor characters…)

I fill my life with interesting things and interesting people in part so that my writing will be interesting. I know there are some things that will have to be delegated to research. Like going to the moon and being a prima ballerina. Yet if I can, I do rather than read. I want to know how this world works.

So no, I am not quitting my day job. I know that because of it I will write slower than most. I know that my path will be longer because I don’t dedicate as much time to my craft. But I would rather be slow, and have my stories filling with interesting things, than be fast and have my stories all sound the same.

As a side note, all the aforementioned things are not why I am sometimes late putting up a blog post. Naps are wonderful things that help you get nothing done.

Shaina Merrick

Be Brave My Friend

My dear friend. I read your story the other day. You know, the one you hesitantly posted on your blog? Trust me, I know how hard that was. The courage it took to show it to some one besides your family.

I thought it was wonderful. Thank you for sharing that bit of yourself with me. Whether that story was complete rubbish in your eyes, or the gem of your collection, it doesn’t matter.

I have never read a story quite like it before. I’m so glad I met your characters. I laughed out loud when they bumped into each other! The witty side comments in your characters head were so funny.

I know that right now you are rolling your eyes. Wondering if what I am saying is really true. You think that your story isn’t that good.

Maybe, maybe not. The important thing is that you shared it. That you worked to make something beautiful. I know you will write better stories than this one. For you will continue to grow. You may even write worse stories than this one. What I want to know is if you will be sharing anymore of them.

Please don’t be concerned with the one bad review. Even famous authors have bad reviews. Anyway, what does that person know about how hard it is to write a story? I doubt that they realize how incredibly brave it is to let other people read your story.

Just by reading the first couple of lines I could tell that you poured yourself into the story. A part of your heart spilled onto the words.

Do you know how brave it is that you shared a part of yourself with your readers? Typos and mistakes can’t change that. They don’t make your story any less valuable.

Please keep sharing your stories. Be brave. Let your story go out into the world. It may fall, but it also might touch someone. Don’t hold your words to yourself just because you are afraid that no one wants to read them.

I do. I want to read them. And I know others do to. Give your stories wings, and see what happens.

I look forward to reading your next story.

Shaina Merrick