Plotter or Pantser

I recently outlined my current work in progress to the end. This made me think of something a fellow author at CopperCon said about the writing process: “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” I thought this was a great, clever way to describe something that is sometimes a contentious issue among writers. Usually I hear it discussed in different terms: outlining vs. “organic” writing. I can’t tell you how much those terms make me itch.

Maybe the word organic wouldn’t bother me so much if it weren’t bandied about as a marketing catchphrase to sell expensive stuff at the grocery store. This incredibly off-topic tangent goes into my basic skepticism about all advertising claims (and would go further off topic if I could find the links to the articles I’ve read about how much organic food only marginally qualifies for that label) but regardless, the term carries connotations of wholesomeness and a more natural way of doing things. When applied to writing, it suggests that people who outline – a practice that is always listed in contrast to “organic” – are doing it less naturally.

I have to assume that people who don’t outline have been routinely, perhaps unfairly, criticized for being sloppy or amateurish, and describing their process as “organic” is a way to defend themselves. Because “I’m an organic writer” often sounds defensive, and can create a sense of conflict with those nasty GMO outliners. That’s one reason I was so delighted by the phrase “plotter or pantser.” It’s cute as a button. It lacks that defensive connotation. And it’s a somewhat more accurate description of how people actually write: either sitting down to plot things out from the start or just flying by the seat of your pants.

But even that is a false dichotomy. Every writer has to start with the brainstorming stage, that impossible-to-plan burst of creativity that puts a lot of disparate ideas together into something you can’t help but write. Starting with anything else gives you an essay, not a story. Some writers go straight from brainstorming to keyboard, while some do a lot of plotting before they start to write, but that initial spark is always the brain flying by the seat of its pants. (Writing prompt: describe the kind of pants your brain would wear.)

Similarly, every writer has to spend some time plotting. Diana Gabaldon is perhaps the most famous for how long she goes in the writing process without plotting – at a con several years ago I heard her describe how her books start as a lot of individual, disconnected scenes, which she ultimately stitches together into a plot – but even she eventually gets to that plotting stage. Without a plot, it’s lot of sketches, not a story.

I’m probably in the middle of the plotter-pantser range. I do a lot of brainstorming before writing. My initial attempts at the keyboard are very seat-of-pants. I usually write an opening chapter three or four times before I have something I’m willing to use. Somewhere in the process of finding that right opening, characters that I like, and a voice that will carry the story, I decide what the story needs to be. My initial outline is incredibly vague. The outline for The Bright and the Dark (book 2 of a trilogy) and Chasing Fire (book 3) started like this: “Aron Jannes makes the wrong choice at the end of book 2 and the right one at the end of book 3.” I didn’t know until halfway through each book what the options he had to choose from would be.

That halfway mark is usually where I make my chapter-by-chapter outline. Prior to that, I make a lot of notes about things that could happen and issues I want to address. The outline fleshes itself out as I go. Seems pretty natural to me.

How about you – plotter or pantser?


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