Plotter or Pantser? Declare your allegiance

This is a repost from an old blog but it’s been updatified. I’ll soon be moving this blog to my page at Swing by to pick up a free book. In the meantime…

You – yeah you. Fresh faced writer looking to score your first manuscript like a druggie addicted to word processing. Or you, look at you. Slovenly half-drunk author who’s been around long enough to know how to write between bouts of binge drinking. You’re both wondering about plotting out your next magnificent masterpiece. I’ve got news for you, it doesn’t matter how you plan your next book.

There are several schools of thought when it comes to plotting out a tale. Some like to write meticulous outlines with sub-plots and character notes. They like to detail every little hook and twist so when the fully written synopsis is done, all the author needs do is to fill in the words.  It also helps if you’ve got an agent or publisher interested in your next amazing work. When someone says there’s a possibility of you getting paid to write, it’s convenient to have an outline ready to send.

Then there’s the other way of writing where you just make shit up as you go along. I have done both and there are definitely advantages and disadvantages to either method. When I wrote my first book, Among the Living, I really had no idea how to write a novel. I’d read plenty of books on the subject and also taken a number of creative writing classes but they didn’t really tell me the things I needed to know like: plotting in acts, breaking the book up into smaller–manageable sections, or even how to keep track of world building details, and character notes. Writing a 100,000+ book is not for the faint of heart. You have to have incredible attention to detail and meticulous notes. If you call a character Joe and then five pages later refer to them as Fred, or constantly mix up their gender, you may not get that magical “please send me the rest of your manuscript” letter we all hope for. Looking back now, do I wish I’d have plotted Among the Living? Hell no, then it would be a completely different book from what it is now.

Plotting is for Stuffy Writers

Plotting out a full novel is a lot of work. When I pitched a book to my former agent a few years ago she asked me to send her a full synopsis. I asked what she meant and she said “You know, like your book outline.” Again, I asked what she meant because I’m a bit slow on the uptake. “Outline, the thing you write BEFORE you write.”

I was still fucking confused.

So I took all I’d written so far, about 35,000 words, and wrote a summary. I had a few notes detailing where the book was going but it was far from a full outline. But over the next few days I wrote out the plot of the book and molded it into a full 3,000 word synopsis. As I wrote I felt something I hadn’t felt in a long time.


While it in no way represented the final product, the outline did provide a very welcome second document to have open at all times during the writing of the next 70,000 words.

But it felt very confining to plot the whole book. It felt like I was betraying that indie spirit we try to embody. I was out of my league and striving to reach real writer land, that delusional place that all writers seem to think exists (even though if you’ve written even a few words, congratulations, you are a writer.)

 Is ‘Pantsing’ another word for lazy?

There is a lot of freedom in ‘pantsing’ your book or writing by the seat of your pants, as the saying goes. It allows you kick back and write your book in a very organic way and when I say ‘organic’ you can substitute the word ‘lazy’ if you like.

The fact is that plotting takes a lot of time and effort that might be better put toward actually writing. I’ve often times wondered if I spend more time thinking about writing, characters, plots, situations, conversations, than actually writing the damn stuff down.

There is something very seductive about opening up a blank document and filling it with words. Maybe you like to write ‘Chapter One’ or ‘Prologue’ and just go crazy from there. I’ve done it enough but I usually have a lot of the thinking part of the book down, that is, I know the plot and at least have visualized some of the characters.

One thing I don’t do well is outlining my characters no matter who they are or what they do in the book. This is the part where I will not outline because characters, to me, are the roots of the book and they need to unfold and grow as I write. I have to learn about them the same way that a reader does.

The Plant Method

Look. Either way of writing is fine. You have to find which works best for you and just stick with it because the key to writing, the great secret is: Just write. If you want to create a ten-page plot with notes and character traits, then go for it. If you want to start with the blank slate, like an artist, and fill it in with ideas, go for it. Again, the key is: Just write.

Because I like to plot and pants I call it PLANT. (See what I did there?)

As I write and come up with ideas I jot them down at the end of the document. Then as I polish off sections of the book, I do a strike through or just delete the lines. To me it feels good to have a bunch of bullet points to cross off. When I get to the end of the book there shouldn’t be any left:

  • Three heroes on an epic quest for magi-beer
  • One of them has to die
  • Find a bunch of elves guarding said magi-beer
  • Kill them. (yay – killing elves!)
  • Magi-beer was a ruse by the evil foozle who must die quite painfully
  • Go quest somewhere else and find magi-mug
  • Find a Swedish bikini village of hobbits type creatures
  • Probably kill them too
  • Confront evil foozle with magi-mug and write epic fifteen page battle
  • Kill favorite character
  • Kill foozle
  • Get magi-beer
  • Get shitfaced
  • The end

In honor of this I have come up with an acronym. Enjoy.

Plot or pants, just write
Lame excuses get nothing done, just write
Ass in chair, just write
No distractions, just write
The end is always in sight, now JUST WRITE

It doesn’t matter which style you chose. You may have something completely different that works for you and that’s the real goal, isn’t it? Finding what works for you and then following your project to completion.

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