Thoughtful Thursday: Pantsing vs. Plotting

Thoughtful Thursday is my own little meme in which I share my thoughts on a certain topic relating to writing, reading, and (on very special occasions) random things.

I’m one of those people who likes to plan. I’m a list addict and I make budgets for fun and I’m very anal about certain things. My shirts are organized by color and I have a bookmark in just about every color so that I’m never forced into a horrid situation where I have to pair an orange bookmark with a blue book cover.

So I guess it’s no surprise that I’m more of a plotter than a pantser. Which can be a bit of a problem because I’ll get so caught up in reading books on novel writing and making elaborate charts and diagrams for my stories and characters that by the end of it, I’ve got a stack of blueprints and outlines and worksheets and a word count of 2 (those two words say as follows: Chapter One). It’s a bit like rolling down a hill; once you start plotting, you can’t stop.

Or at least that’s how it is for me. I know plenty of people who loathe outlines, and sometimes it works for them, sometimes it doesn’t. I know plotters who hate plotting but do it anyway because otherwise what they write will be crap. I know pantsers who can sit there with an idea and just spill out something beautiful without a single thought for graphs and charts and writing techniques. It really depends on the person.

But with that being said, there are some definite pros and cons to each method.

Plotting Pros

  • No surprises: You’re much less likely to find yourself 30k into a first draft before realizing that it’s all wrong.
  • Less writer’s block: You won’t be sitting at your desk staring at a blinking cursor for hours at a time. With an outline, you’ll at least know what comes next, even if you’re not sure how to write it.
  • Fewer plot holes: Outlining is a big plus in this way because it’s much easier to see issues in your story when looking at a chart or spreadsheet rather than when you’re writing the actual novel. And if you write the whole thing by the seat of your pants and go back to read it, it’s likely that some of those same issues that would’ve popped up in the outline will slip past your radar.
  • Cool stuff: Plotting can be so much fun with all of the cool techniques and software and books that are out there. I mean, color coding and drawing giant maps and doing elaborate designs is pretty awesome, especially when it doubles up as an actual means of productivity.

Plotting Cons

  • No surprises: If you’re the type of person who enjoys discovering the story as you go, outlining will take that first-time thrill away from you.
  • Time eater: Sometimes you can get so stuck on plotting and using cool software and tricks and marking every tiny detail that you never get around to the actual writing (it’s certainly happened to me).
  • Burnout: It’s not uncommon for a writer to spend so much energy and effort on an outline that by the time they’re all prepped and ready to go, there’s just no drive left to write the actual novel.
  • Potentially choppy first draft: While an outline is certainly useful, it’s easy to get stuck on following it to the point that you’re just checking off scenes. Protagonist breakdown? Check. First date? Check. Protagonist conquers evil? Check. And it won’t be very fun to read because there’s no real life in it.

Pantsing Pros

  • The thrill of discovery: It’s a wonderful feeling to have epiphanies during writing. Every word you write is a kind of discovery. You get to know your characters and your story and your setting in a very fresh, exciting way.
  • Writing only: Without an outline, you have nothing to focus on except writing, which can mean you get more writing done in less time.
  • Less boredom (possibly): If you never know what’s coming next, there’s bound to be more excitement in writing, and because of it, you’ll probably get more words on the page.

Pantsing Cons

  • Revision will be hell: Your first draft is most likely going to be very messy and revising it is going to equate to rewriting the whole thing.
  • Major issues popping up: You could very well end up with 50k of plotholes, underdeveloped characters, and it can be really overwhelming to see how much work will need to be done to fix everything, which could put you off the whole project.
  • Your plot will likely be rather basic: Without an outline, it’s hard to thread more complex storylines together to make a more interesting read, so it could end up rather dull.

I think the important thing to remember when considering how to write your novel is that there is no right way. No two people work the same way, so your method of writing will and should be completely unique to you. You may be 100% plotter or 100% pantser, or a mix of both, like me. Just find what works best for you and do it.

3 Things to Consider When Writing A Novel

These three questions aren’t in any particular order, and they certainly aren’t irrefutable nuggets of truth. My ideas about writing may not match your ideas, and that’s perfectly alright. These questions simply explore what I have experienced and felt as both a writer and a reader, and I wanted to share them.

A Note: While I’ve geared this post toward novel-writing, I’m fairly sure it’s applicable to not only other forms of writing, but really to any form of creative expression.

This is huge. HUGE. You can’t write without a reason. Or, come to think of it, you could—theoretically—but there’s a 95% chance that whatever you wrote would be crap.

There are thousands upon thousands of reasons why people write. It can be therapeutic, rewarding, entertaining, but it has to be something. You wouldn’t spend $1 million on a mosquito, would you? (For those of you who answered yes to that question, kindly escort yourself away from my blog and into a mental hospital, please and thank you.) Not unless you had a reason for buying that mosquito. Maybe the mosquito is actually a robot and you are a collector. Maybe the mosquito is the last mosquito on earth and you are a (deranged) scientist who wants to preserve the species. But there is a reason you want that mosquito.

In the same way (leaving the horrid mosquito metaphor behind), you must have a reason for writing. Maybe you’re writing to make money (good luck, mate); maybe you’re writing to distract yourself from something unpleasant in your environment; maybe you’re writing because some mad bloke is holding a gun to your head demanding you write him a sonnet.

Whatever the reason, it must exist, and it must be solid. Otherwise, you can write, but you can’t create.

Personally, I write because I enjoy it. It’s fun, it’s interesting, and I’m good at it. That’s my reason. What’s yours?

This isn’t particularly related to formatting, although that’s certainly something else to consider. But what do you want your novel to be? Do you want it to be cute and fun like Pulling Princes? Dark and dangerous like Dracula? Charming and magical like Matilda? Write with the spirit of your idea. If you’re going to write about a murderer hunting his next victim, don’t drop in slapstick humor just for the hell of it. If you’re writing a children’s book, don’t build a plot around real estate marketing or quantum physics research. Consider your content, your objective, and your own personality, and write with a certain tone already in mind. This will help you not only get to know your story better, but help you write it better too. A lot of writers don’t plot everything out from the beginning, but the good ones have at least the feel of the story and write every word to fit that particular mood.

3 Things3

This is sort of a trick question. You ought to be writing for your own sake, because you want to or you need money or some other reason that involves you. Writing is in many ways a selfish occupation, and using it for gain, healing, or entertainment is one of its primary functions for people. You must write for yourself before you can write for anyone else.

But with that note aside, consider your potential audience. You may not plan for your novel to ever see the light of day, which is perfectly alright, but if you have even a smidgen of an inkling that someone other than yourself might someday lay eyes on your work, think about that. Think about the kinds of people your book may attract and ask yourself what you would say to that group if given the chance. If you’re writing a teen romance, who might pick up that book? Teenage girls, of course. So what would you say to a teenage girl? What advice would you have to offer her? Perhaps you might want to remind her that breakups aren’t the end of the world, or her own self-worth is more important than any boy, or there are worse things in life than having zits or nagging mothers.

This isn’t something that you necessarily have to incorporate into your novel. Your theme doesn’t need to revolve around any particular gem of wisdom you have for your audience, but it will likely be influenced by how you answer this question.

The Art of Writing Bullshit

Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes I feel like writing is rather like acting. In order to be great, you have to be willing to make a fool out of yourself. Now actors, don’t be offended, but the stage and screen require a certain dose of silliness to be authentic; I find it is the same with writing. To write empathetically, to write from the heart, you have to move past fear and give yourself over to your most ridiculous fantasies. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be afraid–you bloody well ought to be–but writing is an outlet for insanity, and thus deserves to be indulged.

So, with that attitude in mind, try your best to write bullshit. Don’t allow your brain to censor your mind. Don’t be afraid to write stupid things, or impossible things, or mad things, as long as you do write. Part of the fun of writing is just that: having fun. There are no right or wrong answers on the page. There are only words, and what you choose to do with those words is your gift and your legend, so set your plans and your literary expertise aside for awhile and just let the bullshit flow. After all, there’s always time to go back and revise. But restricting your own imagination to the confines of what you feel or have been told is appropriate defeats the entire point of writing; without putting those organic, crazy, unrefined thoughts onto paper, you have no base to build on. How can you edit something physically if you’ve already edited it mentally?

Take my advice: write bullshit. Get it out. Don’t try to tame your imagination. Let it do what it wants. You can worry and fuss about the details later.


The Power of Your Imagination

Disclaimer: I was inspired to write this partly by this video by one of my new favorite YouTubers, the fabulous Meghan Rosette. I should warn you now that I’ve decided not to restrain myself in this post; therefore, prepare for colorful swearing and uniquely-flavored punctuation.

It strikes me that as writers, we are nearly always incredibly self-conscious. It’s practically guaranteed that if you write, you have a veritable library of insecurities and doubts about yourself, your craft, your ideas, your characters, your future, etc… Why do we have these insecurities? Why do we constantly nitpick at what we may or may not be doing wrong in our writing? We worry about our POVs, our literary style, our marketability, possible traits our story may share with a famous work like Harry Potter or Twilight that would doom us to “copycat status” as authors. There’s so much pressure to be unique and sophisticated and artistic and we read articles and books on how to write when really, really truly, we already know the formula. You sit at your desk, on your bed, on your couch, in a coffee shop, wherever you like, open up your notebook or laptop, and set pen to paper or fingers to keys.

It’s not hard. And yet the simplicity of making art is such a brilliant trap. It is so easy to believe that there’s something yet to learn, another trick of the trade, another inside look at a published author’s methods. We make writing into so much more and so much less than it is. Because what is writing? What is the real, honest-to-God definition of writing? To me, writing is peace. To you, writing may be adventure. To a young boy writing a haiku in his freshman English class, writing may be work. To an old woman with a notebook always at hand, writing may be comfort.

There is always, I suppose, something to improve on when writing, but that is the catch. That’s the reason so many writers don’t make it. We are fundamentally afraid of risk. We are afraid of using that word or keeping that paragraph or making that joke and it’s so stupid. Writing is a business, yes. But first, always first, it is an outlet. You enjoy it, you exercise it, you do with it whatever you please, because if you aren’t writing what you WANT to write, you aren’t writing at all. Writing is the act of giving over to imagination and playing God with your own world, your own characters and stories and places, and there’s no point in doing it for others. Fuck the business. Business makes art dispensable. We stick prices onto what is priceless and call it an industry and that’s okay, that’s alright. But to think of all the people, all the creative energy that has snuffed itself out by second-guessing, by hesitating to upset the unwritten etiquette of writing…it makes me angry and, more than anything, sad. What great stories have we missed because of writers’ constitutional perfectionism?

My novel, if one judged merely by the bones, would be considered YA. But because I don’t want to sacrifice incredible characters and unique plotlines for the sake of an audience that doesn’t even exist yet, I am letting myself do exactly what I want. There’s sex, and taboos, and gruesome violence, and complex villains that you love as much as the protagonists, and it’s pure. It’s what I envisioned, what I saw in my head all along.

I can’t understand why people would even want to restrain themselves and reign in all the power of creation they possess. As a writer, you possess extraordinary gifts. Use them for yourself. Give yourself over to the power of your imagination and let yourself tell the story you want to write. When and if others read your words, you won’t have to wonder if you could have done better. You won’t have to worry and regret over choices you made along the way. The business can make art commercial, but what’s the point in that if you haven’t even let yourself make that art the best it can be?