I first came across those terms in 2016, when I got involved in my first (and, it turned out, last) NaNoWriMo.
“Planners”: self-explanatory. They outline their plots, they work out detailed character descriptions, they worldbuild intricate settings. The idea is that, when they’re taking 30 days to write a 50,000 novel draft, they have a much clearer path.
“Pantsers,” on the other hand, fly by the seat of their pants, winging each plot detail, getting to know the characters as they write them, filling in setting details in second or third drafts.
The evolution of a plantser
Once upon a time I was a planner, especially of the outlining variety. The problem was, I made the mistake that is the most common reason I stop reading (or watching) stories: forcing the characters to serve the plot, rather than make decisions (and drive story) for themselves. My characters were wooden, and my stories anemic, as a result.
When I started to write again a few years ago, I did so as a pantser. For most of my short stories, I started with a basic idea and basic character sketches and moved forward from there. I found that it was the perfect way to get back to writing; it was fun, helped my sense of pacing, and enabled me to stretch.
For longer works, though, I learned to “plants” — combining the planning and pantsing methods. As I wrote in a 2016 blog:
“… the most I’m working with is a loose outline, story elements that I want to fill in along the way, but the rest will be a process of discovery.”
That was what I wrote about Streets of Abaddon, the sequel to Possum Kingdom, which I’d also plantsed. I fully expected it to work the second time, as it had the first. And yet… I found I stretched a little too much. Potential plot threads made themselves too available, as in, I liked and wanted to use all of them; I couldn’t work out what the characters would choose, and eventually, stalled and moved on to other projects.
Plantsing variables: timing and structure
There’s nothing quite like a tight deadline to create a sense of focus, though. Having learned recently that Running Wild Press, Sodom and Gomorrah on a Saturday Night‘s publisher, is open for submissions for its second anthology lit a fire under me to complete a sequel. Even though I’d done little more than noodle since discussing sequels with my editor for that story, I decided to go for it.
Noodling was important; I came up with a decent backstory which, (funny enough) like Sodom and Gomorrah, was based on a story I started long ago but never finished. I quickly came up with a structure and got to work, again waking early so that I could engage my best creative energy.
About four chapters in, brainstorming really got in gear. I found that the ideas came so quickly that I needed a way to organize them, to make them work for me. So I outlined. Again, not a very detailed outline; just a bare-bones thing I can refer to, only one line per chapter. It’s not even in case I get stuck and need guidance; it’s to give me some directions to think about in the evening before I wake up, in the shower, while I’m washing dishes, or before going to bed. That way, when I’m up at 5, I can get right to work.
So far, it’s working — perhaps because the story already had a structure and a finite word count I wanted to work toward, or perhaps because the deadline offered a needed boundary for how much (or how little) I could reasonably accomplish in a six-week time frame around my other responsibilities. It may also be a matter of confidence in my subject matter, which I had less of working on Streets of Abaddon.
Then again, as I’ve learned with outlining, it’s important to toss it when it becomes too restrictive. Something as simple as one character’s question to another accelerated the story’s timeline by two chapters, and now I’m closer to done with this draft than I thought. As long as I didn’t write in a gaping plot hole, I think I’m in good shape for a deadline that’s five weeks away!
What’s your method, and how does it change per project?