Hello, dear readers!
Welcome to another segment of Wondering Wednesdays, where we break down some of our perspectives of different popular topics that come up during the writing journey. If you’ve been following along with our series, you’ll know it focuses on most of the basics surrounding wanting to write a novel and making that decision. You can read our first two posts below!
So now you know you want to write a novel, and you even have that Bright Shiny New Idea™ you want to chase. You have a very important decision to make: do you outline that sucker, potentially writing a novella in the process, or do you open up that blank Word Document or freshly bought notebook, write “Chapter One” and get to work?
Here’s our experience between Plotting Versus Pantsing:
JOYCE: I was a firm pantser when I first starting writing novels during my junior college and university days. My navigational senses for novel-writing was mostly intuitive, and the story usually revealed itself to me in scenes. The deeper I was in a manuscript, the quicker and more vivid those scenes would come, and I would somehow get to the end that way.
But I’m not gonna lie – I made LOADS of mistakes along the way as a pantser. Because the process of writing a novel that way is such a discovery, you’re mostly going in with a general idea of the story and nothing else.
If writing a novel were a road trip, it would be like embarking on one with a destination in mind and the route you’ll be taking, and then relying on road signs along the way. There will be detours, wrong turns, and sometimes you’ll end up taking the longer route than if you planned it out beforehand. But the journey itself is always rewarding and insightful and it teaches you so much. You learn, through this very hands-on way, what works and what doesn’t. Maybe don’t take that turn down Scribbler’s Road, or get off at Avenue 8 instead of 10.
Being a pantser made me carve out my own process and made me realise what works for me. Plus, it’s just so much more fun discovering the story and your characters as you go along. Sure, you make some mistakes along the way – you end up getting stuck halfway through the draft and have to rewrite the whole thing, or you have to change a character’s POV, or kill a character or two, or even change the whole setting itself. It can be a long, tedious process of finding your story. But back when I was a student, still exploring and experimenting with all the time in the world I had then, this was a mostly enjoyable process.
It wasn’t until I realised I was getting stuck halfway through pretty much every single manuscript I was writing, and taking way too much time and making so many mistakes along the way, that I decided to give plotting a go. Why make things difficult for yourself if there’s a better solution out there, y’know? And now that I’m writing a historical fantasy trilogy, plotting is definitely required.
It’s a whole new process to me, very methodical and logical, which is something my brain is not accustomed to, even though it understands that it’s necessary to keep track of the developments in the novel. But we’re getting there. I still make many mistakes and have to rewrite certain portions or shift certain scenes, but those mistakes are far less dire and the changes I have to make are not as drastic as they used to be when I was a pantser.
So tl;dr there are merits to both pantsing and plotting. I still believe that pantsing is a really fun way to discover a story, but if you want to grind down and be an efficient, productive writer, plotting is definitely a helpful and crucial step. Find your process, and figure out whatever works for you. But whatever you do, don’t forget to have fun! Because this is ultimately why you’re writing, isn’t it? 😉
NICOLE: I’m not sure how rare this is in the writing community, but I’m a writer who switches between both various modes of outlining or just hoping my characters know what’s going to happen next and are kind enough to tell me. I do think that I lean more towards the Plotting side, thanks to my Type A personality. I like having a roadmap to follow, because it’s especially helpful during those writing days when you’re just not feeling it, so at least you’re not battling that and having no idea what to write (though, I’ve also had days where I knew exactly what I needed to write and still struggled; oh, the joys of the process).
My outlines can vary, though, from something that’s super detailed–mini novellas in length, easily–to something as general as, “Main character does this, fights that and becomes this by the end of book.” Personally, it changes with every project and I think that’s my biggest takeaway, or one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, since starting my own writing journey back in middle school. It’s great to find a method that works for you and it doesn’t matter which one–plotting, pantsing or a blend of the two–you choose. Neither is superior to the other. However, if you find your usual preferred method not working when you start a new project, don’t be afraid to mix it up and try something different. Just because you usually wing it doesn’t mean your fifth book won’t need a detailed outline to help you get started. Likewise, don’t feel like you have to change it if it continually works, no matter how much your manuscripts vary.
Basically, be willing to experiment until you find the method that helps you get your ideas out and, eventually, get those words on paper. Then, be prepared to be flexible if that stops working and never think yourself a failure for needing to mix up routine or preferring one method over the other. What matters is that you’re writing and you’re enjoying it (well, most of the time).
MEREDITH: Ah the eternal struggle. I always find this question interesting because it reveals so much about the writer personality-wise, as well as how they go about telling stories. But the thing is – as the other Muses have pointed out – both of these things can change! And I find that so fascinating, the way we have to constantly adapt our process to fit around our life, our day jobs, everything else going on.
I started my first novel in a complete fit of pantsing. (Yeah it’s a word now.) I had this image in my head of a girl sneaking down a dark street, along a stone wall flickering with torchlight, and the answers of who this girl was and why she was running plagued me until I answered them. Then, some wonderful alchemy happened when soon after I visited a ruined castle that was integral to Scotland’s fight for independence from the English, and I realized I had an endgame for my mysterious girl. I now had an overarching historical event into which I could weave my plot and characters, and I was off to the races. I figured it out as I went, doing research along the way, filling in the gaps and adding actual historical figures here and there. It was exhilarating. It was also an amazing creative outlet because I was writing my PhD dissertation at the same time, which was SUPER structured and outlined. And when I had writer’s block on one, I would work on the other. I think that’s why pantsing worked so well for me the first time.
Now I’m writing my second historical novel, and I’ve approached it entirely differently. I knew from the start what historical event I wanted to write about, and the tight timeline of that shaped my story right away. I had vivid images in my head, once again, of the main characters I wanted to write about, but they were already entwined with the specific historical event. And so, with four POVs, and in order to stay as accurate as I could (especially since this book is straight-up hist-fic, while my first one had some fantasy/supernatural elements), I had to make a detailed outline. I also ended up writing most of this one by hand, on breaks or quiet moments at work, which I’ve never done before. I then type up what I’ve written afterward, doing a basic revision as I go. So it’s been an entirely different writing process this time around. I think I enjoyed the freedom of pantsing that I had in my first novel, but I also like having a structured outline, as it helps with writer’s block.
I’ve just about finished this second book, so once I do, I think then I’ll be able to assess which approach I like best. I also think your situation in life is always going to affect your process, because maybe you have to fit in 30 minutes of typing while your kids are napping, or you’re struck with an idea on your commute to work and have to write on your phone because you don’t have a desk job. It’s nice to know that I’ve tackled both pantsing and plotting, and both typed and hand-written drafts, so I can take whatever approach I need to for my next book!
Let us know in the comments below which method is your go to and why. We love hearing about different processes. And while you’re at it, let us know where you’re at in your current project and how best we can support you to reaching that glorious moment where you get to write, “The End.”