Plotting vs. Pantsing Your Writing Life
Are you a plotter or a panster?
It’s a question you hear often in the company of writers, and one that can inspire spirited debate. While pansters revere the tempestuous graces of the muse, plotters bow down before the gods of structure. These two factions are the yin and yang of writerly creativity – though they appear to be exact opposites, they are actually two halves of a whole.
If I had to choose, I’d tell you that I’m a panster. I like to plan things out before I start writing. I love the story of how JK Rowling supposedly spent years (years!) outlining the Harry Potter books before ever putting down a single word of the series. I geek out on posts about how to “build” a great story and love dissecting my favorite books and movies so I can see their insides – the plots, character arcs, inciting incidents, pinch points, and all that good stuff.
There are also plenty of times when I venture forth without any carefully crafted plans and simply abandon myself to the wild dance of the muse. The pages of my journals are filled with the inky footprints of such encounters as my pen careens between the margins, fairly leaping off the page. Often, my weekly columns (and, sometimes these weekend edition essays) begin with a premeditated design, but shift and evolve when some mischievous force takes me by the hand and tugs me off the path and into the woods.
And, that’s ok.
With art, the process is as important as the final product. The experience is what brings your creation to life.
But, what about life?
Are you creating your life as a plotter or a panster?
Is one approach better than the other?
These are not questions with right or wrong answers. They are simply questions worth asking. Though I am generally considered a very organized, productive, and responsible person (oh, the kiss of death for anyone wanting to be considered an “artiste”), I have spent a surprising majority of my days following the path of least resistance. It is only in recent years that I have begun to be more intentional in my choices. Took me long enough.
As with writing, I think that it’s best to live life somewhere between plotting and pansting. All things in moderation, they say, and perhaps it should be so when it comes to either planning or surrendering to spontaneity. Having a life plan can help you attain your goals, but if you stick too closely to your predetermined path, you will miss the transformative experiences and life-changing opportunities that live on the back roads and walkabouts of impromptu side trips.
And what about your writing life? Are you creating that more as a plotter or a panster?
As with my life in general, I have only recently begun to be more intentional about how I define myself as a writer, build my body of work, and set my writing goals. I am making a conscious effort to learn more about the logistics of a writing life (publishing, marketing, how to be an author entrepreneur, etc.) as well as the craft. I am revisiting childhood dreams of being a novelist while also exploring other possibilities that have presented themselves over the course of my wandering travels through the creative experience. If, for instance, you had asked me as a young wannabe writer whether I had any interest in writing essays or non-fiction books, I would have said no. However, having said “yes” to unplanned experiences with these forms, I have been inspired to consider all kinds of new creative prospects.
Plotting. Pansting. It’s all just figuring stuff out – some of it ahead of time and some of it while we’re in the thick of things.
What I’m Learning About Writing: Writing Excuses Takes Listeners to School
Writing Excuses is, by far, my favorite podcast on the writing craft. Hosted by four diverse and talented working writers and often featuring well-known writer guests, this fun and brief (each episode is only about fifteen minutes long because, as the podcast’s tagline proclaims, “you’re in a hurry, and we’re not that smart.”) audio show is packed start to finish with eye-opening epiphanies, brass tacks tips, and loads of good humor. Listening to the show is like getting to eavesdrop on a coffee house conversation between a bunch of super smart, witty, and down-to-earth writers who really know what they’re doing.
Though I highly recommend each and every episode in their archives, I am especially enjoying the current season (season 10) which they’ve decided to structure as a sort of “mini master class” on the writing craft. They explain in the show notes of the season’s first episode, Writing Excuses 10.1: Seriously, Where Do You Get Your Ideas? :
We wanted to do something different this year. Something special. As we brainstormed we kept returning to something a listener said years ago: “Writing Excuses is like a master class in writing genre fiction.”
That’s a generous remark, as anyone who’s taken an actual master class can attest, but it inspired us to ask ourselves what Writing Excuses would
looksound like if it were formatted like an actual master class.
The answer? It would sound like Season 10 is going to sound. This year we’re going to go to school! Each month will focus on a specific bit of the writing process, and each podcast will drill down on one of those bits. We’ll still have some “wildcard” episodes with guests, but for at least three weeks out of each month we’re going to stay on topic. If you’re new to the podcast, this is where to start! If you’re an old hand, don’t worry — this isn’t a return to the 101-level stuff.
As I recently said to a writer friend, I know I really like a podcast when I constantly want to hit “Pause” so I can take notes. Writing Excuses makes me do that all the time. I hope you’ll listen and would love to hear your impressions.
What I’m Reading: The Silence Of Bonaventure Arrow
Saying that a book “casts a spell on the reader” is rather cliche, but in the case of The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow it’s a cliche that fits.
The novel is the debut of author Rita Leganski and it is the kind of book that envelopes you in its own reality, making the world around you fade into the background as you slip deeper and deeper into the life of the story. I was intrigued and enchanted from page one. Here is an excerpt of the description from the Harper Collins website:
Bonaventure Arrow didn’t make a peep when he was born, and the doctor nearly took him for dead. But he was listening, placing sound inside quiet and gaining his bearings. By the time he turns five, he can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops. He also hears the voice of his dead father, William Arrow, mysteriously murdered by a man known only as the Wanderer.
Exploring family relics, he opens doors to the past and finds the key to a web of secrets that both hold his family together, and threaten to tear them apart.
Set in 1950s New Orleans, the book transported me through both space and time and into a world where ghosts and magic are part of the everyday world and where one little boy with very special gift peels away the layers of lives and reality to uncover family connections and truths that are both tragic and sweet.
Leganski’s prose is both lyrical and whimsical. She tells the story with the language and musicality of a poet without ever sacrificing character development or plot. Though my writer’s mind was aware of her gorgeous descriptions, metaphors, and stories within stories, I was never once drawn away from the action happening on the page.
The last few pages of this novel brought me to tears, but they were the good kind of tears, full of recognition and release. I recommend this book from the bottom of my heart. It’s a wonderful read and one that I expect I will return to both for the pleasure of rereading and the education of studying her craft.
And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:
- It’s A Woman’s Universe: The Ladies Of Science Fiction by Jessica Khoury
- Angie Pickman: The Artist Who Answered the Question, “Why can’t I be doing this for a living?” by @DanBlank
- Four Keys to Beautiful Writing by @Magic_Violinist
- How an Email Newsletter Publisher Built an Audience of 223,991 Subscribers by Robert Bruce via @copyblogger
- How to Become a Writer as a Second Career by @flexjobs via @thewritelife
- My Writing Process…Lately: A Craft of Writing Post by Mindee Arnett
- The Biggest Marketing Opportunity Most Authors Run Away From by Christelle Lujan via @shewritesdotcom
- Story Idea Worksheet — Nail and Sell Your Concept with These Nine Ways to Test Your Core Idea by @MartinaABoone
Finally, a quote for the week:
Here’s to finding your way – planned or spontaneous – and always enjoying the journey as much as the destination.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.