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.
45 thoughts on “Weekend Edition – Plotting vs. Pansting Your Writing Life Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips”
Jamie, thought-provoking ideas as always. I’ve got a little of both in me. Usually stories start out in a panster frenzy, an idea that hits me, and I run with it.
I have long since learned to think through the plot while the idea is fresh. Develop major characters and happenings, scratch down the ideas in an outline, and only then start on a scene. Otherwise all the energy goes into a detailed chapter that may end up as a disconnected vignette if I can’t remember where it was all going. For some reason I have always called these orphaned outbursts of creativity “shards”.
With the outline done, I am free to dive in and start filling in the structure with actual chapters and characters. I have no problem changing the direction the story is going, but it helps to have a default direction, default relationships, default motivations, default everything that I go towards unless there is a compelling reason for a change.
As for my life? Confirmed pulquista. This is someone who may plot, plan, promise, or fly by the seat of their pants; but pretty much it’s all completely randomized by tequila.
Drinks may lead to a great story idea, or may lead to me sleeping through an important meeting. It may lead to a serendipitous friendship, or a few days’ hospitality with the local constabulary. No need to belabor the point, no doubt you get it.
Well, it is almost 8 am, and it’s been one crazy night. So in the words of my favorite diarist, a confirmed plotter, “And anon to bed.”
Thanks so much for sharing your writing process, and also your unique and self-imposed “pulquista” label. You are very creative.
I hope your night wasn’t TOO crazy and that you got some rest and found some inspiration.
All the best!
Totally a plotter. I get loose ideas while doing other things and then rush to shape them into something structured and sensical.
But then, I try to outline stories, but when I go to sit and write a chapter, I just let it out in whatever way it comes, without trying to steer it. Sometimes the pantsing works out and sometimes it just leads to my chapter having its pants around its ankles and falling flat on its face… you win some you lose some! 🙂
Love your visual of a chapter with its pants around its ankles. Too funny!
Sounds like you have a good balance going in your process. Nice! Thanks for sharing (and for making me giggle).
Reblogged this on Christina Beggs and commented:
Are you a plotter or a punster?
I develop my characters and plot out the story as much as possible; then I allow my characters to take me on their journey. That way, my subconscious does most of the work for me…providing that I’ve stimulated my imagination first.
I like that – sounds like you kind of set the stage and put the players on their marks (complete with plot points and stakes, etc.) and then let it develop from there. I also completely believe in the value of letting your subconscious go to work on things. I’m always amazed at how often (and how efficiently) my subconscious serves up the solution to a problem if I just trust it to do so. Neat trick!
With writing, I’m a pantser. I have a general idea of where the story needs to go, but I let the characters tell me how they get there. I’ve become more of a plotter in my writing life, treating it as a business now instead of the hobby it’s always been. Life in general is a tug-of-war between the two. Without a plan, I wouldn’t accomplish anything, but spontaneity is as necessary as order. Finding that balance is a lifelong challenge. Thanks for the book recommendation. Sounds like a great read. Love the quote!
It IS a lifelong challenge, isn’t it? And sometimes we feel like we’ve swung way the heck over to one side or the other on our wild pendulum ride between planning and spontaneity, but that too is part of the process.
I hope you get to read the book. It’s a wonderful novel and such a pleasure.
Enjoy & let me know what you think! 🙂
Jamie, reading you on Saturday morning is like having a French pastry with my coffee. Lots to bite into with delicious crumbs on the side ! I’m putting that book on my ‘get this’ list; it’s right up my alley.
Thanks so much. That’s a lovely metaphor … though it’s made me a little peckish! 😉
I hope you do get a chance to read Leganski’s wonderful novel. I just loved it and would love to hear your thoughts if/when you read it.
Thanks for being here & have a great rest of your weekend!
I’m neither. I’m more of spur-of-the-moment kind of person. Quite impulsive by nature but I notice I’m slowly mellowing lately. I hate that. But can’t escape the inevitable>coming of old age.
Oh, mellowing can be a good thing.
And the aging is rather unavoidable.
On Plotting vs Pantsing
When that glorious day comes when I finally do apply what I have retained from so much reading into my work, (Whoa a break through) a memory snap shot. I never forget how that feels.
Now if I didn’t know better I would have thought these words was written personally for me. When I write or when I think about writing, I see myself sitting in my chair, putting on my wizards hat and going to my fantasy place in the woods where I knock upon Muses door for a little fun and adventure. (Can you tell I’m a Tolkien fan.) and before I part my way saying goodbye, old Muse will sprinkle a little silverly bliss over my head to remember her by.
The muse must not stop with just the writer, but carries on through the reader.
I love what you’ve said here about the muse’s touch carrying through to the reader. That’s lovely. Makes me think about the story as energy that goes into the world and the people who come into contact with the story.
Thank you Jamie, It came to me from reading your post.
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This feature is always a treat on every Saturday! 🙂 I try to plan things out before I start writing. I don’t start writing if I don’t have a clear structure, especially for non fiction. I used to make things up mostly as I went when I wrote fiction during my teenage years/early twenties. The short story series I am working on was fully outlined before I started writing the first of them. I love taking notes about worldbuilding, outlines, characters. Yet, I always have enough free space for things to randomly happen as I write.
Then, there are the times when something just comes out of nowhere. A few days ago I saw a call for submissions for an anthology and I just wanted to get something for it, but was in the middle of working on two other big projects (revision/publishing stage). I came up with an idea and wrote the short story in 2 days (when I normally am a slower writer) and it was a fun experience and I like the result. And this morning, I have another standalone short story idea that is lurking in my brain. Trying to keep this in her corner for now though!
Hello, Natacha! 🙂
2 days for a short story. That’s fabulous. I labor over things for so long. Although I believe in the craft of story structure, I think I’d do well to unleash my inner fingerpainter …you know what I mean? Go at it like I just don’t care and then see what happens?
And – yes! – I am a notes GEEK. I love all the research and discovery and piecing worlds together. I am fascinated by all the back material of different authors – notebooks and sketchbooks and such. There is something magical about transforming all those disparate pieces into a whole.
Thanks for stopping by amidst all your projects!
Pantser here. It really doesn’t matter which way you go as long as you go. Either you take time to outline upfront or you take time along the way to think about where you’re going next. It amounts to the same, in my opinion. I prefer to make it up as I go along to keep it fresh and exciting for me. Also, if I know where my story is going, so will my readers and I want to keep them guessing.
I agree, I like that last line and you have to write for yourself too.
Interesting. I like the feeling of the story revealing itself to you as you go along. I don’t know that I could manage that and come out with something coherent at the end, but I agree that the type of process doesn’t matter as much as just diving into A process and getting it down! TKS for sharing!
It’s an interesting conversation, that of the pantser and the plotter. I enjoy both, although admittedly the plotting part is new to me. I am a pantser when it comes to blogging – and I love it. I love that I sit at the keyboard and the words flow out of my fingertips, surprising myself. When it comes to longer forms of writing however, I find that this kind of writing just doesn’t work for me. I am currently plotting out a workbook, under the direction of Automatic Author – index cards, 16 chapters, 15 subheadings in each chapter, each with a descriptive sentence, a question and 3 keywords. That in itself has taken me months – and now I am putting all of that information into Scrivener, which will also take time. The idea is that the grunt work is spent setting it up, so that when it comes to writing, I don’t have to spend any time figuring out what I’m going to write about – I can just write intuitively, which brings me back to the kind of writing I do in my blog. So in this way, plotting helps me be a pantser 🙂 I am also goal setting for the first time ever this year, and am thinking I might finally be a grown up 🙂
Also – that book you recommended? That’s going on my to read list. It sounds absolutely captivating.
Have a good week Jamie xo
Can’t believe it’s taken me SO long to get back to the comments here. What a week!
Thanks for sharing about the “Automatic Author” process. I’ll have to look that up. It’s piqued my curiosity. I’m also a Scrivener fan and have used it successfully for some long-form client projects. I love all the organizing tools.
But, on the flip side, I also love that feeling of just sitting down and letting the words come. These weekend editions are often created that way. I start with an idea or a question and just start writing. Sometimes, I scribble a little mind map. Sometimes I don’t. I’ve found that once I figure out what I’m actually trying to say about the topic at hand, the words come much more easily. It’s the times when I know I want to write about “X,” but I’m not really clear about what I want to say that I end up sitting at a blank screen for WAY too long. 😉
Thanks for coming by. Always a pleasure!
PS – I hope you do read Leganski’s novel and would love to hear what you think.
PPS – Don’t be a grown up. Overrated. 😉 xo
Some weeks are like that :).
It’s important to play with both types of writing (I would say that – I’m obsessed with balance).
I definitely will read that book, it looks fantastic.
Reblogged this on JCU // Creative Writing Workshop.
great piece, I love to write and hate to follow rules! Gives me hope to read that it can be done either way, just a matter of personal preference and what works for each of us. I am new to blogging and find your posts very interesting, thank you.
There are probably countless ways to birth a story. Rules can be helpful, but they can also be ignored if that suits your process and your purpose. The journey is as important as the destination, so you should take the road that you enjoy most!
PS – Welcome to blogging. I’m glad you found us and hope to see you again! 🙂
Thanks for your response, very helpful, please check out my poems if you have a chance and let me know what you think, I would appreciate any comments, good or no so good 🙂 thanks.
Okay, be honest: how long does it take for you to craft these DELIGHTFUL MORSELS? *AWE INSPIRED*
And, lady, it’s funny you mentioned a Podcast because I want to start listening to some good ones in my spare time – or when I am napping 😉 Writing Excuses sounds perfect…thanks dearie #HUGS
Finally, how do you read one book every week? WOW! This week’s recommendation sounds wonderful!
THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU
PS: Oh, and I would regard myself as a Pantser, but I am going to become more intentional with my career too. I am involved in multiple projects, which is great except I don’t get to write for myself a lot. So I am going to follow a more rigorous schedule from mid-May! A teeny bit of Plotting will help me go a long way 😉
Hello, Kitto! 🙂
Truth? I started out spending about an hour on these posts, but now they typically take between 2 & 3 hours apiece. It’s one of my favorite times of the week.
I’m glad you liked the podcast recommendation. They are so much fun and I always learn something new.
As for the reading – I try for a book each week, but don’t always make it. Still, a few years ago I was doing hardly any pleasure reading. (I know – horrors!) I just woke up one day and said that enough was enough. I’m a writer and I’m a reader. I need to do both those things on a regular basis. Once I made the decision and just started intentionally carving out a few minutes here and there, making reading time began to come more easily.
I hope you do read Leganski’s book & would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂
TKS for coming by. (As always). 🙂
PS – Yay for mid-May – sounds exciting!
Oh my – I am at that stage where my reading – or lack thereof – is beginning to annoy me! LOL I am trying to carve some minutes into my days too now – both for THRILLERS (aah, my favorite kind 😉 ) and non-fiction 😀
I enjoy you, Jamie #HUGS
PS: I couldn’t find that Podcast on my Stitch app (Android) 😦 But I am new to the Podcast scene, so any help will be appreciated 😉 hehehe
I have so many new books to read now because of the sci fi and women article! I won’t be getting any work done now.
Oops. Was I a bad influence? 😉 Enjoy!!
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Panster. With writing, its the flow that is the joy for me, sometime I outline after, its more of tracking the plot so I can clean things up. In life, I like to pretend I’m a plotter, I love lists, but when it comes down o it, I’m always ready to stray from the path 🙂 As always, thank you Jamie, enjoyed the post.
Sometimes the best bits of life happen when you stray off the path. 😉
TKS for coming by!
Balance the yin and yang! Here’s to figuring out how. Amen. 🙂
One day and one experiment/experience at a time, right? 🙂
TKS for stopping by.
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