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Plotter or Pantser


What defines your writing style? Are you a plotter, pantser or maybe somewhere in between, a plantser?


A plotter creates a plan, an outline before writing that first sentence. It can be anything from a shortlist of the main elements of the plot to a detailed series of events for each chapter. By knowing the who, what, when, and where, the author has a roadmap to writing the book.


On the other hand, a pantser is a writer who flies by the seat of their pants. The author starts with an idea and lets the characters drive the storyline. In other words, making it up as you go.


Is one better than the other? Is there a right way or a wrong way? Each method has pros and cons.


For the plotter, the outline drives the writing. Since the author knows where the story is headed, it helps avoid the blank moments every author dreads—writer’s block. The author can focus on the development of the characters and scenes instead of deciding where the plot goes next. From start to finish, the outline speeds up the writing process. And following a guideline means less time is spent on revisions.


One of the downsides for the plotter is making a change to a character or event. Since the author is following a preset series of events, the outline will have to be revised, or even a total rewrite if the change affects the plot. Following an outline can result in rigidity or lack of spontaneity in the characters or action. Plotting takes time. How much is dependent on the complexity of the outline.


The pantser has the flexibility to write and let the story flow without worrying about the constraints of the outline. Changes can readily be incorporated. The downfall for the pantser is the storyline can quickly lose continuity. Vital details, whether it involves the characters or the action, can get lost and result in extensive revisions. When an author is uncertain where the story is headed, it’s easy to get stuck or even write yourself into a corner.


I doubt any author is 100% plotter or pantser, though I will readily admit I’m primarily a pantser.


When I started writing Sentinels of the Night, I signed up for several online writing courses. One of the instructors, an agent/author, hammered the importance of an outline. Her arguments certainly made sense. I thought, okay if I need an outline, I’ll do one. I soon realized it wasn’t going to work. I’d make a change based on a character’s actions, and then I had to go back and update the outline. It seemed I spent more time revising the outline than I did writing the book. So, I scrapped it … the outline, that is.


I have a starting point and a general idea of the ending, but getting there is just like working an investigation. I connect the dots, but how those dots get connected depends on the characters. In A u 7 9, at the beginning of the book, I added a minor character, a reporter. My first intention was to use the reporter to bridge an event involving a lead character, the Laredo detective. Then he was going to go away. But as the story developed, I liked this nerdy, barely dry behind the ears kid, and he became a major character in the book. And of all the characters in A u  7 9, he still remains my favorite.

Since that first novel, Sentinels of the Night, I’ve developed a modified approach. As I write, I create a mini-outline using the navigation bar. I set up a second style heading. Whenever I need to reference an activity, I insert a short phrase in the narrative—interview with reporter, time or day, Kerry waits at airport, bad guy thoughts, reserve chairman at WH, etc.  Then I click on the secondary style heading to place the phrase under the chapter heading in the navigation bar. I even use it to indicate a change in POV by inserting several asterisks.


I’ve found it solves my problem of losing track of pesky details of who, what, where, when, and how. The mini-outline tracks with my plot and provides a quick reference guide on where I’ve been, which helps keep me on track on where I’m going.


Does it matter whether you are a plotter or pantser? I don’t think so. What is important is being comfortable with whatever style you use to write. It’s easy to stifle creativity when trying to be a round peg in a square hole. Choose which method works for you and adjust to make sure the negatives don’t affect the story.


In the end, it’s about the journey of writing, no matter which path we take.

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