It is a period of civil war.
The universe of writers is divided under two banners, the Planners (those who outline their stories–also called Plotters) and Pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants). Planners call Pantsers sloppy and undisciplined. Pantsers retort that Planners are control freaks and overachievers. A few traitorous double agents, the Plantsers, are the only overlap between the two groups.
Or, at least, that’s how I once saw it.
I am, without question, a control freak and overachiever. Two years ago, I was outlining a novel that would become my first completed draft. I read a handful of articles with titles like, “Are you a planner or pantser? Find out!”
“Rubbish!” I cried. “‘Pantsing’ is for foolish, lazy scoundrels. ‘Plantsing’ is most definitely not a thing. I am a PLANNER.”
So I planned. I used a wonderful outlining technique modeled after Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.
And it went OK! My novel plodded along as I checked off the scenes on my list, until I approached the climax. One day I consulted my outline and found that all I had were a few vague ideas that didn’t make sense the more I thought about them.
“Oh, dear,” I thought. “I have no idea where I’m going. This is bad for a Planner like me.”
I planned my way out of the mess, introducing a new character who helped resolve the conflict. I decided that in my second draft, I’d introduce the character earlier, so it wouldn’t seem as convenient. Problem solved, thanks to planning!
My draft was complete, but it was a train wreck of a YA novel. Long story short, the plot was better suited for a middle grade audience, so I decided to adapt it as such. I planned out my rewrite with the same method I’d used before. I had it all figured out: the main characters, at first reluctant to be friends, would bond over a shared love of superhero movies.
But they didn’t.
Instead, I started writing a scene about the characters making an omelet. Before I knew it, I’d finished the scene, the characters were friends, and I’d established important elements of their personalities.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “That didn’t go according to plan!”
Fast forward to the middle of November, my second NaNoWriMo. I was completely burnt out on my novel, so I shelved it and started a mystery short story. I wouldn’t use my customary outlining method for this, I decided. It was just a last-minute short story while I rested from my novel. I’d bullet-point the scenes, figure out the ending, and start writing.
By February, the story was a novella. It was the best thing I’d ever written.
I got to the climax. I had everything lined up: the main characters had figured out the culprit and found evidence to support their claims.
“Ah,” I said, rubbing my hands. “Everything is going exactly as planned. Now all I have to do is reveal that they’re right!”
What kind of a mystery lets you know who did it before the big reveal? Lame! Thankfully, my sister pointed this out to me right before I wrote the climax. Instead, I pinned the crime on a supporting character and went with it. And guess what?
My novella was much more interesting when I pantsed my way into a red herring.
Two years ago, I would have gasped at these words. “For shame, MoMo! How DARE you speak of *shudder* PANTSING!” But it’s true. Inexplicably, my writing turns out better when I don’t plan it all the way out. And so I find myself between the two sides of the civl war, there reluctantly, but there nonetheless.
The truth is, it’s not a civil war. There are just different ways of outlining, some with more improvisation than others. As much as I’d like to have a detailed, structured outline fit for my Type A self, it’s not going to happen. That’s OK. I have to step back and not worry about it. And if I pants my way into a good idea, cool. I’ll take it.
Are you a planner, a pantser, or somewhere in between? How did you find out? Let me know in comments!
Featured image from Unsplash.