Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Planners and Pantsters: The Battle for Control Continues!

"Those who fail to plan, plan to fail." 

I don't know who came up with this little saying (could probably google it and find out) but there's a bit of truth to it. I suppose one could consider an architect or structural engineer starting a new building project, firing up their trusty copy of AutoCAD as they begin the process of turning a dream into a reality. From their computer-generated drawings a new house, office building or even sports car will be built. And exactly how could any of those things be constructed if there were no "blueprints" for constructing them?

I somewhat remember one of the first times I was required to submit an outline as part of a research paper project in high school. Having no experience or formal training in such a thing, I simply wrote the paper first and then jotted down the outline afterwards. Of course, the teacher wanted us to submit the outline first and so I did. Did I tell her that the outline was written after the final draft?

Now why would she need to know that?

A few years later, after graduating from the local university with a degree in English literature (once I realized it was time to "grow up" and get a "real job") I went back to the university to get a teaching certificate. The plan was to convince myself that being a full-time English/language arts instructor was going to solve two problems: putting food on the table as well as improving my own writing skills. Not long after that, during the winter of my first teaching contract, I got the notion of writing a novel.

But how to start? Of course! Create an outline! And how productive was that?

It didn't take long to realize that in order for me to know where I wanted to go with those characters and their conflicts, I needed a plan of attack. And so, once the rough, but fairly complete, outline was typed up, I felt I knew where I wanted to go. And that was the winter of 1984-85.

And where is the novel that was supposed to be the end result of that process?

About one-tenth of it has been turned into a handful of short stories that are currently available online while the remaining nine-tenths is tucked neatly away into 5 brown envelopes (that's right--no personal computer available in 1984!)

Since then, thanks to over twenty years of English/language arts teaching experience as well as sitting through nearly seventeen years of Sunday morning sermons given by a preacher who fortuitously passed out outlines for each of his sermons, I have to say that I am a dedicated "planner."

Now don't get me wrong; I feel no animosity towards the "pantsters" who call themselves authors (even if some of those may be former students of mine!). Planning to write something, be it some kind of academic dissertation or even a novel, has meant for me hammering out an outline beforehand.

Yes! Must have an outline! Must have a plan, a roadmap, a blueprint! Must conform! Must be right-brained! Must have control! Cannont allow those feisty characters to run around and do whatever their childish minds want to do! Yes, Mein Furher! Jawohl!

But what about the hard-working authors who populate the Writers Cafe? How many are planners compared to pantsters? Let's find out!

The Pantsters

"I'm one of them (a pantster). Does it kill the story for me? To some extent. It also bores me silly. I want to tell the story, not outline it. I did try it once and wrote the WORST novel I have ever done, one that is not for sale for good reason, so the big point is that outlining just doesn't work for me in producing good, publishable novels. And for the people who say you can only write tight plots if you outline, I often receive comments on how tight and focused my plots are so take that for whatever it happens to be worth."

"For me if feels like if I outline the plot then I've told the story. It kills the magic, the muse, everything. Sometimes I actually wish I could outline because it's pretty scary being halfway into a novel and suddenly realizing you have no clue what is going to happen next. But of course there is no right or wrong way. The right way is whatever works for you!"

"I'm a pantster, and I feel that an outline would limit or constrain me in my storytelling.  I know logically that's not the case, but there it is.  On the other hand, outliners may feel every bit as uncomfortable in not having an outline as I do at the thought of having one.  So I do think it's a matter of comfort in the process of writing.  Personally I'd like to move a little farther along the spectrum not to 'full outline' level, but at least to a more organized note-taking stage."

"The story unravels itself as I write it. I can't explain it, but I find it more exciting to discover the story in the writing process than to plan it out. I outlined one book and got bored 2/4 in and quit. It felt like I was bumper bowling."

"I failed the first 5 times I tried to write a novel, because the outline made me think I had told the story, and I lost interest. Now I use a basic outline: maybe 30 jot points, in order. You could fit my novel outline on a single piece of paper. I think knowing the ending tells you how to write the beginning. BUT: as I go along, I start to discover things. I plant things that I know will pay off later. I end up adding to the outline as I go, knowing that I am setting up dominoes in the first half that will fall in the second half. Before I do a rewrite, I go through every scene on index cards to make sure nothing is pointless and that I am paying off everything I planted. That second outline is HUGE and very helpful."

"I hate the term 'pantser' but I think it's because I always picture someone running around pantsing people at random, rather than flying by the the seat of their pants. I'm weird. But yeah, outlining first doesn't work for me. I've really tried to do it first to help meet deadlines but all it does is make me feel the story is dull and predictable because, Look! It's right there! I outline after I write my zero draft/exploratory draft, and then write to that (mostly.. when the characters do what I expect and don't run wild)."

"See, this is an interesting conversation for me, because I honestly don't know where on this pantser/plotter spectrum I sit. I have one novel series in the works that I basically have to outline first because the story is easily the most complicated one I've come up with so far. Yet on the other hand, the novella I'm finishing up? I wrote it completely by the seat of my pants and it was awesome! The story however, is pretty straightforward. I guess in the end, my being a pantser or plotter depends on how complex my story/world is."

"The one time I attempted an outline, the book quickly became a homework assignment. For me, the thrill of writing is giving my characters free rein to take me wherever they choose. I rely on their good judgement and their sense of adventure."

The Planners 

"I don't outline because I'm not interested in controlling where my story will go. But I'm not a pantster, either. I usually make a ton of notes before I start writing, and arrange them in a rough order. But even that's always changing. It's no wonder you're bored if you try to get every detail in place before you even start writing."

"I write a brief synopsis for each chapter than I write it out from there. Is that considered outlining? I always wondered when I read about in-depth plotting and outlining. Anyway, if what I do is outlining, it doesn't kill it for me. And the final manuscript doesn't end up resembling the outline anyway. Just helps to get me started."

"The most I can endure is a very undetailed outline. For example, for my last NaNo, I knew that I was going to serialize my books, so I knew I needed 6 episodes, each satisfying as a standalone (well, not really standalone standalone since you still need to read the previous ones to get the whole story, but it needed to have some sort of specific problem to deal with, and advance the plot at the same time--like tv show episodes). I've drawn 6 frames on a white board and made sure each episode would be satisfying to read, and not just filler. That's the extent of the plotting I can do: three or for concepts per episode."

"I need to outline because of the level of detail I put into world-building.  I can't say my creations are spectacular but they're deeply invested alternate worlds.  I've written 200 pages of material to get the dates in a 40-page sci fi story correct.  It's probably a result of a role-playing game background, I suppose. The way I keep it fresh is to make the outline tantalizing in it's own way, a discovery of the material.  It's Carnavon's diary while excavating the tomb of King Tut, Indiana Jones' notebook, H.P. Lovecraft's commonplace book, Poe's dream journal.  It has a few of the facts, a lot of speculation and some off-color asides which need to be tossed out for a general audience. Then, when I write the story, it's the archaeologist's vision of 'what really happened,' speculative dialogue and all. Probably a strange approach but it keeps the entire writing process very interesting. I'm good at tricking myself.  I have to be."

"This is what I do, and for fantasy or sci-fi I might do a little world building before I start and draw a map as well.  I outline mostly because I have so many ideas going through my head, that I forget some good things and can go off the rails. Also the outline helps me fight the I don't know where to go next kind of writers block. In the end of course everything is subject to change, and the outline is just me working though the story's broadest strokes in my head."

"Exact opposite for me. If I don't outline, then I feel like I'm floundering and THAT kills it for me. I get panic-stricken when I don't know where my story is going, which leads me to freezing up. Instant writer's block. Which just goes to show that we're all different and no one strategy is best."

"I will sometimes start a character-driven story without an outline, because outlines are not as crucial to character-driven stories as they are to plot-driven stories. Even then, I will get past the opening and feel overwhelmed, so I'll do a grocery list of Things that Need to Happen Yet. And a loose outline. No, outlines don't kill my excitement. Sitting down to write when my back is sore and I'd rather be in the tub reading kill my excitement. Sunshine and birds chirping. How few words I wrote yesterday. How many words and revisions I have left to do. Those things kill me, but not the outline."

"I'm a committed plotter, but I do give myself permission to deviate from the outline when an interesting plot twist comes up."

"Outlining is one of those things where the analytical side of my mind always wins. I can't write without an outline. My current WIP is a 150,000 word epic fantasy with 5 different viewpoint characters. I can't imagine keeping the storylines straight without having done some sort of planning. That doesn't mean my characters don't take me in new directions, and I will actively make adjustments in the outline as needed. But (most of the time) it ensures I have some sort of direction each day and definitely keeps me from going too far astray. For me, the outline is writing the story, just in an abbreviated form. It doesn't take away from the fun because it's usually at such a high level and I find pleasure in the details. There's no right or wrong here. It comes down to whatever works for you."

"I'm a mega-plotter; spreadsheets, plotting boards, index cards, notebooks. I'm also an anal-retentive control freak.  I stress that if I pantser'ed a story I would paint the floor, with me in the corner, with nowhere to go. That is scary enough to make me plot."

"I'm an outliner, but it doesn't kill the inspiration for me.  It gives me enough structure to be creative at a more detailed level.  For example if I know that in the next scene the main character is supposed to get into big trouble with the group leader, I can be creative about how she delivers the news, and how he reacts etc.  There is still lots of stuff to make up as you go along.  I guess it depends how detailed the outline is.  I don't like the word outline.  Story map might be better, since that implies that it's function is to keep one from getting lost."

"I usually have some rough goal for the character at the end, but I don't really plot as much as I used to. How they get there is up to them and what is happening around them. Shorter stories can be gotten away with easier without plotting, however I believe big epics need at least some plotting to tie all the plot threads together. Not plotting worked great for my orcs book (60k), not so great for the epic I am rewriting for the forth time now (190/250k)."

"I typically write out a 2-3 page summary beforehand to set up the general story arc. But by the fourth chapter, the story has more or less taken over. Plot and character developments appear that I never could have outlined, and then it becomes a fun challenge to integrate them into the larger story. When I get stuck, I make a list of possible future scenes, highlighting the ones that *need* to happen in one form or another. Endings often change. Is it messy? Surprisingly, no. The plot, pacing, and character development end up feeling much more organic than in earlier projects where I outlined meticulously. Personal preference? For sure. Some can see their story clearly before sitting down to write, and in many ways I envy them.  Me, I have to be inside the story before that happens. The upshot is that it becomes added motivation to write for the simple reason that I want to find out what's going to happen next."

"I bought Scrivener because of its awesome plotting capabilities. But like a cat with a cardboard box, never mind the toys, I only use a spiral notebook, after all. I like to brainstorm with a pen on paper, in the form of a list of random inspired ideas for scenes or conflicts, in no particular order. I then go through that list in no particular order, marking off each item after I incorporate it into the story. I am a hybrid plotter/pantser. I let the characters and story develop naturally, while also referring to my brainstormed ideas. Scrivener is great for formatting."

"Yes, I outline all the time or I can just stare at the blank screen. I don't have character sketches and background stuff but usually I must have a one page basic outline, and when I finish a chapter, I write a simple scene list for the next one. I always have something unexpected happen during the actual writing, but I rarely stray far from the outline. If I do, it'll be easier to throw away the story and start afresh. My third story is going to be a hybrid genre thing with a murder mystery--I can't imagine writing it without knowing whodunit! For me, I don't think outlining kills the momentum, because I get excited when imagining some awesome scenes in the middle and end, and this fuels me to keep writing so I can reach that particular scene. Of course, it's likely as well that what sounded awesome in my head turns out to be flat and flavorless on paper."

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