I’ve led over 50 creative writing workshops across the United States, and I start each one by asking everyone in attendance to raise their hand if they’ve written a book. About 75% of the attendees usually indicate they’ve penned a complete novel.
“Great. Keep your hands up if you have published that book, either traditionally or self-published.”
About half the room still has their hands in the air. I then ask them to keep them up if they are a plotter, i.e. someone who outlines their book before writing it. Fifty percent of the remaining hands drop. Those whose don’t sit up a little straighter, their hands a little higher (we plotters have an inclination to also be brown-nosers).
“Awesome. Drop your hands, plotters, and let me see the pantsers’ hands.” Pansters are writers who prefer to create by the seat of their pants. In other words, rather than outline their novel, they hop in their concept like it’s a car, letting it take them where it takes them, only seeing as far ahead as their headlights allow.
The plotters drop their hands so the pantsers can tentatively raise theirs. In general, I’ve discovered that pantsers are shy about the way they create, worrying on some level that they should maybe be more organized. But here’s the point that I’m always trying to make with this activity, and it’s undeniable: about half of published writers are plotters, and about half are pantsers. One is not the right way or the wrong way; there is only the way that works best for you.
But how do you know which that is?
I agree with my friend Shannon Baker, author of the upcoming Kate Fox mystery, Dark Signal, who says it depends on the project, but regardless, “The plot is the toughest job in novel writing. I love creating characters and relationships, the setting, the premise, the general idea of the book. The nuts and bolts and twists, reversals, keeping the middle from falling like a failed soufflé, creating an ending no one saw coming? That is hard.”
My personal preference—to find my way through that mess—is to outline. With my first eight novels, I created a very structured writing map, consisting of a table where the lefthand column contained dates and the righthand column was scene summaries. I would summarize a scene in two or three sentences, just enough so that I knew what direction I was going but not so much that it took all the fun out of writing the scene. This level of outlining allowed me to make sure I wasn’t making common plotting mistakes before I’d gotten too far into the book to correct them.
However, when I wrote The Toadhouse Trilogy, my young adult novel about kids who can travel inside of classical literature, that method failed. I spent weeks trying to fit the story into that table, but I simply could not cram it in there. I was so dependent on what had worked for me before that I almost gave up on the novel all together. Only the frustration at the amount of time I’d devoted to it drove me to try a new method of outlining. I grabbed a sheet of paper and drew a small circle in the middle, and the drew ever-larger circles around that. It looked like the top of a pond after you’d dropped a rock into it. I wrote the inciting incident in the center circle, and then the resulting conflicts in the outer circle, one leading to the other. This was a simplified version of a plot planner that worked for me.
When it came time to write The Catalain Book of Secrets, my magical realism novel which features multiple points of view, though, neither of those methods would work. I ended up pantsing for 10,000 words, then physically printing out those pages and cutting the paper into scenes. Once I had a stack of crazy notes, I bought a roll of butcher paper, moving around the scenes, adding some and deleting others, and finally pasting it (with actual Elmer’s glue) onto the butcher paper once I had everything where I wanted it. I sketched pictures where it was helpful.
My point is, don’t trap your creativity in a label. Shannon backs this up: “Write the book how it works for you. If you typically write three chapters, stall out and quit, then try a more detailed outline. If plotting makes you feel confined, freewrite the sucker. Don’t let anyone tell you how you should work, but keep your mind open to what might help you do it better. Don’t stop writing, no matter what.”
In other words, if you are pantsing, and it’s going well, pants on! If you are outlining and feel safe and creative, then keep outlining. If your go-to used to work but isn’t for this project, try something new. It’s called “creative” writing for a reason, after all.
If you want to explore other methods of story planning
- Story Engineering by Larry Brooks
- Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
- Story Magic (workshop) by Laura Baker and Robin Perini
- The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler
Tell us in the comments: Are you a pantser or a plotter? What methods have you devised for planning or structuring your work?
If you enjoyed this post by Jess, take a look at her TED talk, Use Fiction to Rewrite Your Life.
Jess Lourey (rhymes with “dowry”) is a bestselling Agatha, Anthony, and Lefty-nominated author known for her critically-acclaimed Mira James mysteries, which have earned multiple starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, the latter calling her writing “a splendid mix of humor and suspense.” Jess also writes nonfiction, edge-of-your-seat YA adventure, magical realism, and feminist thrillers. She is a tenured professor of creative writing and sociology, a recipient of The Loft’s Excellence in Teaching fellowship, a regular Psychology Today blogger, and a TEDx presenter (check out her TEDx Talk for the surprising inspiration behind her first published novel). When not teaching, reading, or dorking out with her family in Minneapolis, you can find her dreaming of her next story.