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I had no idea what these terms meant when I first started getting serious about writing. All I knew was that I was a writer, and I wrote novels. I didn’t put too much stock into *how* I was doing the writing. But there is a difference between these two terms and styles of drafting.
When I first joined Twitter, these terms were floating around, and I wanted to know more. I quickly learned that I was most definitely a panster. This means I wrote my stories by the seat of my pants. No direction, no planning whatsoever—I just knew what was in my head and it needed to be put to paper. When I started drafting, I had no idea how the story would end. I liked the feeling of not knowing because as I was bringing the story elements together, by the time I thought of the ending, I was surprised and super excited about it. I enjoyed the thrill. This is sometimes referred to as discovery writing. There are many writers out there who use this method and have written and published successful books in this way. The necessary “planning” is all done in their heads and they make the rest up as they go.
But as I continued learning about writing, I realized something. I plan everything else in my life—why not writing? I like things to be listed, organized, mapped out, planned. I like alphabetizing or colour-coding. (Not everything, but some things!) I prefer when there is order to the chaos that is life wherever possible. I like to brainstorm. No, scratch that. I LOVE to brainstorm! And I find when I’m planning things, I brainstorm more. So I started to read more about plotting stories.
One of the first things I did was I watched a You Tube video on how to plot out a novel. At the time, I was knee-deep in my WIP, which was about halfway done. But I figured if I plotted the rest of it out, not only will I have a better idea of where it’s going, I’ll also be able to find any plot holes in what was already written. I took what I’d already written and put it into the outline, and I enjoyed the process of planning the rest of it out. It was helpful, but I wanted something NEW to try it out on.
Additionally, I got some craft books to help me learn how to plot in a way that works for me.
One of the best books out there is Save The Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody. (Yes, I’ve talked about it before!) It’s built on the same foundation as Save The Cat! for screenwriting, but the concept is easily applied to writing novels. Once I read it, I fell in love with the process and haven’t looked back. The more I plan, the better I know my story and the characters. And the better you know your story and characters, the more authentic your novel will be.
That’s not to say that pantsers can’t have authentic stories! Nay, nay. What I’m saying is that we all have different processes, and it’s important to explore and try different ways of writing so we can find what works best for us. And I’m glad I took the time to try plotting because I feel like my writing is ten times stronger for it. It may work for you, it may not. I’m a firm believer that you should have at least *some* direction for your story, but that doesn’t mean you have to plan out every single detail in order to pull the story together. And you might be someone who can have all those details floating around in your head and not forget anything. Ha! Not me! I need to write things down because my memory is terrible, especially when my mind is flooded with ideas. It’s because I like the feeling of writing things down—physically, I like putting actual pen to actual paper. I also like the process of writing down ideas and organizing them in some way.
For a while, and really, still today, I consider myself a plantser as I moved from pantsing my way through stories to plotting them. I have to have some idea of what’s going to happen, so I more so plan the big or main plot points and pants the in between parts. But my heart is in true organization! I’m still working on 100% outlining a book before I write it, but it’s hard not to want to skip parts and just get to the writing!
When I plotted the main parts and chapters of a novel, I found that even then, if I didn’t zoom in even more, like on a scene level, I was missing crucial elements to the scenes and overall flow. So I stopped writing and took a step back. I looked at the bigger picture of what I wanted to have happen and zoomed in on a scene level. Because if you aren’t following some rules on a scene level, you’re going to lose your readers’ interest. Whether it’s in your head or on paper, you should always keep in mind that each scene needs to propel the story forward and have a reason for being there. There must be something in that scene that leads to something else later in the story. But I was finding that if I didn’t have those scenes planned out, I wasn’t infusing everything I needed into the scene, which meant it wasn’t in the story itself, and that’s when things fall apart. When you don’t know where to go next, it can be hard to keep going. I find that following an outline, even if you change some of it here and there, helps maintain focus and gets the story done.
And what I find interesting is I’ve never plotted a flash fiction or short story. Those just come flying out of my head from nowhere. In the future, I’d like to try plotting out a flash story, but I tend to really enjoy the thrill I get from completing a short story with little to no guidance from an outlined version. There’s a feeling of surprise and satisfaction when I’m pulling the plot or character together as I’m writing.
But in novel writing, it’s a very different ball game.
When I plot things out, yes—there is a structure that I generally follow, but I always leave room for change. Sometimes while I’m writing, a new idea will spark, something better than what I’d written in the outline, and that’s ok! Stories can change and grow just as much as the writer can. So, it’s important to remember that change is part of the process, and not to get too attached to the outline. An outline is there as a guideline, not a set of unbreakable rules.
Even if you follow STC or any other craft book, there still might be areas that you tweak in your outline because it’s more suitable that way for you or your story. And that’s ok! Never use anything as an end all, be all. Use everything as a base, a guideline. There are no rules in writing that can’t be tweaked or broken. The key is to know and understand the “rules,” so you know how and when to break them.
So, I have an exercise for you. It involves two prompts.
Prompt #1: Winter Bliss
Prompt #2: Summer Haze
Exercise: Pick one prompt and write freely about it. Whatever comes to mind, just write. This might be easier for you if you’re a pantser. Make it a short story—under 1000 words. When you’re finished, outline a short story (under 1000 words) for the other prompt, and then write it.
Questions to answer:
- Why did you choose the prompt you did for each method?
- Do you think you could have done better or worse if you reversed the prompts for each method?
- Which method did you like better—pantsing or plotting—and why?
- What did you not like about each method?
If you want, reverse the prompts and methods. If you pantsed your way through Winter Bliss and plotted Summer Haze, reverse it and see what you come up with. Did you surprise yourself after trying the reverse? Did you still prefer one method over the other, or did that change?
The point of this exercise is to try different methods of writing. You never know what you like or don’t like if you don’t try it, and you might be surprised! I think it’s important to try different ways of writing when you’re growing your skills and trying to establish yourself as a writer. Even successfully published authors can change their style of writing if they find something they like better. Because remember—there’s no right or wrong way to do it, and everyone has their own preferred methods—but don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new! 🙂
Today’s guest on the podcast is Jessica Payne, thriller author and host of #momswritersclub. Almost a year ago, Jess signed with her agent and shortly thereafter, obtained a book deal. Her debut thriller is coming out in May of this year, so we’ll chat a bit about that. Jessica also founded the #momswritersclub on Twitter. Originally, it consisted of a bi-weekly chat, but it has since grown into an additional You Tube channel where Jessica and fellow author Sara Read host episodes about the different aspects of writing, and sometimes they host guests as well. Jessica is an outdoor enthusiast and an RN and enjoys spending time in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, daughter, dogs, and cat.
We chat about pantsing and plotting, taking risks in writing, the importance of the writing community and how to join it the right way, believing in yourself, the momswritersclub, and having a social media presence as an author. In addition, we talk about her writing process, her path to publication, and her debut novel!
Link to this specific episode is coming, or just visit www.anchor.fm/kathleen-foxx to listen to this and other episodes! Listen on Apple podcasts, Spotify, and other platforms.
Thanks so much for reading and/or listening! I hope you enjoyed this post and can take away something from it that helps you with your writing. stay tuned for next week’s post and podcast episode, and in the meantime, keep being badass!
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