The Plotter Goes Pantsing: The Relationship Between Process and Product


Thanks to Lyn Nichols for today’s title . . .

I hadn’t planned it this way, but this post serves as a nice follow-up to Chloe Neill’s excellent post yesterday.

I have recently started a new book, the second in my Weremyste Cycle, which will be published by Baen under my own name.  And though I am now several chapters into the novel — close to 20,000 words — I have not yet completed an outline of the book.

All of you who have been reading my posts here at MW know that I am a dedicated planner, or at least have been in recent years.  I have posted several times about the benefits of outlining a novel, of knowing where a story is going so that we can introduce themes, foreshadow plot points, plant the seeds of the twists and turns that will make our narratives capture the imaginations of our readers.

And yet, here I am writing without a complete outline.  Now, let me be totally honest and say that I do have about two-thirds of the book mapped out in a loose way. So I have an idea of where the plot is going and I know in a rough sense what these early chapters need to accomplish.  But . . .

This is hard for a dedicated planner like me to say, but the fact is different books demand different approaches and varying levels of planning.  I have never outlined any books with as much dedication and detail as I have the Thieftaker books.  And there’s a reason for that. The books are tied closely to historical events, and they have a strong mystery element.  This means that my narrative timeline needs to follow a progression and pace that are dictated externally.  And it means that I need to set up my clues and false leads to make the mystery work.

It’s not that the Weremyste books I’m writing now are uncomplicated, or that their pacing is less crucial to the plots. In fact, I have put in a different sort of “ticking clock” to replace the historical element of the Thieftaker books.  But this series lends itself to a looser, more improvisational approach.

Why?  For one thing, I’m writing the story in first person, and I find the first person point of view freeing. My lead character is forced to think on the fly, to face threats to his life from all directions and to create solutions in the moment.  I’m not really sure that I would want to plan such a story with too much care. I want my writing to feel as much in the moment as my POV character’s actions and thoughts.

But, some might ask, don’t you always want that level of spontaneity?  To some degree, yes.  Here is the point, though:  Each different book has it’s own set of narrative imperatives.  Yes, we all want great characters, exciting story lines, fascinating and realistic settings. But each book also has some unique element that sets it apart, and that, by necessity, has to dictate our approach to the creative process.  For the Thieftaker books, this narrative priority has been the precision of plotting, the interweaving of fictional story arc with historical events.  That’s the big idea, to borrow a phrase from Edmund’s wonderful post last week.

In my epic fantasies the narrative imperatives were often tied to multistrand plot points or intensive worldbuilding, and those books also took a fair amount of planning.

With this new series, my narrative needs are tied much more closely to issues of character arc, of psychological fragility, of that “ticking clock” I mentioned earlier which adds an element of desperation to each novel.  And in certain ways, this combination of story elements allows me, even encourages me, to be somewhat less precise in my planning and to trust just a bit more to that improvisational quality I mentioned before.

Again, I don’t want to overstate this:  Despite Lyn’s wry title for this post, I am not really pantsing the novel.  I have mapped out the early direction of the book, and I know in a general sense where the rest of it will be going.  But I think that this experience is also forcing me to embrace a necessary corrective to some of my previous pronouncements on the importance of outlining.  For some novels it really is quite crucial.  And for others, as I am learning now, it’s less so.  I will even admit that for still other books, outlining in any meaningful way could have a stultifying effect on the creative process.  And after this experience I find myself wanting to write one of those novels.

The larger point, I suppose, is that creative process and creative output are inextricably linked.  It’s not just a matter of the words on the page — the characters created, the worlds realized, the narratives woven.  How we write influences what we write.  Another example of this:  While writing the Thieftaker books I have been listening to instrumental bluegrass and Celtic music.  The Weremyste books are grittier, more modern, more urban in the most literal sense of the world, and I am finding that blues and jazz are my preferred accompaniment as I write these stories.  Process, one might say, begets product, just as product shapes process.  It is a synergistic relationship — I’m not sure I ever appreciated just how synergistic until I started this newest book.

And so now I put the questions to you.  Have you found that outlining has worked well for some of your projects and less well (or not at all) for others?  Can you think of other ways in which the content of your writing has dictated new approaches in your creative process?  Let’s discuss this stuff.

Oh, and it’s been a while since my last MW post.  I’ve enjoyed hearing from all of our guests and I’ve been gratified, as I know Faith and Misty have been, by the great response to this year’s posts.  But it’s nice to be here again.  I’ve missed you all.

David B. Coe

27 comments to The Plotter Goes Pantsing: The Relationship Between Process and Product

  • Welcome back, David! Great to see you here.

    I definitely consider myself as someone who falls on the plotting side of things. But I find for my projects that if I outline the whole thing in explicit detail, it usually stifles the creativity, sort of as Chloe was saying yesterday in one of her examples. I don’t want to write the story because I’ve already told the story to myself. Having an outline that is looser, and knowing how I want the story to basically begin and end (Points A and B), are the more important things. And then when I hit a spot where I need a more detailed outline to figure out what’s going on, I do the numbered lists in Word, but I do it for the section, not the whole thing. Kamikaze plotting, perhaps? 😉

    But as for the content dictating the creative process, yes, I’ve found that for sure. Depending on the genre, subgenre, age of my characters, setting, and magic system (where applicable), I’ve definitely had to approach the story in different ways. Another muscle I’m building, though I hadn’t thought about it that way until just now. Thank you.

  • Thanks for the blame… er… credit for the post title, David. 🙂

    I’ve always been a panster, especially since most of my work has been in short stories. I get an idea and I start writing, and somehow a story emerges.

    Sometimes, though, the idea is just too big for a short story, or it peters out because I don’t know where to take it. I have tons of files in my “Unfinished” folder just waiting for me to figure out what I’m doing. They call to me and I have to tell them, “Not yet.”

    Until recently. In the past two years or so that I’ve been hanging around at MW, I’ve been Thinking about some of those ideas. Not just thinking, but Thinking. Planning. Plotting. Developing arcs. Using the suggestions, insights, and tools you all have shared. I’m not a plotter yet. Not yet. I am however, using what I’ve learned here to stretch an idea into something more. And some of those lost souls living in the “Unfinished” folder have moved into the “Working On It” folder.

  • Kamikaze plotting – I like that, and Laura’s definition of it describes my current writing style pretty well, and the reasoning behind it. If I think through all the details first, it seems to sap the creative energy and it becomes orders of magnitude more difficult for me to write the story. I’m hoping that limitation goes away with practice.

    I get an idea and I start writing, and somehow a story emerges.

    This describes me pretty well too. My most recent short story (the one waiting for Diana to shred mercilessly lovingly critique in an upcoming post here) started out almost as random scenes. It jumped all over the place as things played out in my head. When that happens I have to write desperately before it goes away. Maybe that’s because my old brain has spent way too many years sitting behind a screen writing millions of lines of code. I’m also hoping that gets better with practice.

    Thanks for the post David. The Thieves’ Quarry hasn’t made it to the top of my queue yet, but it’s getting close! Looking forward to it.

  • […] After about a six-week hiatus from posting, I am back at Magical Words, the blogsite on the craft and business of writing that I co-founded and continue to maintain (under the name David B. Coe) with Faith Hunter and Misty Massey.  Today’s post is about plotting and pantsing, and the ways in which the nature of the book itself can dictate the best approach to take.  It is called, “The Plotter Goes Pantsing:  The Relationship Between Process and Product.” […]

  • inkfire

    I do believe I fall in with the rest of you kamikaze lot. I have a brief outline–stating beginning, end, and POI’s along the way. Sometimes, when I’m in the shower or working out, I’ll come up with the perfect dialogue for a section, and I’ll write that down. But never have I divided events into chapters. That’s too restraining to me. Once I get into the story, I may take a step back and outline some part in more detail, but, as Laura said, it’s just that section. I don’t want to strangle the life out of it, I’m not an anaconda. I’m more of a…mother bird. I train it up, take care of it a little, but there comes a point when I shove it out of the nest, and see where it goes.

  • Laura, thanks, it’s good to be back. I totally get the idea of not wanting to outline in too much detail. The analogy I’ve used in the past is the idea of drinking soda from a bottle. If I open the bottle too much, eventually the soda gets flat and I want nothing to do with it. In the same way, if I outline too closely, or talk about a project too much, eventually the “fizz” that had me so excited dies away leaving the story flat. I very much like the notion (and name) or Kamikaze plotting. There are certainly some sections of story that need to be just so, and so need that extra bit of planning. Interesting comment, Laura. Thank you.

    Lyn, the title was perfect — I knew it when I saw your comment on Facebook last week. I’m glad to know that some of what you’ve found here at MW has helped you move some of those stories from “unfinished” to “WIP.” That’s gratifying for all of us. And I do think that it points to one of the good things about doing SOME planning. It’s easier to develop an idea if you know where that idea might lead.

    Dave, again I would refer back to my soda-fizz analogy. I totally get that, and I it may not go away; it hasn’t for me. It might just be how you work, which is fine. On the other hand, bringing coherence to those “random scenes” might well be something that will come together as you gain writing experience. And thanks re. Thieves’ Quarry. I hope you enjoy it when you get to it.

    Inkfire, it sounds as though you approach this more loosely than I usually do (and more the way I’m approaching my WIP). Glad to know it works for you; I’m hoping it will work for me, as well. Love the bird analogy.

  • sagablessed

    I have tried all ways. I think it depends on the story, but I like plotting best. Although, my 100% pantsed idea has been hailed by my betas as the best ever. Yet I like the certainty of knowing what is happening. Plus, if I have to refer back, it’s right there. I don’t have to scroll through dozens of pages looking for it.
    Laura, I find no matter how much I plot, it always changes as the story goes. I then adjust my plot/timeline accordingly.

  • Donald, I find that I have to adjust my plotting as I go as well. Always. No matter how closely I plan, inevitably my story evolves, usually because of something my characters have done that I could not have anticipated. It sounds as though you have mixed feelings about this though, and it would be interesting to know what it is about that 100% pantsed idea that your readers like so much. You should bottle it.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Firstly: I have seen more novels fail and never reach their would-be adoring public because of outlining than any other reasons.

    I learned long ago the horrible truth that if I write an outline, I cannot finish the book. I wish it were not so. I actually love outlining…but it is.

    What makes me sad is the number of would-be authors I know who don’t listen to me when I warn them of this. I have seen so many friends write fascinating openings to novels, write an outline, and never write again.

    Why…because they lose the creative itch, the sense of spontaneity that makes writing joyful.

    If a person can outline, that is wonderful! Outlines let you know you aren’t crazy and the story will come to completion. But I wish more authors were warned of the dangers that can come with outlining and were told to rip up their outlines if their creativity stops.

    Secondly, I hate the term pantser. I try not to get offended by things. But this one thing is a really sore point for me.

    Why? Because what I do is NOT writing by the seat of my pants. I know, because I occasionally write essays by the seat of my pants…and it is a totally different process.

    What I do is listen, very hard, to the muse…waiting for ideas to unfold and trusting that there is a story that I am following.

    I really think there should be three terms: Plotting, Pantsers, and Servants of the Muse…or at least Plotters and Organic writers…which includes both of the second two there.

    So, David, now that you’ve descended into the mist between the peaks of plot (to paraphrase Terry Pratchett), which are you? Writing by the seat of your pants? Or carefully listening for the song of the Muse? 😉

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    Note that the term ‘pantser’ was invented by an avowed plotter…who really does not understand what it is that the rest of us do. 😉

  • I call the loose knowledge of what’s happening an outline. I don’t get the detail into an outline usually. I’d like to be able to write a detailed plot, but somehow my mind refuses to even give me the loose knowledge these days. I’m trying hard to overcome that, as I’ve got tight deadlines and I need to be able to write more quickly. Doing a good outline would be incredibly useful and smart. So I need to work on managing that. Trying.

  • I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere that for me it almost depends on each story as to how much plotting/outlining I do. Each one I’ve done so far has been different. Rogue 5 required a full 5 or so page synopsis and another 4 pages or so detailing characters, weapons, ships and their armaments, the battle suits and their armaments, etc, just so I could keep things straight in my head for continuity. Jasper, my MG, only really requires a little chapter blurb of a paragraph each. Deadboy was requiring a full outline, but I’m thankfully starting to break away from that. And in each scenario I’m always bouncing ideas off my wife who helps me a lot at figuring out where things are going. Heck, One Who Calls Gods was a big brainstorming session between me and my wife over the course of several days via email before we finally got together.

    I don’t really pants anymore, unless it’s short stories. I used to pants in the beginning, but my works started to meander and then I’d lose focus, allowing some new shiny to lure me away. One of the reasons I never finished anything other than some short stories before Rogue 5, and I’ve been doing this wacky writing thing for a while. I have a lot of old unfinished junk lying around.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    As with most things, I seem to be somewhere foggily in the middle – though I’m only so far onto my 2nd novel-length WIP so I don’t yet have much data on project-to-project variation.

    I like to write down a rough outline of the progression of events as I understand it right now. That both helps to give me direction and focus and, if there’s something I think will be super-cool coming up, then it helps keep me excited about the story during the times when things seem to lag. Also, for some of those cool scenes, I’ll sometimes keep a chapter document where I can leave notes relating to that specific scene, but I don’t have many of those, particularly at the start of a project.

    In the area where I feel very much *not* like a plotter is in the *ending*. So often I hear the writing advice that at the very least you should know how your story ends, but if I waited until I knew the ending then I would never get started. With my current project I have quite a lot of notes put together for about the first third of the story, but after that things get pretty vague, and all I can really say about the ending is: somehow happily. I’ll know the shape of the ending before I get there (having finished the first book of my 3-book WIP I can now see glimmers of book-3’s ending and book-2’s ending is pretty darned clear) but for right now there are too many unknowns, too many aspects of the world and the story that I haven’t met yet.

    So now I’m very curious – you say you have about 2/3 of your current book figured out. Does that or does that not include your ending?

  • In an overarching sense, there is no fundamental difference between planners and non-planners (I too dislike the term “pantser”) when it comes to writing. Planners get an idea and then work out to one level of detail or another how they wish the story to progress, whereas non-planners get an idea (though they may not be consciously aware of it) and work out how the story progresses in the process of writing it. Both are forms of discovery—it just takes longer for the non-planners to figure out where they’re going.

    I have been a dedicated non-planner all my career. Indeed, for me, knowing where a story is going to end up robs it of the creative drive necessary to give it life. It turns writing into typing. The times I have worked out a plot ahead of time or deliberately designed characters to suit a situation have been utter failures, flat and predictable. My stories and novels begin with words that suggest more words that suggest an event or situation, and someone somehow appears to take on the role that the situation calls for. I do not “create” a character any more than I create a sunrise each morning; it is simply there, and I can only do my best to use our rich, frail, flimsy language to describe it in an evocative and appealing manner.

  • David> I’m a pretty firm plotter, though on my current WIP, I hit a wall in a chapter about 1/3 of the way through. I knew what happened in the chapter, but I couldn’t get it to work. I must have tried to rewrite it a dozen times. Finally, I just gave up and didn’t write a for a couple months. Ack. That was bad. So I finally just wrote “x stuff happens” on the page and skipped it, and then went on and finished the book. I didn’t have an outline. Like you, I knew where it was going, but I opened up to letting my character do what she wanted a bit (this is also a first person novel, and my first foray into first person, too). It worked well. I was able to finish it in a couple months, where I hadn’twritten in months. Now, I know what’s going to happen in that early chapter and editing is much easier.

    I had one novel rejected for having a character feel too driven by the plot, rather than character driving the plot, so I’m more careful about letting the character lead and have her own directions.

    I plot a lot, but, and in this way my writing reflects my life, I don’t take my plotting too seriously anymore. I have a plan of where things are going, but when I get there, if the plans change, so what? If I have a better idea, I’ll just follow that. It’s the same way I plan vacations and trips. I get a whole itinerary all set, and then rarely follow it once I get somewhere. The fun for me is in the planning, and then later in the going on the trip, and the two are tangentially related. 🙂 The same with writing.

    Sarah and I plan out a lot when we co-write (and I think you need A LOT more plotting when you co write, otherwise you end up with someone saying “by the way, it’s now set in space, that okay?” when it had been set in New Hampshire–not okay), but we also “pants” a lot in individual scenes. There’s a lot of “x plot development and y character reveal and z backstory need to come out in this scene,” and then how that happens is a lot more flexible, and if something really cool that wasn’t discussed happens in the scene during the writing, we talk about it and see if it’s something we want to keep, even if it changes everything, or if it was nice but needs to go and we stick to the plan. But we “plot” everything, because we talk everything out. Though a lot of what we talk out (most?) doesn’t end up on the page, or ends up very different. So it’s a strange combo.

  • Jagi, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that I meant no offense. I see the term as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and I know that many who write without an outline embrace the term. It never occurred to me that others might find it unflattering. Forgive me. I won’t dispute what you say about books not being written because of outlines, but I will say that in my own experience with those who plan a novel but don’t write it, the presence or absence of an outline has never been the deciding factor. Yes, for some an outline might rob a project of its energy and momentum, but for others it provides necessary direction, and even motivation. I would guess, again by my own experience and observations, that the net effect is a wash. Some people come up with ideas and don’t follow through; others write the book no matter what. I think it’s a matter of really wanting it, and/or of being the kind of person who follows through on stuff or not. But that’s just my thinking. Oh and for my part, I am definitely writing by the seat of my pants right now….

    Di, I have to say that the most detailed and complete “outline” I ever had was the script of ROBIN HOOD when I wrote the novelization. It wasn’t an outline per se, but that was how I used it. And I have never written a book more quickly: 90,000 words in five weeks. I have also never had as little fun writing a novel. I don’t know if that was because of the outline, or because I had so little creative input on the final product, but there you go. Yes, a detailed outline can speed things up, but I do agree with Jagi and others when they say that too much outline detail can kill the spontaneity of a book.

    Daniel, I tend to use a less detailed approach than you do, but like you I definitely adjust my approach to each new project. Thanks for the comment.

  • Hep, my 2/3 outline is linear. So, no, I don’t have the final chapters outlined. I know how the book ends in the most general sense — bad guy dead, conflicts A and B resolved; conflict C still lurking for book 3. But that’s about it. Then again, that’s ALWAYS about it. I say that I know how a book is going to end before I start it, and that’s true in the loosest way. But like you, the actual writing of my closing chapters is almost always a revelatory experience for me. Does that help?

    Wolf, that’s well said, and I mostly agree with you. Mostly. Since I have written both ways, I feel that I’m in a position to say that in certain respects they are not simply variations on the same process. I won’t say that one is better than the other, but I do think that the processes are at some level very different, and I also believe that the end results tend to have different strengths and weaknesses.

    Emily, I will say again that my outlines are rarely etched in stone. Like yours, mine are constantly changing, evolving, adjusting to the decisions my characters make and the unforeseen twists and turns my plots follow. To my mind, an outlines is not meant to be a boundary. It’s a map, laying out one path to an end. More often than not, the path I wind up following is a variation on that first plan: close to it, but not bound by it. Does that make sense?

  • I like Jagi’s term, “Organic Writer.” Yup. Toss the seeds in the dirt and see what grows. Very organic.

  • Lyn, Jagi, yeah, I should have responded to this earlier, after Jagi’s comment: My own personal peeve? I hate it when “organic” is used to describe writers who don’t outline but not writers who do. Because most of the time I do outline with some care, and I still consider myself an organic writer. To me, organic means that the flow of ideas happens in the moment, that characters and plotlines come alive and take the book or story in question in new and unexpected directions. And even when I outline, that happens to me all the time. So I am open to finding a better, and less offensive term, to replace “pantsers,” but “organic writers” definitely is not it.

  • Razziecat

    I’ve always liked the term “organic writer”; in my case it means that one one sentence, one scene, one paragraph, naturally flows from another, although this can mean that in revisions, it’s sometimes hard to add text because what’s already there is seamless and fits together just so. I tend to prefer a sort of mix of pantsing & plotting. I make notes in a loose conversational tone to remind myself of plot points I want to include, or to work out problems and/or twists. Then in the actual writing, sometimes the plotting works & sometimes it doesn’t 😉 My characters often surprise me, which, to me, is the best part of writing. Sometimes I have to yank them back into line, sometimes what they “want” to do is better than what I had planned.

    I’ve found that when writing fantasy, I usually have to plan more, though not much because it takes the surprise and spontaneity out of it. I do need to have more extensive notes to refer to. When writing space opera, for some reason I go much faster and plot as I write, keeping a certain solution or event in mind and adjusting as I go.

    Finally here is a quote from a Neil Gaiman essay that is very appropriate to this discussion: “I wondered what I’d learned, and found myself remembering something Gene Wolfe had told me, six months earlier. “You never learn how to write a novel,” he said. “You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.”

  • Love that Gaiman quote; it’s one I’ve heard before. I love the term “organic writer” too. I just don’t like it when it’s applied to this particular debate as somehow being the opposite of a writer who plots out his/her books. I know just what you mean about blending revisions with that seamless first draft. But in a way, that’s one of the challenges I most enjoy about revising and editing my work: finding a way to splice in the new material so that the seam between old and new is invisible. Thanks for the comment, Razz.

  • Wow. David, you have stirred a pot and gotten some great feedback. I using Kamikaze plotting. I am not getting my panties in a twist about names of things or methodologies nor am I referring to my muse again. I don’t listen to him. He’s drunk half the time and far too much into BDSM for my ladylike tastes.
    And I cant’ wait for book two. 🙂

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I didn’t mean to imply that I was offended by you, David! LOL Just the term itself. I think your point about organic writing is a good one. I’m personally in favor of three terms: Plotters, Pantsers, and Musers. 😉

    As to your point about outlines…it was my own experience–having to abandon a book several times until I learned to unravel the outline and try again–that brought me to notice this happening to others. When I see people who keep trying and trying, but don’t seem to be able to continue with any particular work after they outline it…that’s when I think outlines are to blame.

    But I do think everyone should TRY to outline! If you can’t do it, you can’t. But if you can…well, I don’t have to tell you how valuable they can be. 😉

  • Thanks, Faith. I’m going to be interested to see how this book comes out. It’s a bit of struggle right now, but frankly all my books are these days, and I’ve come to accept that the struggle is part of what makes them good. Sure would be nice if they were easy, though…

    Jagi, good. Glad I didn’t offend you. Thanks for this comment as well as your earlier ones. Faith is right: This is has been a fun and lively discussion.

  • Jagi and David – I know I’ve said this before, but I sometimes call myself a “Puzzler” because of my approach. 😉

  • I like that, Laura. Thanks.

  • Razziecat

    David, I agree that organic isn’t the opposite of plotting. Or rather not the opposite of extensive outlining, let’s say. I call it organic because to me, writing a long, detailed outline is more of an act of construction, a building-up of story; whereas the other way is looser, more fluid, more abstract, and at least in my mind, involves more of a “let’s see where this goes” outlook than plotting in advance does. It has its downside though, as others have noted. Sometimes the story just peters out, or you get stuck and don’t know which way to go next. An outline can help prevent that. I favor a very rudimentary outline when I use one at all, but I really do (usually) have a destination in mind 😉