Planning — I Was A Teenage Pantser

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I was writing a different post for today, but this week’s discussion about advice to young writers got me thinking . . .

Jimi Hendrix.  Eric Clapton.  Eddie Van Halen.  Stevie Ray Vaughan.  All are famous rock guitar legends.  And though they may not have started out knowing, they eventually learned how to read and understand music.  Then there’s B. B. King who has incredible talent and has had incredible success even though he can’t read any music (or so he claims.  I suspect after all these years, he’s picked up a thing or two), but people like King are the exceptions.

And yet, if you were to walk into a roomful of teenage, novice guitarists, I’d be willing to bet that a high percentage of them not only wouldn’t know how to read music, but would think that they didn’t need to learn.  They wouldn’t want their Muses crushed by the walls of structure and form.  Fight the power.

But the legends, even those who fought against the norm, eventually learned to read music and comprehend music theory.  It’s a million times easier to translate what’s in your head into a song for others to hear when you understand how songs are constructed and can plan out how your song will be constructed.

Writing is the same way.

While I have no scientific data on this, I’d be willing to bet that the percentage of writers who are pantsers dramatically decreases with both age and years spent writing.  Now before all you pantsers get in a huff, hear me out.

When I began writing as a teen, I was a pantser.  I didn’t need to outline, I didn’t need to follow the rules — just give me a blank paper and I’ll come up with something.  It was fun, but I didn’t produce anything publishable.  Besides, girls became more interesting.

Years later in college, the itch to write returned.  This time, however, I had learned the value of planning (mostly due to my work as a director in theater but that’s another story).  So, I outlined my first novel.  Meticulously.  Pages and pages of detail that took weeks to work out.  And when I finished that passionate process, I discovered the desire to write the thing had vanished.  I had done all the creative work, gotten the thing out of my head, and now I didn’t want to take it further because that would just be busywork.

So, I tried other methods.  After years of writing, I’ve learned where the comfortable middle ground rests for me.  I’ve also learned that that comfort zone is different depending on the length of the story.

For a novel, I need a beginning and an end plus a few key points in the middle — Points A, B, C, and D.  Then, as I write, I outline (a term I use loosely since I actually just write down a list of notes) the scenes as I go.  For me, this keeps the novel focused on where I need to go while also permitting me the creative freedom to change things as I progress.  In fact, I never really reach Point D.  If done right, I end up at Point D-1 or D-2 or at the worst, Point E.  Close to what I wanted, but hopefully better than my original idea.

For a short story, however, things are different.  I’ve gained enough experience that I can now do a lot of the work in my head effectively.  But I still do the planning.  In fact, with a short, I spend several weeks building the tale in my head until it’s like a movie I’ve seen way too many times and can quote before the actors actually speak.  At this point, I start writing but still leave myself the room to change as I discover the difference between what works in my head and what prose problems exist.

This is my method.  It works for me, but the only reason I know that is because I forced myself away from the methods I had wrapped around my “art” in self-defense.  I experimented (and I still do) to find the best solutions.

So why pick on the pantsers?  It’s a valid method, right?  Well, yes, it is.  However, it is also one of the most difficult to pull off well — even for those people who are good at it.  It’s too easy to drift on tangents and lose sight of the story.  Especially at novel lengths when writing takes the course of months, even years.  And since this post is in response to the discussion about novice writers, I think it’s unfortunate that so many beginners choose this method (often because they mistakenly see it as less work).

All of this is to say that if you’re a pantser now, give some other methods a try.  You may discover that you are, indeed, one of the few true pantsers — and, if you’re lucky, you may make a career with that method.  Good for you.  But if you’re like the majority of people in the world, you’ll discover an easier, ultimately more satisfying approach that will help you translate what’s in your head to the page so that others may enjoy your words.

That, and a lot of luck, might make you a legend, too.

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18 comments to Planning — I Was A Teenage Pantser

  • SO very true, Stuart. I’ve tried teh pantser method and for me it doesn’t work. But Anne Rice started out a pantser. Her first novels were works of art. If you haven’t read them, try one or two. If you’re old enough (over 21) try BELINDA. Try to CRY TO HEAVEN. They are two of the more amazing novels a pantser ever wrote. But her ability to produce books by the pantser method declined with deadlines and experience.

    And I’ve discovered that effective pantsers are really just, um, headsers. They plan teh novel out meticulously. In their heads, staring at walls and shutting out the world for days or weeks. Then they sit down and write like mad men. And for them that works.

    I still need an outline. But I admire pantsers and headsers. A lot. Maybe I’ll try that method for a short story soon, planning it out in my head. It soudns liek fun.

  • Boy, Stuart, did you beat me to the punch. My next post was going to be titles “A pantser no more.” I have been more or less a pantser for a long time, something I just about made work through extensive editing. But contracts requiring outlines–among other things–have changed my mind. I know we at MW are all about “no wrong answers” and “whatever works” but I totally agree–and have learned the hard way–if you are one of the few who get good results from pantsing, you’d probably do better still plotting. I know (and have used) the argument that pantsing is more “organic” but what it usually produces is a baggy mess. I may still write that post, though I should probably hold off for a while, huh?

  • Faith — I’ve not read those. I did read INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE which I thought worth the praise but couldn’t get through the next in the series. And thanks for adding the word Headser to our MW lexicon. :)

    AJ — I say go ahead and write that post. I’m interested to learn of your experiences with being a pantser and how you made the switch. Mine were at such a young age that I never had to contend with the business side (contracts, required outlines, etc) and being a pantser at the same time.

  • Planning and organization are not the enemy. Quite the contrary. As T.S. Eliot said, “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost–and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom, the work is likely to sprawl.”

    That quote gets truer and truer every time I read it.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Well, I’m not a teenager, but I’m still at the beginning of trying to learn how to write stories, and you definitely couldn’t call me a planner at this stage. I jot notes down like crazy as I go, sort of stream-of-consciousness, but there are certain scenes in my head that I simply can’t see beyond until I get there, like a wall in my thoughts. Still, I definitely agree with Edmund that constraints produce better creative work. Right now I have (a very sorry excuse for) a rough draft, which I have worked on sort of after-the-fact re-outlining, and it will need LOTS of rewriting to make it presentable. But there are still walls in places and I’m still feeling my way around the structure and components that go into a full book. My hope is that once I go through this whole messy process all the way through a few times, that I’ll have a better lay of the land and will be able to do more planning, but at this point I really don’t think I could plan a story all the way out and then execute it.

  • “comfortable middle ground”

    Whew! That had to be the best line in this post, Stuart (for me, anyway).

    I, too, was a teenage pantser. Over time I started adding notes at the end of what I’d written that basically said where I wanted to go. Vague notes. Now I’ve reached my own middle ground: I have to know how the story’s going to end, and what the point of it is, and then as you said, I need to know more points along the away. Then I keep brainstorming as I go, but I have a personal wiki program to log it in. (My notes contain the word ZOMG a lot. I have a lot of revelations.)

    Still, until recently I’ve felt bad about this method, because I felt like I wasn’t making a proper outline and was somehow, therefore, a failure. But every time I try an outline, it doesn’t work for me, both for the reasons you’ve listed, and because I get easily sidetracked. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who takes this approach! Thanks!

  • I can usually pantster/headster a Short Story. I tried that with my first novel and it ended up not working too well. I am trying out a form of outlining that I have heard a lot about elsewhere called the “snowflake method”. Info can be found here: http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/snowflake.php . I think it looks like a way to merge to the two styles nicely.

  • Ed — Never read that quote before. I like it. When I started to be invited into anthologies instead of writing on spec, I worried that the specifics of the anthos would cramp my ability to write. I found the exact opposite to be true. It was freeing to be able to work within narrow confines (not too narrow but enough to rein me in). Counter-intuitive, but very true.

    Hep — Absolutely. As long as you continue to plug away at writing, you’ll find certain aspects get easier. It took me a long time to find a planning method that worked well, and though I’m always trying to improve it, I find the initial stages of writing less stressful and more fun now.

    Moira — Writing can be so solitary that we forget there are lots of people out in the world writing. Odds are, some of them will think the way you do. Glad this post could help out.

    Mark — I’ve never used the snowflake method, but I’ve heard about it. I’ll be curious to know how it works out for you.

  • QUOTE: And when I finished that passionate process, I discovered the desire to write the thing had vanished. I had done all the creative work, gotten the thing out of my head, and now I didn’t want to take it further because that would just be busywork.

    This is one of the thoughts that always rings a little odd in my thought processes. I started out as a more freeform writer (pantser…hmm, freeform, I like that…) as well. I never wrote down a synopsis, never bothered to type up a brainstorm, never created an outline. I only had an idea of the beginning, a couple important scenes in the middle, how I wanted the story to end, and the key characters. I didn’t really even write out any info on the characters, preferring to let them evolve as the story did. I never wrote those scene ideas out. And I never, ever, finished more than 30 pages of any novel. Ever.

    Strangely, I only figured out recently that I needed some structure, a skeleton, so to speak, to hang the story on. It was during the brainstorm session my wife and I were working on for the WIP. We’d finished brainstorming and I started writing out a synopsis to get all the info down in one place, much like I was doing when writing screenplays. I wrote down little bits of character personality, about a sentence or two each, and basically what they looked like. I typed up examples of the technology and basically what they looked like and what they did. I wrote up the story synopsis from opening scene to end scene, and it became the road ahead of me, a deer trail in the woods, the skeleton to hang the rest of the story onto. The whole thing came out to be eight pages. I also learned that day that I find creating a synopsis one of the most difficult and painful parts of the writing process, much like pulling teeth.

    I’m getting to the part that I find difficult to grasp about not wanting to write more of the story once you’ve written the outline.

    Once I had those bare bones hanging before me, once I had that trail blazed through the darkness, so to speak, I knew where I was going, but also where I could blaze new trails and where I could come back to the original trail easier. If you looked at the synopsis I have and compared it to the novel, you’d find several differences—scene additions, scene changes, and restructuring throughout. You’d also find about 250 or so pages more detail than you’d find in the synopsis. And this is where I get confused about not wanting to write anymore once the outline is written.

    I wrote my outline, my synopsis. It was eight pages. The final piece is over 30 times larger than that. That means that I still had to take the bare bones and fill it in with all the creative bits that actually make it a story. The battles, the betrayals, the triumphs, and especially the dialogue. Even when you have an outline, there’s still a long way to go in the creative process. What happens in the battle that happens near the end of the story? What happens where I’ve written that the main character is betrayed by a close friend?

    I’m a visual person. I think most always in pictures. The stuff in my head runs like a full color movie with surround sound. And an outline, a synopsis, feels to me like thinking in words. I have to know what the scenes are going to look like, otherwise it’s just words. And that makes me want to go further, to see what the scenes only alluded to in the synopsis are going to look like, how they’re going to play out. And that drives me to continue past the writing of the synopsis. I only have a small portion of the story. I want to explore the rest. My synopsis whets my appetite, but I want far more than eight pages.

    I know I’ve heard that people get the feeling of satisfaction that the story is told and out of their head, but for me it just feels like a tease. I want to know all of it. The entire tale. And to stop with the synopsis would just drive me crazy.

    I like to think of a synopsis or outline, not so much as a point A to point B, but as a point A to point D to point H to point L to point Q to point V to point Z. The rest of the points still need filled in. There’s still way more room for the creative process. There’s still a tale to tell. After the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone there’s still ligaments, tendons, cartilage, muscle, veins, nerves, skin, etc, etc, that needs to be accounted for before the full tale is told. Getting to the end of your journey is only half the trip. If you miss all the scenery on the way then you’re still missing half the fun.

    Now, I’m not in any way pooing on the freeform method, it does work for some folks, just seriously bewildered over losing the desire to know the whole story once the bare bones have been poured out. Much like I was bewildered over learning that there are people who think only in words (which was talked about in another blog on here by CE Murphy).

  • Daniel — I don’t know what to tell you. I’m not sure why it all falls apart when I over-outline, but it does. Likewise, I can never tell anybody what I’m working on until the first rough draft is complete. If I do tell somebody, suddenly the whole idea sounds stupid and just falls apart. I’ve met other writers feel the same. But then there’s Terry Brooks who writes 50-120 page outlines. There’s room for us all, and it’s about finding what works for you.

  • Young_Writer

    I used to ouline, but now I like the middle ground as well. I write out character sketches and figure out how it will begin and end. Then once a finish the end I know my chacters well enough to see what they would do in the middle.

  • Young_Writer

    I used to ouline, but now I like the middle ground as well. I write out character sketches and figure out how it will begin and end. Then once a finish the beginning, I know my chacters well enough to see what they would do in the middle.

  • Daniel> I feel the same way you do. :) When I finish an outline, I feel more like I know what I’m doing, and I can sit down and be free to do it. If I tried to keep it all in my head, there’d be chaos. If I just saw where it went, it usually went nowhere. I can change the outline anytime I want (and do) but having it and following it really helped a lot. It made it so that I could finish a novel a lot faster, too. When I edited, I had to do a lot of cleanup. I didn’t go back an edit as I went. So, if I changed something that meant stuff earlier was going to radically change, that got caught in the editing. Nothing really to add, just a “yeah, that’s my method, too…” because sometimes it feels like I’m all alone out here. (I think all writers feel that way sometimes…)

  • R.O. Kashmir

    Reading Stuart’s post really hit home of where I feel I’m currently at. Yes, I’m a proud pantser. Having tons of fun just wangin’ out stuff as it suits me day to day. But now that I’m looking to get published it is clear that getting organized is the key. Getting that outline down. Making sure I’ve got a beginning, middle, and end with defined characters. In other words, working at it. Writing interactive, open ended flash that can change (like suddenly making a character a princess one night) is fun, stress relieving, and not going to get published.

    Then along came Ed’s quote and it made a quote I learned as a young officer leap to mind:
    “Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.” – G.S. Patton

    *LOL* Yes, seems every day when I log into MW the room seems to get a little brighter as the light bulb goes off.

  • YW — Knowing your characters often makes the storytelling part far easier because there often are decisions that a well-defined character either simply will or won’t make.

    Pea — See my earlier comment. We are not alone! :)

    RO — All of us here at MW love reading this kind of thing. We’re happy to help. Here’s to making your room brighter and brighter. 😀

  • This so resonates with me. It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I figured out what planning could do for me. Even more so, it took so long for me to realize what editing was for! I wrote it, it’s amazing, just read it, I don’t need to look at it again. How wrong I was.

    I’m so glad I’ve finally learned not to be a panster, and not to be a one-shot-writer, but now I struggle to teach the same principles to the next generation. Hopefully, earlier than I learned it!

  • David — The way you responded brought to mind that being a writer is so much more than just writing, being impressed with yourself, and moving on. It’s the planning, the writing, the revising all in an effort to craft an idea not only into a story but into a story that will make an impact upon the reader. I don’t think anybody can do that in just one shot off the top of the head. It requires the work of writer.

  • […] Maybe not so freakish. I’d seen others write about a process they used that mirrored mine once or twice, but this popped up in my RSS feeds and I read it and relaxed and knew exactly what he was talking about. Here’s the link to the article: http://magicalwords.net/stuart-jaffe/planning-i-was-a-teenage-pantser/ […]