Are all pantsers really planners?

What does it really mean to be a planner or a pantser?

There are many ways to write a novel (or any extensive writing project). Some people prepare detailed plans with chapter breakdowns and character histories, others don’t even outline, they just sit down and write what comes to them. Such different approaches have led writers to thinking of themselves as either planners or pantsers, architects or gardeners (read George R R Martin’s wonderful gardening analogy here).

Notes or not?

But I recently developed a theory. If there’s one thing I learnt from training as a lawyer (many years ago), it’s that to succeed at any extensive project you need to be organised. So I wondered… are all pantsers really planners?

To test my theory, I asked two amazing Australian fantasy authors about their writing methods: one planner, Kate Forsyth, and one pantser, Rowena Cory Daniells. I posted their fascinating responses here and here. But did their answers prove my theory? At first, I noticed plenty of similarities between them.

They both plan some story aspects before writing

“I’ll know the main character/s, their preoccupations and that I’m going to test them, to explore some aspect of the human condition.” [Rowena, pantser]

“I always begin with the most basic planning tool of all – Who, What, Where, When and Why.” [Kate, planner]

Yet they both let characters drive their stories

“I enjoy… the excitement of going along for the ride with the characters. They react in unexpected ways… I think I know the ending <grin> but the characters often prove me wrong and I’m happy to go with that.” [Rowena, pantser]

“In general, much of the story can only be discovered by writing it, and so my early ideas and plans will change as I go deeper into the story… I do make lots of wonderful and surprising discoveries along the way … and sometimes a character will die unexpectedly…” [Kate, planner]

Both use their subconscious to answer plot problems

“Every night I lie in bed and think about problems in the book, and trust to my dreams to deliver the answer by morning. Many of my best ideas have come while my conscious mind is sleeping.” [Kate, planner]

“Sometimes I have to let the ms sit for a day until my subconscious provides me with the insight to where the flaw is… Some things come to me in dreams.” [Rowena, pantser]

While writing, both think about their stories constantly

“I find it very hard to concentrate on anything else.” [Kate, planner]

“Plot holes or twists just come to me while I’m doing other things.” [Rowena, pantser]

Both go back and review their stories if their flow jams

“If I’m writing a book and I jam up, I know it is because something earlier on isn’t quite right… [so] I go back and rewrite that scene.” [Rowena, pantser]

“I’m constantly reworking earlier chapters so that the story’s inherent chain of logic works.” [Kate, planner]

BUT

Of course there were plenty of differences in their answers too. Kate said she preferred to research first, then write; whereas Rowena preferred to start writing and research as she wrote. Rowena was happy for her story to go in a different direction to the one she’d originally planned; whereas Kate knew what she wanted to have happen in the end and that never faltered.

It was only after I thought back to my lawyer days once more that I realised where my theory had gone wrong. I wasn’t just a lawyer ‘back in the day’ – I was, more specifically, a solicitor, who worked alongside barristers. Traditionally, barristers are specialists in thinking on their feet, having absorbed pertinent facts prepared for them by solicitors. They present their cases verbally, on the fly, adapting to situations as they arise. Whereas solicitors are more like detectives. They search through evidence, flag pertinent facts and present them in a written brief to their chosen barrister. However, in practice, some solicitors are just as good at thinking on their feet, and some barristers are just as good at paperwork. It’s more of a sliding scale.

It’s not just about two extremes.

So surely my theory should have accounted for a similar sliding scale among writers? Generally, pantsers probably don’t write as much down as planners, but they still plan – through daydreams and thought-drifting – and they still store those plans – in their heads, in their “mental filing system” [Rowena]. And generally, planners do more written preparation than pantsers (just look at all the different ways a planner can plan here), but they can also think on the fly – changing their scenes according to the needs and desires of their characters.

Me, I’ve always thought of myself as a planner. But now that I think about it, I do sometimes think about a story for weeks, sometimes months, until one day – BAM! – it jumps straight from my brain onto the page fully formed. And recently I took part in a writing project that involved me stepping waayyy outside my pre-story preparation comfort zone. What about you? How prepared do you like to be before you write? Do you like the comfort and security that planning and research gives you, would you rather take a chance, or are you somewhere in the middle of my sliding scale?

DON’T FORGET: win* one of the King Rolen’s Kin books by Rowena Cory Daniells. Simply use the comments section here to tell Rowena your favourite mythical beast and why. You have until midnight on Friday 23rd September 2011!

*Please note that this competition is now closed.

Zena Shapter

I write from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. #Ditmar Award-winning author. Short fiction for now. Novels to come. Movie buff. Traveller. Wine lover. Story nerd. Book Creator & Mentor. Founder & leader of the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers' Group / ZF Kingbolt

21 Comments:

  1. This is perhaps one of the most succinct and insightful articles I’ve read about the face-off between pantsing and planning.

    I ‘write on my feet’, just like a barrister – I just don’t write it down before hand. Having said that, I’ve often thought long and hard about what I want to write before I get there. I need a certain amount of traction in a narrative before I’ll sit and write. I keep it up in my head until it reaches critical mass OR the deadline becomes something I can no longer put off and I take what I’ve got and jump from the cliff.

    Kate says she knows how it will end and that’s the point she tracking toward. Rowena is happy for it to go in whichever direction the story wants. Perhaps the difference between a pantser and a planner isn’t the amount of planning they do, but the amount of flexibility they are prepared to accept as they write?

    • Thanks Jodi! I’m glad you enjoyed reading 🙂

      I wonder how flexible other ‘planners’ are? Although I like to have a general direction in mind, I often don’t know a story’s exact ending until I get there, yet I consider myself a planner. I also sometimes change the ending if a better one presents itself at the time! Although you’re a pantser, do you ever decide on a story’s exact ending before you start writing?

      Don’t forget to tell Rowena your favourite mythical beast and why here to win one of her King Rolen’s Kin books!

      • Sometimes I know the ending but don’t know the start… sometimes I go just from a premise, or a theme. Other times it is a line of dialogue in my head and end up somewhere when I listen in for the rest of it.

        Then there’s the beta reading stage – where my beta readers will often add to the ending, or pare it back. As far as editing goes – the most comes off from the start and the ending. I should one day compare the amount of slashing at those two points between pantsers and planners (though I’m not sure if anyone actually plans a short story?)

  2. For myself, I have found the best thing is for me to just write and keep on writing. If I get too bogged down in planning it saps the inspiration. I actually used to think I was a planner. The longest written work I had done previously was a 10,000 word essay, the longest narrative work was about an 80 page novella co-written with school friends, that was a finalist in the fringe festival.

    Both of these were obviously very structured and with the novella because there were three of us writing so we really had to know what was going on in each chapter.

    I attended a workshop with Fiona McIntosh in August and found the greatest take away from that was that I had permission to just sit and write, that all I really needed to know was who was the lead character what was their motivation and who or what was trying to stop them. The next thing was to not be too particular about editing as I went and be prepared to constantly come up against self doubt and to squash it.

    Currently have 20,000+ words written and the only plan is a mind map and a contract to write 1000 words, 3 days a week.

    I can imagine as I develop the practice of creative writing that, certain projects may need more planning than others or different types of planning.

    • Sean I once read a story can only be told once. I guess I have embraced it at the extreme end of the spectrum and find if I write anything down as a plan – something inside says “okay, story told” and I completely lose the passion and the rawness which is needed to drive the narrative forward. Therefore I’m a bit precious about writing down ideas or plotting on paper in any kind of detail. Even superstitious about out.

      Giving ourselves permission to just bash out words is perhaps the kindest thing we can do as writers, along with permission to write utter crap. The most important thing, in the beginning is to just write.

      • Sean the Bookonaut

        I used to have a terrible habit of editing as I went. That works okay for short stories, but I found that it was obstructive for anything longer.

        I have had to train myself to ignore the little voice that says I am writing crap or tell it I can edit the crap later.

        • Plus, if you leave editing until later, it’s much clearer what needs to be done and what’s fine as is. I’m still amazed at how beneficial a good couple of months’ break can be for a manuscript!

          Thanks for sharing your experiences, Sean 🙂

  3. I’m a panster. Just like your panster, I stop and think, use dreams and unexpected times to figure out plot holes, and research as I go. But I only have the vaguest sense of where I’m going when I begin. It’s an adventure!

    • …and adventure can take you places planning can’t. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling in my time, and some of my happiest memories have come from doing things on the spur of the moment. And when inspiration strikes mid-story, you’ve just got to go with it!

  4. I like to have an idea of where I’m going with a story, and for longer pieces, a basic scene framework is definitely helpful. Apart from that, I like to leave plenty of room for my characters to breathe.

    For the past couple of weeks, though, I’ve been pantsing. I’ve been trying to finish a novella for which I had no plan – or rather, I’d taken a sharp left from the plan halfway through the story. I was trying to write the climax to a mystery, and I still didn’t know who the person behind the mystery was.

    Forcing myself to write through that – to write through the fear – has been pretty liberating. I now have an antagonist, and a first draft that will need a LOT of rewriting, but it’s better than an unfinished draft. And I’ve learned that I can do this if necessary – that I don’t have to stare in terror at an empty page and worry that whatever I write will be WRONG.

    To summarise: I think both approaches have their merits, depending on the situation. 🙂

    • I agree. Both approaches work, and work well, depending on the story or project in question. I love it when a plan comes together. I also love it when a story just jumps onto the page. I wonder if readers can tell which method has been used to create a story? Hmmm, that sounds like a good question for a PhD thesis to me…!

  5. I’ll put myself in the planning category for $400 please. It’s probably more indicative of my OCD that I have notebooks I am using for scribbling out ideas for two novels (one adult, one YA) to be written next year during my long service leave. It also stems from a fear of mot being able to actually write a novel. I figure if I have a plan, at least there will be signposts to point me in the write direction.
    I gestate ideas during mundane tasks, letting them ferment, adding compost.
    I need to know the ending, the big picture of the narrative and the thematic concerns. However, wearing through a pair of pants will probably be a helpful tool to get me started/motivated/on the straight and narrow.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  6. Pingback: Rowena Cory Daniells on NOT planning stories. Plus, a fantastic giveaway… | Zena Shapter

  7. Love the expression pantsers.

    For NaNoWriMo 2011 I am planning. At the end of each day I plan the next scene, or at least who’s going to be in it and where it’s headed. That’s all: just a mud map, not GPS coordinates. It’s been a fun ride so far – all sorts of hairpin turns and unexpected dips in the road.

  8. Pingback: Short story anthologies: Part 2 – how do they read theirs? | Zena Shapter

Comments are closed