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).
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]
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.
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!