Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Pros and Cons of Plotting and Pantsing

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

I received an email from a writer asking, "From various writing blogs I have read, some writers say to flesh out every single character, do all the possible research you can, and outline your novel(s) in detail before you start seriously writing. Other writers say to develop characters and plots and to research as you go. What are the benefits to these two methods? Is it all a matter of the writer's choice, or does one actually produce more favorable results?"

I have an addiction to reading books and blogs about writing. I'm fascinated by the process and the variations among writers and their approaches. And the question of "to plot or not plot?" is one of those classic writer debates that will go on forever. So let's talk about the benefits of these two approaches:





Method #1: Plotting

Writers vary in their intensities of plotting. Some are like those who the writer described in her question, where they figure out every detail they can before opening up that blank Word document. Others might allow themselves a week or so to do their historical research or to draw/explore their fantasy story world, but then they make themselves write, knowing they'll work out the other details as they go. 

Pros for Plotting
  • Planning out the story ahead of time generally turns out a cleaner first draft. This means your rewrites tend to be less extensive. You've already figured out where your characters are going, so you can better steer them there.
  • All the fun charts and color coding and Post-it possibilities. Okay, at least to me, this is a huge plus. Plotters get the coolest writing tools.
  • Less time sitting and staring at a blinking cursor. Since you've spent time outlining your story, you shouldn't be spending so much time going, "Okay...now what?" You can use your writing time more productively.
  • For a series, this will save you headaches. One of the funnest parts of the Harry Potter series is how tiny things in early books become significant later in the series. J. K. Rowling is a genius when it comes to planting items early. Plotting your stories makes this easier.
  • Stronger characters (at least at first). Taking time before you start your story to figure out who your characters are means they're much more likely to sound different than each other from the get-go.
Cons for Plotting

  • The time investment. Some of these methods I see for planning your novel would take you weeks or months. I get itchy to write after a day or two. Possible solution: I once heard novelist Angela Hunt say that when she writes historicals, she allows herself one week to do all her research about the time period. (She's a full-time novelist, so bear in mind that she means a week of full-time work days.) She says otherwise she would get lost in her research. This can apply to fantasy writers too who love world building and will spend months doing it without writing a word. (Yep, I'm looking at you, Jill Williamson...) If this is you, try allowing yourself a set amount of time, and then get to work on your first draft.
  • It's a time investment ... that you might pitch three chapters in. This is something that has happened to yours truly. See, I'm a rather organized person. I'm not crazy organized, just a very healthy, sensible amount of organized. (In my own mind, anyway. My husband may have a different story.) I frequently want to organize the heck out of my story. I want the color coded charts and the graphs and the spreadsheets. So I do them. And I feel proud of myself. And then three chapters in to writing the thing, I have a light bulb moment that means chucking my entire outline. Possible solution: For whatever reason, I need to spend a little time in a story world before I can do much of an outline. So outlining works better for me if I've already written a couple chapters.
  • The story can read "flat." Stories, especially first drafts, that are written from an outline can sometimes have the feel of being scenes checked off a list. Scene A - check. Scene B - check. While the writer didn't spend as much time staring at their manuscript going, "Okay, what should happen next?" their book often lacks the fluidity of a story that wasn't plotted. This causes:
  • Gaps. Something about the outlining process, I've noticed, leaves gaps in the narrative. Instead of a plot arc or character arc, it feels more like dashed lines, and you're jumping from one to the next.
Method #2: Pantsing

Pantsing is the often used slang used for writers who write "by the seat of their pants" rather than with an outline.

Pros for Pantsing:

  • Freedom to write! Your time isn't clogged up with all those scene cards and character spreadsheets. Instead you're in the story, living the dream. Bliss.
  • You're on the journey for the first time, same as your characters. And this draws out fresh, real emotions. For a lot of pantsing writers, their biggest fear about the outline is losing the sense of discovery and wonder when writing the first draft.
  • No one saw your plot twist coming - not even you! Who knew the villain was going to knock on the main character's door with a gun? Not the reader, and not even the author when he wrote it the first time. Or I've received a lot of comments on how well the love triangle is done in The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet, how it doesn't feel contrived or arranged. I think that's because it wasn't. When I was thinking about Ellie's story, Chase didn't even factor in. And then he just wouldn't go away. And then I wasn't sure I wanted him to go away. Would the Ellie-Chase-Palmer element of the book be as good if I had planned it? I don't think so.
Cons for Pantsing:

  • THE REWRITES. The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series was completely pantsed, and I learned that I do NOT like being a pantser on a short deadline. Wow, is that stressful. It was fine when I had years to write the first book, but not so much when I only had months for books two and three. First drafts for pantsers tend to be full of bunny trails, foreshadowing that goes no where, and characters who randomly appear in chapter 30 but who act like they've been there all along.
  • THE REWRITES.
  • THE REWRITES.
  • Did I mention the REWRITES?
  • When writing a series, you might miss out on cool opportunities because you didn't plan ahead. For a published author, anyway. You can't plan that cool hint in book one, because you didn't think of it until you were working on book three. 

Secret Method # 3: Plantsing
The best of both worlds?

I'm a pantser by default, but I desperately wanted to be a planner. Especially after the crazy year of trying to get my pantsed, contracted books turned in on time. And this is when I "discovered" secret option number three. A blend of plotting and pantsing. Pantsing for that artist in me who didn't like to be boxed in, but plotting for the writer who didn't like how much she had to cut/rewrite/rearrange in her second drafts.

So I started trying out plotting techniques and seeing what worked and what didn't. I've learned making a spreadsheet ahead of time makes me cranky, though I fill one out as I write just to keep all the character facts straight. I've learned I enjoy writing a book synopsis when I haven't written the book yet, so I do that after writing a few chapters. And last time I tried plotting out a few key scenes in the book, and it made a big difference in rewrites, so I'll probably continue to do that.

What about you? Plotter? Pantser? If you're a "plantser" like me, do you lean more towards plotting or pantsing?

55 comments:

  1. I think I'm a plantser, but more a pantser than a plotter. I made a list of which points should be in the story and named a few characters, but some just came up while writing and actually, I think the story or at least the ending is going to be completely different from what I thought it would be. Yeah, strange business, writing...;-)

    Btw: I reached my CampNaNo-goal of 20,000 this morning! Yay! But this manuscript needs 'some' more words... Anybody else here who participated in CampNaNo?

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    1. Cool method! It sounds like a really good compromise between plotting and pansting!

      That's awesome, Arende! I didn't do camp Nano this month, but I did it a few months ago. :)

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    2. Congratulations, Arende! That's great!

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    3. If you consider 'participation' as writing faithfully the first week then ignoring it the rest of the month.....then yes.... XD
      But taking a break from writing was really good.:)
      Yay on reaching your goal!:)

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    4. That's neat! But... um... What is camp Nano??

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    5. I think that I am an plaster too I have made the characters and an timeline of events that should happen in the story.

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  2. Plantser all the way! I tried pantsing first, then plotting, and I didn't like each method in their entirety, but I thought there was something good about them, so I combined them into some weird combo that fits under PLANTSER. Though I'm not sure which one has a greater %, because it varies on each book I do.

    Good post!

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  3. I think I'm a planster, equally balanced. When I first outline my book, I do a list of events that I want to happen. But the punster part is how I creatively come up with ways to get my MC from place to place. Plus sometimes I find parts that I want to dig deeper into, whether it be a main character's past or an intriguing setting. Then I set about figuring how to make those parts work so that I end up in the place the story needs to end. Or maybe not: maybe I just abandon most of my outline and make my--ex--main plotline seem as unimportant as a servant's toilet in Buckingham palace compared to THIS big new problem.

    So...yeah. I'm complicated that way. *awkwardly stares at screen*

    Anyways, GTW retreat post tomorrow? Leaving for vacation in 2 days.

    -Shaneene

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    1. Not tomorrow, but you'll have details in plenty of time, I promise :) Enjoy your vacation!

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  4. I am definitely a pantser! I try to make outlines and things, but I end up getting bored and never looking at them again. Oops. I do use an outline type thing when I get near the end of writing a story to try to fill in the gaps of things I need in the story but were lost among the process (and that is on rare occasions for stories I have written). :D Thanks for the helpful tips for my pantsing writing... I know what I have to look forward to in the rewrite.

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    1. I'm glad I'm not the only one who gets bored with her outlines!

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  5. Honestly, I've been writing for a year and a half now, and I'm still experimenting with what works--I tried pantsing once, and while I liked the freedom to focus on characters--it was probably the most character driven book I even wrote--but it also lacked a story arc because I didn't know where those characters were going or how to get them out of their problems.
    Lately, I've been doing what one of my betas calls the "tentpole method" where I know the inciting incedent, three major plot twists, and the black moment/climax. That's what I did with my last two draft. This time I'm going to try something that goes chapter by chapter...
    I've also found that I have to mess would with my characters so I know how their minds work before I start... Otherwise they come off all flat and I have to fix them in revisions. :/

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    1. I can provide a link to said chapter by chapter outline explanation if anyone would like it!

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    2. And ALSO (apparently I have a lot to say about this!) while I prefer plotting the overall story, some of my best plot twists come when I'm writing stream of conscious and willing to say "Okay, X has to happen for the outline, but anything can still happen. I can still have something unexpected happen if I want." Also, what you said about the love triangle not feeling forced... I feel like a HUGE problem with my last draft was trying to force two characters together. This time,I'm going to plan out my characters(well, plan them better than last time), and let them do what they want--within reason, of course. ;)
      So yeah, I guess I lean towards plantser and even if I do a chapter by chapter outline, I'm still going to allow myself that "anything could happen" mentality.

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    3. Allison, I like the "tentpole method" a lot. I feel like that's helped me have strong structure but plenty of freedom too.

      And I've been a full time writer for almost ten years now, and I'm still experimenting with what works too :)

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  6. I think I'm right on the border between pantser and plantser. I never make outlines (they and I don't get along at all), but I try to have an idea in my head of what I'm doing. That idea may or may not change as I write the story, though; when I did my NaNo novel last November, I planned to have one of the characters have to mount a rescue attempt almost by herself and instead she ended up with a bunch of other characters (who she was supposed to be rescuing), rescuing a completely different group.

    So, yeah. I don't like planning, though I don't mind a bit of story-world-building.

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    1. It's so funny how the story can veer like that, isn't it?

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  7. I plot out the main gist, but I still have an element of plantsing in there. It's not that I love plotting (although I don't mind it that much), it's that my first work, which was completely pantsed, was going nowhere. I knew what happened in the beginning and in the climax, but was just running in endless circles on my way there, and my subplot was actually my main plot and vice versa. I got so frustrated I ditched the project. Glad I did though, because I love my mostly-plotted semi-pantsed project that I worked on instead, and did manage to complete. Surprises for me included my MC getting way deeper into the emotional pit than I thought she'd get, and another character breaking his leg.

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    1. I'm glad you've found something that works for you, Hannah J!

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  8. I'm kind of like Hannah J. In my past projects, I've completely pansted them. I would get an idea for the beginning, and go from there. But...that never really worked out. After about 20 or 30 pages all my ideas would fizzle out, because I had absolutely no idea where my story was going. With my WIP, I'm trying to plot out the basic bones of the story first, but, at the same time I'm going to try to leave room for me to change things if I feel the need.

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    1. I've had the same "fizzle" thing happen as well, Abigail. I hope what you're trying now works for you!

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  9. I'm a pantser by nature, but I like plotting. I haven't thought of plantsing, but I may give that I try. Great, post! :)

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  10. I work with my characters before hand and give myself a loose string of events but I never detail scene by scene. I tried it once and the results were horrific.

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  11. I'm definitely a plantser too--though my last 2 books have been too much pants and not enough plot, and the result, while avoiding most of the other cons, was TOO MUCH. My books were way longer than my projected word count, because I chased too many cool ideas.

    So. Future plans include writing three chapters and then writing myself a synopsis. More vague than an outline, still allows plenty of freedom, but it will keep me on track. Then about halfway through, I tend to make a few color-coded lists of scenes-to-come.

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    1. That's worked really well for me too. As did the method in that Susan Meissner class we took where there were 30 scenes you figured out. I was a big fan of that when I used it for The Unlikely Debut. When you're doing your edits, you can let me know how well it worked :)

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  12. I tend to pants my fantasies and research in detail my historicals.

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  13. I'm definitely a plantser. I write an outline.......but it's like a 30,000 word story. Then I go back and cut it up (literally) and rearrange and make notes of what to add and such.

    Out of that, hopefully, comes an actual rough draft.

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  14. I'm a plantser. Like most writers, I started as a pantser. With my first real attempt at a novel, I learned that wasn't working. I had absolutely no clue what happened in previous chapters because I wrote once a week and forgot. Then I'd have...let's just say it was a learning experience.
    Now I'm plotting events and reactions of the character. But only until the middle of the book. That way I get to where I'm on track to the ending I want. If that makes any sense :)

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  15. I don't plot anything beforehand. I just write, and when I get stuck, I open up a word document called "Plot ideas for so-and-so" and write out ideas for what could happen next. Usually I'll be able to find something that I like, and then I can go back to the original document and write the scene.

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  16. I don't like pantsing very much. I did it for a while when writing, but going back it seems as my characters' characters change a lot. Like in the first four chapters, a main character likes to read, but when the story actually gets going, it's really the OTHER character who talks about books. Then I see people who are total pantsers and end up writing completely unbelievable scenes that lead no where important...or luck just helps the hero defeat the villain.
    But then plotting closes out light bulb ideas, so I consider myself a plantser. I have a rough outline of main points and a few details, but leave room to add in a betrayal or a plot twist that started way back at the beginning.

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  17. Definitely a planster, though I think I lean towards plotting. I usually dive right into a story and write about 50 pages (three chapters!) before I get stuck. Writing like mad for those 50 pages gets me excited about the project. Then I go back and make a pretty detailed outline using different elements from OYAN, First Draft in 30 Days, and other methods. Then I trash my original 50 pages and start over again. And, no, I don't look at my outline much once it's made. It just helps me have a map in my head of where I'm going.

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  18. I would say I'm a plantser. I play around with the story in my head, sometimes for ages, and make a sloppy list of the events I want to happen. It's later, usually as I write, that I figure out when and why those events happen. I think it works pretty great! It's got spontaneity, yet I'm never staring at a blinking cursor, wondering what should happen next.

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  19. Plantser! Though I've noticed I'm more of a pantser in the first draft and then tend to go all crazy on plotting for the second draft, those together become plantser right? ;)

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  21. I'm so glad you answered this!! :D I'm working on a fantasy series, and I want it to be more complex. Though to be honest, sometimes I'm not sure where I'm going with it. I do a lot of research on Irish and Scottish and Scandinvaian history and folklore (the events in my story are based on it), but I also write scenes from my stories that just pop into my head, and I want to find a way to string them together into a plot. I do research more for ideas instead of getting information that I absolutely need to know. At a writer's conference, one of the speakers said that even after your planning, you're never going to feel ready to write your draft, but eventually you have to trust yourself. But while I plan on plotting my biggest project for the future, I definitely pantsed my NaNo novel. I want to set up a writing bulletin board where I can just post things up and plan the darn thing out.

    July 24, 2013 at 1:47 PM

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  22. It depends on my mood. I am a planner and pantsing but I am not a planster because I rarely use them together. With my current WIP I did a full blown outline chapter by chapter but I still allow my writing to surprise me often taking turns I didn't expect (which is the problem you talked about with throwing out lots of your work). I also did voice journals for all my major characters. I also spend a lot of time daydreaming about scenes in my book. On other projects that I have worked on I didn't do hardly any planning except basic plot.

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  23. Well, pantser sometimes, plotter sometimes. One story is pantsed, and I love discovering my plots twists at the same time my characters did. And you wouldn't believe how much that stinkin story evolved from the first stages of thought to (still in progress) second draft. I love that. Not even I know what it's going to turn out to be.
    But on the other side of the coin, I have a story idea that bugged my for months, and wouldn't go away. But it was very complex, and I knew that once I got caught up in a certain scene, I would most likely forget a vital piece of forshadowing. So that one has an outline in progress.
    I honestly prefer pantsing, because once I get an outline, it's like my muse realises its job is done and shuts down. So the story doesn't get much of a chance to evolve that way. :)

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  24. Hmm, I'm not really sure. I might be a "plantster" like you, but I learn more towards pantster. In some ways I think it's been really great for my first draft and in other ways not so great. Rewriting constantly, as you said--definitely! But I have a feeling my idea would have just kept evolving anyway, no matter if I had stringently outlined it or not, so I would have had to rewrite it several times anyway.

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  25. I'm a plantster, definitely. I write a few chapters of the story to get an idea of where I'm going with it, and then I do some planning, worldbuilding, etc. After that I sort of plan and pants in equal measure, letting my plan direct my story and my story influence my plan.

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  26. I guess I'm a plantser. I do have a good idea of my characters and their personalities, and the main obstacle (with possible important rising action) but other than that, I pants. Sometimes it is hard, and I do -sometimes- wish I knew where I was going, but I love the spontaneity that I get from mostly pantsing. With my WIP, I tried to make an outline halfway through, because I already had the beginning and end, but it was too detailed and it fizzled out.

    One of my good writer friends made a scene-by-scene outline, before she started writing it. I've decided she's crazy, in the best way possible. (Of course, all writers are, at least at times.)

    Thanks for the post, Stephanie!

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  27. I think I'm a plantser! I actually haven't heard that term before (it's brilliance). I used to be a chapter-by-chapter outliner, now EVERY plot twist, have EVERY single dot worked out. But I ended up falling out of writing, because I was so much like a machine on a mission and not a creator and artist. I had a turn at pantsing. Wrote 2 books with the barest of outlines. It was stressful, because I didn't know what to do next. My favourite book to write was a sci-fi, where I did NO research and but wrote a small outline with basic plot points. And just had fun. :)

    This is a fabulous post. Just sayin'.

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  28. Wow, what an insightful post!

    I'm definitely a plotter. All the way. It drives me nuts if I don't know exactly which character is going to be doing what in each chapter. Mostly, I think this sort of extreme plotting works for me because it helps me to track the emotional development of my characters. However...there are drawbacks, as mentioned! I can especially relate to the fact that the outline can drastically change when you start writing! :)

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  29. Love this! I am most definitely a "Plantser". And it works really great for me! Thanks for this, Stephanie!

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  30. I started writing my book a few months ago. I sat down and I thought about things and I wrote them all down and I ended up with two pages of things to HAPPEN. In ORDER. It was awesome! So I wrote it all and I got out a few thousand words and it was great.

    And that's the extent of the plotter part of me. All there has been. Ever. I'm about to start writing and I've got no idea what's going to happen. And -- I really, really hate to admit this -- I don't even know what my character's goal is. It must be one of those blurry vague ones. I think she needs something practical to get the plot (instead of the ball;)) rolling.

    One of my favourite parts about writing is when this IDEA just starts jumping up and down, screaming at me and I'm like "YES HELLO!" I always chuckle to myself when people talk about all these different books they're writing because I need every idea I can get to actually get words on the page!

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  31. I'm a Plantster. I like using the The Act Structure and getting an idea of the book before writing, because like you, Stephanie, I have this free-like-the-wind artists side then this everything-must-be-by-da-rules organized side. I didn't use the Three Act Structure until recently, but it's really helped me before I just knew the beginning and the end and the major details then went from there. Good post! :)

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  32. I am a plantser. Even with my first novel attempt, I plotted out 80% but I always knew that I wanted a large section of their "life on the run" to be pantsed.

    Doing both plotting and pantsed as in this article is the most common sense plotting advice I've heard on this subject.

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  33. Plantsers all the way! ;) I lean toward pantsing though. Like you, I quickly figured out that pantsing meant loads of "what on earth next" and disastrous rewrites. Plus, I also like things nice and neat. So...I do a bit of 3-act structure outlining now, but if something better comes out? I go with it!

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  34. I am definitely a planster. I start with a few characters, some names, a working title, a bit of the beginning and the ending, then i research, and write and edit and write as I go, so my first draft has taken years and is still half way through, but is now at a point I simply could't have planned and the se cone half is quicker and picked up momentum.

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  35. mixture between a plantser and planner. :)
    I feel blocked if I don't have the most important plots and plot twists noted, as well as when the characters aren't fleshed out and feel individual and alive.

    I don't plan perfectly from A to B, I always leave space in case I get another idea or would like to change a scene. :o

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  36. My first novel was 100% pantsed. Characters arrived randomly, I world-built as I went, wrote myself into corners and changed the plot about 5 times to get myself out, and didn't know how the big confrontation was going to play out even as I was writing it. I had a blast, but it's about 140,000 words long and I am not looking forward to the vast amount of editing that I need to do.

    For my current one, I'm trying to at least have a vague idea of where I want to go. Before I started writing I did a bit of character-building, but only for the most important of main characters, and planned out the first four chapters or so and thought of a few key scenes in advance. I definitely still lean toward pantsing, though. Like you said, I love finding out about the plot twists at the same time that my characters do. I find that I get to know my characters better if I let them do their own thing instead of trying to force them to follow a plot outline. One character in my first novel was supposed to be just a throwaway plot device, seen once and never heard from again. He decided to be a major player and became my favorite of that cast.

    Despite the fact that it was completely pansted, though, I discovered a ton of subtle but unmistakeable foreshadowing in that draft when I reread it, even though I didn't know at the time what it was supposed to foreshadow. It's led me to trust that somehow, my subconscious knows what it's doing, so I don't mind not having any plan. I know that sounds very "Use the Force"-ey, but it works!

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  37. I'm probably a plantser. I tend to write out an outline, character questionnaires, and the rest...but I really don't stick to them. Even if I try. As I write, the characters and plot just turn into something completely different of their own accord.

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  38. As a panster, I use an awful lot of sticky notes...and the rewrites aren't too bad actually, I tend to be v linear even if I jump back an forth, while not all of it makes sense I'm pretty sure that would ring true for every writer whether plotter, panster or in-between

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