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?