When I speak to groups of writers, I’m often asked if I’m a plotter or a pantser. * In groups of readers, I’m sometimes asked if I know the end of a book before I start it.
I confess I hate this question, at least the plotter-pantser aspect of it. (Readers are curious about our process and I get that and love it.) I’m a planner. Plot flows from specific characters being put in a specific situation, so I think a lot about the scenario, the setting, and who the people are. I make notes about the characters and what might happen. I jot down snippets of conversation, bits of description, and ideas sparked by my research. Then I put my notes in a rough chronological order, filling in additional things that occur to me as I go. In the course of this process, I do usually figure out the end and the killer, although both can change, as I get to know the characters and conflicts better. There are gaps. Sometimes I simply write “more stuff happens,” or “Pepper investigates,” or make notes for what I think might happen even though I don’t yet see how it all fits together. When I feel like I know generally what the major conflicts and motivations are and generally how it might play out, then I’m ready to start writing sentences and scenes.
I call this an outline. I once heard a writer describe exactly this same process and insist that she would never outline; outlining, she insisted, kills creativity and was to be avoided at all costs. I don’t know what she did call her notes, and I don’t know what happened in the 5th grade that made her hate the very word outline so much. I know I felt, still feel, kind of sorry for her, because she seemed too stuck on her perception of process; I am all but certain that unless she can see the value in being flexible in our process, when she runs into a story that won’t behave the way she thinks it should, she’ll get stuck on the page as well.
Then I heard an account of an author at a recent conference claiming that their process—I don’t know what it was—was the only way to write, and my heart sank a little.
I’m here to suggest we do three things:
- Let go of absolutes. They aren’t useful and they too often turn into judgments. Saying your way is the best or the only way, or shaking your head and putting on a knowing smile that conveys your skepticism, creates hard feelings. It confuses beginners and can actually stifle or stop them. And it does you no favors. I get that it’s hard to understand how a process so different from your own can work, but clearly, it does. Brilliant and successful novels have been written with and without outlines, road maps, or whatever we call them.
- Acknowledge that none of us is a purist. If you consider yourself a pantser who does little if any advance work, but you write a series on proposal, you do in fact already know a lot before you start Page 1. You know your setting, your major characters, and the tone and style of your story. If you’re a plotter or planner, the term I prefer, you know you need to be flexible and let things change, as I did in my second novel when I realized that the person I thought was the killer would not kill to get what he wanted—he needed the victim alive. And yet, there was a dead body. I looked more closely and realized the real killer had been hiding from me all along.
- Be willing to challenge our assumptions. It’s common to hear “do whatever works for you,” and of course that is the bottom line. But I also see writers taking that truism as permission to stick with what they’ve always done. I can’t say a whole lot for sure, but after 15 published books, I can say that there will come a time when what you’ve always done is not going to work. A pantser will need to stop and write out what happens in the next three scenes or chapters, then write them, then sketch out the next few scenes and write them, before regaining the momentum that carries her to the end. A planner is going to write 60% of an outline and the ending, without knowing what happens in between, then start Chapter 1. Maybe she’ll finish that outline as she goes, maybe not; maybe she’ll get to 60% of a draft, take a break, and come back knowing what happens next and write out the rest of the outline, as I did with BLIND FAITH. Maybe she’ll write her way to the end “by the seat of her pants.”
The point is that whatever works is rarely going to be the same twice. We do ourselves and our community no favors by pretending that process is static. Different stories, different challenges may require a different approach. Our process may change over time, as we gain more confidence and as we take on bigger challenges.
We’re all discovering the story. We just do it in different ways, in different stages. Let’s practice a little grace along the way.
*Writing by the seat of the pants, that is, without an outline.