There is a lot of debate regarding the best way to write a novel. Many a message board has been filled with surprisingly bitter arguments between ‘pantsers’ and plotters. Each side has its advantages and disadvantages. In today’s post, I’d like to talk about how I strive for the best of both worlds.
Upsides of pantsing
Now there’s a heading I never thought I’d use. I personally don’t like the term pantser. Isn’t pantsing a childish prank about pulling someone’s trousers down? Yeah, I know, it’s about flying by the seat of your pants and making the story up as you go along. I just prefer to call it discovery writing. It’s a little more dignified. Discovery writing is all about getting lost in the woods without a map, learning the lay of the land through trial and error. A lot of discovery writers love the thrill of not quite knowing where they’re going and letting the story sweep them along where it will.
Downsides of pantsing
To misquote Tolkien: ‘It’s a dangerous business, stepping out your door. And if you don’t keep your feet there’s no telling where you’ll be swept off to.’ Sometimes discovery writers don’t what kind of story they’re telling until the very end, or they go off on tangents that wind up getting deleted. And so extensive redrafting becomes necessary.
Upsides of plotting
Others prefer to have a map for the journey, a very detailed outline written in advance. The biggest advantage of this approach is that you get a clear sense of story structure and will hopefully eliminate issues of character development and plot before you write a word. You start out with a pretty good idea of the research you’ll need to do and have an endgame in sight. The actual writing tends to go faster and more smoothly… Though this isn’t always a good thing!
Downsides of plotting
Outlining can make the writing process feel very unnatural and mechanical. It can suck the joy out of the process. Outlining can be a dry exercise in craft—sure, it’s less chaotic, but where’s the fun in that? Beauty can come out of chaos. Sometimes writing to an outline is dull and repetitive—you’ve already told the story once in the outline, why would you want to tell it again? And what happens if you realise halfway through your story that what you outlined is nothing like the way it’s coming out? It happens, believe me.
Why not have both?
When I go walking in the woods, I like to have a general idea of where I’m going. The idea of just stepping into the wild with no clear destination or way of navigating is not something I’m prepared to try. That said, I like being able to find my own path and make the journey my own.
I discovery write the first third of my books. I find that this gives the writing a sense of pace and urgency and allows me to figure out who the characters are, letting their voices come out on their own. I need to figure out what kind of story I’m telling through experimentation. However, once I reach a significant turning point in the story, I put it away to the drawer and don’t look at it for at least a few weeks. It’s best to go away and work on something else. Once I’ve gotten a bit of distance I pull it out, re-read it, and start to think about structure. From here I write a very detailed outline, a blow by blow description of what goes on in the story with notes on dialogue, settings, characters, and research I will need to complete. Usually I do wind up rewriting the first third of the book a little, but I very rarely have to do any major structural edits.
It’s not a method that’ll work for everybody, but it seems to work for me.
Until next time,
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