Friday, February 26, 2016

Plotting and Pantsing--When to Plan and When to Write, and Why Both Are Useful as You Build Your Book

Erin, a blog reader who has taken my online book-writing classes, wrote with a great question:  "I'm struggling a bit of time management in terms of planning vs writing. Case in point, I get about 30-45 minutes of writing a day. I feel like this should be used towards actually writing my book. The planning exercises are helpful but they don't feel like real, actual writing. So on days where I'm planning and world building and working on character profiles, etc., I feel like I'm not writing or progressing in terms of my novel."
Erin wondered about the balance between what she called "actual writing" and all the planning and plotting that goes into building a book's structure.
"Right now I feel guilty planning but stuck writing," she said.  "It's a terrible place to be!"

Welcome to the world of structure versus writing, or plotting versus pantsing, as it's known in many writing circles.  Some writers love to know where they're going ahead of time--the plotters or planners.  Others love the discovery process of just writing and seeing what emerges.

I usually start off as a pantser.  I like to write and brainstorm and freewrite and explore ideas for a while.  I even take it to an extreme and do much of my freewriting in a notebook, longhand, because the writing comes out differently than typed on a computer.  I like making collages of my characters and designing the "set" of my scenes with visual maps.  I really don't know my story until I play this way.

Another writer I know approaches her books completely in reverse.  She's a plotter.  She writes thrillers, so it makes sense--she says it's hard to write a mystery without some sense of where you're going to end up.  She likes to have her storyboard (a visual map of the plot) all nailed down before she begins writing.  She's like this in real life too--very organized and scheduled.  I'm very spontaneous, when I have the chance.

So, it really depends on your wiring.  Neither approach is better than the other.  I think the best recipe is a combination of the two.

Say you begin as a plotter.  You can get a good draft together, you can even begin editing.  But I've read plotters' manuscripts as a editor and there can be a certain dryness, a certain lack of surprise, in the pages.  So I advise plotters take a break midway, step away from knowing where they're going and explore (via freewrites) something unexpected.  It might be just a character interview where they ask some new questions.  Or rewriting a blah scene from a different person's point of view.  That can shake things up, bring in fresh elements.

If you begin as a pantser, you'll have a blast in those first weeks, months, or years of writing.  You'll write reams.  Eventually, though, you'll be swimming in all those words with no idea of your structure.  I get a lot of pantsers in my book-structuring classes.  They feel an immense relief at the storyboard work and finally organizing what they have.  But their nature is exploratory, so eventually, like Erin, they may get annoyed or stuck with all  that linear work.  Time to get back to the writing, keep the energy moving.

My writing routine consists of both:  I like to freewrite or explore (maybe do a collage or character bio) every writing session.  I also like to organize (maybe work on my chapter summary or storyboard) every writing session.  Keeps both my pantser and plotter sides happy.

What's your preference?  How do you manage the two approaches?

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