I’ve heard writers described in two different terms:
Pantsers — These are people that write “by the seat of their pants.” They write by discovery. They’ll craft a strong character and just follow wherever that character will lead them, enjoying the journey as they go. If they sit down and try to plot everything out in advance, it spoils the story for them, and they don’t enjoy writing it as much. I’ve known lots of writers that identify in this way. By his own admission, Dean Wesley Smith is in this category.
Plotters — These people plan everything out in advance. They create outlines, iterating over their plot diagram to fill in each gap with greater and greater detail. They are uncomfortable with not knowing where they’re going, and some might scoff at the notion of the character “taking over.” They’re methodical. I’ve known several writers that fall into this category, too. Jennifer Brozak describes herself as a plotter.
I used to identify myself as more of a pantser. When I’d sit down to write, it felt like I was reading, only the words were appearing as if by magic beneath my eyes. My Arthur Kane stories were written that way, and all of the time I spent on Star Wars MUSH was like that. My writing process for my last two short stories involved very little plotting in advance.
As I’ve matured, I’ve noticed that the “seat of my pants” approach doesn’t actually work that well for me anymore. The short stories might be an exception, except that even with those, I gave them a lot of thought in advance before sitting down and putting my hands on the keyboard. They were short enough that I could do all of the plotting in advance and keep it in my head.
Longer stories, on the other hand, I have to plot out now. That’s what I spent most of my night doing last night. I sat in the Starbucks with OneNote open and stylus in hand, and I started listing all of the plot points I want to cover in the first act of A Clean Slate. I was breaking it down into chapters, and highlighting my purpose for each part of the story.
My process for the Mel Walker story was a little bit different. I didn’t have the time to plot everything. I knew how I wanted to start, and I knew the character and some of the things I wanted to happen, but I didn’t have a complete outline. I wound up with a series of incomplete outlines. It was like I would stop, shine a light ahead into the dark to see where I was going, write down what I saw from where I was, and then move forward. When I ran out of notes, my writing would slow down, and I’d have to dig out the flashlight again and take more notes.
I’ve been writing casually for about 25 years, and more seriously for a year and a half, and I’m still trying to figure out what works best for me. I’m starting to think that I need to use a different process for each story. I once thought of writing in terms of sculpting, where the shape of the story becomes more and more refined with each draft and edit. If a sculptor needs different tools for different mediums, maybe I need a different process for different story types.