Seat of the Pants, or Fully Planned?

Some people prefer to plan out every detail before sitting down to write their story.  They flowchart.  Sometimes, after they’ve charted out the big stuff, the zoom in and chart at a lower level.  Some keep iterating, planning out finer and finer details.  Once they’re ready to write the story, they no longer worry about what they’re doing.  They get to focus on the sentence structure and the prose without having to worry about where the story is going.  These people are the Planners.

Some people want to be surprised when they write.  For them, they receive the same thrill of discovery as the reader.  The words are there, just ahead of their cursor or pen.  They write “by the seat of their pants,” and so these are the Pantsers.

I’m sure I’ve talked about this subject before, but with November creeping closer, it’s weighing on my mind.  Am I a Pantser, or am I a Planner?  How much do I prepare for my new novel, and how much do I leave undiscovered?

I know that I used to be a Pantser.  I remember what it felt like when I wrote my first story, 25 years ago.  It felt like magic.  I felt like I had a super power that let me look at a screen and cause words to appear by my will.  I guess I still feel that way, sometimes.

When I’m programming, I create flowcharts all the time.  I plan my logic out.  I scribble on notepads and whiteboards, and I write pseudo-code.

It’s different when I’m writing fiction.  There have been several stories that I’ve tried deeply plan out in advance.  I broke the story into acts, then broke each act into chapters, then broke each chapter into scenes.  I wrote up character sheets.  I planned it out so that there’d be no surprises.

I wasn’t able to write that story.  There wasn’t enough joy left in it.  Since I already knew what was going to happen all along the way, the story was spoiled.

Last year, I discovered that I can’t simply wing it anymore, either.  When I didn’t have a plan, my writing slowed down, and the story wandered aimlessly.  It wasn’t my best work.  I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was going, and that uncertainty came across in the story.

Pantser or Planner… I’m somewhere in between.

I’ve talked to writers about this subject before, and it always fascinates me.  The hard-line Planners I’ve talked to are organized, and talk with disdain about people that don’t plan things out in advance.  If I were to assign some sort of virtue to the Planners, it would be discipline.  Planners seem to be a little bit more disciplined than Pantsers.  I like discipline, so I want to be a Planner.

The hard-line Pantsers I’ve talked to are more likely to talk about their characters taking over and going places they didn’t expect.  The writing experience they describe resonates with me, in terms of the kind of joy and fun they have.  If I were to assign a virtue to Pantsers, it would be spontaneity.  I like spontaneity, so I want to be a Pantser.

I need to be a little bit of both.  Writers I’ve talked to sometimes use words like “where you are in your writing,” referring to where I am in my development as a writer.  In some ways, I’m advanced.  In other ways, like this particular topic, I’m still finding my way.  It feels like something I’ll always tinker with.

As I said yesterday when I talked about dressing up to write, different things work for different writers.  I need to do some planning, but I must avoid being too detailed with those plans.  I need to make sure that there are places where I can be surprised.

2 thoughts on “Seat of the Pants, or Fully Planned?

  1. I have always wondered where your story ideas come from. Do they always come from within you? Are you a person that will see something and make notes on napkins so that you can flesh it out later? Many of your stories are fantasy or science fiction, so for me that is just not organic. I would definitely have to be a “planner” if I were to be a writer of that genre. Just curious.

    • My story ideas come from different places. It depends on the story.

      Unclaimed Goods was born from my flight to San Antonio for WorldCon. I saw the baggage for my flight carried on the back of a trolley, and I thought about how what we take with us while travelling can take a completely different trip than us.

      The Repossessed Ghost was a little bit different. I had the idea for the character long before I had a story for him. I really didn’t know what the story was about until I was a third of the way through. Then it all made sense.

      A Clean Slate was born out of frustration during George W. Bush’s presidency. There was a bunch I wanted to say about the price of freedom, and what it’s like when the villain (or villains) don’t realize they are doing evil. That story is taking a terribly long time to create. I think when I finally finish, I’ll be happy with it. Right now, I don’t like it very much.

      The story I’m starting in November is like The Repossessed Ghost, in that I had the idea for the main character first. This one will be different, because I think I know what this story is about, and how it’ll end.

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