The Plotting Pantser

There is no one way to perform the work of creating a novel just as there is no one way to bake a cake. Two writers who claim to be plotters will each have very different ways of creating and working with plot. Some pantsers plan more than others. Some writers of either type edit as they go, or edit the previous day’s work before starting the next, while others may wait weeks or months to look again.

The best kind of writing advice makes clear there is no one way to do anything and is not advice as much as it is a series of examples which have worked for some writers, like showing you a set of tools and you need to select just the ones you are comfortable with.

It has taken me the time and process of writing six novels to become comfortable with a method for planning. My method is constantly evolving and is made from a great deal of both plotting and pantsing. Again, this is only what works for one writer.

Once I know who my characters are, in general, and what themes I’m working with, I can usually figure out where the story should end. Notice I said where, not how. From this point I can start an iterative process of getting the characters to that ending place. Detail some characters, interact with each other and the world, discover key plot elements, build more plot, then repeat. Once I have a fairly detailed plot I usually need to work out a general timeline. I need to know when everything is happening so I can get the seasons and weather right. That’s the plotting part. I have fairly detailed characters and their wants, even some of their arcs, and an outline sketch.

This is where the pantsing comes in. I can never really outline a scene or dialogue until I’m actually ready to write it, so there’s a few minutes blocking the scene, finding some key words, and noting the point of the scene. Then it is time to free write.

Free writing unlocks more about the characters and the plot than I previously knew. Sometimes the writing doesn’t yet fit in the plot and that gets saved for later. The plot, the characters, their arcs, all change as the free writing continues. The process is iterative. Eventually, and this has not failed me yet, everyone is where they need to be physically and emotionally at the end. This is when I can see, usually quite clearly, how the story ends. I have written my way through to the end, and usually everything feels like it should and the ending satisfies me. Sometimes I feel like a plodding pantser but after writing through six novels it is the way which works best for me. Trying to force characters, who should have changed over the course of the story, to predetermined actions at the end always fails me.

Plan, plot, write to discover, repeat.

If there are any takeaways here they are: do what works for you, realize it may take you a long time and many projects to figure out what works for you, and stay willing to alter and refine that process. The way I work now is very different than the way I worked a decade ago and I’m sure my methods will be just as different a decade from now.



I have learned the hard way writing anything requires some amount of planning. I’m not even talking about plotting versus pantsing, I’m talking about making sure I have organized my life to so I have enough time to do the writing.

I am not a fast writer, and sometimes I need blocks of time to re-read, think, and stare at what I’ve written in order to continue, even if I have a detailed plot. I also need to be able to push the other parts of life aside for a few hours. I have learned to make use of as few as five minutes of free time to jot notes or write down a little dialogue but that means I have to have a big chunk of the story in my head. On a busy weekend or family trip I can do that because my mind is not full of day job junk. When the day job intrudes into those times I lose that ability.

When I travel for work I tend to make big plans to read or write on the plane. The nature of my day job does not allow me to work in public. Unfortunately, I rarely get my mind off the day job to be able to focus on the writing, or even enjoy reading. It’s a state I need to overcome.

This week I was given a day job assignment as part of a team that is scheduled to be away from home for twenty-one days straight. It’s an intensive project that will, at some point, take up to eighteen hours a day. The only things I’ll have energy for are eating and sleeping.

I should not complain, it is an exciting project and important for my company, but I’ve done it all before. Of course, that is the reason I’m on the team. Ultimately I do need to find a way to change that part of my profession but it isn’t easy. For this assignment I’ll have to explain, as a single father, I cannot be away from my children that long; arrangements can be made but that’s asking more than I can manage. Those types of concerns, plus the work of the assignment itself, defeat my creative energy.

The worst part of this assignment, as far as my writing is concerned, is that it falls in November. For the last two years I have participated in NaNoWriMo and it has been an excellent process for me to get a new book started each year. Forget word count and the fact that if I don’t get 50k words done in the month I might still have something, experience tells me there is no way I will be able to focus on writing enough to produce something I’d care to look at later. For me it isn’t about the number of words but the quality of them. If they aren’t coherent when I re-read them later i have to re-write them as if from scratch. There’s little to gain from that kind of inefficiency.

This weekend, rather than doing the traditional NaNo prep, I am planning just what I can do during the next three months. What I can do, is finish up some short stories lying in various states of the editing process. I can probably at least sketch some new stories. I can do research for the next novel. I can edit one of my unfinished novels. I hope I can read. If I can break the twenty one days into a couple of trips I might even get a decent draft out of last years NaNo project.

This autumn will not be what I expected but I will salvage some productivity even if there is less creativity in it.