Plotting vs. Pantsing
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), CAO Authors 4 Authors Publishing and Lisa Borne Graves, A4A Author
To plot or to pants, that Is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler for the writer to plan out every scene in outrageous detail, or to find inspiration in the sea of ideas and kinda just wing it?
Anyone who’s spent time in the online writing community or browsed the writing resources at their local bookstore has probably noticed that there’s no shortage of books and systems that proclaim to be the perfect method to write fiction. The vast majority of them can be divided into two categories that you’ve likely heard before: plotting and pantsing.
To illustrate the differences, I’ve asked one of our authors to join me in describing our methods. Like me, Lisa Borne Graves writes speculative romance; we share many themes and style choices, and our fantasy trilogies are being released almost side-by-side, but our methods of getting our stories on the page are wildly different—to a point.
I plan everything before I write a word in my manuscript. I know the ending and sketch out most of the major plot points that will get me there, sometimes writing a paragraph or two of specific details I want to include. I make a map of the setting so I can visualize it as I write and set up spreadsheets with character descriptions, relationships, and other details that I need for continuity. If that sounds like a ton of prep work, that’s because it is! Depending on the length and complexity of the story (and how many of my other stories it has to maintain ties with), it can take up to a few months to get this all down.
I get inspired by something. Whether it be an image, a concept in a movie, book, real life, etc., something strikes a chord in me and sets off my imagination, aka, my “evil muse.” Scenes unfold, and I rush to write them down. I know nothing yet, except my main genre basics: romance has loose rules I will follow. I don’t know my sub genres or characters or their conflicts.
It usually takes me at least three or four months to get a novel down. Inspiration may not strike when I have time to write, but I borrow the inspiration I had during my preparation phase and tap into that. I write in order and build from one scene to the next, using my outline as a map.
However, much like an actual roadmap, I sometimes find that I need to take small detours here and there to get me where I want to go. Maybe my characters have developed more feelings for each other than I had originally intended, or maybe they’re hesitant to take a necessary step. In either case, I’ll stop and re-evaluate my outline to accelerate or decelerate relevant plot points before moving on.
I often enter a phase of obsessive, or perhaps possessed by the muse, writing. At times, my husband teasingly comments my keyboard is smoking for how fast I type. I’m simply transcribing the scenes my imagination plays—much like a movie—into words. This takes me a few weeks to a max of two months if work and life are hectic.
The strangest part of letting the muse lead is she doesn’t like to go in order. I must go where I am inspired. The recent trend seems to be for me to start with the inciting incident—boy meets girl—and then I discover who they are. Sometimes conflict comes next, sometimes the climax and resolution. Exposition is usually added somewhere in the middle to end of my process. I jump around creating scenes until I feel spent. The story is done.
I use these terms to explain my process to others, but never do I think, “I’m writing exposition right here.” I’m completely freewriting with wild abandon.
Up until this point in the process, I’ve been frustratingly slow. Just write the dang thing already! But in this editing stage, I’m lightning fast. The time it takes me to respond to both rounds of suggestions from my editor totals less than a week. Granted, it ends up being longer than that to process as I have to wait on my work to go through the queue, but it doesn’t sit in my hands for long at all. I’ve been known to turn my work around in a matter of hours for my second round of edits.
The truth is, I’ve done a ton of editing while outlining and writing. Scenes and subplots got scrapped or changed before I even put them in the manuscript. This doesn’t mean I can skip editing or am free from continuity errors, but having a cleaner manuscript from the start makes this stage easier.
Editing already? Wait, wait. I’m not ready. After the first draft is done, I let it “marinate.” That means after my month of intense writing, I move onto something else for a few weeks to reset my brain.
When I come back, I revise, and during that process, I’m taking the pieces I’ve strung together and smoothing them out, while checking that my plot is sound. Normally, it is pretty solid and shipshape, but I’m enhancing what is there by adding about 10-15K words in the form of descriptions and narrative voice. While I’m doing all this, I critique my work with notes—my own worst critic. This round takes a few weeks.
Then I pass a round or two of line edits and fix the notes I’ve made. Then I submit. The publishers give me a couple rounds of edits, but they don’t run off screaming, so I must be doing something right.
Altogether, the first words written up to the submission is a three to four month process for me, not counting the many breaks from writing that life throws. During these breaks, mental work is going on. I process and reprocess, revise and critique my work, write and rewrite. These mental exercises make this revision and editing process quicker and smoother.
Believe it or not, the single draft I get down is the one that goes to my editor. Before you gasp in horror, there is a difference between a first draft and a rough draft. Because I edit as I write (sometimes rewriting a single sentence four or five times before moving on), what is technically my first draft is by no means something rough that I threw down on paper; it’s closer to what a pantser’s manuscript looks like a few drafts in.
I would say my fourth “draft” is what is submitted, but I feel more like they are two layers—draft and revision—that have been edited twice for everything from word choice and grammar to bigger things like characters arcs, narrative voice, and plot. Although many say first drafts can be hot messes, mine are more like a great tapestry riddled with holes that need mending. No matter how carefully I plan that tapestry pattern, it would not work out the way it was intended. Instead, I must go with the flow of where imagination takes me and then examine the pattern I have made and tweak the stitches for aesthetic beauty.
By the time you get to formatting and proofreading, both the pantsed and plotted manuscripts look the same. If we don’t tell you whether Marine and Graves are the plotter or the pantser, could you guess which is which? Unless you comb through our blogs or social media responses for where we’ve stated our preferences, we doubt it.
Both author types ultimately go through the same stages of the writing process. The difference is whether we spend more time at the beginning or end to get our ducks in a row.
Another thing to note is the false dichotomy of plotting and pantsing. Neither of us stays strictly within our chosen method 100% of the time. Sometimes a plotter has to be flexible or a pantser needs to stick to a planned element. The two methods are better described as a spectrum, and authors may find themselves anywhere on it, even directly in the middle. And the best part about that spectrum? It’s level; no part of it is above any other.
You can find romances by Lisa Borne Graves and B. C. Marine here.
Next week we’ll be taking a break for Christmas, and in two weeks, we’ll conclude 2020 with a review post of the year.