The blog today is written in answer to this question from one of my readers: "Not sure if you're been asked this before, but are you a pantser or outliner?"
For those of you who may not be familiar with the jargon, "pantser" is shorthand for "seat of the pants," and refers to a writer who comes up with the plot, characters, and progression of events in her story as she goes along. A pantser may have a handful of notes and ideas, but for the most part will sit down to a rough draft completely fresh and simply discover where the story and characters will take her.
I am definitely NOT a pantser.
I used to try to be. And I have, upon occasion, attempted it again here and there. But I found this approach to story and structure never fails to lead me on wordy rabbit trails that go nowhere very quickly.
Thus I have become a consummate outliner.
I didn't start outlining until I wrote the rough-draft of Heartless. Then my outline was extremely simple--seriously little more than a sentence or two giving a summary of what I thought might happen in each chapter. The purpose of the outline was simply to provide a road map--I needed to know that the plot was specifically going somewhere and that events from the previous chapter would always lead to the events of the next chapter. No rabbit trails!
This system worked quite well for me. I learned that I loved a good outline--and I also learned that a good outline is a flexible outline. There is always room to expand or contract, to shift gears slightly, to add in new threads.
As the Goldstone Wood series progressed and the stories became increasingly more complicated and intertwined, my outlines became more complex as well. Using the outline, I can juggle multiple story lines at once, able to see in a "bird's eye view" how various character arcs were intersecting and augmenting each other. I can also see the general shape of the action leading up to the final climax. I am able to predict much of what will need to be foreshadowed and thus insert proper foreshadowing during the rough-drafting phase, laying all the groundwork for thematic threads and building on them as I go.
If I were to "pants" it, I would spend so much of the rough draft simply figuring where the plot was going, I couldn't begin to concern myself with foreshadowing, thematic threads, and I would find it extremely difficult to balance the multiple story lines, not to mention the series' story lines. I probably would not write in the omniscient narrative either. It would be too difficult to handle well if I didn't know where each scene was heading in the long run.
Now the thing about outlines that often scares away writers is the notion that they kill spur of the moment inspiration. And that may very well be true for some writers (not all of us are meant to be outliners). How can you be truly spontaneous and creative if you're simply writing along, filling in the blanks, so to speak? Some writers feel that if they've outlined the story then they've already told it and, therefore, they are too bored to go on and actually write it.
While I understand this perspective, it's never been my experience. For you see, there is such an enormous difference between plot and approach. Plot is something you can outline. You can lay out for yourself the flow of events, the rising and falling action, the character threads. That's all very basic, really.
But you cannot outline approach. The manner in which you handle each scene. The style, the mood, the shape. The point-of-view. All of these things are spontaneous creative decisions.
This is where I find plenty of room for the "see where the story takes me" side of writing. I know where the plot is going. I know the events that will take it there. But I don't know the how. I don't know the approach, not ahead of time. And in my opinion the telling of the story is equally important to the story itself.
This is why it often takes multiple drafts for me to finish a complete manuscript. If I get the approach wrong in even just a handful of scenes, it can throw off the entire book. But it's not something I can map in advance.
Honestly, I can't imagine trying to figure out both plot and approach at the same time. Seat-of-the-pants is an intimidating technique to me. I remember I tried to write Dragonwitch that way, and what a dismal failure that was! (Many of you have heard of the five different Dragonwitch beginnings, 40,000 words each, all of which had to be dumped before I finally found something that worked.) I felt as lost as Alistair wandering in the Netherworld. I doubt very much that I will ever try that technique again.
How about you? Are you a pantser or an outliner? Or have you done both? If you're a pantser, why does this approach work better for you (so we can hear the flip-side to my own perspective)?