There are two terms I’ve encountered in fiction-writing circles: plotter and pantser. A “plotter” is just like it sounds: a writer who composes a story by writing an outline first. A plotter gets the elements of the narrative down in some way, shape, or form—be it index cards, a synopsis, or an old-fashioned Roman-numeral type outline.
A “pantser” is a writer who composes by “the seat of their pants.” No outline or sketch, little to no prep work. A pantser just sits down to write and sees what happens.
In an article I found via Google, the novelist Cindi Myers suggests that there might be some shame in admitting you’re a plotter, because being a pantser could be considered more “artistic.” In it, she goes on to list the benefits of plotting. (Though, this article is housed on a site for an online editing tool called AutoCrit, which I assume has a vested interest in converting more writers into plotters.)
Assessing myself as a fiction writer, I’d say I began as a pantser, but have evolved into a plotter. And I still exhibit traits of both in my day-to-day writing life.
I’m definitely a pantser with these blog posts. Their short length is the reason why I can write them without a plan. If I go off on a tangent, I can afford the time spent on that thread. Because it’s typically portions of an hour, not portions of days or weeks (or months). And even if that thread gets cut, I find the time writing it was usually well spent, because those tangents often help clarify my thoughts.
But, with fiction, I can’t afford to be a pantser. I’ve spent some time in this space bemoaning the breaks I’ve taken from writing. (Some self-induced, others not so much.) It took me six years to get The Incident Under the Overpass to a point ready to publish. I want to be more expeditious with subsequent stories.
Part of the reason my first novel took so long was because I spent the first three years without a plan. I can’t say things got easier once I outlined the story, but I can say my approach to the work improved. I like to think my output improved, too.
I’ve started writing the third and final story featuring Lacey Becnel (the heroine of my first novel.) I outlined it a while ago, and I foresee many changes to that original plot. Also, about nine months ago, I started using some writing software. (I purchased Scrivener—I was sold by numerous testimonials from writers claiming how expeditious it made them).
The point I’m trying to get to is this: in a pantser-ish move, I began to compose the opening to the story before importing/updating that old outline into the program. I was a little surprised to find out that what I wrote hewed pretty close to the outline. So what originally felt like a little pantser rebellion was in truth a loyal plotter move.
Short stories get the same plotter treatment. It’s been about a year since I’ve written one—way longer than I’d like it to be—but I blame Lacey for that. Anyway, it might just be three sentences at the top of a document, outlining the short story arc, but I find it helps tremendously in getting me to the finish line.
Slow and steady, wasn’t it the plodding (plotting?) tortoise who won the race?