Plotter or Pantser?

Stephen Palmer

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I have known writers who said they only ever wrote a single draft. The one who said he always got it right the first time I have never been sure if I believed him (that is, whether I believed that he felt it was always right the first time--others might have a different opinion of whether he got it right at all--or whether he was joking, which I wouldn't put past him).
Could this be me...?
Every novel I've had published since and including Hairy London, but not including Beautiful Intelligence, was a first draft. However I'm not saying they were necessarily right first time; that's a different thing...
I should stress though that I write my first draft in a particular way, that not everybody has the luxury of doing. For the duration of the writing I "live" the novel, not attending to anything else (including children - me & my ex never had any), which allows me to get that crucial, magical first draft down as completely as possible. Then I do polishing & honing, then it gets sent to my editor. He always comes back with points to change. A few times they're big points - for instance, in The Autist, he brilliantly suggested a change in the order of the first six chapters.
What I want to do is convey to my readers the magic I feel when discovering my novel for the first time. I find I lose that magic if there's a second draft. My intensive way of writing means I can capture the magic as completely as possible. It's a high risk strategy, though, so I don't recommend it!
 

Teresa Edgerton

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No, it wasn't you. He composed his stories while walking and dictated them into some sort of device he carried, if I remember correctly. He also produced his stories so quickly, I don't think there could have been much or any thought in advance. His remark about getting it right the first time leads me to suppose he meant there was no polishing, as being already perfectly right there would be no need. Some of his stuff was for various franchises so he'd have very tight deadlines.
 

Astro Pen

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@Astro Pen out of interest how do you create your characters? (Or do they just walk into your head?)
That’s a good question and one I hesitate to answer because I don’t want to overthink something that works well for me and end up in ‘analysis paralysis’.

As the plot evolves there are character shaped spaces, and whilst ‘cookie cutter’ is an oversimplification there will be an approximate character ‘shape’ that is needed. What is important to me, however, is not to fill that space with a stereotype. That will yank you down to two dimensions in no time. I will play around for a while with gender, nationality, stature, quirks and background biography until I think “that person would be interesting”. Then in they go!

Regarding antagonists, I prefer counterpoint to raw antagonism. It allows ambiguity of relationship. If there are things you like about the ‘other side’ everything becomes much more nuanced. The reader is less able to telegraph which way things are going to work out.
 

JohnnyNeutron

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I'm a committed plotter, but that's my personality type. Organization is extremely important to me.

Everything I've read about plotting vs. pantsing has caused me to believe that plotting is the far more efficient route toward a properly structured story. Obviously there are many pantsers out there producing lots of excellent and properly structured writing. But the consensus view (from what I've read) is that those productive pantsers have such a firm understanding of the fundamentals of story structure, that they intuitively know when, where and how to nail their plot-points as they're pantsing their way through their first draft. But, supposedly there are very few pantsers that can do that, and therefore most pantsers have to do several drafts before they can submit for publication. Whether that's accurate or not, I can't be sure.

A writing teacher once told me that the biggest difference between a plotter and a pantser is two drafts vs five drafts.
 

Dragonlady

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@JohnnyNeutron it depends on your brain. With a real life to juggle as well I'd get bored of the planning and lose interest, I need to write to keep going. I view my first draft as a planning draft, and will need loads of drafts anyway as I am not naturally methodical
 

Montero

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A writing teacher once told me that the biggest difference between a plotter and a pantser is two drafts vs five drafts.
The other difference is that a plotter spends a lot of time plotting before writing drafts and a pantser doesn't.

I'd be interested to see time elapsed from idea to completed manuscript on the two types of writers - obviously varying with individual but statistically you'd get a pattern. It might well be similar lengths of time to complete a book, you are just getting there by different routes.
 

HareBrain

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Like many people, I think, I plot the opening and then charge in and keep my fingers crossed, with only a vague sequence of waypoints to aim for. I wouldn't bother trying to plot a whole novel in advance now because I know I'd come up with better ideas during the writing. However, I wish sometimes I could, because although I'm very fond of some of my books, I have never written one which to me felt structurally on-the-money. That probably shouldn't bother me, because it doesn't often in other people's, but it does.
 
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Shameless pantser here! I find I plan better as I write, so I do enough plotting to get started and know, vaguely, where I want to take the story, but work everything else out as I go. For each book that I'm working on, I have a file for research notes and a file for story notes where I can jot down any plot ideas, new characters, scene snippets, etc, that come to me, but don't yet have a home within the story. If I plotted everything out at the beginning, I don't think I'd ever get anything finished.
 

Teresa Edgerton

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A writing teacher once told me that the biggest difference between a plotter and a pantser is two drafts vs five drafts.
It depends on what you want to accomplish whether plotting is the most efficient way. If you want to turn out a novel in as few drafts as possible, then it probably is. But there is more to writing than getting it done as quickly as possible, and structure is not going to be the same for every book. It is not going to be the same in a detective story as in an epic fantasy. It is not going to be the same in a romance as in a political thriller.

And writing those additional drafts can allow the opportunity to add a great deal of subtlety to the characterization—the writer can't do it earlier because they don't know the characters well enough, and by "know the characters" I refer to understanding them on a deeper level than can be achieved by making out charts of their favorite colors and foods. Those additional drafts are also the time when a great deal of creativity can occur. Many of the tasks are completed, so the mind is not weighted down with all that it needs to accomplish, and the imagination can take flight.
 

P Drysdale

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I personally plot, now, though I have pantsed a bit in the past. The thing that has really helped me a lot is I actually got a whiteboard and drew up some lines on it to make columns, then I use post it notes to represent chapters or significant plot points, that way if somethings needs to get moved around because I think of an extra chapter or want to split a large one down, I can just move the post it note instead of having to wipe out everything and write again a few inches to the left. Heck I'll just attach an image, I've split the board up into the three act plot structure, it's been very helpful to me.

(the cartoon bear in the bottom of the board is something my wife drew for fun, I keep it because I think it's hilarious that she drew a cartoon bear and gave it a human nose)
 

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Kerrybuchanan

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I personally plot, now, though I have pantsed a bit in the past. The thing that has really helped me a lot is I actually got a whiteboard and drew up some lines on it to make columns, then I use post it notes to represent chapters or significant plot points, that way if somethings needs to get moved around because I think of an extra chapter or want to split a large one down, I can just move the post it note instead of having to wipe out everything and write again a few inches to the left. Heck I'll just attach an image, I've split the board up into the three act plot structure, it's been very helpful to me.

(the cartoon bear in the bottom of the board is something my wife drew for fun, I keep it because I think it's hilarious that she drew a cartoon bear and gave it a human nose)
Wow...
In a good way!
 

.matthew.

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I really should use a rough three act structure, I tend to just pants my way through to a lull in the story and get bored editing...

I really like the big visual physicalness of it on a board like that too. There are countless programs that let you do the same and do it better, but somehow seeing it in the real world would connect me to it a lot more.
 

P Drysdale

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I find it's like writing little reminders, you could do it on your phone or laptop, but for some reason doing it by hand makes it develop in your mind better. I'm sure there's some psychological reason for it.
 

Peeling

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When I started out, I was writing short stories. I found those more or less fell together as I was writing them. Clearly I was a genius!

Then I attempted a novel, and things didn't go so well.

With hindsight, failure was inevitable. I was releasing a chapter at a time online, writing and polishing each 4,500 word chunk as I went along. People loved it to begin with, but by the time I got to chapter ten I had ground to a halt. Nothing was happening; the story was going nowhere. I had exceeded my knowledge of the world I had built two chapters earlier.

I kept trying to resuscitate those 40,000 words for three years, without success. In the end I just stopped.

Ten years later, I told my daughter I was going to write her a story.

This time, I spent three months planning it, allowing myself only a couple of thousand words of style-guide writing. Two months after that, I was at 70,000 words - and I hit a wall again. Turns out that what I'd planned were two halves of two different books that didn't really fit together unless you ignored some fairly major plot holes.

A month later I'd reached 75,000 words. A decade earlier, I'd have given up. This time I didn't.

A month after that, I printed the 110,000 words of my first draft.

Two months later, my daughter drew the cover art for the 80,000 word third draft. This is what she drew:

Cover.jpg


It remains unpublished. I could not give less of a crap.
 

HalaxyGigh

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I just stated this in another thread, but it applies equally here:
I'm a definite plotter. Personally, I break the events of the story down into brief or not so brief paragraphs, numbered 1 to however many, usually in the 20s or 30s. Each paragraph of description explains what happens at that point in the story in a small segment, usually constituting a page or two of the finished story, with important details highlighted and lines of dialogue written.
This helps me keep track of important details and means I don't overlook details that can be foreshadowed ahead of time and called back to later on. It's also just easier IMO to write the story briefly as if I was explaining it to somebody over a conversation, skimming over unneccessary parts and mentioning only significant details and statements. Once that's finished, I write the full story by expanding each paragraph into a scene of prose, one by one.
 

HalaxyGigh

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I'm a complete pantster. I can't understand how anyone can plot tightly and still tell a story that has life and breathes naturally. :)
Maybe it's a personality thing and about how we normally communicate. When I have a conversation with friends or describe something, I tend to ramble, I often go off on tangents about some important detail and provide some context for it with an explanation about it. I often diverge from the main subject briefly and then return to it.
I think if I told a story as a "pantster" (I like the way that sounds better than "pantser", phonetically evokes panther and Pantera. Pantera were a thrash metal band from the '90s.).
Anyway, I think if I told a story as a pantster then each scene would drift away from the main plot as it goes on tangents sparked by description of different details as they emerge in the narrative, each scene has the real danger of rambling and expanding as I elaborate on such details as they occur to me and, in the story, as they occur to the characters, or at least the lead character, and as such would never end. It would honestly make the story harder to write.
Keeping to a point by point plotted breakdown of the story first, like a literary equivalent of a movie storyboard (or in writing comics, a string of thumbnail images, which are basically like a miniature storyboard drawn by writer and/or artist which represents how the finished comic would look, each thumbnail being like a panel of the comic. Some writers do that, apparently Neil Gaiman did for every part of The Sandman, but in comics the writing methods seem to vary a lot, more than any other medium).
Anyway, by keeping points of the story listed in a chronological breakdown, I'm able to keep a tight rein on the story in most ways, keep the pace under control, the important details and dialogue under control, every part of it under control and in focus. It saves me some time.

Of course, having said all that, I am currently working on three different short stories at once, one primary one and couple of others, and I still have to keep my focus on those, as it still diverges when I'm not careful.
Anyway, people have different approaches.
 
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