These are the notes I used to plan an entire blog. Plotter or pantser?
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
What kind of question is that? It just fills the mind up with all sorts of imagery.
When you’re my age, you can remember what a “pantser” was. That’s the big guy in junior high school who, usually with some cohorts, would steal your pants in school (while you’re wearing them) and leave you in the boy’s room. You’ll get your pants back, eventually, but until then you either wait it out or take the chance at public ridicule. A pantser may mean something else to the GenXers and Millennials, but that’s a pantser.
But among writers, a pantser means something else. That’s the person who throws together a draft without a real plan. Stream of consciousness stuff. Flying by the seat of your pants, hence the name.
A plotter, on the other hand, has a plan. Everything’s outlined. All the details are mapped out, every jot and tittle figured out beforehand.
I recently had an online conversation with another writer. He told me about some ebook that helps you to plan your novel to the nth degree. It’s all there, very structured. All you have to do is write your way from station to station. He likes to use this method, therefore he’s a plotter/planner.
The pantser, well, it’s different. He’ll create his characters on the fly, and they’ll drive the plot wherever they take it. If he has a general idea of where he wants to take this narrative, his characters can overrule it any time they want.
Man, those are some strong characters. I wish I could create my fictional characters with so much depth that they can hijack the story line like that.
The musician who works strictly from charts is a planner. I understand Paul Simon was the ultimate planner. When he and Art Garfunkel recorded their album Bridge Over Troubled Water, harmonica great Charlie McCoy helped out on some of the songs. He said Simon was really hard to work with. He spent something like eight hours to record a four-bar passage.. Constantly fiddling around. No wonder Simon and Garfunkel broke up.
Jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy went the other way. Every time he recorded a song, it sounded different. It’s interesting listening to the two takes of Ornette Coleman’s collective improvisation Free Jazz. Some of the guys — trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Don Cherry — stuck pretty much with the same ideas in both takes. Dolphy? Complete differences in tempo, complete differences in everything.
At the end of his album Last Date (recorded shortly before he died so suddenly in Berlin) he got off the line that expressed his whole philosophy. When you hear music, he said, it’s gone in the air. You can never recapture it.
Definitely a pantser.
To use a musical stereotype, plotters play classical. Pantsers play jazz. Or putting it another way, plotters do best work in the studio. Pantsers prefer a live setting.
Striking a balance
It’s that whole left brain/right brain continuum, explained in a different way. Plotters use the left side, so it follows pantsers are the ones in their right minds.
OK, bad joke, right?
So which one’s right?
Am I a plotter or a pantser?
I probably land in that same gray area that most of us do. Somewhere in between the two poles, though it’s hard to tell exactly where I lean.
I’ve said before that I’m a planner. Everything’s outlined. I’ll mind-map a whole project, build my lists but free-associate my way through it. I have a starting point, a finishing point and specific steps in between.
Then I’ll just ignore the whole thing. I’ll end up at my predetermined ending point, I think, but I might just take a whole different route to get there. Rip my GPS off the dash, pitch it out the window and go.
Mapping out my day I’ll write down every step, all the things I want to do. Plan out the whole enchilada with a series of @next-actions as prescribed in David Allen’s Getting Things Done. Then again, I’ll take this plan and totally ignore it.
Planning vs. doing
For me, planning is an exercise in futility. Really a nice way to avoid getting something done. But that’s just me; your mileage may vary depending on your personality type. I find I do better if I just set out maybe three goals for the day and just toward those.
An occupational hazard of being a pantser.
I joke that my pantser part is from having a bad short-term memory. In music I’ll play a song and literally can not remember what I did in rehearsal. In a way that’s freeing — all I need is the chord structure and an ending point — but if I record something I’ll remember it and keep doing it roughly that same way. I really find that kind of restrictive.
I got the planning part honestly. Dad’s an engineer, where everything is put down on a blueprint and field-tested. He once mapped out the layout for part of the back yard — roses on one side, cactus on the other. Different kinds of soil for the two sections. Everything drawn out on a scratch pad. I can’t swear to it, but I think he had an environmental impact report in there somewhere.
Funny thing, it took him several years to do the actual work. I think Mom — who is more of a pantser — gave him the push he needed to get going.
I’m really interested in Steven Pressfield’s Foolscap method of plotting. He plans the whole novel out on a single sheet of legal paper, on one side. Later with the character profiles. Just the briefest of outlines, no real character studies. That single page serves as his notes. Now, Pressfield is a real do-the-work kind of guy, interested in just starting and finishing, hang all the preliminary stuff that prevents you from starting.
When writing this 1,000-ish-word post, I have notes. Given the size of the piece, all these notes are on one side of an index card. A condensed, heavily-altered version of the Foolscap method.
On my current fiction project I have an outline, but it’s not cast in stone. I’ll write a section, notice the narrative takes me someplace else, and veer off that way. As long as I end where I want to, I’m happy.
There are some downsides to both. A pure plotter won’t see the opportunities that come up in midstream, and even if he did he won’t go there. The project sometime ends up sterile, with little life to it.
A pure pantser takes you ’round the mountain, down a few rabbit trails and stops every once in a while to … squirrel!
There’s room for both, but it’s safe to say everyone leans one way or another.
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What say you? Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you ever pantsed someone or been pantsed in junior high school? Share your thoughts in the comments.