Writing Files: From Planner to Pantser

Before I first signed up for National Novel Writing Month in 2007, I had never heard of the terms “planner” and “pantser.” I had been writing stories since I was 8 and somehow went from vague ideas stored in my head to writing out a few paragraphs as a vague outline for an entire novel over the years. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me that I was 18 before I finished an entire story.

As someone who loves to plan things out, who used to plan out every minute of her college days, whose practicality is almost a nuisance, and who feels out of sorts and uncertain without clear paths, I thought I was a planner.

I’ve spent years trying to make it work when it comes to writing. I love everything about the planning stage. I love writing out the vague outlines and then expanding them into fully fleshed out outlines. Sometimes even with dialogue! Once, I did a whole PowerPoint presentation to outline every single scene of a story that remains little more than that to this day. But at least I have every detail I need so I can jump into it again all these years later. Having a set plan makes stories feel that much more ordered in my mind and I can finally feel like I can sit down and just pound it out.

For years, I’ve written with scene by scene outlines as my dutiful companions. Usually, they work. Lately, they haven’t been.

I’ve finally come to the conclusion I need to be a pantser, that I am a pantser. Well, probably something of a hybrid, but being a pantser serves me better and actually gets me to finish a story. Though I still plan out a good deal of the story.

My problem is, well…my characters. Writers often refer to characters as the people in their heads. I do. All the time. Because they’re loud and annoying and have such distinct personalities. I argue with them frequently, mostly about why I need them to play the role I want them to. Sometimes they agree. Sometimes they find ways to circumvent me.

The first time this happened was in 2007, with my very first NaNo story. In it, there was an engaged couple that had broken up about halfway through the story. My intention was that they would get back together, get engaged again, in the penultimate scene. It was going to be so beautiful and heartfelt. But she ignored me. She decided she wasn’t quite ready to be back with him. When they were supposed to be making up, she told him she wanted to take things slowly, see what the future had in store for them, to definitely not be engaged. I can still remember my stunned reaction even as I wrote those words, words that were mine, but didn’t feel like mine. She had taken control, had taken charge of her life.

And then my computer crashed and I lost that novel and I haven’t had the heart to rewrite it since.

That story is also the reason why this blog started in the first place.

Anyways.

Lately, I’ve been writing fairy tale inspired stories. Queen of the Garden of Girls and Sisters of String and Glass. Both were meticulously planned out. Every plot point, every scene written out and stored in my binder for easy referral.

It started with Queen of the Garden of Girls, the haywire characters. It was Rose’s fault. She had secrets she didn’t divulge until I was almost halfway through the first draft. She upended everything for me, forced me to work fast to save the story and acquiesce to her. She’s more demanding in my head than she comes off in the story.

After Rose, more characters have been feeling bold, I guess, knowing the pushover I am.

Sisters of String and Glass has been giving me grief. I purposefully made some of them bold and confident. Maybe a little too much. They’ve gotten out of hand. Like Muriel. She’s the first to show up as not the character I planned her to be. Others swiftly followed. (So, if you’re reading along, be on the lookout for more wayward characters. Maybe you’ll spot them, maybe they’ll be a little hidden, but they’re there, no matter how much I reprimand them and try to nudge them back into line.) Now I’m left with a general idea of how the story will go. The characters…well, we’ll see. I only know how it ends because the main characters it involves are more agreeable.

And then there’s This Story. I have three little paragraphs on what it’s about. For someone reason, my mind has completely refused to let me make a plan. It shuts down every time I want to plan anything out. But I feel the overwhelming need to write it. So write it I am. Without more than a general plan. I’m learning about the world and the characters and the magic as the words pour from my fingers. I never know what’s going to come out day to day. I’m literally pantsing this one. It’s been a unique experience, to say the least. I’m dying to see how it all turns out. At the moment, I’m surprised by how it doesn’t suck as much as I had expected, how it actually makes sense. Whew!

There you have it. I like to pretend I’m a planner. Turns out I’m probably better off as a pantser who will hopefully completely fall in love with rewriting and editing.

What about you? What’s your story?

14 thoughts on “Writing Files: From Planner to Pantser

  1. I’m such a pantser. I don’t bother with anything but a quick premise (which I only started doing in the last 12 months or so — it’s what goes in my excerpts and on my social media for my short stories) until I have a solid first draft, and occasionally second.
    Then, around draft 3 I outline to see where the holes that need filling are, and where I’ve abandoned a plot loop or picked one up without actively starting it, and so on.

    But, I would never hold myself to my Pantsing ways. I’m always open to the idea that this next project will be the one I plan. (It never is.)

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    1. I would never have guessed! Your editing skills must be amazing because your stories are so tight. And I envy your ability to write something without having much to work with. I wholly support your pantsing ways!

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  2. This reassures me =) I’m a planner in life but in writing, I’m a weird mix of panster and planner. (Or gardener and architect, which I really love). I outline the adventures but many times as I write them, they take unexpected turns. Having the outline helps me write each day. Allowing the story to deviate gives me the excitement of discovery. This is how Discarded Dragons was written. On the flip side, all the novels I’ve written have been gardener written, but I’m trying some outlining for the next Hidden Mythics novel because I’m not a big fan of rewrites and I’d like to shorten the process. Esh, that was a long answer!

    You’re doing a great job with the Sisters of String and Glass. I’m loving the story.

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    1. Gardener and architect – I love that! I’ve never heard of that before, but it’s such a nice way to think of it. I absolutely agree that outlines help, but the discovery is just so much fun. A lot of the writing advice and author interviews on their writing process tends to point to doing it one way or the other, so it’s nice to know the two can intermingle just as well.

      I’m so excited about another Hidden Mystics novel! Can’t wait!

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      1. I heard the gardener/architect thing from a Brandon Sanderson lecture but I don’t remember who actually coined the terms. I like it way more than panster and planner 🙂

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  3. Well, this division is not how we called it in my circle. I think I told you about, here (is there any “here” on the internet?) they label you as a writer with a compass or with a map. I always rejected these labels and I call myself an explorer. Which means I have a compass and a map, I guess.

    I understand it’s frustrating when your characters don’t do what you want but also it’s magical ❤️❤️.

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    1. Explorer – I like that! There are so many labels for the same processes, but it seems to be more fun to just go your own way. I love reading how writers write.

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  4. I definitely started out as a pantser and I am still one, for the most part. I have slowly started to become a hybrid writer, however, as I begin this fifth book, or third in the Spencer Valley series. I really want the book to be about one character, but another character keeps trying to push her way in and I think to make it work I will need a type of outline, even if it isn’t a strict outline. When I was writing the other books, I found myself making notes below what I had written, for what I wanted to happen next but I didn’t have them in any cohesive order. For this next book, I think I might start doing that so I can keep the two women and their journey straight.

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    1. I never would have been able to tell the first books hadn’t had a real outline, but it sounds like one will be really useful for your current one! Characters certainly take on lives of their own, and could use a bit of nudging. I can’t wait to see whose stories get told next!

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      1. I think that my writing approach is to sit down with a map and mark out a big red X, then hack my way there with a machete and a compass, lol.

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