What kind are you?


At some point, every writer has to decide what sort of writer they are.

Far as I can tell, writers come in two varieties:

  1. Pants-seat writers; and
  2. Planners/outliners.

How we write our stories can depend a lot on our personalities and what’s comfortable to us. Before we begin each project, we have to pick how we’re going to write it – either by the seat of our pants, just letting the story lead us along as we sit behind the keyboard and listen to the characters and transcribe the events in our heads, or we plan and/or outline the story’s course so we have a track to follow.

Neither is correct or incorrect. Both work for different people.

I told the few who came around on Friday about putting an old project to bed and getting started on something else. I’ll fiddle around with the broken one in my spare time. But to move onto a new project, I need to decide what sort of writer I am: Pantser or Planner.

I’ve worked both ways to be honest. And I think there might be a third category which I’ll talk about in a little bit.

The Traveling Pants

When I wrote my first online serial (I thought I was writing a novel), I did it strictly by the seat of my pants. Here’s how that worked.

I wanted to write a series of short vignettes in which I distinguish three or more speakers without speaker tags if possible. (You know, that little “so-and-so said” or “thus-and-such asked” at the end of a spoken line in a novel.) I thought making the voices unique and divergent enough from each other would be great practice for me.

I posted three installments for my deviantART page. My wife thought they were brilliant. She wanted me to continue. After seven segments, I asked if I could stop. She insisted I keep at it, press on. Back and forth, ‘round and ‘round. Before I knew it I had a full-blown story on my hands with 47 installments and about 94K words.

I did it all by the seat of my pants. I never used an outline or a plan of any sort. I just sat and wrote, a lot of it off the top of my head.

Sometimes I sat for weeks, wracking my brain for a new direction or twist or problem resolution. Eventually, something would break loose and I’d write like crazy again until the next problem hit me.

Pure, unadulterated, Pantsing.

It could be considered a successful venture. Most who read my serial had nice things to say. A few didn’t. But when I finished it, I set out to write the sequel and wasn’t about to do it by the seat of my pants again.

Planned into a Corner

I was determined to avoid the old-fashioned, Roman-numeral list outlines of my grade school and high school days. Toward the end of the first serial, though, I stumbled on something which worked for me.

My new method seemed exceedingly simple. It also struck me as incredibly effective. I just needed a separate document for a guidepost.

Stuff I needed to cover for the current installment got listed in the separate text document.

(Rough Draft was awesome for this; it’s a word processor that has a “pad” feature built in. The pad is a separate text document which is associated with the main document, and opens automatically with the main doc. It lets you add notes document you’re working on. I used the “pad” to guide me as I wrote the last nine chapters or so. The pad’s a separate pane beside the word processor so I could refer to it as I wrote. Sweet.)

I’d race along and cover all the points in my “outline” and go back to tweak word count later. It kept me on track and gave my story focus.

I figured if it worked for a chapter or two, it would work for longer pieces too. So I set out to write my sequel this way. Using Liquid Story Binder XE, I mapped out as much of the story as I could . Then I roughed out each point as I reached it in the story. Not exactly a numbered list outline, but pretty darned structured.

I promptly hit a wall at about 40K words and got such a bout of writer’s block I didn’t work on the story again. Ever. It’s been two years since I’ve written a line in it now.

So, I’m a Pantser, right? All that structure killed my creativity and I just can’t write that way. Right?

Well …

The Happy Medium

I finally figured out the problem. Or, I think I’ve figured out the problem.

I’m not a Pantser. No way. That’s too undisciplined and scary for me. I can wander so far off track (done that), or leave important story structure elements out, or drift aimlessly. Worse still, I could abandon the project in frustration and stagnate … again.

No thanks; been there, done that, wrote the book. Sort of.

I needed a looser structure; one which sets the path for the book and the major elements needed without listing every single thing to cover. I’m free to work with the prose and the characters, and even twist the plot a bit. But I still have a loose framework to guide my way.

I could write draft after draft after draft and not be happy with my story. I got lucky and did some things right in the original story structure by instinct, but sometimes instincts are slow, or are off a little , or just misleading. I needed a sure-fire way to develop the story, every time. I needed to do it without putting myself into such a tight box I couldn’t create. It also couldn’t be so loose I’d lose myself along the way.

I need to be somewhere between a Panster and a Planner. And, I needed a story structure method. I didn’t know I needed it, though. That’s the third writer category I mentioned before: the Structurer, or something.

But that’s a post for another day.

Get Ready — Get Set —

I think now I’m ready. I think now I have the ideal situation for me. I need a synopsis. Not too detailed, though. Just enough to provide me that direction I need to be creative and untethered.

I won’t have to do multiple drafts to get the story elements in place. Which means I can focus on writing.

It will be interesting to see if it works.

Wish me luck.

What kind of writer are you? If you’re not a writer, do you tackle projects with a firm, rigid plan in mind, a loose set of guidelines just to keep things on track, or do you just fly by the seat of your pants?

Happy Memorial Day, y’all.

-JDT-

All original content © DarcKnyt 2010
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8 thoughts on “What kind are you?

  1. I covered my methods on my own blog recently, so I won’t elaborate, but I lean toward the pantser side.

    I like the way you discuss it; I always seem to gain clarity from your outlay of the methodology. 🙂

    Now I’ve run into something else. You know, we always talk about pantsing/plotting in terms of the first draft. But what about editing? Do you make a list of the points you want to hit–ly words, plot pinch points, etc?–or do you just go straight through on instinct until it “feels” right? I’ve found that while I’m a pantser in the early stages, I benefit from the structure in revisions even though I still feel my way through that structure, if that makes sense.

    Yes, it makes sense. I think that’s how I got to editing Ghost Hunters this last time around. Well…except without a list. That’s a brilliant idea and God alone knows why I didn’t think of doing that.

    When I went back to GH, I identified the plot points, pinch points, and could identify more readily what was set-up and what was garbage, and finally put everything where it needed to go. I could also see what was missing altogether and determine how to finish strong. So what you say not only makes sense, but is exactly how I approached my last round of edits.

    The big thing for me is, I can go forward with the structure laid out FIRST, and this will expedite the revision and editing stage later. If I put all the essential elements in place on the first pass, then subsequent passes can only strengthen prose and story arc. Plot holes and structure problems aren’t an issue anymore. Something to think about ; why have a first draft when you can have something which only needs polishing if the structure is all in place?

    Now, will it work out that way? I dunno. I’ll try to let everyone know when (if) I can answer that definitively. 🙂

  2. I think I’m a situationist. I start with a story idea. I think I know how it will end, but often it ends another way. Outlining would kill the creativity for me.

    I’m not sure what the difference is between what you’re describing and pants-seat writing, Linda; can you clarify if you have time? I’d like to hear about another option I missed or didn’t know about. 🙂

    To respond to Sherri’s question: I’m one who makes a list of thinks to check during the editing phases. Sometimes I address one of these points specifically, in its own pass. Others I just watch for during all passes.

    I haven’t made a list yet; I think I need to do that, big time. It’s a clever and obvious idea I didn’t see before she mentioned it. Heh.

    GOOD LUCK to you on trying out your new method!

    Thanks, and thank you for stopping by and letting me know what you think! 🙂 Happy Memorial Day!

    • There’s probably NO difference in the two. I’m just not up on this new-fangled lingo. Plus, “pants-seat” is such an inelegant term. 🙂

      LOL! Well, here’s to a more elegant future for pants-seat writers everywhere. 🙂

  3. I must cast my vote for a write-in option. If you are being held back by your pants, your are still showing restraint. Be wild, be brave bold and innovative. Write with no pants what-so-ever. I’ve heard that Shakespeare, Hemingway and Dr. Seuss all wrote in the nude. Well, Dr. Seuss wore socks, hence Fox in Sox, but he was otherwise naked. You can’t let anything hold you back. Always be fearless. Fearless in life, fearless in writing.

    BY JOVE, I’ll DO IT!! I’LL DO IT!! And you promise to pay for the therapy my children will need to deal with the trauma later in life, okay?

    • With the kind of money you’ll be making after you become a big famous author, you won’t know what to do with all the moneys. You’ll be paying for my therapy!

      Oh, my boy! From your mouth to God’s ear! And if that happens, you’re right — I’ll be paying for your therapy, and with a smile. Least I can do to repay the joy your blog and comments have brought me. 🙂

  4. I think you know what kind of writer I am.

    I’m getting a strong pantsing consensus from my writerly buds, that’s for sure. I wonder why? Is it just easier?

    But kudos to you for trying different ways, exploring new ways, taking a chance. Good luck with your pants!

    Well, hopefully my plans and pants will converge into an unstoppable overall of doom where writing is concerned. 😉 Thank you!

  5. I’ve always wondered how writers work out their stories. In school, when we’d discuss allusion, and methods, it made me curious – do they really sit down the work it out like this? Plan to the point where they think whilst typing/writing “this is a perfect comparison to this, blah blah blah”.

    Well, I’ve never thought about comparisons when I write and I’m probably a bad example of how to write. See my later post about characters. Hehehe. 😉

    My teachers always made it sound like there was so much structure and planning involved. As if one couldn’t just sit and write something brilliant without a frame.

    I don’t know that I can write without one, but there are no fewer than two writers here who’ve said they can’t write WITH one. I guess it’s a matter of how good your instincts are, how close you get to the proper storytelling structure as you draft, and how much your knowledge is habitual, ingrained. Stephen King I’m not, but I proved to myself by examining the only full mansucript I have that my instincts are very good. Time will show whether the publishing industry agrees. 😉

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