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Plotting vs Pantsing (part 1)

There are (in general) two schools of thought when it comes to writing a first draft. Pantsing: meaning you fly by the seat of your pants and just write and see what happens. And plotting: which is exactly what it sounds like. You plot out your story in advance and then follow that outline as you write. I have always been a pantser. I like to get an idea and then just write and see where it takes me. I find this allows for my characters to come to life and surprise me. My good friend Maddy, who is going to be taking over this blog shortly while I'm on maternity leave, is a hard-core plotter. She has a spreadsheet and timeline for everything in her novel. So, since she's going to be taking over soon, we thought it would be fun if I were to spend a blog talking about the merits and pitfalls of pantsing a story, and she'll be back with all her hot takes on why plotting is the "better" way to write.

Really though, there isn't a better or worse way, (you have to do what works for you) but each system does have pluses and minuses. Being a pantser means I have a lot more freedom to let my characters come to life or let a scene play itself out in surprising ways. Sometimes when writers have a strict plot in mind, they're resistant to letting characters grow organically. This can be seen in things like the end of the TV show "How I Met Your Mother" or the reboot of "Gilmore Girls." The writers had such strong ideas for the endings that they wrote themselves into a box and had to force their characters to fit into it.

When writing my novel, I went through a lot of different ideas of who my characters were. I did character outlines to try and get to know them better, but in the end, they still made choices I didn't see coming. I know that can sound weird– like I'm the writer, I'm in control of what goes on the page, but in all truth, sometimes I'm not. Sometimes I write and my characters tell me what they want to do. It sounds insane, but it also makes writing fun and can lead to some really interesting places. I like not having everything figured out and then seeing where the story goes. Sometimes I have an idea for where I want the story to end, but I'm not bound and determined to force my story in that direction.

The downside to pantsing happens when it comes to editing. Because I don't have a clear outline for the plot, I often end up having contradictions or continuity errors littering the manuscript. When reading a student's work, I always give it at least two read-throughs. One to see what the story is about, and the second to give feedback and edits. I have to do the same with my own work. Except since my novel is a much longer piece than my students' short stories, I take notes during the first read-through. I'll mark what kind of car a character drives, or their hair color, or any other minor detail I just threw in for the time being. Then I need to make sure those details line up throughout the whole story. I'll also note places I need to rewrite. Sometimes a character's voice grows and changes as the story progresses. I need to remember what their voice is by the end, so I can go back to the beginning and be sure it matches.

The thing is, I don't mind the editing. Yes, it's a lot of work, but I find it's much more important to bang out a first draft and then have something to work with other than a blank page. That's partly why I like to fly by the seat of my pants. It's like trying to put together a puzzle. I like to dump out all the pieces, slap the border together as quickly as I can, and then work on filling in the middle by checking the box, and then going back to sorting pieces, and so on. It takes time, and I make mistakes, but it works for me. I feel like plotting your story is more like getting a puzzle, studying the picture on the box, memorizing it, and then taking out the pieces one by one and laying them out where they go until it all comes together. It's so much work on the front end, but it's efficient cause you don't have to waste time sorting pieces, or guessing if two sections fit together.

I highly suggest giving both ways a try, and then choosing which works best for you and your story-telling process. I also wonder if I like pantsing because my work is all so character-focused. It's critical I allow them to grow organically and tell me what they're going to do. If I were writing something more plot-heavy, it might be more important to plan out each detail carefully before writing. Next blog Maddy will tell you how she uses plotting and why it works for her, and hopefully you'll get some insight into which might work for you!

Photo evidence of my brain while writing

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