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Plotting and Pantsing – Part Deux

Last week I talked about Plotting and Pantsing. That post leads to the inevitable question, “What does Mark do?”

Well, for starters. I pantsed the pants out of that article.

That post actually started with this post, which is in response to a question from a reader. How do I go about planning my stories? I got squirreled into discussing the difference between plotting and pantsing, so I split this off into its own post.

And like most things in life, the answer is more complicated than it would seem. The quick answer is: “It depends.” Depends on what? What I’m writing, of course.

When I’m working on a piece for a client, I do extensive research and planning. After all, that’s what I’m getting paid for. But if you’re reading this, you’re probably more interested in my fiction work. And that depends too.

For short stories, many times I have the whole storyline worked out in my head before I start. So while it’s not plotted in the traditional sense, with a written outline, it’s definitely planned. For other short stories, I just have an idea like “what would happen if two dog catchers chased a werewolf into a sewer?” In those cases, I just start writing and see where I end up.

Longer works, like novels, are similar. I start with a simple idea and develop it a bit before I start writing. But for me, the joy comes from discovering the story as I go. I may have a particular goal in mind that I try to write to, though I don’t plan the path explicitly.

But that’s not to say I just wing it. I take extensive notes while I’m writing, especially regarding timelines. In cases where I need to keep track of several characters, I have notes on what they’re doing at various points, though I don’t plan their actions in advance. I also keep notes on my primary characters’ backgrounds that may not end up in the final story. These aren’t “character sheets” in the traditional sense. Mostly just random thoughts, and maybe dates of important events in the character’s life that I reference in the story (when a character got married, or graduated college). These aren’t necessarily for important details in the story. Many times it’ll be for a random bit of conversation and never comes up again. But if I write “They had been married for twenty years,” I’ll make a note of it in case I need that information later. Usually, I don’t, but it’s a lot easier to jot a quick note than to dig through the manuscript later to find it if I do.

For example, in Dark Ties, I had three main POV characters. For Ken, I had notes on where he went to college, where he grew up, a list of several of the books he wrote, complete with short summaries (I even created a blog post on it). For Allen, I created a timeline for his career and family. For the killer, I had a list of when each of his kills happened and a few extra details about each victim, even ones that aren’t discussed in the book. None of these timelines were pre-plotted. I developed them as I needed them so I could keep things consistent later in the story. (Simu-planning?)

Another example is my sci-fi series about an interstellar cargo hauler and his sidekick. I have a lot of notes about his background and ideas for stories, but I don’t have detailed plans for any of the stories. For the one I’m working on now, I think I know how it will end, and I know what some of his obstacles are going to be, but I don’t have an outline for the novel.

Similarly, for the fantasy book I’m working on, I don’t have a detailed outline for the book, but I have tons of notes about the history of the world in which it takes place. I may use some of it in later books in the series, and some of it may just be for my own benefit to provide the framework for the stories. For the first book, I’m trying out a seven point story structure. As I reach each plot point, I think ahead to what the next one or two might be. So again, I have a vague roadmap, but not a detailed, turn-by-turn plan.

So am I a plotter or a pantser? I would say I’m a little of both, though I obviously lean more toward pantsing than plotting. And maybe that’s what most (all?) successful pantsers do, whether they admit it or not. After all, Stephen King said he doesn’t like outlines for fiction. He didn’t say he doesn’t like to know where he’s going. (In fairness, he also claims that his stories don’t usually end up where he thinks they will. I’d also like to know how much planning he did for his Dark Tower series; to me, epic fantasy just seems to need more planning than horror.)

I do enjoy pantsing more than plotting. As King put it, the story idea is like part of a fossil sticking out of the ground. It’s the writer’s job to unearth the fossil (the story) little by little, discovering it as he goes, rather than guessing what it’s going to look like first, and then ignoring everything that doesn’t fit that picture. (Though I know many plotters adjust their plan as they write rather than rigidly sticking to their outline.)

And I think that’s a good description of my writing process. I start with an idea; maybe I know where it’s going, maybe I don’t. Or maybe it ends up somewhere other than where I thought it would. Dark Ties certainly did. Then I write to see what happens. I end up editing out a lot of junk, but that’s okay. The time I spend editing comes from the time I saved by not plotting.

But I’m still relatively new at writing novels. My process will change as I write more. I suspect, though, that it will move even farther from plotting.