Planner Or Pantser? I’m Both

Lately, it seems that writers frequently discuss whether they are planners (people who outline before they write) or “pantsers” (people who write by the seat of their pants without an outline).

I’m a planner. I love to plan stuff. When I travel, I plan EVERYTHING. I’m not kidding when I say “everything.” I don’t make up schedules. I hate schedules. But I try very hard to avoid unpleasant surprises. That’s why I Googled images of restrooms on Amtrak trains before my trip to Orlando a couple years ago.

(Yes, they exist–in fact, I found a remarkable variety of photos of Amtrak–and other train–restrooms on Flickr. The Amtrak restrooms turned out to be neither as nice as I’d hoped nor as bad as I’d feared.)

I like to plan where I’m going to eat. I even like to plan what I’m going to order from the menu. (It was a happy day when I discovered I’ll pour over candid photos of hotel rooms before I book one. I look over bus and subway maps a million times so I can avoid getting lost. (This rarely works–I still get lost.)

Of course, when you travel, plans often go awry. During one trip to New York, I was crossing the street on my way to 30 Rockefeller Center to ascend to the observation deck at the Top Of The Rock. I tripped and aggravated a heel spur. Limping in terrible pain, I made it to a bench and cried, convinced my trip was ruined.

A few hours later, after spending some time stepping on a bag of ice in my hotel room, I was on my way to a completely unplanned destination–The Museum Of Television And Radio (now the Paley Center For Media), so I could spend a few hours doing something while still resting my foot. The rest of the day went as planned–met a friend for dinner, went to an Off-Broadway show. It turned out to be a great day, after all.

I think writing is a lot like that. Some things go as planned, and some things end up going in a totally different direction.

I rarely write outlines. But I do plan a lot before I sit down to write. What I may do is write a short synopsis with key plot points, but I don’t even do that very often. I keep most of what I plan in my head, which is probably not the best place for it, but that’s my process.

With my latest completed work, a comical fractured fairy tale, the story had been percolating in my head for a long time. I had a really good grasp of how the story would enfold before I sat down to write it.

But then a funny thing happened. Every time I tried to write a scene of the hero and heroine kissing, the heroine refused to do it.

This was problematic, as I was hoping to sell it to a romance publisher. If I couldn’t get the heroine to even kiss the hero, my chances were going to be slim to none.

I left the scene as it was and charged ahead, thinking I would write it later in the story.

She refused to kiss him again.

It drove me nuts! “You have to kiss the hero!” I screamed at the computer screen.

She just wouldn’t do it.

I actually began to wonder if I had cast the wrong character as the hero, and if I should scrap what I’d written and start again. But I kept charging ahead, with most of the rest of the story staying as originally planned.

It finally dawned on me why I had to make the kiss very late in the story. It was a fractured fairy tale, but still a fairy tale. Kisses–especially the first kiss between the hero and heroine–are incredibly important in fairy tales. I finally hit on the perfect juncture in the story for the characters to kiss.

When I found that sweet spot in the story, the heroine finally kissed the hero.

I think however you write, you’re pantsing to a certain extent. In the planning stage, I envision scenes and let them run through my head, going wherever they take me, in total “pantsing” mode. No matter how much a plan beforehand, I almost always hit a place where I will have to “pants” on the spot.

Maybe there’s a little bit of planner and pantser in all of us.

8 thoughts on “Planner Or Pantser? I’m Both

  1. Great post! We have a very simliar process. I keep most of the details in my head, daydream the scene through the night before I write it and let the empty bits fill themselves in when the keys are under my fingers. I did recently write a bit of an outline for the last few chapters of my current project though, and I’m loving having all the key points laid out. I may be crossing the floor to the planner side next time around though I think I’ll always be a pantser at heart.

    1. Thanks! I’m always surprised when people passionately defend one method over the other. Both have their merits and it is entirely possible to write a great story with one or both.

  2. I could never be a total planner, but I do take notes and outline a little when I write. I used to be a complete pantser but now I see that a little more planning helps me a lot. But only a little 😉

  3. I am definitely a bit of both. My novel was kind of written as I went along although I had a rough idea of where it was going. Your comment about your heroine refusing to kiss the hero was hilarious and until I had written my novel, I would have thought you were mad but it’s absolutely true. As I wrote I found my characters doing things that I hadn’t planned for them and even the odd character popping in that I knew nothing about. It’s great fun being a writer and this is an excellent post. Thank you. 🙂

    1. Yes, It is amazing how characters will refuse to do what we want them to do. I used to think writers who claimed that were trying to somehow create an out for themselves if people didn’t like their story. “Don’t blame me, blame the characters!” But it really does happen.

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