Planning or Pantsing

Rabbit - runI’m updating my website: a slow and laborious process, but I’m getting there. Looking at the ‘writing’ section makes me realise that my writing methods have changed. It’s nice to have those moments in life – a yard stick where you can look back and realise how far you’ve come. I wrote that section 18 months ago, and a few novels on, I’m amazed at just how differently I do things.

I used to be a pantser. I didn’t plot or plan my stories – I used freewriting to muddle my way through a first draft, flying by the seat of my pants. I enjoyed this immensely – the thrill of the chase, the adrenalin at the discovery of a new plot point. I always felt that planning would take this away from me. But in the end it left a mudpit of a manuscript I had to attempt to save in the second draft: characters that were still figuring out who they were, worlds only partly explored, tangled story arcs.

I used to just think this was the way I did things (that it was my ‘style’ of writing), but now I can see that fear was driving it. I was terrified at the thought of planning. What if the ideas didn’t come? What if I sat down to plan and couldn’t think of anything? My inner writing critic (that awful voice that tells you your writing is no good) was strong back then, and could only be silenced when I wrote fast enough to leave it behind. If I stopped to plan, it could paralyse me in an instant. So I was running fast to keep ahead of my fear.

So much has changed. I now trust myself enough that I no longer need to run. After writing so many stories, I know that the ideas will come if I give them time. I trust that I can solve the plot problems that will arise and that the characters will talk to me if I give them space. The biggest epiphany happened about a week ago: I’m now so good at silencing my inner writing critic that he rarely bothers to show up. With my fear now contained to a minimum, I’m free to plan. I love letting the ideas move around my mind for months, asking questions, identifying the plot holes to fill and studying the story arcs. I love prodding the characters to learn their vulnerabilities and determining how the story can best reveal these. I love the intricacies of putting the puzzle together, all before putting pen to paper. I suppose I now understand the demands of ‘story’ more intimately.

Early on in my ASA mentorship, Kate said something that made me think about all this. She commented that you can still experience the thrill of discovery during the first draft when you have planned it. Planning doesn’t take that away, it just makes the process less messy. But I’m still hesitant to describe myself as a planner just yet. I’ve worked out how tricksy this writing process is – just when I think I have myself pinned, I start a fresh project that demands a completely new approach.

So you never know. In a few years time I may be back here saying: “Move over planning, I’m back in the pants”.

14 Responses to “Planning or Pantsing”

  1. 1 Sharim October 9, 2009 at 10:52 pm

    I’m still partial to pantsing myself. :)

    That’s the great thing about blogs and personal websites, being able to see all that change over time. I know I can’t wait to dig up my earliest posts to share with our kids.

  2. 2 Lynn Priestley October 9, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    I have tried both and definitely like the planning route. I’m a list girl from way back. When my latest story came to me, my main character delivered an entire outline from beginning to end. It was her story, so who was I to argue? But the outline is only a spindly frame on which to hang my words. I love free writing out scenes and seeing where they lead. And whilst it has taken years, I no longer mind tossing the lot if it isn’t the direction I think the story should go. Years ago – it nearly killed me to let words go. I am hoping that down the track the ability to do this will ease the pain of edits, especially when my work hopefully gets to the publishing stage.

    I think your point about trust is so valid, Kath. Learning to trust your writerly instincts is crucial. I am always amazed how my subconscious mind figures stuff out as I go along. It’s one of the most enjoyable aspects of plotting and planning and writing. And like you point out, each project has its own voice and demands on how it wants to be handled. We are just the facilitators of the creative spirit. We just have to learn to love and obey until ‘The End’ do us part.

  3. 3 Kathleen Noud October 10, 2009 at 12:19 am

    I’m the same. I believe I used to be a ‘pantser’ out of ignorance rather than choice.

    I’m almost finished a well-considered re-draft at the moment and now I refuse to write a manuscript unless I have planned it out. Things have changed and definately will when I read back through it, but there will be much less to throw out…

  4. 4 Lyn October 10, 2009 at 8:41 am

    I think we’re all ‘pantsers’ for the first novel or two. I’m getting into the planner stage, where it’s easier to organise my time and thoughts, but it’s taken me three years to get to this point!

    Great blog, Katherine, as usual you’ve verbalised ideas that we’re all experiencing but perhaps haven’t found the words for.

  5. 5 Katherine Battersby October 10, 2009 at 9:54 am

    It’s really interesting to hear that others have made the journey from pantser to planner as they’ve become more experienced. I was talking to my writing partner the other day, and we both had noticed how tight each others’ first drafts are nowadays. I think this is why. That’s not to say they still don’t require significant rewrites…

  6. 6 Michael October 10, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Put me down as a planner – have to know the end before I can start.

  7. 7 Katherine Battersby October 10, 2009 at 4:36 pm

    I hear you with the ending thing, Michael. Even as a pantser, I had to at least know the ending before I began, but I used to have no clear idea how the story would get there.

    Like you, Kathleen, nowadays I know the clear sequence of events that lead to the climax before I begin. I still know the character better by the end and need to change many details in the second draft for consistency, but like you – less to completely rewrite!

    Poor Kate. I won the mentorship with my second novel, and (I didn’t know it at the time) it was an absolute mess! I’m still amazed she managed to guide me through three huge rewrites and pull something logical out of me by the end :)

  8. 8 fabio October 10, 2009 at 5:17 pm

    No one in Milano wears the pants anymore you know. Fabio’s pants are so restrictive! Fabio hates the pants. Fabio does need the pants. Fabio is too much man for pants!

  9. 9 fabio October 10, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Fabio is confused. Fabio is very sorry. Fabio has been drinking fizzy drinks all day and now he is a little high.

  10. 10 Katherine Battersby October 10, 2009 at 5:24 pm

    Ah, Fabio. I do love these little insights. I’ve missed your pearls of wisdom on here – you’ve obviously been off shooting a romance movie in the Caribbean or some such.

    Good to have you back (but maybe lay off the soft drinks…)

  11. 11 Trudie Trewin October 11, 2009 at 9:24 am

    How much planning do you need to do to be a planner? Detailed chapter by chapter plans? Or just a linear skeleton for the story to follow? I like to outline, but I fall way short of detailed chapter plans, and sometimes my skeletons are missing some bones, even limbs! Maybe I’m an inbetweener – a plantser.

  12. 12 Katherine Battersby October 11, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Trudie, I’m clearly a plantser too (love it!). I’m not as committed to planning as some, and I’m not certain I’ll ever be someone who does chapter by chapter plans, but I absolutely do a skeleton outline, often also with missing parts :) Surely the absent bones are part of the thrill of the chase?

  13. 13 Sheryl Gwyther October 17, 2009 at 7:36 am

    I’m so glad you and Trudie have made a name for the ‘in-betweener’ – plantser. It hits the nail on the head – also agree with what Kate says … even with some planning of the road ahead you can still experience the thrill of discovery over any of the hills along the journey – and you don’t end up with a car crash on an unexpected corner. Or something like that. :)

  14. 14 Katherine Battersby October 17, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    I certainly used to end up in lots of plot crashes, but less now I’m a plantser :)

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About this Blog…

A blog of ramblings about the world of writing and illustrating for children, by an author / illustrator who might just have a thing for rabbits.

Katherine's picture books, 'Squish Rabbit' and 'Brave Squish Rabbit', are out with Viking (Penguin, US) and UQP (Australia). Please e-mail if you would like her to blog about something in particular.

All text & images  Katherine Battersby

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