I like to make it up as I go along.  I like to write dangerously without an outline and Roman numeral sub-headings and almost always knowing what comes next.  If I’m surprised, the reader may be too.  It’s exciting and risky to see what my characters and story will do and to write without a safety net. How, as a writer, will I get out of this plot problem when the time comes?

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I’ve gone to writer’s cons where panels featured writers who either carefully plotted their novels in advance with outlines, index cards, character sketches, etc. or essentially winged it on a shoeshine and a smile.  I understand the virtues and strengths of both approaches.  I did write an outline for one of my published novels, Speaker of the Shakk (Mundania Press), but while it was helpful, I found there was so much I couldn’t anticipate or foresee concerning the final story. When I write a novel, I find I’m like a driver of a car in a heavy fog.  I have a sense of where I’m going, but there’s so much about the journey or terrain ahead which is uncertain.

It’s that journey ahead which bothers plotters.  They want guarantees and fear the unpredictable.  For instance, if they don’t plot ahead . . .

images (5)How did THIS get in the story?  Or . . .

images (6)How did their PANTY FETISH get in?  Or . . .

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Yes, it’s always chancy to be a Pantser.  Things may get out of control, the book may fall apart, and they may lose their way.  I certainly don’t recommend it wholesale for everyone.  Different strokes for different folks. Sometimes it’s wise for a writer to try a combination of both approaches for a chapter or two.  If you’re a pantser, try being a plotter for a change.  If you’re a plotter, let your imagination take wing for a spell.  You can always ground it and go back. Both types of writers should experiment a little with the other’s style and orientation. Come to think of it, many writers naturally use a combination of the two approaches anyway.

As for me, please don’t get me wrong.  Though I’m a pantser, I do have some kind of an overall plan when I sit down to write a novel.  And I do admit it’s risky to do it my way.  It’s just I’m not God, and I’m simply not good enough to see in advance all the things which I keep discovering should go into one of my books, which is a major reason I don’t outline in advance.  In addition, this approach often enables me to experience the joy when my muse surprises me by giving me a creative gift.  

For example: just recently, in the sequel to a sequel in progress, Defender of the Flame, I suddenly realized that a bit player in the background was not a bit player at all. Instead, she was a major player and she should kick-start the hero and the plot in a new and more interesting direction.  Man, was I surprised and delighted.  And in Book II, Kingdom of the Jax, Turtan, the hero, foolishly promised young Sky they’d not only defeat the enemy and live, but he’d cheer like a drunken hyena at her graduation. No way I intended he’d do anything with his promise, especially in a major way.  But in Book III, he does!

I guess there are Pantsers and Plotters in all kinds of activities, not just in writing.  Some of us make it up as we go along, just go with the flow and screw up or not.  And some of us carefully plan just about everything in advance. It can apply to the way we dance, make love, live our lives, you name it.  What about you?  Where do you fit in the wheel of life?  Are you a Pantser, a Plotter, or somewhere in-between?


For one great essay on this subject, read Cindi Myers’ “Plotter or Pantser: The Best of Both Worlds” at  http://www.autocrit.com/editing/library/plotter-or-pantser-the-best-of-both-worlds 

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About John Rosenman

I'm a retired English professor at Norfolk State University, and I've published over 300 short stories and about 20 novels and books, most in the SF/F/H areas.
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  1. Pingback: John B. Rosenman, award-winning author | Cynthia B Ainsworthe

  2. Total panster! I didn’t realize there were so many of them out there, and I salute you! A general idea of the ending is about as plotter as I can get. The only real plotting I’ve done with my current work is a two or three-minute event at the very end wrapped up with a clincher phrase uttered once within the first few pages.

    • Sometimes I’ve started a novel with no idea at all where I’m going. A total pantser. Other times I have a more complete picture but no idea at all of the ending. And other times a general, spotty, overall idea of the story and the ending, kind of a view of the tale as seen through rifts in a fog. It varies.

  3. I’m a pantser all the way. Whenever I try to outline a book, I find I’m too bored to actually write it because I know what’s going to happen! I admit, my way leads to a much bigger job when it comes to revising and editing, but I can’t work any other way.

  4. Yay pantsers! Yeah, there can be problems with the free-wheeling pantser approach. Working on the next chapter, I suddenly realized I haven’t seen the cat anywhere for a while. Gonna have to go back and sneak the cat in here and there so he remains visible. I mean, that cat is important, he’s Peggy’s witch’s familiar. But I’ll bet even the most rigid plotter could have lost the cat, too. Pantser all the way, that’s me.

  5. I am just like you John! I do have a basic idea of what I would like the story and the characters to do, but things change along the way…I could never plot every single chapter and scene beforehand, I think it would take the fun out of writing. I do however envy those who can do that. At least they don’t get stuck half way through, frantically trying to work out what comes next!

  6. John,
    It was good to hear that even a professional like you is a pantser. In life, I’m very much a planner, but when it comes to writing, I just can’t. Sure, I know my characters and have a basic idea of the conflict, but too much detail and I’d lose all interest. It would be like reading a book after being told the whole story. Where’s the fun in that?
    The suspense drives me to get back to the keyboard.

    • Thanks for the comments, guys. I knew I wasn’t alone! Now, in Book III of my Inspector series, I’ve found that a somewhat minor character in Book II has become a major character challenging the Hero Himself for star billing. Who gave her the right to do that? The last chapter of this book was supposed to be only one, but it’s already turned into three. If I wrote an outline, I could never have anticipated that. And as Loren says, too detailed of an outline would be like a straitjacket. Sure, you might have room for James’s cat, but as Marie says, some of us do want more leeway for things to change along the way.

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