How do you prepare to write?
Writers are usually split up into two groups: Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters plot their work before they begin to write—and sometimes in such excruciating detail they’ve basically already written the book but in outline form (I once knew an author who wrote a 40 page a outline of her book). Pantsers fly by the seat of their pants. They open up their computer or notebook and just start writing. Stephen King is famous for working this way. He says he will continue to write until the book is done—when that is, he won’t know until he gets there.
But, like with so many things, plotting and pantsing isn’t a binary. It’s not one or the other. It’s not on or off. It’s a continuum, a sliding scale. There are some people who plot down to minute detail—like the 40 page outline—and there are those who do absolutely no thinking in advance, don’t know what they’re going to write until it appears on the page and don’t stop until it’s done. However, for the majority of us, we don’t go to such an extreme. Many writers are “planters.”
Technically, a plantser is someone who starts off with an idea or a character. They know who the protagonist will be and who the antagonist is. They know how the story will start and probably how it will end (although not always).
The most dedicated plantsers may even write down the major turning points (also called “tent poles”) of their story. A brief sentence or two describing what happens at the inciting event is written. The first major turning point where the protagonist commits themselves to their goal, the detective determines that they will take the case, the party sets out on their journey, or, in a romance, where the two protagonists (hero and heroine, hero and hero, heroine and vampire, whatever) meet may be briefly described. The climax or point of no return is determined. The black moment, or all-is-lost moment, is determined. And finally, there is a general idea of how the story will end (aside from the criminal being brought to justice, the party returning home safely, or the couple committing to a more permanent sort of relationship.
A plantser will probably also determine their protagonist’s internal and external goal, motivation, and conflict, determine how the characters will grow by the end of the story, and perhaps even what their wound is and how it will be healed. Some, depending on how far to one end of the spectrum or other they fall, will know more or less of these key elements of their characters.
The best thing about being a plantser is that you don’t have to do the same thing with every book you write. You don’t even need to continue in one mode for an entire book. You might start out with a blank page and some ideas about your characters. Perhaps you even know their GMC and how they’re going to grow, but you don’t know how. But then you get about half-way through the book and realize that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, or the characters are growing as you thought they would.
For a lot of writers, this is when they hit that horrid “writer’s block”. They stop writing and don’t know how to move on. They clean out the closet and then all of the kitchen drawers, and vacuum under all the beds and sofas, perhaps rearranging the furniture as they do so. They look longingly at their manuscript or computer sitting there, knowing that they would love to get back to that fabulous story they were writing, but they just can’t bring themselves to do so. Or they actually sit down and then… nothing.
This is when an author should pull out their plotting hat, slip it on, and figure stuff out. They need to determine how far their characters have come in their journey and where they still need to go. They need to know what the next major turning point will be and then either start writing with that goal in mind or perhaps even determine beforehand how they’re going to get there. A reminder of the characters’ GMC helps at this point, knowing how their wound is going to be healed, where the real clues to the mystery lie and which are the red herrings your characters have been following mistakenly.
Knowing all of these details, while it may seem like no fun to the dedicated pantser, will help them get through to the end when they get stuck. For the plotters who have already figured everything out beforehand, you might want to stop around the middle of the book too. Pause in your writing sprint and take another look at your outline. Are your characters truly following along with your plans, or have they slipped off the path and are now tromping happily through the woods? If so, are you going to pull them back and make them do what you want or are you going to change your plot so that it follows the direction your characters have taken without you? I am a pretty dedicated plotter, but I always stop at the midpoint to reassess and remind myself and my characters of their goals.
So, where do you fall on the spectrum? Are you a plotter or pantser or a bit of both?