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PLOTTER OR PANTSER - October 1, 2023


For those of you who aren’t familiar with the plotter or pantser conundrum (that means you, spellcheck), here is an explanation of the question every writer must answer at the start of a new writing project. Should you plot out the story before you begin to write? Or should you start with a blank page and perhaps an idea for a character or a setting and just begin to type?

When I was writing full-length novels, and hiding them away in a file cabinet drawer, the question never arose. No one in their right mind, I thought, would start on a 100,000 (or more) word epic without a road map. What would happen if, halfway through, you discovered there were irreparable holes in the plot that gradually evolved on the page? Could anyone bear to toss months, or even years, of work into the recycling bin under her desk, or the trash icon on her desktop? The question answered itself.

My outlines began the way I learned in school. Start with a roman numeral one and proceed to subheadings and sub-sub headings until “The End” was reached. Eventually, I discovered that too much detail in the outline led to writing that sounded as if I was painting by numbers. Too much preplanning, not enough room for spontaneity. If a character was telling me I was on the wrong track, I couldn’t listen. After all, that would mean changing everything that followed in my meticulously laid out plan.

With trial and error, I learned to change the nature of the outline. I thought of it as a series of connected scenes, briefly described to leave room to breathe and tweak. The writing itself became more creative, but I was comfortable because I knew where the path would end. I was still a committed plotter.

Then came the pandemic when I was unable to settle my mind enough to work through a full novel. Or even a novelette. When I came across the world of the mystery short story, it was a gift that arrived when I most needed it. In the beginning, I still outlined the story but my high school English teacher would have been appalled at the loosey goosey version of an outline I created. At that time, though, I still hadn’t let go of the Roman numerals.

In online discussions, I became aware that there were those who flew by the seat of their pants. Hence, my world opened to the possibility of pantsers. (Clever, eh?) Look at all the time they saved by not writing an outline. What could possibly go wrong?

I can answer that last question after trying the pantser route several times. My loose outline stopped short of a solution to the mystery. I assumed that by the time I got that far, I would know who committed the crime.

I was wrong.

So I became a plotser, combining what I thought was the best of both worlds. I strung a few notes of scenes together in a series of bubbles, being sure to include the solution to the mystery in the last of them. I’m not sure if it improved my writing, but at least I knew I’d be able to type “The End” when I was done.

NOTE: See above for the "outline" of my story, "Esme's Worst Nightmare," published in The Gargoylicon in 2022.

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