Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 13, 2022

Writers: Pantser, Plotter … Roadster?

By William F. Wu

I have known a lot of professional, much-published writers over the years and the pantser/plotter descriptions fit everybody to some degree. The pantser, of course, writes with minimal advance plotting by the seat of the proverbial pants and the plotter prefers to have a detailed outline while writing. I started out as a pantser and became more of a plotter.

I don’t recommend any particular approach—whatever works for someone makes sense to me, including combinations of the two approaches. I’m merely looking back at my own evolution along this line. If others shared this experience, we’re not alone. I hope I’m not completely alone, as that is a weird thought.

Starting Without a Map

When I was first writing with the goal of becoming professionally published (I had written stories from the time I was very young), I chose to begin with short stories. I liked reading them and had found a number of them meaningful to me over the years. So that’s how I started, with the intention of writing novels later.

I worked out story ideas many different ways. Sometimes I had a premise and then worked up the protagonist. Other times I had a character in mind first and sometimes, less often, a setting came to me first. I was totally writing by the seat of my pants, as the metaphor goes. One result was that I wrote a lot of fragments, attempts for which I got stuck and never figured out how to go forward. I did write some complete short stories this way. One was accepted by a regional magazine, which folded soon after my story appeared—and before they paid me the fifty dollars that had been promised. The ones I sent to major magazines and anthologies were all rejected.

At this time, I was writing fantasy and science fiction stories, which I continued to write, and also short crime fiction. Back then, I got nowhere with the latter.

Less than a year after I set out in this endeavor, I was able to take part in the Clarion Writers Workshop. At Michigan State University then, it focused on writing science fiction and fantasy. I had a great experience. Immediately afterward, I was unable to put into words what I had learned—I tried, talking to other writers as well as nonwriters. Over time, I processed a great deal of the experience to my benefit. This did not, however, influence the process I was using.

One Note, Two Notes, Three Notes... and More

Photograph of a surveyor's measuring device looking down a wide swath of dirt graded for a new road illustrating the post Writers: Pantser, plotter...roadster.

While I was pantsing on a story, however, sometimes I thought of something to add farther into the story. That something might be a character, a plot device, maybe some dialogue. To avoid forgetting it, I wrote a note to myself.

That was the first step toward becoming a plotter. Yes, it took a long time, and my first two professional sales (the sale to the regional magazine was not considered professional by the Science Fiction Writers of America) were written mostly by pantsing, though I came up with the ending for the second one pretty early while I was working on it.

So, as I kept writing, I also wrote down notes for later—more and more, over time. I needed to note when in the story I planned something and began putting the notes in the order I would use them. Okay, you can see where this is going. Still while pantsing, I would sometimes take enough notes that they represented events all the way to the end. That constituted an outline—not detailed at first, but an outline.

During this time, I also came to the concept that a story is about its ending. In casual conversation, we might say a story is about a plot premise or a protagonist as “someone who does something or other.” How the protagonist resolves the conflict of the story, or fails to do so, is what the story is really about.  

Over time, without any particular decision-making, I found myself writing up notes until they began to take shape as an outline every time I worked on a story. In particular, I was still writing down anything I didn’t want to forget.

Of course writers can still pants their way to an ending they have chosen. I know some writers who use sketch outlines that have only a handful of important moments written down. They often have notes, however, about details they intend to include at some point.

I was on a panel at a science fiction convention (I don’t remember when or where, but it was close to twenty years ago) where this subject came up. When my turn came, I described gathering notes, eventually arranging them in order, and adding details as I continued to think of them. At some point, strictly intuitive on my part, I was ready to start writing the first draft.

Writers: Pave a Route/Routine

Illustrating Writers: Pantsers, Plotters ... roadsters.

Author Stephen R. Donaldson was on the panel and he offered a metaphor I like: Building a road. He likened the first notes to setting out a surveyor’s stakes and then, of course, I graded the road and eventually paved it—I think of paving as writing the first complete draft. Last, I paint the lines, as in working with details on my way to the final draft. I’ve used this metaphor from time to time to explain the process I developed over time.

Even with all the writers I know, in most cases we haven’t discussed much of this process. Once we work out a process that works for us, we just go ahead with it. If some others do this in the way I do, at least we’re not alone. So maybe instead of pantsers and plotters, we’re roadsters—a metaphor that somehow brings up images to of very old cars. Then again, I don’t feel like I’m a car, but I don’t feel like I’m pants or plots, either.

I want to stress that the entire outline remains up for revision as I go. In fact, I often reach something in the outline that I choose to delete in favor of something else. So pantsing still takes place within the plotting.

And maybe it’s all just road building.

Writers: what kind or road builder are you? Pantser? Plotter? Or something inbetween? Please share it with us down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About William F. Wu

Photo portrait of William F. Wu, a science fiction, fantasy, and crime author, and author of Writers: Pantser, Plotter...or roadster.

William F. Wu is a science fiction, fantasy, and crime author whose traditionally published books include 13 novels, one scholarly work, and a collection of short stories. Regarding his more than seventy published works of short fiction,  he has been nominated for the Hugo Award twice, for the Nebula Award twice, and once for the World Fantasy Award. His novels Hong on the Range and The Temple of Forgotten Spirits are available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions through Boruma Publishing. His science fiction collections Intricate Mirrors and Ten Analogs of the Future, the latter being ten collaborations with Rob Chilson, are available in ebook editions. For more information, see williamfwu.com.

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33 comments on “Writers: Pantser, Plotter … Roadster?”

  1. Interesting road metaphor. As I was recently writing the two final chapters - six final scenes - of the second volume of my mainstream trilogy, I gathered everything left up, and wrote a Roadmap for each scene, detailing where it was supposed to start, and where it had to end, and what plot points it had to go through.

    I have a tendency to jump the gun, to outrun my supply lines - this kept me on track, and, though it wasn't easy, we - characters and I - got to the end of the books in exactly the right way to convince me and persuade my beta reader.

    I normally work one scene at a time, like polishing a short story, and don't go back. But for the end, there being no more slack, it was necessary to give myself the roadmaps - then ignore them while writing but go back to make sure everything was there before going on to the next scene. It worked.

    For the record, I'm an extreme plotter for structure, and then a lot freer while filling it in.

    1. Roadmap, that's a metaphor I need to add. A map of where I'm going. I'm also strict about basic story structure. When I'm filling in, a lot of time I'm making sure that everybody's motivation makes sense and is clear.

      1. The strict limitation and list of contents helps me give plot points their full value, and connect to all the other threads in the story.

        And I still write long. Book 2 came out at 186k, where 1 was 167k. I'm one of those writers who produces dense complex interconnected novels - necessary for this story, which would have no hopes of being believed without the relationships' development.

  2. I consider myself a "planster" with more weight given to the pantsing side, but I generally have a plan of some kind before I dive in. Everything evolves as I move along.

  3. I'm a little more formal about my notes and create an outline but only include details as they occur to me. I pants the actual writing and frequently veer off into a more interesting scene or two, then return to the main course. I guess, using your metaphor, I take some sightseeing trips, too. And now I wonder how many writers are pure plotters...I know there are some but I'm guessing it's not as many as I once thought. Thanks for an interesting take on roadsters.

    1. Sightseeing trips. I need to think about that subject. I don't think I do that now, so much, but it probably has been part of my pantsing in the past. Then again, maybe I do and don't realized it. Hmm.

  4. Insightful post. I enjoyed reading how your story creation process evolved.

    I started as a pure pantser, then started outlining when I began studying story structure. That helped me enormously, but I'm at the point now where detailed outlining has become an obstacle to my actual writing, so I'm experimenting with different forms of pantsing.

    At a writer's retreat in March (Rainforest Writers) I pantsed a short story by "cycling," where I had an idea about the story's direction and several elements I wanted to include, and then wrote the first couple of pages. Then I looped back to the beginning and went over what I wrote, filling in details, adjusting things, trying to it in "creative" mode rather than editing. That worked, but took much longer to write than usual.

    I also wrote a simple "reverse outline" which chronicle what I'd written as I went along I followed this by coming up with a few ideas for a novelette and then forging ahead, writing the whole thing in the next couple of days. (Nothing like having the focus of a writer's retreat to get the words down 🙂

    Your road builder metaphor is an apt one for the process of story creation. I like it. The metaphor I have used in the past has been taking a road trip. Some people can take off without any idea of where they might end up, and discover cool sights along the one. Other people might create a detailed itinerary and have all their rooms booked, as well as what sights to see etc. I'm in the middle--I like to know where my wife and I will be spending the nights, as well as interesting places to visit, and even plan the trip around a few, but I also want the opportunity to discover new places and experiences.

    Thanks for posting here!

    1. Interesting stuff. Your "reverse outline" reminded me of the weirdest pantsing I ever did. The last scene came to me first, and I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget it. That scene implied the preceding scene, so I wrote that next. Then I figured I had the beginning, and wrote that, only to find later that I need events to precede that one, so I had to write the real beginning. Overall, I wrote it backwards and inside out. I sold the story Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, but as for the process ... once was enough!

      1. You should try writing from the end again. When I got my current story, it came as a whole - and the ending was the important part. Then I had to find the best starting point and the series of plot steps that would connect every improbable event logically.

  5. Hi William!
    I'm a "plantser" who leans toward the pantser side. I have a basic idea of where the story will go and who the major characters are, take a few notes, and then the muse or the characters send suggestions.

    Thank you for sharing your process.
    Welcome to WITS!

  6. I'm a plotter who isn't afraid to go off-road briefly before returning to the highway. I always have my plan, which is a straight line, but the line for the path I actually take, if overlaid, would curve at times. My problem early on—besides the fact my writing was poor—was that I kept trying to adopt the plotting style of those who insisted their way was the only way. They wanted me to drive a backhoe from New York to San Francisco because it worked great for them. The biggest lesson I learned was there are countless ways to plot (like your notes, for instance). Finding my way, which is still always evolving, took years, but I have it now and finally have that roadster. Actually, Talma Loyal has that cherry red roadster in Case of the Deadly Stroll (unpublished), that combines fantasy and mystery. There's nothing like finding your road.

  7. Aloha, I'm a former pantser (aka "discovery writer") who got tired of plots that didn't have enough vision. Now, I like to plan ahead using a braid method- genre expectations, character and plot (although you can braid many different elements). Then when I draft, I can focus my creativity on the details.

  8. I had used the term plantser for my mostly pantser formula, with some plotting and notes along the way.

    Reading your concept, I can liken it to engineering. My husband is an engineer and he's a project planning manager (in transportation), which is in the beginning stages of a major project. After that comes design, and few other steps before a project comes into fruition.

    denise

  9. Thanks for sharing this fun AND informative essay. Much Appreciated! // Just be careful about following whatever works for you on Story Road and then deciding that you have to make a left or right turn in the middle of the Tallahatchee Ms, Bridge!

  10. A great way of describing how writers interact with our stories.

    In my own books, the more I write, the more I understand--and the more I see things that should be added or improved for the next draft.

    I use Scrivener's notes and comments to make those notes as I plow forward, then go back and adjust in the next draft.

    Also a plotter at the outline stage and a pantser as I'm writing the scenes.

    "Plantser."

  11. I'm finding myself somewhere in the middle, much like your process. I have an idea of where I want to go to, and there are definitely road markers along the way. My biggest problem lately is having the time to get back and paint in those lines!

  12. I am a publisher, and I get a lot, a LOT of submissions that all have the same problem: While the prose is tyipcally gorgeous, and the underlying premise and setting are compelling, the writer has clearly pantsed his/her way through....without then taking what I think of as the essential second step of going back to the beginning, once the end has been reached, clearing out all the extraneous stuff that doesn't aid the storyline (that the pantsing process has revealed), and ensuring that the scenes and characters that remain DO aid the storyline. I don't mean that every single scene has to follow from the previous scene down the path of a single narrative. However, if on page 217 it's revealed that everybody hates Natalia, we can't have everybody chatting, from page 27 through page 73, about how much they like Natalia UNLESS there is a reason for everybody to be fibbing, which reason will have to be revealed at some point, and have a purpose -- meaning everybody was fibbing for reasons having to do with the plot, rather than because they just felt like it.

    I have come to believe, in fact, that whether pantsing or plotting, writing a novel is a two-step process -- if it begins as a pants project, that's great...but once you've found your way to the end, you have to go back to the beginning and make the plot work. And if it is all plotted out and outlined, that's great...but once you've gotten to the end you have to go back to the beginning and make the characters come alive, build in some red herrings, add a few surprises.

    1. Yes, I get that. I see that in manuscripts I've helped with at times. We need to be tough on ourselves when we take another look. That is, be at least as tough as anyone else about everything you've mentioned. Making every character's motivations clear is one of the biggest subjects in my notes.

  13. I usually describe myself as a pantster. Having said that, I do know where my story is going, and definitely know the end, but I don't write detailed notes.
    In my current WIP, one character, who had been a very minor character in the previous novels in the series, suddenly took on an important role. He was the best suited to the job he was given, but I hadn't thought of it until I came to that part of the story.
    In another book, I was puzzling how to distinguish between a real prince and another young man made, by magic, to look exactly the same. Then I realized that I had given the protagonist a dog who growled at the doppleganger. Pure serendipity.
    I love your metaphors of road building. And roadsters.

    1. Thank you for the kind words. I'm with you all the way on how sometimes we can find things falling into place that we didn't plan. No matter how much plotting I might have done, those moments show up.

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