Pants, Plants and Plans: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re the sort of person who spends a lot of time reading up on story writing, you’ve probably heard myself or other writing bloggers talk about the differences between planners, pantsers and plantsers. It’s a spectrum we writers are all spread out across, separating those on the one extreme who plan everything before they write from those who pants their way through their story (that is, they write ‘by the seat of their pants’, making up the story as they go along with absolutely no forward planning whatsoever). And of course, slap bang in the middle of the spectrum, we have Plantsers (because it’s a combination of the words ‘planner’ and ‘pantser’, see?).

We all naturally gravitate to one side or another on this spectrum. However that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to plan, pant or plant even if it doesn’t come naturally to us. After all, we might be tempted to think that one method is inherently better than the others, and that we should try this.

We might even be right. For my money, I think there are some situations where planning is more appropriate and others where pantsing is more appropriate. I’m not going to tell you categorically that any one method is better than another* but there are pros and cons to each. If you’re struggling with whatever method comes naturally to you, it may be time to try a different approach. And so, what follows is my own short and ill-informed concise analysis of each approach, comparing pros and cons as evenly as I can.

Planning

Strengths: Planning everything in advance saves buckets of time. If you already know exactly what is going to happen, how it’s going to happen and who it’s going to happen to, all neatly ordered into chapters and scenes, you won’t waste time writing lengthy portions of narrative you won’t use. You can also rest easy in the knowledge that your first draft won’t have too many large plot holes to sort out.

This makes it easy to work to a schedule. If you know you can knock out 1000 words a day, you can reasonably well estimate that it will take you about three months to complete a draft, especially in those first drafts, because you won’t get stuck about what to write.

Weaknesses: it’s easily the most strict approach to writing. The writer must be disciplined enough 1) not to begin writing a draft too earlier and 2) not to deviate from the plan when he does start drafting. This does not suit everybody. Many authors find it sucks the pleasure out of writing and stifles the imagination, as new ideas insist on being heard throughout the writing process.

Tips for Planning: Be disciplined. Plan everything and resist the urge to draft until you have completed all your chapter outlines, character biographies, the lot. When you finally do begin to draft, don’t deviate from the plan. Add nothing, change nothing, remove nothing. Write it exactly as you planned it. Remember, dear planner, you’re not making art. You’re constructing an intricate machine.

Pantsing

Strengths: This approach to writing allows the imagination to run wild. Most people who write stories tend to do it because they’re people who like to dream, to create and to give artist form to their flights of fancy. Pantsing lets you do just that. I often find that, while pantsing can produce a lot of excess material, some of it can even be later recycled to create a whole new story. Many of my story ideas have come from material I rejected while pantsing an earlier work.

Weaknesses: If you’re serious about writing for any reason other than as a hobby, you will probably find this approach seriously undermines your productivity and success, especially if you’re writing anything longer than a short story. Pantsing out a novel length story in a couple of months is easy in theory but it is doomed to be full of half baked themes, plot holes and other inconsistencies that will need to be fixed before they can pass over any agent or publisher’s desk. You may find yourself virtually starting from scratch when you come to do your second draft, assuming you ever reach the second draft stage.

Tips for Pantsing: Don’t get too attached to your work. A draft that has been fully pantsed will require a lot more editing than a meticulously planned draft. While killing your darlings is always good advice for any writer, pantsers will probably find themselves producing a lot more darlings (because their imagination has been given unlimited credit in the sweetie shop) that have to be killed (because their story will be full of things that simply don’t work).

Plantsing

Strengths: Plantsers have the best of both worlds. They are anchored to a plan but they are not enslaved to it. If the author wants to make changes halfway through writing their draft, or if they identify problems with their story, they can simply adjust the plan as they go along. The imagination is thereby given space to work but is also kept under a tight leash.

Weaknesses: It’s probably the hardest method to strike the correct balance with, even if you do find yourself naturally gravitating towards it. Planners know to write nothing until their story is fully planned out and pantsers don’t give a rip if their story doesn’t make sense in the first draft, but plantsers must learn to bring these two extremes together and make them work in harmony. It is difficult to create a systematic approach to plantsing and will be largely figured out by trial and error. This can be time consuming and frustrating.

Tips for Plantsing: Plantsing is not creating a plan then disregarding it, nor is it writing a draft then making a plan around it. Both of these are a waste of time. Plantsing involves blending these two seeming opposites in a way which allows you to work to your strengths, while still enjoying the benefits of both extremes. For example, you might pants out a few zero drafts to stimulate your imagination while you plan. Alternatively you might create a very loose-fitting plan (story beats for example, but no chapter outlines) and pants out your novel within the boundaries of that limited plan. You might also decide to forsake character biographies in favour of conducting several ‘interviews’ or ‘auditions’ with your characters to help you get to know them better. The possibilities are truly endless when it comes to plantsing. My best advice is to spend a little time finding an approach which works for you.

Footnotes:

*I know what you’re thinking: ‘if he’s going to be so unbiased in his approach, why has he only got pants in the featured image and nothing else?’ Well the short answer is I just couldn’t find a single picture on the internet which depicted a plan, a pair of pants and a potted plant so I had to pick one. I picked pants because pants are funnier. Sue me.


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Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

3 Ways to Ignite the Imagination

The Parable of the Cars

by A. Ferguson

There were once two brothers who lived in Glasgow, who both managed to get jobs in Edinburgh. This was not a problem, since they both held full UK drivers’ licences, which they had acquired at about the same time and they both owned the same make and model of car. The eldest brother was wise. He set his alarm early in the morning and as soon as he was in his car, he turned on the ignition and drove to work in plenty of time.

The younger brother was foolish. He did not get ready for work until it suited him to do so, and when he finally did make it into his car, he sat there for a few minutes waiting for the ignition to turn itself on – which never happened. ‘Maybe it’ll come on tomorrow.’ he thought. ‘I’d better go back to bed in the meantime.’

He lost his job without ever setting a foot in Edinburgh.

* * *

A common mistake amateur writers make is to believe that they cannot write a story unless an idea – or inspiration – comes to them heralded by a chorus of angels. Like the foolish brother, they have all the necessary equipment (in the writer’s case, a brain with an imagination) but do not realise that to get any benefit from it, they need to make the effort to turn on the engine/imagination themselves.

Now, as we all know, turning on a car’s ignition doesn’t immediately take you where you want to go. It simply starts the engine, allowing for the possibility of motion. In the same way, igniting the imagination (to continue the metaphor) does not immediately give you a fully formed story. It just gives you the idea, allowing for the possibility of a story. Perhaps I’ll talk about turning your idea into a story next week, but this week, I want to focus on that all important first stage: going from having nothing to having something.

There are many different things you can do to spark the imagination, none of which involve sitting down and waiting for inspiration to strike. You can…

Read history, the news or even mythology. Just think for a moment about how long humanity has been around for and how many different things happen all over the world at any given time. Wars, disasters, weddings, funerals, births, deaths, financial meltdowns, lottery winners, crime, charity and a million other events besides. As if that were not enough, most societies throughout history come with a catalogue of myths, legends and fables that you can also delve into. If something from history grabs your interest, you could write it as a piece of historical fiction or you can simply borrow a very small element of it to inspire a whole new story. If you’re into character driven stories like me, and have the patience to do so, I would particularly recommend trying to find old letters, journals, newspaper clippings (particularly advertisements and letters from readers) and other primary sources to draw on because these give a much richer flavour of what kind of people lived in the time and place you’re reading about and what mattered to them.

Try using a resource especially designed to provoke creativity such as Oblique Strategies, Story Dice or even random title generators. If you ask the internet, you’ll quickly find that there are loads of tools out there like these, especially designed to help spark the imagination. Some are especially aimed at writers, some are not; some are very cryptic, some are very clear; some are very expensive, some are free. It can be trial and error finding the right tool(s) for you but they can be a wonderful resources to have when you find the right one for you. However, whether you’re the sort of person who likes cryptic prompts such as ‘change nothing and continue consistently’ (Oblique Strategies) or very precise ones such as ‘in 100 words or less, write a story that includes the following: a poet who always speaks in rhyme, a pill bottle, a luminous feather’ (Writer Unblocked) – or even pictures, like I used to inspire my 6 word stories, it is still ultimately down to you to come up with your own idea. See that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking any of these tools can tell you what to write. They cannot. Even very explicit prompts, such as the Writer Unblocked one I referred to, still leave it very much up to the writer to turn that prompt into a usable story idea.

‘Pantsting’, even if you’re more of a planner can also be a good place to start. If you’ve got nothing, then make up a person – any old person. You might even want to base him on a real person that you know well (though be very, very, very careful about doing this in your final story). Then just write and see where he takes you. Maybe he’s going to the chip shop but… is abducted by aliens. How does he escape? I dunno. Just make it up as you go along and edit nothing. It doesn’t matter if you hit a dead end or if you end up writing a really rubbish story, since this is simply the writer’s equivalent of doodling. What matters is that you keep making stuff up. Most of it will be chucked out but some of it might contain the golden nuggets of inspiration. I once ‘doodled’ a story about a guy who was in prison (in fact, he wasn’t even the main character of this particular ‘doodle’) and now, he’s the main antagonist of my novel and possibly one of the characters I’m the most proud of creating.

This is, of course, only a small selection of things you can try. No doubt if you ask the internet, you’ll find dozens more. Perhaps you even invented a few techniques yourself that you absolutely swear by. Do let us know about anything which works for you in the comments below!

Keeping Focused With Scrivener

Don’t you just love Scrivener? I certainly do. I was a little wary of spending money on another glorified word processor but years later, I still think Scrivener is the best thirty quid I’ve ever spent.

However, simply having the right tools for the job does not an author, make. While Scrivener did provide the resources to easily research, plan and write my novel in an organised way, I was not getting the most out of it at first because I wasn’t bothering to do any proper planning. I was just writing mountains of narrative; something I could have done for free on OpenOffice. However, not to be deterred from my dream of finishing that novel, I (a natural ‘pantser’) decided that I had to become a ‘planner’ to take my writing to the next level.

It was the right decision but it was still an unnatural transition for someone used to the freedom of ‘pantsing’. I decided in advance, therefore, to stick to a simple three-staged approach:

1- Research everything I needed to know in order to write my story; history, science or even good old fashioned people watching. For fantasy stories, this stage would also include ‘researching’ everything I needed to know about my fantasy world (i.e., world building). No actual writing happens at this stage.

2- Plan the specifics of my story. This is when I plan out my plot and flesh out my characters.

3- Write a draft. Assuming the first two stages are complete, this should involve no plotting or research. I should already have the fully fledged story in my mind; it is now a simple(!) matter of bringing that story to life in pleasing language.

This is where Scrivener came into its own. Useful though the pre-loaded templates on Scrivener were, I needed a template that would make it easy for me to remain focused on what I was supposed to be doing at each stage. Fortunately, it’s a doddle to make your own templates on Scrivener, so that’s exactly what I did; one based on the above structure.

scr1I began by creating a blank Scrivener project. By default, a blank project on Scrivener still includes three folders: ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and  ‘Trash’. I added two more, which I labelled ‘The Old Drawing Board’ and ‘Stage 2 – Plan’. I also renamed the ‘Research’ folder as ‘Stage 1 – Research’ and the ‘Draft’ folder ‘Stage 3 – Draft’ and shuffled them into numerical order. These would form the basis for my ‘born again planner’ approach to writing.

The Old Drawing Board

‘The Old Drawing Board’ isn’t, strictly speaking, a stage in the process. This folder contains three documents which I have dipped in and out of throughout the whole process:

Initial Idea(s) – a small document in which I keep all the little flights of fancy I have which will eventually give rise to an actual story. I began by writing down my first idea in here, but quickly realised that I would need to keep coming back to it whenever a new idea occurred that might tempt me to skip research or planning.

Timetable – This document consists of a table recording what I intend to do each day and what I actually accomplished. This helped me to stay focused on whatever task I had set myself for that day because it provided me with realistic goals that could be achieved each day. It was also rewarding to see evidence that my work was heading in some direction. The only difficulty I had with this approach, as a natural ‘pantser’, was deciding in advance what I would need to do each day.

timetable

Jotter – I used this document to scribble down any notes I wanted to write to myself (all headed and dated, so I could keep track of them); plot ideas, character auditions and whatever other odds and ends came to mind at inappropriate times. I also found it useful to begin work every day by setting aside twenty-five minutes to write anything that came to mind. It got the urge to ‘pants’ out of my system and allowed me to focus on what I was supposed to be doing that day.

1 – Research

Anything that I needed to know to help me write my story went in here. Anticipating the likelihood that I would have to research a variety of subjects, I divided my research folder into several sub-folders that I was likely to need: ‘Religions/Philosophies’, ‘Historical Events’, ‘Locations’, etc. In most cases, these folders would contain documents, images and webpages of relevant factual information.

However, the novel I was working on at the time was a fantasy novel. This meant that factsresearch and world-building went hand in hand. I decided, therefore, that for fantasy stories, I would have a ‘Factual’ sub-folder, in which I would keep all the factual information that inspired my fantasy world but the other sub-folders would be used to hold all the ‘research’ about how my fantasy world worked. This allowed me to keep all my factual research and world building separate yet together.

2 – Planning

There were two related goals that I wanted to realise in the planning stage: plotting and creating characters. It was natural, therefore, to divide this folder into two sub-folders for characters and plot respectively.

The plotting folder contains a variety of self-explanatory documents such as ‘synopsis’, ‘timeline’ (doubly-essential in my story, since I’m using a fantasy calendar) and a chapter-by-chapter outline of events that occur in my story.

charactersThe character sub-folder is more complicated. It contains a further two sub-folders for the ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, as well as an individual document which deals with how each of the characters relates to one another.

The ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’ folders work the same way. Each one contains a profile of every character in the story (names, ages, etc.). Thanks to the magic of Scrivener, these profiles also double-up as ‘folders’, which contain a variety of other folders and documents such as ‘auditions‘ (short bursts of narrative which I write to flesh my characters out) and ‘gallery’ (a fairly self-explanatory folder of images). This allows me to produce a large amount of information about each character while keeping them all separate and orderly.

The aforementioned ‘Relationships’ document is not attached to any one character. Instead, it is a single document which I use to map out in a few sentences how each character relates to all the other characters in the story.

relationships

3 – Draft

Last but not least, we have the drafting stage. I don’t have very much to say about this section which won’t be painfully obvious to you, especially if you use Scrivener yourself. I have left the drafting folder exactly the way Scrivener gave it to us: each folder is a chapter, each document within that folder is a single scene. Scrivener even formats each document for us into a suitable manuscript format, so there was very little in the way of customisation required here. All I needed was the discipline not to touch this folder until I had finished my research and planning.

And there you have it! A simple three-staged approach to planning for ‘pansters’ made easy by Scrivener, Literature and Latte‘s glorious contribution to the world of writing.