Prepping vs. Pantsing, Outlining vs. Discovering – Where I come down on the Great Writer Divide

Books, writing

In the minds of many authors, there are two ways to write a piece of fiction:

  1. Outlining (“Prepping”). You figure out what’s happening, who the characters are, the arcs, everything. You do this before you’ve “written” a single word. Then, when you do sit down, you have a plan.
  2. Discovering (“Pantsing”). You sit down and let the story come out of you. You figure it out as you go along. You let nothing stand in the way of pure creativity.

Most authors who discuss the distinction, such as Larry Correia here, don’t say that there’s one best way to do it:

There isn’t really a correct method. Either one method works for you, or it doesn’t, or you use a combination of the two. Whatever. The important thing is you write a good, sellable book. Here is my usual disclaimer about anything related to writing, despite what your English teacher told you, there aren’t really any rules to this stuff. The only rules are 1. If your readers like it, you can do it. 2. If your readers think it sucks, take it out. For every rule you find, there’s a bunch of writers who violate the hell out of it and sell a lot of books. So the following is just my opinion about what has worked for me.

My experience goes along with this. I’ve done both ways, and there are advantages and disadvantages.

The first thing I ever wrote, which will not see the light of day for a long while (if ever), was a long bit of swords & sorcery fantasy called The Island Prince. I spent three years on that, because it was pure Pantsing. I made up every chapter as I went along, with a very vague idea of where the plot was going to go. Keep in mind, I knew the world extensively, as I’d been putting together the backstory of this kingdom, that dynasty, etc. since I was about 14. I knew where I wanted it to go. Still took three years. I laugh when I think of it now.

On the other hand, I’ve got an entire mystery novel outlined, scene-by-scene, character-by-character, beat-by-beat. I put the outline together in an afternoon. This was years ago, and I have one chapter and part of another drafted. Because I’m now bored of it. I know it so well that I have nothing to learn of it, so sitting down and writing it interests me very little. I’ll get back to it someday – maybe.

You might infer a lack of discipline here, and I certainly won’t argue that point very hard. But I find some combination of the two has enabled me to actually finish things.

Solar System Blues was the result of some initial pantsing, some basic freewriting to establish the world and the idea, and then a very workable outline that I was able to adjust as needed. It hasn’t sold magnificently, but it got a few favorable reader responses on Goodreads, and SelfPublishing Review liked it.

Right now, I seem to be operating under a “Pants it until you can’t, then outline your way home” philosophy. The first two chapters of Void were pantsed, and there will be things tweaks I want to make as a consequence. But now I’m at the point where I need to sit down and figure out my next several moves. I’m almost done with Chapter 3, which will appear in the next issue of Unnamed Journal before it gets posted on Tablo. I’ve hit the same point with The Devil Left Him: two chapters in, and I now need to plan my next moves.

This gives me the thrill of discovery, of building a world out of will, while at the same time organizing my work so I can actually finish things and ship them. Void and Devil will be the next works I complete and publish, and I feel very confident about that.

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