Plots, Pants, And Flows

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Writers have heard this over and over again.

Some people are plotters, detailing out their stories before writing.

Some people are pantsers, charging ahead writing with little or no outline.

Some people are “plantsers” walking a line between both.

Though these are convenient ways to classify writers, they’re limited. These classifications are much like the classic and oft-mocked D&D alignment chart – interesting originally, but restrictive in the end. Are any of us one of the above all the time, in all of our writing?

As of late I’d struggled with my latest novel – I tend to more of a “plotter,” but it hadn’t quite worked for me. At the same time, pantsing or “plantsing” didn’t work for me either. I felt disconnected from my work, my writing lacked an intimacy.

This had rarely happened with my nonfiction work. Indeed, it seemed I could step into that work with ease for the most part. This wasn’t surprising, as I’ve done mostly nonfiction the last decade – a second novel being a challenge presented no surprise.

So as I meandered towards a solution, I decided to replot a troublesome chapter. This suddenly awakened my imagination, that intimate connection with one piece of my work to the exclusion of all else. Everything felt alive.

Then, I took a look at authors I knew with both challenges and lacks of challenges. Those who had trouble with their works had lost a connection with it, from not liking it to fearing audience reaction to not caring. Writers with few troubles felt an intimate connection to their work – it could be love of characters or joy in “mechanizing” a story, but it was intimate.

My rewrite of a single chapter felt more intimate. That told me what I’d been missing – I’d let so many things distract me from my work. Replotting a chapter reconnected me.

Looking at my past works I could see when works had been easy, I had a sense of intimacy and connection. I had made books on potentially boring subjects and had been absolutely enjoying it. I write many worldbooks and those involved a well-polished system, and it’s fun.

So let’s stop thinking about pants, plotting, and “plantsing.” Let’s ask what methods keep us connected to our works and intimate with our goals. Maybe one time we plot, maybe one time we “pants,” and another time we do something else.

If you’re not feeling connected to your work, then it’s time to switch up how you do things. Who knows, you might invent an new way to classify writers we can all misuse . . .

Steven Savage

A Writer’s Life: Method To Your Radness

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

My friend Serdar had opinions on my recent halfway-point review/light rewrite of “A Bridge To The Quiet Planet.” Namely, he was surprised at the ambition, as he says:

Sometimes you can put your head down, bluster through the rest of a draft, and fix everything next time around. Sometimes you simply can’t, especially if the psychic pressure created by the need to make those changes in the first place becomes a distraction.

My main objection to stopping and turning around mid-draft is that it breaks momentum. Anything you can do to sustain momentum is helpful. But if it comes at the cost of the overall maintainability of the work, it’s not worth it.

Serdar’s preferred method is to power through a draft. Meanwhile, in fiction I tend to plot it out and when a revision is necessary work it in as opposed to waiting. For me, having that intimate feel is important, and a revision keeps me in touch and focused.

What’s ironic is the “power through” method is something I often use for my instructional writing. My friend writes fiction the way I write job guides.

We see these discussions of different methods all the time in writing. “Pantsers versus plotters.” Diamond methods and three part structures. Writers of all stripes are always talking methods; and writers often take different approaches to writing.

This can lead to confusion over what the “right” method is to writing. I can say with full confidence that the real question is “are you finding the method that works for yo?.” Remember despite these endless debates, books are still getting written.

First, whatever method lets you comfortably deliver quality work is a good method. I can’t tell you what’ll work for you. Nor can Serdar. Nor can a multi-million-book selling author. You have to find what works. If in your head and heart and gut you can see it’s working, fine.

And that’s the second point, and perhaps the more critical point, of writing. You have to actively look to understand what methods of writing work for you. I don’t care if it’s exactly like mine or something I think is ridiculous; if it works, for you and good works get made, fine. As long as it’s not unethical, go for it.

Being a writer means actively understanding what helps you write better. Take the time to review methods, study theories, and try stuff out. In time, you’ll get better – possibly in ways you never expected.

This is also why I keep notes on my writing methods. It helps me both understand what I’ve done, and intimately learn the lessons I need.

(Remember I do all sorts of books on creativity to help you out!)

– Steve

A Writer’s View: Plotting, Pantsing, And Agile

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr)

So this week I finished the plot outline of my book. I’ve been expanding it iteratively, from one-sentence summaries to full character profiles, based on the Snowflake method. The method itself works great with Agile – and brings up a very important point about writing.

Writing, it is said, is often divided into “pantsers” (seat-of-my-pants writers) and “plotters (organized writers like yours truly). As a plotter, I’d like to note that you do end up “pantsing” anyway, just on a finer-grained level. At some point in writing you can only plan so much before you have to write – it’s a matter of degree.

This truth can frustrate some plotters, because you can only define so much before there’s nothing left to do. Your ideas may be totally wrong, your plan may be horrible, your plot awful – but you won’t know until you start writing.

This is the same thing one faces in software, where Agile methods continue to hold more and more sway – you can only design so much before you have to write code to see if it works. It’s the same with writing.

So now that I have a plot, how will I confront my inevitable discovery of all my horrible mistakes?

First, I won’t be afraid. As I like to note, Eat Your Failure.

Secondly, I plan to do reviews:

  1. I will write a chapter at a time and share it with people for feedback.
  2. I will review my full plot outline every chapter completed to make notes and see what changed or what I want to modify or what I want to add.

I know my plot outline (all 8 pages in a spreadsheet) is only so good. But it’s good enough to get moving with an idea of where I’m going, and good enough to improve when I find mistakes or get new ideas. It also is stable enough that it probably won’t fall apart and deep enough it’s not shallow.

Two notes:

  1. I have trouble seeing how “pantsing” can work for complex stories, but perhaps I have something to learn there, no? Maybe I should “pants” a short story sometime.
  2. Based on my own experiences and what I’ve seen in the market you can in theory plot a novel pretty finely, and its very easy if you’re using tropes or taking a “light” approach. Not sure how good it’d be, but it seems doable.So what have you found?

(Oh and if you need some other creative boosts, check out my book on Creative Paths!)

– Steve