Are you a plotter or a planner? Well? Do you plan things or do you wing it? Are you organized or spontaneous? Do you structure your books or do you wait for the muse to take you by the hand?

You’re one or the other! Choose!

If you’ve been writing any amount of time, you’ve heard this approximately five million times. And like most things that separate people into groups, people can get tribal about it.

And you know what’s nuts? It’s nonsense. There’s no black-and-white line between plotting and pantsing. I don’t even know how we got here. Who decided that the only choices available are to write a story completely blind or to plan everything ahead of time?

When it comes to planning a story, your choices aren’t “plan everything” or “plan absolutely nothing.”

Here’s the problem with plotting and pantsing. If there are only two choices and you have to choose one, you might think there are only two ways to write: you plan everything in advance or you plan nothing.

This is so, so limiting.

I’ve seen people commit to planning, try to figure out every scene in their book, then despair when they come up with new ideas mid-story. They act like these unplanned-for ideas mean they did something wrong.

And I’ve seen people try to pants a story and hit a creative wall. They don’t know what to write next. Nothing seems natural, the characters could go a dozen different ways, and they may not know where the story is going. But they’re so bought into the idea of creativity as spontaneous experience that they feel they are not allowed to plan ahead at all.

These people have squeezed themselves in tiny little holes. They’re a “planner,” so innovating in the writing phase is wrong! They’re a “pantser,” so planning ahead is forbidden!

Why do people do this to themselves?

Plotting and pantsing is a continuum, not a binary choice.

OK. So let’s throw away the idea that you have to be in either Camp Planning or Camp Spontaneity. Let’s think of it like a continuum.

Imagine a line. On the faaaaaaaaarthest left side is “plan absolutely everything in your story.” And on the other end, the line ends with “plan absolutely nothing.”

And in the middle is a great, vast expanse. What belongs there, you ask? Everything! Anything! Because you know what? There are degrees of planning and degrees of spontaneity.

  • A really hardcore planner might map out all ~40ish scenes in their book before beginning.
  • …But they could still give themselves permission to deviate from it if they come up with a better idea when they’re writing it. They may even end up with a totally different book than what they planned.
  • Or you could do a lighter outline and sketch out bullet points for each scene (or chapter!), but go into the story not specifically knowing how all those events will happen.
  • Or hey, you could do some really light planning and go in only knowing your Inciting Incident, Midpoint, and Climax, and wing everything in between!
  • Maybe you like to plan your characters and world, but not your plot? That’s good, too!
  • Or you could jump in without an outline, pants the story, but “micro outline” one or two chapters ahead of where you are, so you never start a writing session “blind.”
  • Or you can wing the story, but have a backup plan in case you ever hit a wall. Maybe you can be spontaneous until you really don’t know what to do, and then you can brainstorm some ideas, write down the best of them, and see how to integrate them into your work.

Or maybe you have your own technique! That’s even better!

And you know what? These are all perfectly viable techniques. You can plan a lot or a little. You could write an outline and also write organically. You can wing a story but still plan certain parts of it. You can make your own system, where you do the things that work for you and don’t do the ones that don’t.

And you know what? I’m willing to bet that most people do this. The people who pants an entire story and start without knowing anything that will happen? They are the panstiest pantsers there are, but they certainly aren’t the majority. They’re just as much an outlier as the people who plan 100% of their stories in the outline phase and never, ever deviate from it.

And if you’re not trying to cram yourself into a box, you can take advantages of BOTH ways to be creative.

And that’s the magic: planning can be useful. Letting the story guide you in an unexpected direction can be useful. So wouldn’t you want to give yourself permission to do both? It just gives you more tools to use.

And who wants to cram themselves in a box, anyway?

So, seriously: why is this a thing? Why are people so rigid about it? Can’t we treat plotting and not-plotting like techniques we can all use, and stop telling ourselves that we “have” to be creative in a certain way?

Just do whatever works for you.

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I attended the New England SCBWI writing conference back in April, and one of the most intriguing panels I attended–and the one that’s stayed with me the best–was called “And Then There Were More: The Art of Writing a Series with Agent Ammi-Joan Paquette.”

I’m a fantasy author, so–be it for better or for worse–series are part of the landscape. And when I plan a trilogy, I only know one way to do it. I’m an outliner, yes? So if I was going to make three books, I’d outline all of them at once. I’d think big, come up with a large conflict, and then break it into three, self-contained arcs that inch closer to the “true” final battle. This is how I think.

But know why this panel stuck with me? Because Ms. Paquette explained that you can’t really think that way if you’re getting published with a traditional publisher.

So, my friends, if you’re one of those folks who wants to go the big, big publisher route, gather ’round and listen. Here was her advice.

A publisher might not agree to a full series right off the bat.

The crux of Ms. Paquette’s talk was that, if you’re getting published with a big publisher, guess what? You can’t choose whether you get a sequel or not.

You can want one. You can tell the publisher you have ideas for a series. That’s great! Publishers love knowing you’re ready to write more. But do you actually get to say “Hey, guess what, I’m taking a three book deal or nothing?” Well, probably not. (Not if your agent wants to steer you clear of the chance they say “Great! Nothing it is!”)

Instead, the publisher gets to decide if you get one book, two books, or whatever. And if you’re new, unproven, or they just aren’t sure about this project yet, they may want to wait and see.

So they only sign a contract with you for one book. They want to wait and put out the first book before making any decisions. They want to see if there’s any interest in it. Is it selling well enough to justify a sequel? If so, awesome! Let’s do more! If not, oh well! We all got one book out of it, didn’t we?

…And that means you have to change how you think about planning a series.

So, you can’t guarantee you’ll be given the number of books you want. How on earth do you write a series?

Ms. Paquette recommended:

  • Write one standalone novel, which has potential for more novels, but doesn’t require them.
  • Put all your best ideas in there, because:
    • If you want a chance at a sequel, you need to blow sales out of the water. Your best shot is the idea that you love the most.
    • Your readers will only choose to read book #2 if book #1 blows them away.

I mean, this makes sense, right? The idea that you have the most passion about is the one you’ll write the best.

And if you were planning a trilogy with two small crises you kind of care about, leading up to one mega-ending that you love dearly, then you could shoot yourself in the foot. if Vaguely Interesting Conflict #1 sells so-so, what publisher would want to pay for Middling Book #2? Who would read 500 pages and two books of buildup just to reach the thing you really wanted to write about in book #3?

So you frontload that stuff. You use all your best ideas in book #1.

This turned my thinking around,and… also made it really hard to plan.

OK. Fair warning: I do a lot of how-tos on this blog where I give advice about writing. What follows is not advice. It is me, whining.

At the beginning of this post, I said that I plan linearly: If I do a series, I think of one big crisis and break it into pieces. But let’s think about that: if I put my best ideas first, in book #1, then… I can’t really plan like that, can I?

This is really hard for me! Ok, so I should… write one standalone book with my best ideas. But have more ideas! Just not the ideas that made me desperate to write
this thing. Just other ideas, which are hazy ideas, which could become full-fledged books, if they needed to. But which aren’t yet! But still have those ideas, because the publisher wants to know you have a plan.

Ooof. So many variables.

I mean, I’ve done this before. Justice Unending is a standalone novel with series potential. It’s one book, it has a crisis, and it resolves it. It has an really, really open ending that leaves room for more novels. I just didn’t plan any. I wrote one book and did not, in the process of writing that book, think about what book #2 could be about. That’s great for pitching (apparently) and terrible for my own personal planning, because it’s way harder to feel like I’m done and then to think, “OK, but if I was going to do more, what would I do?”

(Apparently I should, though, since all the book reviews mention wanting a sequel.)

And my current novel–which is not a sequel to Justice, sorry!–is just a standalone adventure in one mysterious land, designed so that this adventure in this country would be resolved, and any other sequels (if there were any) would just be other adventures in other places. You know, almost episode-style.

But this is tricky. It is, undoubtedly, way easier to plan if you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there, and this is something I struggle with mightily. Because writing in limbo–the book that can be book one-of-one and also book one-of-three–is hard.

This is the sort of thing that makes self-publishing way easier. At least then no one’ll tell you you can’t have a series if you want to have a series. But if you’re going the traditional publication route, you’ve got to be a little more flexible.

All’s fair in love and marketing, I suppose.

Screenshot of the cover of 'Rock Your Plot: A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel.'

Hotlinked from Goodreads.

I recently finished Rock Your Plot by Cathy Yardley, and my very short review is on Gooodreads. But, like always, I’m going to leave the review on Goodreads and ramble about what it meeeeeeans to me here.

This has not, so far, been a very good year for writing. I’ll write about that later, I’m sure. But one of the symptoms of this not good year is that the stories I’m working on have issues that should have been hashed out in my outlines. And for some reason or another, my outlines aren’t working.

This is an incredibly obnoxious problem, because it’s new. I have a very well established system for outlining, and it’s never steered me wrong. I wrote 6 manuscripts this way, so what the heck is going wrong?

Short answer: I don’t know. But it’s dumb.

So in comes Rock Your Plot. This is a pretty simple book. It’s short. It’s basic. And it covers a bunch of stuff that you probably already know about (well, assuming that you enjoy outlining.) At its core, it combines the philosophy of Goal/Motivation/Conflict with a very standard story structuring system, and uses this to create a scene-by-scene outline.

And this appeals to me. I don’t know if it works yet–I’m only starting my outline now–but it got me to write half of a new outline (and quickly!) so it seems to be working so far. I like it because it’s close what I normally do, while being different enough to make me think about why I’m doing what I’m doing.

I’ve written a lot about my system. I like to start with a word count (usually ~70-80K for Young Adult fantasy), guestimate my average chapter length (which I know is 3,500-4,000), and calculate my approximate number of chapters (usually 20). These are beautiful, round numbers. I never write according to this formula–being flexible is the whole reason it works–but it makes it easy to write the first outline. And that’s all I needed to get my thoughts on paper before I tried my first draft.

Rock Your Plot is extremely similar, except she breaks the story into scenes instead of chapters. (And really, this is a pretty common–and sensible, given that a “chapter” can be an incredibly subjective thing.) Then it uses the Goal/Motivation/Conflict system for every scene and every major character, so you can test that every scene is moving the story forward and maintaining tension.

So it’s what I used to do, but more methodical. Mostly, it’s just making me think.

And… so far, so good. I’m not done with my new outline, so I don’t know how it’ll turn out, but the concept behind Rock Your Plot is eminently sensible. And if you’re a detailed person who loves outlining, it may appeal to you, too.

Mostly, it just got me outlining something again. And that’s exactly what I needed to do right now.

I tested out Scrivener a while back and was ambivalent. It was OK, I guess. But I didn’t like it enough to pay money for it, especially when I had already sunk a lot into Microsoft Office. Then I ran into this:

yWriter5 – Free writing software designed by an author, not a salesman

And it’s… actually pretty interesting. Most of the features are standard: You can break a story into chapters and scenes, which you can tag and flag and label in detail, and then the program’ll combine them into a single file when you’re done. But some of these things are pretty cool:

  • It keeps track of your per-chapter and overall word count and lets you set writing goals around these.
  • You can plug in all your characters, flag which chapters they participate in, and then see how many scenes each one is in (and how often they have the POV.) It also can generate a storyboard showing what scenes happen when and from whose POV.
  • You can keep track of time, so you can write down when a scene starts and how many in-world hours it takes to finish.
  • You can plug in character goals, conflicts, and resolutions for each scene.

You can outline right in the program, too, though it seems a little clumsy. (But that’s probably because my outlines are really, really detailed. My Wiki just works better for keeping track of it all.)

But overall, it’s actually pretty cool. And it’s free!

Cover of the 'Trees of Britain and Europe' novel showing different plants in Europe.

Hotlinked from Amazon.com

I still love field guides. A few weeks ago I wrote about how much I loved my new field guide about the Pacific Northwest. But, alas, I write faux-Victorian nonsense, and even straight-up fantasy-with-Victorian-flair sounds weird among the dense, old forests of the American northwest.

So I got two books off of Amazon: A Photographic Field Guide: Trees of Britain and Europe (linked from the image) and its sister-volume, Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe. They aren’t incredibly awesome, since they have only one image per plant, and those images are very small. But really? I got both of them, plus shipping and handling, for under $10. You can’t argue with that.

They open with overviews of the geographical and climate types in Europe. This is all you need for some quick-and-dirty worldbuilding.

It’s really straightforward!

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Everyone has that moment in their writing life that changes how they look at everything.

For me, that moment came when I was in university. I had written bits and pieces of stories for years. I considered myself an aspiring author, despite having never completed a story. So, at age 21, I finished a story. I also, for whatever reason, didn’t research how many words an average YA story needed until I was done. After a little research, I discovered that YA stories are supposed to be 50,000-80,000 words long, depending on the genre, while I had written 120,000 words at an average of 12,000 words a chapter.

Never again.

Now, I have a very structured approach to writing. I start with a word count and break it down into chapters, map an 8-point story structure map on top of it, and build my outline around it.

It is a wonderful method. Not only do I have a visual reference for my entire story, but I have a model that helps me make sure that all of my major events are spaced out reasonably.

Here’s how it works.

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Photo of a person writing in a notebook.

Stock photos ensure you don’t go totally blind when reading this blog!
photo credit: Audringje via photo pin cc

I know I’ve said this before, but my favorite book on synopsis writing is Writing the Fiction Synopsis, by Pam McCutcheon.

I used to agonize over writing a synopsis. Now I write them before I even write my story. I just sit down, pick up this book, and skim it again. Then I go, “Oh, duh. This is obvious. I shouldn’t need a book for this.”

That’s how you know it’s a good book.

(I love the worksheets, too, mind you.)

But oh man. It was written in 1998. That doesn’t seem that long ago to me. But then I read the formatting section. It tells you not to do anything crazy to get an agent or publisher’s attention, like printing with “red ribbons.”

The moment I read that, I stopped. Ribbons? Did she mean printer ribbons? She had to, right? No one would have been using typewriters in 1998. I mean, I suppose a few romantics have and always will love typewriters.

But then she also warned against using paper with perforated edges. And it hit me: She was talking about dot matrix printers, wasn’t she?

No, I thought. It wasn’t possible. 1998 was awesome. We didn’t have dot matrix printers and printer ribbons back then… right? Sure, I still had Windows 95 on my computer. But it wasn’t that far back, right? We didn’t actually still struggle with perforated paper and multi-colored printer ribbons, did we?

So, in conclusion, this book is old. It’s still really good. But oh man. It’s old.

And, apparently, I am also super old. Goodness.