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.

Photograph of a yellow roadster convertible parked on the side of the road illustrating the post writers: pantser, plotter...roadster

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

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

Closeup photo of the road construction vehicle's roller pressing hot asphalt flat for a new road illustrating the post 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?

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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 audio book 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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