One strange question I get often is (and I’m not making this up): “Are you a planner or a pantser?” Alrighty then… First off a pantser, when I was growing up, was a bad thing and it wasn’t something properly raised people did. In today’s world, it’d be a fast way to make viral news and have every news station showing everything, no matter how much it hurt the person that was pantsed, in order to thoroughly condemn the pantser.
Fortunately, that’s not what today’s topic is about. It’s about whether you should plan your story (planner), or just write it out and see how it goes (pantser). Now that sentence, for those of you that’ve been following me will notice, has a dangerous set of words in it. As soon as you heard them, you probably thought, “I can’t believe Chaaya is going to say you should or shouldn’t do something.” I’m not. I’m going to make fun of the people that say that. Well, sort of. I’m not going to be rude about it or anything, just point out why it’s not a good idea here to think quite so black and white.
Let’s start, as usual, with our definitions. A planner is an author that, either mentally, on paper, or a combination of both, plans out her whole story before she begins the process of writing it. A pantser is a person that works from a non-existent or minimal prompt and actively begins writing without having any idea of the ultimate destination. And thus we see, just from the definitions, the problem with the original question. On the usual spectrum of writers, very few are going to hit those two areas directly. Think of it like a volume dial or, if you’re too young to know what that is—think of it like the volume buttons on your phone or tablet. There might be a few that listen to music with it at the lowest setting and a few that listen to it at the highest setting, but most are going to fall somewhere in between and not everyone is going to want it at the same level. There might be some that like it right in the middle, but most aren’t quietest, halfway, or loudest. They fall wherever they feel comfortable.
That last line makes it sound like I planned that comparison out really well, but it just so happens that it fits exactly where I wanted to go next and I didn't know it would when I wrote it. People write in the combination that they feel most comfortable. Also, please notice that the first sentence of this paragraph very nicely explains how I write most of the time. I’ll get to that more later.
I don’t know anyone that’s a complete planner. Faux Scent and parts of Benayle’s Gambit are the closest I’ve come to complete planning and those are outline only. I found the biggest problem of planning it all out when I did Faux Scent. Let me be clear though: this was a problem that I had. Some might not run into this and planning might work out perfect for them. I got to the end of writing Faux Scent and it was only about 50k words. That would translate into about 125 pages in the format RP Games uses. No one wants a novel that’s only 125 pages, including my publisher. The email I got when I sent that the MS was ready was… enlightening. I was politely told that the contract was for a novel, and while technically over 40k is a novel, that word count didn’t meet his expectation. He then asked me a very pointed question: Did I write that entire thing straight from the initial summary? Well yes, I thought that was what was expected. The last email I got explained it very well: “It would appear then, that you didn’t leave room for inspiration.” (Interestingly enough all RP Games writing contracts now have a minimal word requirement of 75k and I’m told that after what happened with A Ship Called Hope, they will now all contain a maximum word count of 150k.)
And that’s where I think the 100% planner might be missing out. I suppose you can have all that inspiration while doing your outlines, but I do think there’s a good chance those people are still missing an opportunity.
My publisher has the copy of the magazine I’m going to reference, and I don’t feel like getting it, but this comes from issue 20 of “The Leading Edge: Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Ray Bradbury was giving an interview and he was asked how he goes about writing a story. His response (and this is pretty close to how I write, but my name doesn’t carry the weight his does) was that he creates the characters and then puts them into a scene and watches what happens. In the award-winning short story “The Veldt” he says it all started with a husband and wife talking over breakfast where she tells him, “I think there’s something wrong with the nursery.” When that was said and he started running with the story, he had no idea what was wrong with the nursery or even what a futuristic nursery would do.
From that it looks like he was entirely a pantser, but from other things he said in the article, there is a measure of planning that he does.
So in my usual fun and roundabout way, I’ve covered the full on planner and an example of a full on pantser (and yes, I still cringe every time I use that term. Ug.) I’ll now delve into my writing process and how it’s evolved between the books.
The first book was The Wolf’s Pawn. (Odd side note because my journals are always full of these: the tile was Wolf’s Pawn, “the” was added by the layout artist. So yes, there was a typo on the front cover of my first book that slid through because it wasn’t looked at carefully (a mistake that I’m assured will not happen again) and the listing was changed in Amazon and other places to match the cover.) I was given character descriptions of Sajani, Benayle, and Simon. All I knew about Sajani was that she’d travelled on a ship at one point and didn’t like it. I also knew a major plot point of Benayle’s Gambit that I can’t mention here. I was told that Sajani had to get an airship and a crew and that the story would start just as the elves were invading Terah. I was given a copy of the Terah World Guide to read and asked to give a destination for the story. I said that it would involve taking out a major supply depot. I was also given a description of the cover and how the scene there had to work.
That was it.
From the Prologue to the Epilogue, everything else was filled in as I went. I added characters as I needed them.
So what worked? I had some rather robust and fun characters that randomly showed up and a natural chemistry formed between those people. I fleshed out Sajani’s backstory in the process. That includes Altaza and the whole Rhidayar Border Skirmish that wasn’t in any of RP Games' materials. Those characters and histories, that just grew out of me having fun writing about what happened as I observed, have become the backbone of the series. When it seemed appropriate, I hit the areas that I was expected to hit.
What didn’t work? Those that’ve read the book will notice that it ends very suddenly. There’s a reason for that. The original MS I highlighted to the publisher was missing something really important.
It was missing a plot.
Somehow in the whole if it, I missed out on the original supply depot storyline and it ended on Chapter 14: To the Rescue. Chapter 15 was added later. It’s also why the Wisp seems so much more powerful in the first book than it is in the second. I didn’t have a lot of time to work with. I was given a week. This, and what is now referred to as the “metal cat incident” is also why RP Games doesn’t have announced deadlines anymore. All hard deadlines are internal. They only release to the public dates within a six-month period.
I already talked about the method I used for Faux Scent, so let me just summarize here. What worked? This book has a much more intricate plot (by which I mean, it has one). Characters already had a history when I began writing, so I felt like they were a bit better rounded to begin with and there was less effort in developing them. This also set a record for writing speed. I did 15k words in a single day and the book was done in less than a month. (Might have been within 10 days, I'm not sure, but it was difinitely done within a month.)
What didn’t work? There’s no room for inspiration in there. The scenes tend to jump from one to another without a lot of “fluff” between them. The sections proceeding each chapter that highlight a character’s past, even though they fit the theme of the story very well and look very intentional, were originally done as filler. The novels are written on a shared file with the publisher and unfortunately, I didn’t think to save a copy of that first draft, so I have no idea what else was added later, but there were quite a few scenes added later.
And lastly I’ll cover the work in progress: A Ship Called Hope trilogy. This one is being done as a sort of hybrid between the two writing types. I don’t want to put in any spoilers, so I’ll try to be a little vague. I knew that Sajani left the school at the beginning, but I didn’t know that Gregor went with her. I knew that she’d eventually meet up with Farleesha’s caravan. (It’s mentioned in Faux Scent.). I also knew that she eventually boarded a ship and sailed back home where she meets up with her father. (Which btw, doesn’t end up happening now). I knew that the basis of the story was to put Sajani close to how she is in the future stories.
As I was writing the part about her leaving, I realized that certain events could happen that would bring Sajani’s character more in the direction it needed to go for a proper Bildungsroman, and I would write to those events. Events like that kept coming up constantly. In addition, Benayle showed up and with him the entire subplot that ends in Benayle’s Gambit. Again with that one, I’d realize there had to be specific stopping points as I went along. They weren’t pre-planned as in planned before I started writing the novel, but they were planned ahead.
The outside events that lead up to the story aboard the VMS Trigger are very finely planned out. There are even points in the later story where I map out where everyone is at different times, but the actual events are not planned out. The characters move through those background occurrences and I don’t know in advance who will end up seeing what.
So there you have it. It’s a little too soon to say what worked or didn’t work on that trilogy, so I’ll close up here. It has been a lot easier to write than the previous two books.
I hope this gives you some insight into the different methods of working a plot in a story. It should also give you an idea of how those methods can evolve over time with an individual writer. So the next time someone asks you if you’re a planner or a pantser, hopefully you realize that a good response is, “I’m still learning.” Four and a half books into it (not counting non-published stuff), and I’m definitely still learning. And here I thought this would be my shortest journal yet. For journals, I’ll always be a pantser. I think it’s more entertaining that way.
Thanks again to my few followers. I honestly do this just for you. I try to make these fun and light-hearted while avoiding the absolutes and writer angst you often find out there. If you have a topic you want me to discuss, feel free to let me know via DM or you can find the publisher on Parler: @RPGames, Twittered @realRPGames, or Facehead fb/TerahProject. He’ll happily relay your requests to me.