Monday, July 29, 2013

Are You a Plotter or a Pantser?

By Erin Cashman

I am a pretty organized person. I love my to-do lists. Sometimes I write things on my to-do lists that I’ve already done just to cross them off! I love the immediate feeling of accomplishment. I also make to-do lists for my husband and children, which largely go ignored. In high school, college, and law school I was the queen of outlines. I felt in control, knowing what I needed to know. Everything was boiled down nice and neat, with bullets, highlighting, and Roman numerals.

So when it comes to writing, I want, no I yearn, to be a plotter. Each time that a new story idea pops into my head and won’t go away, filling my mind with dialogue and settings and characters, I sit down with a crisp, clean pad of paper, and start my outline. I make a list of characters with brief descriptions, and I write not one, but two outlines -- one of the entire book, and then I outline the first five or six chapters in detail. I keep this notebook next to my laptop, and then I start to write.

And then I never look at the outline again. The characters hijack my brain, and I follow them down dark and twisty paths that lead me into unchartered territory. My villain is actually just a bit of a rogue. The nice, milk-commercial cute guy has a dark side.  My main character isn’t flawed in the way I thought. And secondary characters evaporate. New ones pop up. I dream about these characters, their voices fill my head during quiet moments, and months later I have a draft. A terrible, awful, messy draft. I have not followed my neat outline, or even glanced at it. My story arc is more of a zigzag.  But I know my characters better.  I know what their deepest desires are, and what they are trying to hide from me.

So I revise, and revise and revise some more. I write huge amount of back story that I cut. I write tangents that I cut. I write endings that I cut. I write and write and write, and I cut and cut and cut. But with each draft my characters reveal more of themselves, and I learn what makes them tick. Right now I am actually on my eleventh draft of a novel! But I’m not sick of it yet, and with each pass I like it better. By the time I’m finished I am pretty sure I will have cut as many words as I’ve saved. It is a very time consuming, inefficient, torturously painful way to write a novel. But it’s the only way I can.

So, I have come to realize that in most areas of my life I’m a plotter. And I really want to be a plotter when it comes to writing. I love the orderliness of it. I love starting on page one and knowing where I’m going to end. But try as I may, I’m not a plotter.  I’m a pantser.  The only way I can really know my characters is by writing about them. It’s everything I don’t like – messy, unorganized and chaotic. But it’s just how I write.

What are you?


Erin Cashman is a YA author. Her debut fantasy novel, THE EXCEPTIONALS, was published by Holiday House in 2012 and named a Bank Street College of Education Best Book of the Year. You can find her at the group blogs The Enchanted InkpotBookPregnant Blog, and on Twitter,Facebook, and her Website


  1. Like you, I dream of being a plotter, but I can't seem to make that happen. When I get an idea for a story, I run with it until I have what I feel is a viable draft. Of course, I haven't written a single word in two months now, but when I did write, I was definitely a pantser.

    1. Oh to dream! One of my friends outlines the book, and then every single chapter. She says the outlining is the hard part, but the writing is easy. I told her I was very jealous! (And hid my messy dog-eared draft!)

  2. Erin - so strange, I too am an organized person. Before I got married, and the chaos of the universe moved in, I could lay my hands on anything In owned, in the dark. My books and albums are organized by author and title.

    Writing? I have serious plotting envy, but I'm a total pantser. I have a theory that because I'm using the other side of my brain to create, it's giving the finger to the organized side.

    Oh well, whatever works, right?

    1. I like your theory! Yes, as long as we are able to finish that draft (and then the next one) I guess it doesn't matter in the long run.

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