Friday, July 1, 2011

Flying By the Seat of My Pants

Are you a discovery writer, or a planner? That is the question. Whether tis nobler to suffer... Well, I won't quote Hamlet any further, but you get my drift. The question of whether to outline or not to outline is the philosophical heart of many a writers conference, class, or debate.

My answer to that age-old conundrum is simple enough: Why not do both? When you're ready, that is.

I say this because I tend to start out my projectswhether personal fiction, the blog, or my day job fundraising/PR copywriting—as a "pantser" (as in, I fly by the seat of my pants). Some people prefer to call this discovery writing, because you're discovering your plan as you go along.

Discovery writing (or writing without an outline) seems very dangerous to some writers. But I'll tell you this: Michelangelo was a pantser. Or at least, he claimed he was. He claimed the statue was already hidden within the marble slab, and he just had to carve off the excess, unneeded stone to get to the statue inside. That's pantser talk.

But Michelangelo also honed his skills with drawings of the human form. So he had an idea in his head of what he liked before he ever took chisel to marble. And that's how I start out too. This post, for instance—I knew I wanted to write about discovery writing versus outline writing. And I have opinions about the topic. Now they are spilling out. But I wasn't planning to write about Michelangelo. I guess he was just hovering within the keyboard, ready to be typed out onto the page, like his statues awaited to be released from the marble slab.

Being a pantser is a sensible approach for blogging. But when it comes to longer works, like a novel, it helps to have a road map. I'm growing much more appreciative of the idea of outlines for longer projects. But an outline doesn't have to contain every detail. And you can begin writing your novel, even without an outline. In fact, I recommend it.

Why? Simply put, discovery writing in the beginning of a project can help you unearth the ideas that are buried in your subconscious (like statues buried in marble, right?). You can play a little bit, get yourself in a flow, and have fun with your ideas before you buckle down to carve them into a genuine work of art.

Discovery writing also works great when you have an idea for a scene and you want to commit it to paper before you forget it. If you try to plan it out first, the scene may dissolve. So start typing. But be warned: your conscious mind may not pick up on all the hints your subconscious is dropping as it writes. So share the scene with your writing critique group or some good alpha and beta readers. See what they have to say about it.

I did that with a friend recently. The scene was a simple drive in the car between two key characters, engaged in conversation. My friend asked a totally brilliant question about what was happening to one of the characters. I said, "Huh? Wha? What do you mean?" Then I read the scene to myself and I realized my friend was right. I was dropping hints to lead her to a conclusion about that character and what was going to happen to him. And here's the coolest partthat conclusion was brilliant! It was going to add tension and raise the stakes of my story. What a smart subconscious I have!

Imagine if I had tried to outline and plan that scene. It wouldn't have worked, because I didn't have that idea for raising the stakes in my conscious brain, where I could see it. It was hiding in the well of creativity, and needed to be coaxed out with a game of hide-and-seek. Thank goodness I pantsed the heck out of that scene. Now I have a brilliant, workable twist to add to my novel.

But now that I have that twist in mind, I can plan for it. That's where the planning, outlining part comes in. I've discovered something through writing I've already done, and it will help me plan for writing I haven't done yet. I think this is why some wise writers talk about allowing room for our writing to be organic. Too much rigid outlining, and your subconscious may lose its voice. Not enough planning, and you may never actually finish your novel.

So don't choose one or the other. Do both. Play with the mix until you find what works for you. And write, write, write!

Oh, and tell me how you approach your writing? Are you a pantser or a planner? Do you do both, like I do? What works best for you?

Copyright (c) 2011 by Michele Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. I'm a plotter-panster hybrid. I use an outline where I plan my major story turns and events. After that though, I pretty much free-write my way there and see how my characters react. By the sounds of it, we share the same view on planning but letting the story come out on its own.

  2. Yes, it does sound like we have a similar approach. I think part of the fun is to see how characters react as we set them into different situations.


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