Plotting or pantsing?

When I first heard the term ‘pantsing’ I thought it was cutesy Gollum-speak (“yessssss, we is pantsing, my precioussssss”).

But no. Turns out it’s writer-speak for ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, also known as discovery writing, also known as driving without TomTom, also known as writing without an outline.

What is an outline? It might seem obvious to some, but it certainly wasn’t to me when I started trying to write fiction. It’s a road map for your novel. Some writers do incredibly detailed outlines (I once heard Ian Irvine say his outlines alone are 60 pages long), others do shorter ones that are essentially just a list of chapter headings. And then there are the writers who just write entire novels from what’s in their head – also known as ‘pantsing’. I gaze at them (a group that famously includes the prolific Stephen King) with a mix of awe and fear.


Because I didn’t yet know what would work for me, I began my science fiction manuscript just writing whatever came out of my head. That was really fun until I hit 30,000ish words and realised I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next.

It took two months, and some fine advice from NYT-bestselling author John Flanagan before I could restart. I had cornered him at a NSW Writers Centre Speculative Fiction Festival and practically wailed in his face that I had hit a brick wall and didn’t know what to do.

His advice was along these lines: Do a four page outline where you have one page for the beginning, two pages for the middle, and one page for the end. Then once you’ve done that, expand it out to ten pages where you describe each scene in more detail.

So that’s what I did. For the beginning, middle and end, I wrote roughly what needed to happen in each section, what the main scenes would be, and what character development would happen. Then the ten page (well, more like seven page) outline gave me my road map.

I didn’t stick to the outline exactly because sometimes characters develop a mind of their own and decide that they don’t want to behave the way you want them to. So there’s a bit of to and fro, we argue and we reach a compromise.

Everyone writes differently and there’s no right or wrong way to go about it. This approached worked for me and, as I’ve now just started writing a second novel (urban fantasy) I’m going to try the same approach. Wish me luck!

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