From Writers in the Storm
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.
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
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.
Link to the rest at Writers in the Storm