It my pleasure to have writer, Ciara Ballintyne on the blog to share her insight and views on plotting vs. pantsing for us.
Are you a plotter or a panster?
I used to be a pantser. Now I’m more of a plotter, and I outline before I start a novel, although I’d like to think I fall in the category known as ‘discovery writers’ – writers who plot, but will follow an inspirational plot idea even if it wasn’t in the outline.
Why do you prefer one to the other?
When I was a pantser, I’d get to the end and the story would be a mess, with unresolved conflicts, subplots that trailed off, muddled themes, characters with unclear goals, or insufficient motivations, or not enough conflict to attaining their goals. Revision was a nightmare.
In fact, I never successfully revised a novel I pantsed. I have one I do want to resurrect, but there’s no point starting with what I have. I’ll have to go back to the basic plot idea, outline, and then rewrite from scratch. I expect that story to change significantly.
Do you think the panster can exist without the plotter?
As in can there be light without dark? Dark is the absence of light. A plotter is not, I think, the absence of a pantser - although one might argue a pantser is the absence of plotting.
That said, the concepts are so inextricably entwined, not so much with each other, but with the concept of plotting, it would be difficult to explain either without the reference point of plotting, and once we assume we need that reference point, it becomes obvious there are two main methods of plotting: outlining, and no outlining. It would be difficult to conceive of one existing but not the other.
Some writers say, ‘the road to hell is paved with good outlines.’ Thoughts?
Sure, it can be. It is possible to outline too much, the same way I’s possible to revise too much or edit too much. If you outline too rigidly, and then stick to it too closely, you can wind up with something that feels unnatural, or you can miss some great opportunities fort alternate plot ideas, just because they weren’t in the outline.
This is why I’d like to think I’m a discovery writer – I will happily abandon the outline if I think I’ve had a better idea that will take the story somewhere great.
Can you describe your outlining process?
Usually I start with the seed of an idea – a protagonist who wants something, and maybe why. If not why, I have to think of a why. Then I have to decide what’s stopping her from attaining her goal. This brainstorming process will usually toss up a number of obstacles, and usually a few two-dimensional characters. I’ll choose the ones I like, and flesh out all the characters by analyzing their goals, motivations and conflicts. This may present some additional potential conflicts I hadn’t considered, so I may add in some more sub-plots at this point.
The important thing is to make sure that everyone has a reason for the actions they take, and is sufficiently frustrated in achieving the outcome they want.
What is the benefit of outlining your plot?
More consistency, less problems with contradictions in the plot, solid motivations for all the character actions (i.e. you don’t find a character doing something that is completely incomprehensible in the circumstances) and proper obstacles to all the characters obtaining their goals.
You can get the same outcome with pantsing, but it takes more effort – more thinking about those issues as you write instead of just getting the story down, more rewriting, more scene shuffling.
Can writers be both a plotter and a pantser?
Yes – that’d be what I referred to above as a discovery writer. I got the term from Brandon Sanderson, who described Robert Jordan this way. The Wheel of Time Series was outlined as three books – the final and fourteenth book is due out in January. This occurred simply because Jordan kept having new ideas for plots that weren’t in the outline.
The degree to which a writer is a discovery writer, however, can vary. Jordan was an extreme example. Other writers might stick to the outline more than they deviate from it.
Do you consider yourself a Linear or Non-linear writer? And why?
Linear. I write the book front to back, and I write, then revise, then edit. I don’t do any revision while I’m writing that first draft – if I did, I’d never get it finished. This makes sense since I’m also a linear thinker.
What do you consider a downside of plot outlining?
I haven’t found one for me so far. It may not work for everyone, but it fits my brain. This is how I think, logically, and in order, so it’s the best way for me to organize my thoughts.
Do you do some “pantsing” for certain scenes and “plot” outlines for others?
I outline the entire novel at a high-level, but I don’t outline individual scenes. So in some sense, every scene is pantsed. I kind of know the key points that need to be hit in each scene, but how I hit them – that I make up as I go.
In my current WIP the outline said something like ‘Attempts to steal the artefact and fails’. When I outlined that, I didn’t consider that was at least 30,000 words. I pantsed that completely, because, hey, I had to write something.
Where do you get your best ideas for plots?
Where does gamma radiation come from? I don’t know.
Sometimes a song will spark an idea, but most of the time an idea just hits me. Terry Pratchett’s theory in his Discworld novels, of inspiration particles streaming through the atmosphere, hoping against hope they strike a brain that can actually use them, works for me.
If you do outline for a novel, how much time and research do you do before starting the actual writing of the novel?
My next novel I outlined in one evening. So I guess that’s a few hours. I do zero research, but that’s the liberty of writing high fantasy. I may spend some time worldbuilding if it’s a new world, but I’m playing in the same world for the next six novels of so, so that’s done and dusted for a bit.
What is your process for exploring your characters?
My characters usually come to me as thumbnail sketches. I usually am forced to flesh that out a bit during the outlining process when I do the goal, motivations and conflict chart, because without some idea of character, you can’t know why a character might do something.
Do you fill out character Bios/interviews for your main characters before writing their story?
Yes, I use short character profiles – although I admit I have one character I’ve been meaning to do a profile for and just haven’t yet. No idea why. All the other key characters have one. I may be procrastinating because he’s a slippery character to pin down.
What is one writing book that you highly recommend?
Honestly, I haven’t read a lot of writing books, but I did enjoy Stephen King’s On Writing.
Do you tend to write scenes out of order or stay on track?
In order. If they get reordered during revision, that’s purely because I later decided the scenes would benefit from being in a different order.
Do you write a synopsis for each book before you write it? Does your publisher/editor request a synopsis?
I write an outline, but not a synopsis per se. If the book stays relatively true to the outline, it can be used to build a synopsis, otherwise I need to do one from scratch.
Where during the writing process do you find your “voice” for that particular novel?
Where does gamma radiation…. Nevermind.
I struggle with voice. People tell me they love my voice, but I have no idea what it is. I think it stays fairly consistent from novel to novel – it’s me, my style, my way of stringing sentences together. Where it varies, it’s to match the voice of the point of view character, and no more.
While you might start with an issue or theme in mind, themes will also develop or emerge as you write, so how important do you think “theme” is to your writing process?
I don’t start with a theme, although I can usually find them and strengthen them at the end. But since theme is something I largely play with upon completion, I wouldn’t say it’s at all important to my writing process.
Fun Bonus Questions
What book are you currently reading?
A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon.
What’s your favorite movie or TV show?
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Particular, opinionated and outspoken.
Laptop or desktop?
Who is your fictional character crush? (Movie, TV show, literary)
I did always kind of like Angel from Buffy, but these days I’d say it’s more Richard Rahl from Terry Goodkind’s Sword if Truth series.
Where can potential readers find you online?
Official Website: http://www.ciaraballintyne.com
Twitter: @CiaraBallintyne http://twitter.com/ciaraballintyne
Ciara Ballintyne is a writer of high fantasy, lawyer, and dragon expert. Bent on world domination and born argumentative, Ciara invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her short story, A Magical Melody, is available as part of the Spells: Ten Tales of Magic ebook anthology.