Once upon a time, the stories poured from my fingertips.
Back in the early days of my Quest for Publication, I was equipped with naught but a trusty Pilot pen, a five-subject Mead notebook, and a plethora of ideas. Eventually, I upgraded to a keyboard and computer.
After transcribing tome after tome of intertwining fantasy storylines from my neat (read: girly) handwriting to single-spaced Times New Roman, I typed up additional supplemental materials. I sketched out maps, chronicled centuries of history, invented religions, drafted character profiles, and crafted the very rules of the universe.
I was world building, damn it, and every fantasy author worth his sword needs to know his setting inside out.
But a writer can wander for only so long before he must commit to the Quest. Sure, jotting down random adventures was fun, but I was in search of something greater than a hobby. I sought the Holy Grail: a book with my name on the spine.
It was time to start writing my first real novel.
How hard could it be, really? I already had storylines that covered decades of my characters’ lives. All I had to do was pick a point in time, edit the scenes I’d already penned, and fill in any blanks. New York Times Best Sellers list, here I come!
The only problem was I had to go back pretty far to find where my series should actually start, and my earliest notes were sparse at best. In fact, my first entry in the “Archives of Altaerra” made for a better ending than a start for a novel.
It looked like I’d have to come up with new material, after all. And that was fine. Better than fine because I’d get to discover how many of main characters—the Renegades—met in the first place. Why shouldn’t my grand epic start during the war that branded them as rebels in the first place?
I didn’t realize it at the time—how could I, a mere squire in the Order of Word Warriors?—but I was a Pantser. No synopsis. No chapter outline. No purpose other than to write an action-packed fantasy novel. The seat of my pants would have to be good enough.
Considering my lack of a literary compass, it took a while to fight my way through that first draft. Don’t get me wrong: it was a lot of fun. I was disciplined, and I wasn’t in any big hurry. Who cares if the first book of The Renegade Chronicles took three years to write? Like any good adventurer, I learned a lot along the way.
It took another year to rewrite the book from beginning to end. I had, after all, become a much better writer in that span, and I wanted the first page to sound as polished as the last. I also had a fair number of inconsistencies that needed conquering. I muddled through editing with as much finesse as writing the first draft—which is to say, no much at all.
I spent a little more time in a preparation phase before jumping into my next quest—the Renegades’ next quest, actually—but without a chapter outline and only a vague notion of where Volume 2 ended and Volume 3 began, I remained a Pantser through and through.
I’d probably heard of Plotters by then, but why would an author want to take the time to make every big decision about the plot prior to jumping into the first draft? Where’s the spontaneity in that? Where’s the fun?
I wrote three volumes of The Renegade Chronicles in this manner: come up with a vague notion of a conclusion, figure out who was going to be in the book, and let the characters loose. It was a blast. And for the most part, I was pleased with how the second drafts turned out, even if editing took a while.
But after writing a fourth book in the world of Altaerra (tentatively titled Magic’s Daughter), I couldn’t muster the ambition to go back and edit it. There were copious problems that needed resolving, but it seemed too daunting. Instead, I jumped into the first draft of the sequel. I could always go back and edit both of them later, right?
Except I made it only about a third of a way through that book before giving up.
I didn’t know where I was going, and if I was being honest with myself, the sequel to Magic’s Daughter felt more like filling in the blanks than drafting something new and exciting. As a matter of fact, the project was starting to resemble my earliest writing—those meandering storylines that were packed with peril and plot twists but lacked the essentials of good literature, particularly in terms of structure.
I was halfway through the rough draft of my next novel—a modern-day science fiction novel to cleanse my pallet—when I found myself writing in circles. Chapters became repetitive, and my characters stalled out. It dawned on me, then, that having a general idea of an ending wasn’t good enough.
Stepping away from an exercise in raw creativity, I forced myself to answer difficult questions about what should—what must—happen before the end of the book. Once I had completed the chapter outline for the second half of the novel, If Souls Can Sleep was finally ready to be finished.
On that day, I became a Plotter.
And I never looked back, though eventually, I returned to The Renegade Chronicles, edited the hell out of them, and made them worthy of publication. Mission accomplished. Quest completed.
Being a Pantser was fun while it lasted, but these days I won’t even think about penning a prologue without first having a structured plan. Does cranking out a chapter outline steal some of the magic of writing a first draft? Sure. But it does wonders for pacing. When you have checkpoints along the journey, you’re far less likely to get lost or, worse, give up.
The beauty of a possessing a road map is that you always know where you’re going, but you’re not necessarily committed to taking a specific route. If I find a better path from Point B to Point C along the way, I can take it and then resume my previously charted course to Point D.
Efficiency is the prize when you’re a Plotter. Not only do first drafts tend to take less time, but I’ve found that editing becomes less burdensome when the prototype sports fewer plot-related problems.
It would be easy for me to extol the virtues of being a Plotter and, indeed, try to convert other Pantsers to my approach. But the truth is chapter outlines aren’t sexy. They’re tough because they force a writer to make many difficult decisions upfront. They delay the enchantment of spinning the story in the way most writers want to do it: living the narrative, page by page, alongside our protagonists.
And truth be told, I tend to hate my chapter outlines. The plots always seem too simple, inelegant, and harsh. But that’s the beauty of any written document: they live in a state of flux, and you can always edit them.
Whether you’re a Pantser or a Plotter, editing is a dragon that will always need slaying.
Anyway, if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer it’s there are no rules, no tried-and-true template for the perfect novel. What works for one author won’t for another. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses, strategies and techniques. For every successful Plotter, chapter outline in hand, there’s an unencumbered Pantser who reached “The End” without losing his way.
As a certain wizard once said, “Not all who wander are lost.”