Planners have numerous ways of mapping out their novels before they begin to write. Most planners have their novels nailed down before they ever begin writing the first words. They know almost every scene that will go into their novel and where the tension will build and where the story arcs happen. Some planners use extensive outlines, others storyboard. A lot of planners I know swear by Scrivener. Enough authors I know love that program so much, I’ve been tempted to take a look at it.
I, however, am not a planner. I’m a pantser, which means writing by the seat of your pants. I've recently heard the term "discovery writer" which I like better than pantser, so I'll use that term instead. There are different degrees of discovery writing – some discovery writers do a little planning beforehand and some just know the basic idea of their story and then let it unfold as they write.
Being a discovery writer can be messy. It means writing whatever happens to come to me that day. Although I might only have the first 20 pages written, something from 2/3 of the way through the novel might hit me and I have to write it. If I write ahead like that, I usually have to tweak it later because my novels constantly evolve and change while I write them.
Each time I start a novel, I say to my mom (who is always the first person to hear about a new novel), “I don’t know if I’ll have enough to build an entire novel around this idea. Maybe it’ll just be a novella.” I have yet to write a novella. My shortest novel is 84,000 words.
The two things I usually know about my novel before I write are the inciting incident (the beginning) and I usually know what the black moment/climax will be towards the end of the novel. Everything in between comes to me while I write.
I also usually know my characters before I start a novel. I think about them all the time - while I'm driving, while I'm working out, before I go to sleep. But even my characters surprise me while I'm writing. They take on a life of their own and take me to places I didn't expect to go.
Being a discover writer is a strange experience – there are times I’d even call it a spiritual experience. I often have no idea where something came from: a scene or some dialogue or a character who comes out of nowhere. Sometimes just one sentence or one idea or one piece of dialogue opens the floodgates and I can’t write fast enough. Those are the moments of magic, but in those moments, I have to take the time to write notes to myself or I’m afraid I’ll forget everything that was just revealed to me. So when that happens, I do resemble a planner just a little bit. As I begin to see scenes in my head, I write them down in order so I won’t forget.
I don’t think discovery writing is better than planning, or the other way around. I often envy my planning friends because they already have all the pieces in place. There are some definite pitfalls to discovery writing. Sometimes I get stuck, and it can take a little while to get unstuck. Because I write out of order, I tend to repeat myself and I have to be mindful of that when I’m editing. I also have to go back and tighten everything up, because as a pantser, I sometimes do a little too much wandering in my first draft.
So here's my road trip analogy. Planners know where they’re starting, what route they’ll take, how many miles they’ll drive each day and where they’ll spend the night. As a discovery writer, I get into the car and say, “I want to get to California, but I’m not sure which roads I’ll take, which people I’ll meet, or how long it will take me to get there, but c’mon…let’s go and we’ll see what happens along the way. Strangely enough, that’s kind of how I like to take road trips. I guess I’m just wired that way.
I love to hear about other author’s writing styles, so share yours in the comments section if you have the time.