Marla Cooper

Plotter? Pantser? Or Road Tripper?

G&MLast month I went on a road trip with one of my favorite people in the world, who also happens to be the inspiration behind my Brody character. He had just finished a writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and I signed on to drive with him from Vermont back to Austin, TX.

There were so many options on how to get back! From Vermont, we knew we’d drop down and visit Salem, because we both like spooky stuff and our husbands don’t. But then what? Should we still try to hit the Finger Lakes? Should we cross through Pennsylvania and see Amish Country and Gettysburg? Or should we head south and check out Virginia?

It occurred to me at some point that it was like planning a novel. In fact, the whole road trip became a metaphor for the age-old debate of plotting versus pantsing (which, if you’re not familiar with, is the opposite of plotting; it’s coming up with your story by the seat of your pants).

Salem

Intentionally creepy selfie at the Witch House in Salem

Hard-core plotters will often argue that pantsers don’t have a plan. They’re just slapping words down willy nilly and hoping it works out, which can lead to an unsatisfying conclusion.

Pantsers argue that plotters suck all the life out of a manuscript by over-planning. Where’s the joy? Where’s the spontaneity? “If it doesn’t surprise me,” they’ll say, “how will it surprise my readers?”

I’ve always considered myself somewhere in between — a plantser, if you will. It turns out, that’s also how I like to travel.

If we’d just started out with a roadmap and gone wherever we pleased, we’d probably be pretty far off track, trying to figure out how to get to Austin. (Score one for plotting!)

Buggy ride

Making a cookie run in an Amish buggy

On the other hand, if we’d planned out every stop along the way, every meal, every hotel, we wouldn’t have had time for detours. Like the buggy ride we took in Lancaster, PA, that dropped us off at a Mennonite bakery. That wasn’t on the schedule, and it’s one of my favorite memories of our trip. (Score one for pantsing!)

We knew we were starting from Vermont. We knew we were driving to Austin. We knew we wanted to stop in Salem and that we were spending the night with friends in Nashville. The rest was whatever we wanted it to be.

Civil war ghost.pngWe didn’t micromanage our trip so that there was no room for discovery. (If we had, I wouldn’t have ended up with this cool shot of what I’m pretty sure was a ghost on a late-night adventure at a haunted bridge in Gettysburg.)

That’s how it is when I start a story, too. I like to know where it starts. I like to know where it ends. I like knowing a couple of stops along the way so I can make sure I’m basically headed in the right direction.

But figuring out how to get there — that’s the fun part.

Readers, what about you? Opinions on plotting vs. pantsing, road trips and Civil War ghosts are welcome!

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26 thoughts on “Plotter? Pantser? Or Road Tripper?

    • I usually do have several stops along the way, but much like the night we decided to push on to Cincinnati instead of stopping in Pittsburgh, it’s always subject to change! 🙂

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  1. Loved the analogy AND the pix! Can’t wait for more. I’m jealous of the Mennonite bakery stop. And the Hanover crepes.

    And I agree with Mark. I consider myself a plotser. (I prefer that term to plantser because it incorporates the Yiddish word, “plotzing.” As in, I’m so tired I’m plotzing.) I thought I might pants a book I was stuck on, so I did some outreach to pantsers and discovered that most of them have some bullet points. Few start with a completely blank page.

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  2. Wow, Marla, you plot, pants and road trip — you’re a multi-talented, multi-tasker! So glad your trip was one for the books! BTW, I’m jealous of your ghost fog. All I’ve ever gotten in “haunted” places is some light orbs. 🙂

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  3. I agree with Ellen; that is a great analogy. At this point, I’m plotting because I’ve gotten stuck in the middle three books in a row and it was painful. Big surge of fear to overcome.So I just tore through a rough draft on my fourth book which was completely plotted before hand and in my next draft, I have permission to take out chunks, move them around, whatever i.e. pants. So I guess I’m a plodding pantser.

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  4. Hi Marla, I think I was driving north to Maine when you were starting your trip in Vermont. I waved!
    I’m still figuring this writing thing out – I’m not even sure I have a process, never mind what to call it.
    Plantsing works!

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    • So that was you waving from the other car?! Ha ha. Hi, back! I know what you mean; I feel like every book is different — at least for now. I think writers’ processes are always evolving. (I know mine is!)

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  5. I’m solidly in the plantser/plotser category. Since this is my first book, I started off pantsing entirely and got pretty stuck once I hit the 2nd act. Then I tried to be organized and outline and it felt way too rigid and I found myself wandering away from the outline quite often.

    What seems to work best for me is to bullet point the big ideas/scenes that I know I want in there and then play connect the dots. Before I write for the day, I do a freewriting/brainstorming exercise to see where I want the scene to go. Once I get a good feel for it, I start writing for realsies.

    Hopefully that system will continue working for me so that it doesn’t take another two and a half years to finish a book :/

    Liked by 3 people

    • I love that approach! I usually know what has to happen by the end of the chapter or scene I’m working on, but then I have to figure out how I’m going to get there. I need to try more free-writing though! The one time I just started randomly writing with no idea where it was going ended up being a really fun scene in my second book. Thanks for sharing a little about your process!

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    • Having a good plan definitely makes me feel more secure! I’m a planner but leave myself LOTS of room to change my mind! 🙂

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  6. Pingback: What I Did(n’t Do) on My Summer Vacation | Chicks on the Case

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