Tag Archives: Janna G. Noelle

Two Writers Debate: Pantsing vs. Plotting

Janna (L) and Eric (R). There's no debate about which one eats more Dunkin' Donuts.

Janna G. Noelle (L) and Eric John Baker (R). There’s no debate about which one of these two eats more Dunkin’ Donuts.

Only two approaches to writing exist: Good and Bad. Write good. Debate over!

Hold on a sec. That’s not what this post is about. This post is a point-counterpoint between two WordPress bloggers arguing the merits of two distinct writing methods, pantsing (freeform writing) and plotting (writing from an outline).

Read on as right-brained, right-coast writer Eric John Baker argues in favor of pantsing (at least we hope that’s what happens… he is making it up as he goes, after all), followed by left-brained, left-coast writer Janna G. Noelle making a case for plotting, probably with all kinds of charts and graphs and stuff.

No matter how ugly and violent it gets, they promise to return you home in time for tea and biscuits!


Plotting. Pantsing. Marching. Dancing.
By Eric John Baker

I’m not much of a dancer. Stepping this way and that, being graceful, weaving a pattern not immediately apparent. Can’t do it.

Walking a straight line is easier. But walking only brings me to a predetermined destination, whereas dancing can send me places far more mysterious and wonderful: Joy. Surrender. The coat closet for a snog with my dance partner (come on, all that eye contact and bodies touching… it’s nature). If only I knew the moves.

Writing is like dancing in that way. Plotter or pantser, I’m sure you’ll agree: You have to understand composition before you can write well. Until you reach that level, outlining is probably necessary. Once you’ve mastered mechanics, though, maybe not so much.

Outlining seems smart and efficient; it helps you keep track of settings, characters, and events. You know exactly where you are, eyes straight ahead, sight set on your ending.

You know what else is efficient? A pair of handcuffs. And what would we do without lines painted on the road, telling us where we can and cannot drive the car? I’d say outlines are the law enforcement of the writing world.

I used to outline my fiction, scene by scene, and I never crossed the double-yellow lines. Sure the outcome was boring and predictable but, um… I stayed true to my outline! I got to type “The End” exactly when I planned as well.

You see, once the outline was in place, my creative brain shut down. It was all about mechanics after that. The regions of my mind that encourage me to poke a dead jellyfish with a stick or to intentionally alight at the wrong bus stop or to ask, “I wonder where that road goes?” had gone dark. Any reader could guess where my stories were going, because I was telegraphing the conclusion.

Then, one day, I came across the term “blank-pager” in a writing book, though most writers call it “pantsing.” Inspired, I took a (boring and predictable) short story of mine and rewrote it, reusing only its concept and main character. I ended up with a 70,000-word novel, and it was the most fun I ever had writing. I bet any reader would say, “I didn’t see that coming,” at least a dozen times. How could they? I didn’t see it coming either. I spilled seeds as I went, and by the end, I had grown a garden of twists, hidden identities, and red herrings. Fact: my conscious mind could not have generated such ideas in advance. I know, because I had already written the same story with an outline and it failed.

I don’t actually like the word “pantser.” It sounds like a person no one wants to sit next to on the train. For my own reasons, I prefer “phone ringer,” but today I’ll stick with the more popular term because it rhymes with “dancer,” and that was seed enough to grow this argument, sans outline.

Keep Your Story In Line With An Outline
By Janna G. Noelle

I’ve heard just about every explanation for why pantsers don’t outline their stories:

  • It hinders creativity
  • Knowing how a story’s going to end ruins the fun of actually writing it
  • Plotters are rigid, unimaginative, their work is soulless, and they have cooties
  • Creativity is a transcendent process wherein a story’s true essence only emerges when permitted to spring forth unfettered in ecstasy of inspiration, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

Or at least the first 30,000 words of true essence.

Yeah, I said it.

30,000 seems to be the magic number where many pantsers’ journeys of discovery comes up short, and unsurprisingly, they realize they’ve run out of plot.

This is unsurprising because of nature of that which pantsers are trying to freestyle. A story isn’t an organic, right-brained, boundless entity; it’s contrived, structured, and logical. No matter how simultaneously beautiful.

Of  course  there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Of course there was going to be a graph. (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Freytags_pyramid.svg)

Nothing that occurs in a story is just ‘coz. Everything needs to fit together in a causal chain of events that points toward an inevitable (though not necessarily predictable) ending.

If the middle of a story is saggy, it’s because it wasn’t set up well enough in Act One.

If a story’s ending is weak, it’s not a problem with the last chapter, it’s a problem on page 127.

In no other endeavour would someone leave the creation of a highly structured entity to a vague impression of how to do it coupled with chance.

If you were building a house, or a business, or a garden, you’d be all too willing to draw up a blueprint, a business plan, or a list of what actually grows in your region lest you plant bananas in the Northwest Territories.

If Eric decided to drive to Vancouver, BC to have this debate with me in person, he wouldn’t just head north in the general direction of Canada (at least I hope he wouldn’t, especially since Vancouver is northwest of New Jersey!)

Rather, he’d want much more detail of where the road ahead actually leads: some timely hints from the British GPS lady, plus a supplementary map of some navigable scale showing every major junction along the way.

Because an outline is map in the truest sense of the word: a representation of everything between here and there to help you not get lost in your own plot.

It’s not a set itinerary you’re beholden to follow. It’s not a prison sentence. You can take your story in a different direction any time you want.

You probably will, for when have you ever had something go 100% according to plan? Even President Eisenhower recognized this:

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

An outline will keep you moving in right direction, providing a reference if you wander too far off the beaten path. It’ll also likely save you a few drafts of backfill and the risk of growing sick of your novel before it’s fully completed.

And in this way, rather than hinder a writer’s creativity, plotting actually sets it free to explore and discover the full range of possibilities within the story you’re actually trying to tell.


There you have it, writers. The battle lines have been drawn (most likely by a plotter; they’re big on setting parameters up front). So where do you stand in this debate? Squarely inside the plotters’ outline? Over there somewhere with that bunch of pantsers gathered sorta together but sorta not because they’re free spirits, you know?

Somewhere in between?

And more importantly: which of us do you think will be the dirtier fighter if this degenerates into a back-alley brawl? All bets are on!


 Hey, gang! Check out Janna’s cross-post on her excellent writing blog, A Frame Around Infinity.

My Life is a Computer Monitor

Do you ever feel like a like a strange sort of blogosphere celebrity when you show up in someone else’s blog one day?

Blogger and writer Janna G. Noelle (whose blog, The Rules of Engagement, is quite insightful about the art and craft of writing) has been doing a series on the daily distractions that writers not named Stephenie Meyer or James Patterson have to deal with as they pursue their dreams of publication.

I had commented to her that my biggest problem is the amount of time I spend staring at a computer monitor because of my job. 40+ hours per week hunched over a keyboard can throw baking soda on one’s creativity when one’s creative outlet also requires being hunched over a keyboard.

Janna devoted a whole post to the subject (and she doesn’t half-ass her posts*), which made me feel famous for some reason. Anyway, enough of my delusions… She came up with two clever ideas to address my excessive amounts of computer face time, which are:

1. Hand write my fiction.

This is genius in its simplicity. When I was much younger, I used to hand write all my stories, and it’s nothing like looking at a monitor. I’d say it’s a different experience entirely, and whatever I write wouldn’t be the same because of it.

Unfortunately, as awesome as this idea is, it probably won’t work for me for a couple of reasons. One is that I write at a furious pace and, because I have damaged joints from 29 years of drumming, my pencil-holding claw will ache fiercely within a few minutes. This problem will reach tragic proportions when I finally write that massive blockbuster and 1000 people show up at my book signings. Is it possible to email my signature to their Kindle devices? Can I give out stickers?

The other concern with this is that I am not a plotter, which means I often write whole chapters I will never use, or I have to move big chunks of scenes around. And I frequently find-and-replace character names I had to change. You get the drift.

I still think Janna’s idea to hand write terrific. So was this one:

2. Change my settings so my home monitor does not resemble my work monitor

This option is more practical for me, though I’m a bit technologically impaired, so I’ve got to figure out how to make MS Word give me pale blue or green pages instead of white ones. I never have to do that at work, so I’ve never figured out how.

I could also try to use the TV as a monitor so it’s not so close to my face. The viewing distance is the biggest headache, I believe. One can only stand looking at something 18 inches away for so long. I feel bad for the monks who made those illuminated manuscripts back in the medieval times. Or were they friars? No, that can’t be. I learned in Canterbury Tales that friars are a bunch of buttheads.

Since Janna posted her piece, I’ve been thinking about what else I can do (and already do) to deal with the computer monitor being an unavoidable part of my livelihood and my art. For example:

A. At work, I’ve been initiating or getting involved in a lot of projects that get me away from the desk.

B. I’ve been buffering my work time and my personal writing time with music. If you scroll back a post or two, you know that I like to noodle around on the guitar and write songs. Jamming for 45 minutes can often serve to reboot my creativity, since playing guitar stimulates a different part of my brain.

C. I got a story idea. When I talked to Janna about my conundrum, I had just completed the eight-millionth draft of a 10k word novelette and felt pretty burnt out (and bummed that it is probably unpublishable). Then, the other day, three words randomly popped into my head, and I instantly knew they were going to be the first three words of my next story. I started writing it two days ago, and, as I’m sure you can all relate, once you get that fire started, nothing is putting it out until you type The End.

So thanks, Janna, for getting me thinking.

And thanks, those of you reading this, for allowing me to prattle on about myself for 700 words. I’ll try to make it more about you next time. I swear!


*go ahead. Somebody male a “whole-ass” joke. You know you want to.