This is one of those strange areas in which the answer seems perfectly obvious: whatever works.
The problem that most people have isn’t grasping the fact that while plotting works for some authors, it doesn’t work for others. Most people get that.
The problem is, they don’t know which option will work for them.
For me, it’s a mixed bag.
I’ll give you two examples:
- I woke up one morning with a story idea in my head. I outlined it, and started typing. (My outline for it was only a couple of pages, but it was a novella). I typed and followed my outline and 26K words later, I was done. That story was Iron Shoes, and went on to be a Nebula finalist in 2010.
2. I had an idea for a long time, and finally put together an outline for the story. It was a few pages long (again, a novella), and I sat down and began typing. Within three paragraphs, one of the throw-away characters who didn’t even have a name suddenly took on a personality…and then I had to give him a name, and a story, and a reason for even being in scene 1. (That would be Duilio). And I tossed away my outlline, then sat there and wrote in a fever until 15K later, I had a novella, “Of Ambergris, Blood, and Brandy”. That novella was later rewritten as a novel, The Golden City (a Locus Award finalist for 2013)
My point being that both things worked for me. Yes, I prefer to outline, but…sometimes the outline just can’t contain what’s going on with the story. Could I have written The Golden City without having Duilio Ferreira suddenly appear in it? Could I have simply followed my outline? Yes.
It would have been a different story. It might have been a better story…or a horrible one.
Here’s what I do:
I generally start out with a halfhearted outline-usually only a few pages long. Then I start writing. I’ve learned that for me, the outline -usually- loses contact with the story somewhere about the 2/3 mark. (The Golden City was an aberration, with the breakaway coming on page 1. Iron Shoes, on the other hand, never broke away.)
That’s when I do my REAL outlining–at the 2/3 point. I sit down and figure out where all my plot points need to fall, how long I have, and what loose ends I still need to tie up. It’s one of the least fun parts of my writing process, because I really want to stop and get back to writing words. But I make an effort.
Then I start writing again. And once I get to end of a novel, I check in with my outline and tweak it a bit, and start my edit pass.
So generally, I’m using a hybrid form of pantsing and plotting. It’s what works for me.
Therefore, I’m not going to come down on either side, the plotting or pantsing side. The trick is to know that one tactic isn’t necessarily better than the other.
For me, the situation appears to be this:
- Outlining will work for one writer, but not another.
- Outlining can work for one writer for one story, and yet not the next.
- Outlining can work in tandem with pantsing on the same story.
- The situation can change. Plotters become pantsers and vice versa.
So try them both out. See which fits better. Be reckless and combine them! There’s no rule that says you have to pick one method and stick with it for the rest of your life. (Unless you get a tattoo. Then you’re stuck.)
Bonus story: At a workshop, I had to write a story in 24 hours. I plotted the snot out of that thing, researching and setting up the small world where a clockwork-type factory functioned under the streets of Paris, doling out life and death. I slept for about three hours that night, and when I got up, started writing….a TOTALLY DIFFERENT STORY. I actually managed to get that 7K monstrosity typed out before the deadline that afternoon, but it was a close shave.
That story was “Fleurs du Mal”, which was later published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. And other than being set in Paris, it has NOTHING in common with the story I outlined.
Why this happens, I don’t know.