An Idea! It hits you like a spark of lightning, a gift from the muse. Suddenly, you're inspired. There's an awesome story floating around your head, all new and shiny and pretty. But now comes the big question:
How do I write this idea?
Well, the most basic answer to that is: you write it.
But of course, that's not particularly helpful, is it?
There are, however, a few standard approaches to getting started and writing in general. They're known by a slew of different names, but perhaps the most common you'll come across are pantser, plantser, and planner.
But let's take a closer look at each of these groups, and maybe try to figure out where you belong and how you should go about writing your story.
Quick DISCLAIMER: I fully believe that you will not know what sort of writer you are at the start. Try each method! You might think outlines hamper your creativity, when really you haven't found the right type for you. Or you might think you could never pants because every time you try, the story runs out of steam after a few chapters. That might be more the case of not understanding story structure and how to keep momentum going, rather than not being a pantser.
As with everything writing related, it takes some experimentation to figure out where you belong, and everybody is going to have their own process.
Okay, let's get started!
Pantsing (by the seat of your pants)
Pantsers are the wild, chaotic, magical group of writers, at least to me (disclaimer: I'm a heavy planner!) These are the people who can take a singular character, throw them into a world they know nothing about, and create a story. Truly, they are witches. Magical witches I will never understand.
I like to use the analogy of a road trip when talking about writing. Let's say you're starting in NYC, seems like a decent starting place, right? If you're a pantser, you'll probably show up at a friend's apartment one day and say "let's go on a road trip!"
You don't have a plan. You don't have a destination in mind. You just want to go on an adventure. You might end up in Washington or Canada or Ohio. Or you might not even make it out of the city, because you found a more interesting adventure right at home. That's the heart of the pantser: you follow the adventure, with no plan in mind.
ADVANTAGES: Pantsing gives you a lot of creative freedom. Because you don't know where your story is going, you're never tied down to a specific plot or character arc. You're discovering the story right alongside your characters. This gives you a lot of freedom to go off and explore and do whatever you or your character wants to do. Most pantsers will say that an outline stifles their creativity, and they'd rather see at most a few chapters into the future. Or none at all.
DISADVANTAGES: Because you're discovering the story right alongside your characters, a pantsed story will often need more editing to actually wrangle that mess into something coherent at the end. It takes more work in the long run, and can be seen as less efficient. Of course, as you write more and get a better handle on how story structure works, there's a good chance you'll come up with cleaner first drafts. But if this is your very first story: expect a mess. And that's okay, everyone's first story is a mess, no matter what type of writer you are!
The middle ground. The people who know a few plot points, but not how to get there. These guys have a lot of the advantages of both camps—a rough guide, and the freedom to figure things out as they go. The story will often grow with them, but they also have a solid destination in mind, so it's harder to veer completely off track.
Let's go back to the road trip analogy. You grab your friend, and you both agree you really want to end up in Oregon. You also know that you've always wanted to visit New Orleans, and your friend really wants to see the Grand Canyon. You have a destination, and you have a few stops along the way. Anything else though? It's whatever little roadside attraction catches your eye. You have the freedom to have fun and explore and go off on tangents, but you also know that, in the end, you're going to stop at a few really good places.
ADVANTAGES: You have some goal posts! This means you're not entirely wandering around in the dark. You still get some of the creative freedom of a pantser, but you also have some loose structure to keep you from wandering into too dark an alley.
DISADVANTAGES: I'm going to be honest, I can't think of any major disadvantages to being a plantser, because it's such a beautiful middle ground. It does run the risk of just sort of...leaving your goalposts behind to go off on an adventure and pantsing most of the story. I've seen this happen mostly with people who either don't have the best basic outline to start, or simply aren't good with sticking to them.
Others might find that they need a more detailed outline, and that just a few vague stops along the way isn't enough to keep them on track. In this way, the biggest disadvantage to being a Plantser is also it's biggest advantage: you're smack dab in the middle of two very vocal camps, and it can be easy to fall to one side or another, and that might not be what's best for your process.
Ah, my lovely planners. Full disclaimer: I am a planner. This is my cozy cottage home, complete with many cups of tea and detailed outlines! Planners do, however, come in many varieties. And I can't even begin to stress how important it is to figure out what type of planner you are (or might be!)
Some like to create detailed character sheets, or huge lore bibles, or entire books just on worldbuilding. Others like intricate outlines that track multiple plots and character arcs down to the finest details. But some planners will just have a general overview—more plot points than a plantser, but none of those extra character sheets or worldbuilding.
And don't even get me started on outlines. There will be a separate post on figuring out how to outline, because outlines are not one size fits all!
With the road trip analogy, planners are those who have a detailed itinerary. It might not be down to the minute, but they know what they're doing each day, and how much time they have to get from one place to another. Planners don't get lost, and they might cram in more places than the other two, but they also don't have the same sense of adventure: at least on the road. That doesn't mean they don't have fun making the plans in the first place!
ADVANTAGES: Generally, if you consider yourself a planner, you have everything you need right in front of you. I'm a planner because I like to be able to look at my scene-grid, know what I need to write, and just write it. For me, personally, this means I rarely run into writers block. The story is already figured out, I just need to put that into words!
Planners will often have at least a little less work on the editing front. Because they've gone through the process of creating an outline, they tend to know pretty well how their story is going to turn out. Of course, this doesn't mean the first draft is going to be perfect—not by a long shot—or that everything will be exactly how it is in their outline. Generally, though, there are less plot holes to plug than what pantsers will find.
DISADVANTAGES: a lot of the creativity is done up front, during brainstorming or outlining stages. For some people, this takes away the magic of actually writing the story, because it feels like it's already been told and there's nothing left to discover.
It's also possible for some to get sucked into a black hole of planning, where you're too afraid to start writing you until you know everything is absolutely perfect and you know every tiny detail. This can very easily become a hindrance rather than a help!
So you have a shiny new idea...
And, hopefully after reading through this, you have a better grasp on a few of the common approaches to writing! But what do you do if you still have no idea where to start? You don't know if you're a planner or a pantser or a plant? You've never written before, how are you supposed to already know?!?
You're not. And that's okay. A huge part of writing is figuring out what your own personal process is. But, if you want a bit of hand holding, I can tell you where I would start.
As a plant(ser). Figure out your ending—everything is easier if you have a destination in mind! Then figure out where you want to start. From there, do a bit of brainstorming (it's okay if it's all in your head!) and gather a couple of plot points or scenes in the middle. Ideally, these would be major plot changes, but it's okay if they're not. You're still figuring things out. You just want a couple of things to be writing toward so you don't get too lost.
And then? Well, then you start writing. And as you go, you might discover that you prefer knowing more about what's coming up. You might find yourself making bullet-pointed lists for the upcoming chapters, or going back and making character sheets.
Or you might discover that that beautiful ending you thought up? Yeah, once your character appeared on the page, they decided to do something else. And that's perfectly okay—go on an adventure, follow them to the unknown!
You might also discover that those couple plot points you figured out was exactly what you needed, and a plant(ser) you may be.
Most importantly though: know that there is no right or wrong way to start writing. It's okay if you start with a detailed outline and it goes off the rails in the first chapter. It's okay if you try to pants and get stuck on chapter 3 and decide you need some sort of goal post to move toward. It's okay if you end up with a giant stack of notes that don't make any sense and your characters only sometimes go where you want them to go.
Writing is personal. And it's going to take some time to figure out your own process. But you won't figure that out if you don't:
- Experiment. Explore. Try out different things.
- Start Writing.
So go on, give that shiny new idea some time on the page, and lets see what shows up.