Dear Marcus: Why you should plot. And me, too. Because pantsers are in league with the Devil

Marcus: So, let me toss this at you. If you have an editor (and you absolutely should) who is doing developmental editing, he/she’s going to want to see an outline SO THAT you don’t have to go back and edit the **** out of the manuscript after the fact. 2nd, creating a novel shouldn’t be (and this idea is from Kait Nolan, and I’m paraphrasing from her introduction to the Story Toolkit by Bischoff) like just getting in your car and driving off down an Irish road hoping for the perfect romance at the end, that’s more likely to end up in you running out of gas, in the rain.

Plus, changing your outline is much more simple than changing thousands and thousands of words. It’s an outline. A few sentences about what happens here, what happens there, and so on. The point is that you change the outline first so that number of words being changed goes down from 10000 to 250. That’s working smarter, not harder, right? (Show, don’t tell! Hahahaha don’t hit me. Sorry. Dave Koster loves that piece of advice. (See his comment in response to my inanity)) Take the screenplays for the Lord of the Rings vs. The Hobbit. Besides the fact that the Hobbit was a bloated little piece of filmmaking, the Producer was freaking pantsing his way through the movie, which means it isn’t an inspired drive through the Irish countryside to find some beautiful little colleen hanging out waiting for you at the end. It was a hugely wasteful production that cost a lot of extra money to make because Peter freaking Jackson couldn’t take time out to do a little planning. So, think of driving an enormous bulldozer around the Irish countryside, paying off property owners of the places you destroyed, and hoping to get there without a map. That’s Peter Jackson in a nutshell.

Did you check out 2,000 to 10,000? It’s a buck. Go get it and read it. Rachel Aaron shows the path to professional proficiency in this craft, and it ain’t down the no-outline road. That road has only one car going down it of any substance, and it’s got Maine license plates and belongs to Stephen King. The other road, the one with outlines? That’s filled with tons of authors who publish work after work, successfully, year after year. They have a system. It works.


I’m not going to dignify pantsing with any sort of half-mumbled “if it works for you,” because I don’t think it does. It doesn’t work. It’s a lousy system and has given such masterworks as the claptrap from James Joyce, who was clearly driving down an Irish road looking for something, but it wasn’t romance. Probably another bottle of Jamesons, as this one seems to be empty.

James Joyce. Look at that eyepatch. Wait, wait: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…” Ugh. Double ugh. This is penal writing, the sort of prose that should be forced on people who do comma splices. Which I think we were doing in high school, so we deserved to be saddled with this awfulness.

All those people who say, “I pants and I do just fine,” those people are evil demons who are trying to ruin your full potential. DO NOT LISTEN TO THEM. Especially the über successful ones. Because the only way they could be über successful was if they had a pact with the Devil, who is clearly a supporter of pantsing.

7 thoughts on “Dear Marcus: Why you should plot. And me, too. Because pantsers are in league with the Devil

  1. My, my…I’m so glad I’m an atheist otherwise I might start feeling terribly inadequate.

    Outlining is a process, so is pantsing and spouting ‘Thou shalt nots’ is simply…silly. If outlining works for you, then fine. Personally, I can’t imagine how you create a nuanced story that is neither predictable nor dull…but that’s just me and I’m sure you would not appreciate /me/ telling /you/ how to do your job.

    Or was this all just click bait and I bit?


    • Everything on my site is click bait, more or less. It’s the nature of blogs. Now, I just need to figure out a way to monetize those clicks.

      Seriously, though, although I’m not a good practitioner of plotting–I’d rather just sort of muddle my way through the story–that method isn’t a good way to practice this art commercially.

      Of course, that assumes that everyone wants to write books commercially. People have different reasons for writing. If you’re not interested in the financial part of this, then yes, pants at it and you’ll eventually reach the end, or not. The thing of it is that if you’re a professional writer who depends on creating content to eat, then you’ll want to find ways to write your books faster while preserving the thing that makes them unique and pleasant for the universe.

      James Scott Bell, in his book, “Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story,” says of structure (but can be applied to plotting an outline equally well):
      “Consider: What makes something a formula:
      It works.
      It’s been tested and proven to be reliable.
      If you go to a doctor and need a shot, you want him to give you what has been used over and over with success.
      You don’t want a doctor who says, “So, I was playing around this morning with some baking soda, water, pepper and chicken entrails, and I’d like to see if that’ll work for you. What do you say?”
      “Um, excuse me?”
      “Sure! I was being creative! Just going for it! I wasn’t tied down to old-fashioned ideas and formulas. They tried to put that in my head in med school. Well, I’m a rebel. And I’m much happier now! Roll up your sleeve, please.”

      Right. You want formula.”
      (James Scott Bell, Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story)
      Plotting is the formula for deciding what’s next. You do that all the time, it’s just that you do it the expensive way. It’s like downhill skiing: One skier uses the wedge/snowplow to go down the hill, the other uses stem christies. The stem guy is going to get about 20 runs in that day, the wedge guy is going to get 3 runs. The wedge guy is more tired because he’s working against his equipment to go slow, while the stem guy might be tired because of all the runs he did, but he isn’t going to be as sore as the wedge guy, I promise you.

      When you pants, you are doing plotting, it’s just last-minute plotting. You still have to put the time in, and it’s not any different creatively than pantsing through 80000 words and getting to the end. You must think of how to do the transitions, who is going to say what, what they do, why they do it, and so on. You’re still doing plotting, it’s just micro plotting done on the fly. Because what really happens is that you get to the end, and then you go back and do editing. Hours and hours of it. Why are you editing? Because you have to fix the plotting problems in the manuscript.


      • Okay, fair enough. I guess your click bait does result in attention, and attention equates to visibility so I can’t fault that. And if you prefer to outline because it is more professional in your view, then I can’t fault that either. Beyond that, however, your opinion carries as much weight as mine.


  2. Now, if I were the egotistical sort, I might say to myself “wow, a whole blog post dedicated to me, it even semi-quotes a remark I made on an earlier post.” Of course, not being such, I can only wonderful who (whom?) this remarkable person is that warrants this post…
    And what’s wrong with James Joyce? Because your words are in my head … no wait, that was because your voice was at my side … well, not your voice – because this isn’t an audio post … anyway – nice post. Thanks for sharing it 🙂
    — and I guess when I get an editor I’ll have to start outlining —


    • It’s because my long-arsed responses feel like they should be posts, otherwise, my content gets lost in the comments. See above. See what I mean? Plus I can use pictures and stuff and big colored letters.

      You can outline without an editor. I assure you, it’s painless.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My writing mentor calls pantsing gunslinging, and it works well for me, so I keep doing it. The weird thing is that I’m a bit of a control freak, so pantsing is totally against my nature, but plotting and planning bores me stupid and kills my motivation to write. I pantsed my last MS and it took a lot of editing to sort the structure out, lesson one being that writing random scenes as they come to you ends up being much harder work than hanging onto them in your mind until you get to the right part in the story to write them down. I’m doing the first draft of a new MS now and being a little more disciplined about writing A-Z, but I’m still gunslinging it and the enthusiasm has hardly waned.


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