Planners versus Pantsers – How I Write – by Suzanne Church

Okay – so I am rested up a little bit.

Here is that second guest post I promised you folks today – from Canadian Science Fiction author Suzanne Church!

Suzanne Church color headshot 2012 google

Planners Versus Pantsers

Suzanne Church juggles her time between throwing her characters to the lions and chillin’ like a villain with her two sons. She writes Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror because she enjoys them all and hates to play favorites. Her award-winning fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Cicada, and On Spec, and in several anthologies including Urban Green Man and When the Hero Comes Home 2. Her collection of short fiction, ELEMENTS is published by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.

In the writing business, writers can generally be divided into two categories: Planners and Pantsers.

Planners tend to outline what they will write before they compose the first sentence of a project. They might simply rough out the major and minor plot points, or structure the story chapter by chapter, or even block out each scene in detail. Planners will also use a variety of tools at their disposal, such as indexed cue cards, color-coded sticky notes, or cross-referenced spreadsheets. Some of my writer friends swear by Scrivener, the word processing and novel plotting software. I tried Scrivener, but haven’t used it yet to plan out a novel.

Pantsers write by the seat of their pants. They open a word processing document, glance at the blank page, and then start writing. They claim that while they’re in the zone they allow the characters to speak for themselves, take the author in interesting directions, and make their own decisions.

I’ve tried both techniques. I tend to write short fiction as a pantser and novels as a planner.

In my opinion, two books on planning and analyzing plot and structure are particularly helpful for Planners. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

For my recent major novel overhaul, I made copies of each page in the Breakout Novel workbook, and then worked through every exercise before I performed a full-on editing pass. I believe the result was a much stronger and more organized draft. For the same book, I also created a Blake Snyder “Beat Sheet” that lists the timing of all the book’s plot points.

Then I used my favorite planning tool…Excel to create a multi-worksheet planning file.

Worksheet 1 contains the list of each chapter’s number, title, the number of words in the chapter, a word count of the most recent edit for the chapter, and the date I worked on it.

Worksheet 2 references the numbers and names of the chapters from WS1, but then also lists the purpose, theme, and Beat Sheet pacing numbers for each chapter.

Worksheet 3 lists every character (major and minor) that appears in the book, their purpose to the story, their major traits (hair and eye color, habits, preferences) as well as my “alphabet check” to ensure I haven’t overused one particular letter in the alphabet (to avoid having five characters’ names all begin with the letter D).

Worksheet 4 is where I track all of the setting details for the book. For each location I list every detail referenced in the book, so I can be consistent scene to scene — color of the walls, size of the couch, ceiling height, fridge color, ceiling fan vs florescent lights, door to the yard, etc.

Essentially my spreadsheet is my bible (or codex if you prefer) and can be especially helpful if I need to set the novel aside for a while. Then, after working on other stories in other universes, I can return to the novel-in-question, open my spreadsheet, and quickly recall all of the important details I’ll need to begin again.

Overall, you have to find which technique works best for you as a writer. Maybe, like me, you’ll use a combo — pantser for short stories and planner for novels — or perhaps you’ll come up with another technique that works for you.

ELEMENTS: A Collection of Speculative Fiction is available now in Canada and April 30, 2014 in the USA from EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.

Elements web page size


3 responses to “Planners versus Pantsers – How I Write – by Suzanne Church

  1. That’s serious planning. Wow. And I love the cover.


  2. I am kind of a pantser until something begins to take focus and then I outline to put these people in perspective. I love your book cover.


  3. Pingback: My recent Blog Tour Posts - Author Suzanne Church

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