There are two basic ways to write a novel: you can plot it or you can pants it. If you plot your novel, you work out the plot before you start writing. If you pants your novel, you start writing with an idea in mind but without a developed plot. You write by the seat of your pants. You wing it. You improvise.
It’s best to think of these two options as opposite ends of a spectrum. Your personal style may lie somewhere in between. It could even vary from project to project.
There are pros and cons to each side.
Plotting your novel ahead of time means you don’t have to worry about writing yourself into a corner. You’re far less likely to realize you need to cut fifty pages or eliminate a character. Foreshadowing is much easier when you know what’s coming. Although you’ll still have revise your work—there’s no way to avoid that—the revisions will generally be less intensive and less painful if your manuscript was plotted ahead of time.
If you’re a published writer and want to pitch your agent or editor before you’ve finished a project, plotting is essential. Yes, your plot may change a bit as you go, but you need something substantial to show others.
But pantsing has some advantages, too. Some people don’t like plotting and will drag their feet through the process. They may find that discovering the story as they write is what keeps the passion for the project alive. Once they’ve plotted it, they know the story, and they’re no longer interested in working on it.
Other writers may opt for pantsing because they want their characters to dictate the story. If writers force their characters to follow pre-determined plots, some of the decisions and motivations may seem unnatural and, well, forced.
My debut book, Dead Boy, was pantsed. I started with an idea for the character and a few vague ideas for the plot, but I didn’t know how the story would end, and much of the middle was pretty hazy, too. I was working on the project for fun after another project fell apart. I had a lot of passion for it, but not much else.
This resulted some pretty major revisions as I figured out the plot. Characters changed. Backstories got replaced. It was a lot of work, and I think it would have been easier if I’d done more plotting ahead of time.
These days, when I start a new project, I write a summary. It’s usually around one to two pages long and tells the story from beginning to end. It may include some subplots, but not all. It includes most major developments, but the order is flexible.
As I write the project, I adjust the summary as needed. By the time I’m about fifty pages into my project, I’ve worked out any issues, and the summary is finalized. At this point, I’m confident in the story, and I have fifty pages and a summary to show others.
I’m not going to tell you how you need to write your novel. Writing is an art form, and each artist approaches it differently. If plotting works for you, great. If pantsing works for you, keep it up. If you’re having trouble, though, it’s smart to look at other options, including something in the middle.