by thefourpartland

So, this is the first post in a new series about the process of writing. Each week, I will discuss one aspect with a Pantser, while I’ll provide my (a Plotter’s) point of view. For those who don’t know the terms, a Pantser is an author who writes more or less without a plan, while a Plotter is someone who lays everything out before starting work. As with most things in life, there’s a spectrum between the two. Personally, I plot everything over about 10k words in length. Under that, I freewrite. Megg Jensen, my guest author this week, Pantses everything, as she’ll explain shortly.

As we’re both fantasy authors, this week’s topic is World Building, the process of creating those settings that give flavour and excitement to stories not of this world. Read on to see how one of those crazy Pantser people does it, and then follow the link at the bottom to see my response.

When I have the initial idea for a novel, it’s always a tiny spark inside my mind. I will spend days, sometimes months, thinking about where this spark leads. I allow it to live and grow organically, but only in my thoughts. My preferred genre is fantasy, and all of my novels have been written in a world based upon medieval Europe. I have a BA in medieval history and the familiar conventions and customs are firmly rooted in my consciousness.

When I sit down at my laptop and begin a new novel, I am focused more on character than world. Usually the idea for a story comes from a feeling, or an incident. I know what my character wants (which, as we all know is not the same as what a character needs) and write from there. As a YA (young adult) novelist, my books hover between 50,000 to 60,000 words and I rarely think about the ending until I hit 35,000 to 40,000 words.

Rivers, a hidden grove, an isolated island – all these markers on a map spring up while I’m writing. For instance, in ANATHEMA, a character mentioned a range of mountains in the first chapter. It was an offhand comment by a minor character, but one that solidified itself in my mind. Those mountains became a bit more important in the sequel and will be very important in the final novel of the trilogy.

I didn’t plan the mountains. A character told me, and the reader, that the mountains exist. Voila, mountains in this world.

I didn’t spend all my time in college studying castles and knights in shining armor. Religion, and its impact on women, was a huge focus of much of my coursework. My worlds always have a touch of religion and women’s rights thrown in. I don’t consciously do so, or feel that I need to drive home any particular point about them either, however they always make some kind of appearance.

I enjoy the juxtaposition of tropes from the past of our world, combined with people in an entirely imagined world. I strive to stay away from preaching any particular dogma on social or religious issues, but I adore setting an idea in place and watching how it affects all of my characters, rather than letting them change the conventions of the world. We are all victims, in a sense, to the world surrounding us. How we deal with it and maneuver around it is far more interesting than the rules themselves.

As a lover of fantasy, I know magic always has restrictions. Unlimited power is, quite frankly, boring. I’ve never written a novel where magic is accessible to every character and those who do have it usually are able to wield magic in a unique, and hopefully, unpredictable way. Again, it’s not the magic that’s interesting, but the way it’s utilized.

All these reasons lead to why I am pantser in world building (and all aspects of first draft writing). If I write down the rules of a world then I spend too much time fretting about whether or not I’m following them. Spelling it out is like a death sentence for my writing because then my characters aren’t allowed to explore their world; I find they’re more confined by it.

How would I know this if I’m a pantser? Easy. I tried to force myself into being a plotter. The Spock on my shoulder tells me that order and laws make the world a more perfect place. The Kirk inside me jumps on the teleporter and leads an away mission, even though he knows his place is really on the bridge.

On the novel I attempted to world build before the first draft, I found I was bored with it before I even started writing. If I had everything figured out in the beginning, what was the fun in trying to write it? For me, the discovery of the world while writing is the most thrilling part. It allows me to be a reader of my own works, which is the most amazing gift.

Editing, however, is a totally different and detail-oriented beast. That’s when I let my inner-Spock out to play.

Click here to see my response


  1. Sonia G Medeiros on 07.25.2011

    Very interesting discussion!

    I used to consider myself a die-hard pantser. But I ran into roadblocks with my MIP. Pantsing seems to work very well for me with shorter pieces but not so well with nove-length pieces. Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering finally convinced me that plotting might be more efficient than a dozen rewrites. 😀
    He says that pantsing IS story planning. It’s just worked out a little differently than plotting. An author who successfully pantses through a novel either has a strong grasp (conscious or unconscious) of the 6 core competencies or works them all out through rewrites.

    I always used to cringe at the possibility of an outline. They seemed way too confining. But…I see the benefits. I can work out my scenes in short form and see how they fit together. Then, if I figure out something surprising in a later scene, I can go back and plant foreshadowing, etc in earlier scenes…without a major rewrite.

    I also never consider myself bound to the outline. If I come up with a different idea that works better, I’ll just adjust the outline and go from there. 😀

  2. The Four Part Land on 07.26.2011

    My general rule is I will pants most things under 10k in length. At that distance of story, a single idea is enough to carry from start to finish. Above that (and even under it, sometimes), I will use plots. They may not be the most extensive, but they provide a solid frame from which to hang a story.

    And, to be honest, the concepts of rewriting over and over again to get the story properly in shape seems a bit of a wasted effort, when you could do the same thing, but in outline form, and churn out many more possible frameworks in the same amount of time.

  3. Megg Jensen on 07.26.2011

    Hi Sonia,

    So far I haven’t had any plot issues while pantsing (knock on wood). And really my first drafts are just plain ugly. I usually end up changing the story as I go and have to completely rewrite the beginning. I just enjoy the flow of words as I first draft. To me, it’s the flow that’s most exciting. 🙂


  4. Lee on 07.25.2011

    I like what you’re doing here. What a great collaborative effort to describe both processes!

    I’m neither a pantser or a plotter. I’ve done both, enjoyed both, and I’ve come to learn that whichever process I choose depends entirely on what I’m trying to write.

    Either way, I take copious notes throughout the story, which I guess sometimes turns me into a pantser/plotter, where I take a break in the middle of a chapter to plot out the rest of the chapter, and continue to write until I feel like I need to reassess my plot again. Both work, of course, and it all depends on the writer which way they want to approach a story.

  5. The Four Part Land on 07.26.2011

    That’s an interesting way of going about things. Personally, I decide on the plot of the chapter before it starts, and then write the whole thing. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a note in the middle of a story, in fact.

    I think I’d actually have extreme difficulties with your method, because it feels like it would break the flow of writing quite badly. Although that might be in relation to how my stories flow, which is fairly connected and with very limited scene breaks. I wrote a 145k novel with just 7 chapters, to give you an idea of how little I break stories apart.

  6. Megg Jensen on 07.26.2011

    Hi Lee,

    I also make notes within my manuscript while I’m first drafting. I talk a lot to myself. I guess my pantsing is really a way to create a really long, ugly outline. 😉


  7. The Four Part Land on 07.28.2011

    You could save yourself the effort and write a short, tight outline you know 😉

  8. Anonymous on 07.26.2011

    I think I fall in between. While I pants on somethings, my series is a definate plotter. (Plus, my wonderful advisor Dr. Starostina would have a fit if she ever believed that I pantsed because she is always after me about my outlines for my history conference papers.) Although I can say that with my series I do allow my mind to wander and sometimes if affects the plotting as I get off topic and go somewhere not where I intended. Anyhoo, great article.

  9. The Four Part Land on 07.28.2011

    Oh god, no, I would not want to pants my history papers. Although, looking back, that is more or less what I did.

    I think that every plot has to have enough room in it for the characters to come alive and suggest changes to the story as it’s going along. After all, the first draft of anything isn’t the perfect story, otherwise editing and revising wouldn’t be needed.

  10. Plotter vs Pantser: World Building « The World of The Tiger Princess on 07.27.2011

    […] your attention to a blog post series about the process of writing that I am collaborating on with James Tallett and Megg […]

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