Novel Writing

Advice Please: To Plot or Not to Plot?

Are you a panster or an outliner? Do you plan your stories in minute detail or do you let the words take you where they will? Are you a JK Rowling or a Stephen King?

I want to be a pantser, I really do. It’s so romantic. I dream of letting the pen take me where it will and following its call. I tried it. For a while, I would give myself an hour a day and let the word vomit flow.

But it didn’t flow.

I found myself, confused and irritated, sat in front of the blank computer screen with no clue of where to go. Suffering from literary constipation.

When the muses did strike me, I would find I had a string of scenes, so different from each other in style and content that they could have come from separate novels.

I had to face the sad reality that I need an outline. But my disappointment was short lived as I soon found a love for the order and creativity I found in my outline.

 As an administrator with a science degree, it’s not hard to see why I need to organise my writing. I am detail orientated and precise person with a creative flair, so for me, a strong outline is a necessity.

There are a thousand and one posts out there about the for and against’s for outlines which are incredibly varied in advice. My plan is to get a range of opinions from you wonderful writers on the blogosphere and put a collaborative post listing the benefits of pantsing and outlining.

I would love to hear from you in the comments section. I will write a post collating all the comments and linking to your blogs. 

What I’d love to know is –

  • Are you a Pantser or an Outliner?
  • ONE benefit you have found from being a panster/outliner? 

Thank you again for your wonderful advice and wisdom. Last time I did this with sentence starters the information gained was priceless.

 

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81 thoughts on “Advice Please: To Plot or Not to Plot?

  1. Both! I start as a pantster, spend the middle as a plotter, weaving in all the bits I came up with in the beginning, and then at the end I revert to a pantster again. Ultimately though, it really doesn’t matter how you get the story done so long as it is well crafted and not boring. If you can see the story better with a top down approach then that’s what you should use. Good luck!

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    1. Very good point, it seems that a hybrid of both is very popular. I guess your pantsing at the beginning a good way of investigating the story you are going to tell. Thank you for sharing!

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      1. I would agree that both are absolutely necessary – if I try to strictly follow a plot, my story ends up not flowing nearly as smoothly. Before I start writing I have an idea of the main character and where I want to end it up, and as I go on I take notes on decisions I make reguarding worldbuilding, characters, and events that are likely going to happen in the future. This leads to a constantly changing plot.

        Plotting definitely allows the managing of much more complex novels, and in relation to this my plots get more detailed the closer to the middle of the story I get.

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  2. Hi Amy. I used to be a pantser. Then, five full rewrites and ten years later, I realised I was going to have to be a plotter if I ever stand a chance of getting an agent to look at my work. I always thought that plotting would stifle creativity and take the enjoyment out of writing, but if anything it’s made me enjoy writing more, probably because I now have a clear idea and plan of where I’m heading. I think there are some pantsers who can keep all the necessary ingredients of a good novel in their head, but I’m not one of them. Plotting helps me keep track of character arcs, theme, plots, subplots, story beats, light and shade, and all the other pieces that we have to slot together in order to write a compelling story. I’ve even started using Scrivener and now I don’t know how I’d have managed without it!

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    1. I love Scrivener, especially the ability to move between mobile and PC. This is a very interesting plot, I have often wondered how pantsers keep everything in their heads, I think I am similar to you. Thank you for your comment

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  3. I didn’t have an outline with my first book and the result was about a year wasted and half the book deleted when the story didn’t pan out and I began to learn the “rules” of romance. Since then I’ve become a plotter and will outline the chapters pretty heavily before I even start the novel. Now, this doesn’t mean that the outline is set in stone. Sometimes, I find that something doesn’t work or my characters decide to take a different road. But, I find that if I don’t have the outline, I hit more brick walls than when I have it.

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  4. Hello again. I think there are advantages (and disadvantages) to going exclusively one way or the other, for me I started as a pantser and had the same experience as yourself, became a plotter and got bogged down then settled on a middle of the road solution. I plot the outline and events that I want, and add a few details about what I want to happen here and there but I avoid being to prescriptive. That way the structure that I build to guide doesn’t constrict me. It just lets me know that readers need to know about A before B or whatever. Then I just have at it and see what happens, which often leads to other elements of plot growing

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  5. I often start as a panster, then find myself outlining (I use that loosely, as it’s mostly me jotting notes somewhere) as I write so that I don’t have to carry my ideas around and make myself remember them. Outlining is helpful if I have an idea that just won’t quit when I’m currently working on another project. I have difficulty working on more than one story at a time, so outlining a future story helps scratch the itch. More often than not, I find that my finished pieces never match the outline; but they are very useful in assuring me I have a plot, or at least the beginning of one!

    Plot usually comes to me when I write, so while it helps to have a basic idea and trajectory on paper to get me started, I find it better just to make myself start writing. Part of this is because my pieces are usually heavy in dialogue. My first drafts of chapters often read like a conversation or script, and in getting my characters to speak, I learn things about the story. The natural flow of a conversation helps me figure out what they think and what will happen to them much more easily than me writing notes in the third person.

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  6. Like John, I do a bit of both. I didn’t have much of an issue with “vomit,” but I only write my stories one day a week and ran into the issue of forgetting where my plot had left off. That, and the characters took their time getting into things which bogged down the plot – they have minds of their own. I eventually mapped out a general course by creating scenes in Scrivener and writing out a synopsis for each. If I feel I need to insert chunks I hadn’t foreseen, I do.

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    1. That’s very interesting, I write little and often and it’s very difficult to get in the flow. Do you write for a number of hours on that one day? It’s a very interesting approach, I’d love to hear more.

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      1. I blog daily, so I designate “Fiction Tuesday” to continue my stories. I write on Monday, and only around 1200 words. It’s about an hour or so of writing, and another hour editing later in the day.

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  7. I think that your personal experience is the answer you’re looking for. I’m a pantster and while I experience dry spells like most other writers, it is the method where I work best. I tried the detail outline and got nowhere – blank. However, my skeleton outline works well for me. The words only flow when I’m in front of a keyboard. Nothing flows with pen and paper. My advice is to do what works best for you.

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  8. I think this is an individual matter, so I will respond with my point of view. I just start writing and let it flow from there with my articles, blog posts and diary. With the first two, I go back to edit them to make sure they are coherent. I’m not James Joyce writing Ulysses. In my books, mostly nonfiction, I work from a general outline but don’t plan minute details. When I get to a particular item in my outline, I usually do research to see what others have to say and then combine what I have found with my opinions. Then I go back to edit, again to make sure what I write is coherent.

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    1. Great stuff, thank you for sharing. It’s interesting to hear other writers methods. I find your research a good point. I currently don’t do this, perhaps I should implement it!

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  9. I’m a recent convert from pantsing to plotting. The biggest advantage I’ve found to plotting is that if there is a problem, I figure it before I’ve devoted 10 pages to it that need to be taken out and have to rewrite 20 more.

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  10. Funnily enough, I wrote a post about this back in April detailing my experience in this matter. Until last year, I had always been a writer who plans my stories from beginning to end before writing them, because any time I attempted to make it up as I go, it ended in disaster. Unfortunately, my outlines tended to be done in such minute detail that they became like strait-jackets. This ultimately prevented me from ever completing a novel length story because after going to all that trouble, I was unwilling to stray from my outline for any reason, even if it made sense to do so.

    Fortunately, writing The Exercise Of Vital Powers last year helped me to identify the perfect compromise for me. I’ve put the link to my post below so you can have a gander; though it sounds like you are a planner.

    Is Failing To Plan, Planning To Fail?

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  11. I’d say I’m a hybrid of the two. I usually start with a concept that gets me going, but as the story unfolds, I start outlining it to the end. This is because I can’t write as fast as the ideas come to me so I get them down in a quick and rough outline so I can catch up with the actual prose. The advantage to outlining is that it gives you rails to follow, a direction for your story to go. The advantage of being a pantser is that your stories can grow organically as they are developed instead of having obvious plot insertions that might meet your outline expectations, but don’t feel like part of the story.
    I’d say you have to do what works for you, and that is probably going to change from book to book. I’ve had stories that came to me whole cloth and I had to do an outline before I even started, but usually I play around with ideas until the story clicks into place.

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  12. I’m a plotter (or to use George RR Martin’s term: an architect). I have tried pantsing (or again according to Martin: being a gardener) at NaNoWriMo and while I did manage to get to the end, I felt unsafe and uncomfortable, like I was on thin ice.
    In my experience detailed plotting will make for a better first draft, since you’ve already gone on the journey while writing the outline. You know where to start, you know where to end and you’ve got a good idea of what needs to happen to get you from A to B. You’re basically following a path that has been laid out for you and while you’re allowed to leave said path for a while, you don’t need to worry about getting lost since you’ve got your map at all times to guide you to your destination.
    Gardening on the other hand is a lot more adventurous, but also more dangerous. You’re walking through the woods, trying to find a way between the trees, but you’ve got no idea in which direction you’re supposed to walk. You could find yourself at a dead end. Consequently, I believe this will result in a much rougher first draft. You’ll need to delete a lot and might be forced to rewrite entire scenes. This is the point where you’ll need to make up for not outlining. I really think that the editing process of a pantser is much longer and more intensive than that of the plotter.

    I know for a fact, that if I were to “pants” the story, I would feel obliged after the first draft to start all over again. So I will need to write a second or a third draft before I can actually start editing. No thanks. Outlining is so much more fun for me.

    Another plus about outlining, is that you’ll know your characters in advance, so they’ll come to life more easily when writing. They will speak up if I planned a scene that doesn’t agree with his or her personality. Once again, it’s a question of wanting to work more in advance or during the editing process.

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  13. I’m a big time plotter. I find that knowing the entire story beginning to end at a very high level helps me fill in the details without suffering writer’s block as often. Also, I don’t feel it “stifles creativity” because outlining is writing the story. Plus, I often divert from my outlines, and they help me to adjust facts & structure in subsequent revisions.

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  14. I’m a bit of both. When I first have an idea, I let myself write freely for a bit until I have a better idea of the direction it’s going to take. Then I outline and create character profiles, location references and detailed timeline. Then I write. Once the outline etc is done, I feel like I have more freedom when I’m actually writing because I’m not thinking about plot so much.

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  15. I would say that I’m a mix of both too, seeing that I would plan a little before I start writing, figure out the general characters, the world, the plot in general. Or at worst, just write a premise and just start writing. My planning tends to be rather loose and has a lot of leeway for me to throw it out the window or rework it should it become necessary, in case when I wrote something a wholly new idea came to me and I started writing it. So, I would say that for me, it has to be a mix of the two. Most details I would just dive in and write, but for the general bigger picture I would have some sort of plan so that it would all come together.

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  16. Having been formally trained as a screenwriter, a discipline in which you have to be able to pitch the entirety of the story (often before you’re been hired to write it), I am a meticulous plotter: I start with a logline, then develop a “beat sheet” (an outline that covers the story’s fifteen major turning points), then lay out the plot step by step on forty index cards. Only once all that legwork is done do I “go to pages.”

    I could give you lots of reasons, Amy, why taking a disciplined, methodical approach to storytelling craft is beneficial (though admittedly not for everyone), but since you only asked for one, here it is: By spending so much time on the front end “breaking the back of the story” — figuring out the plotting and thematics and character arcs in advance — when I do commence work on the first draft, it’s like I’ve given myself this amazing playset and all these brand-new action figures, and now I can finally take them out of the packaging. And because I’ve given the characters — and myself — a reliable narrative framework, I feel comfortable making digressions (unplanned character moments, philosophical ruminations, what have you) that help give the story its soul. Rather than stifling moments of surprise and inspiration, structure allows for these things, because I never have to worry about whether the plot is tracking or where I’ll take the story next; on the contrary, the coordinates have been programmed into my GPS, freeing me up to enjoy the scenery along the way.

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  17. I am personally a panster. I hate outlines, except for when I write my blog posts. They tend to make me stare at my blank computer screen and want to bash my head against the desk. I find them really rigid and they stifle my creativity. When I just let the words flow it usually goes really smoothly and quickly. I also find without the outline that my characters really speak to me because I haven’t slotted them into a preset story. I do generally have a very loose outline of where I want the story to go, but it’s the option to do something different that makes it more fun to write for me personally.

    As to Elliot’s comment about rewriting and editing for a panster, I find that I don’t have to do a lot of that. Generally what I put down doesn’t need a lot of work as it stays pretty true as to the character and what I intend to convey. If i have to do extensive re-writes or editing it’s because it was a bad writing day, which happens to the best of us.

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    1. Wow it sounds like you have a real talent for pantsing! I am jealous. I find that my characters change so much as I plot and write my first few ideas, it’s brilliant that you have such a clear idea at the start

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  18. Hmm, sadly, I had to google “pantser”, because I had no idea what that meant. I really need to work on my writing lingo. Interestingly, I do a bit of both, not necessarily at the same time. I generally have a hazy outline in my head, and then I start writing. As I write, I will often have ideas that come to me for later scenes, and/or plot points, so I will write notes to myself. I generally write my scenes in order, because I have this almost unhealthy need for order in my life, I quip, well a little. Sometimes thoughts flow out as I type, with not much forethought.

    I guess I like to use facets of both, if that makes sense. But, if I had to define myself as one or the other, I would say I am closer to that of an outliner, although that process is more of a mental outline, than on paper.

    By the way, Amy, thank you for following my blog. As I have only been blogging a few months, it means a lot that people are reading and enjoying it. I look forward to seeing future posts from you!

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  19. I tried pantsing for my first NaNoWriMo and failed miserably. I even changed genres half way through! The lesson I learned is that even pantsers need an outline and a premise or we get sidetracked and wonder far from our original concept. Now, I write my basic outline and character descriptions before I start writing. The words flow easier when I don’t have to keep going back to notes to see what comes next in my plot line.

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  20. What do I do? I hybridize!

    In other words, I do a little of both. (So I guess that makes me a “planster”. http://thewritepractice.com/plotters-pantsers/ )

    I call it layering, like applying joint compound in drywalling a room, and it allows me to change back and forth between the two styles depending on how the ideas are flowing.

    And, coincidence of coincidences, I’ve been brainstorming a post that answers this very question! It’s been simmering on the back burner in my mind for a few weeks now, but I only had a few paragraphs of notes down. It’s called “Outlined in Mud” and was third down on my list of posts to publish next. But, just for you, because I appreciate your blog so much, I bumped it up to #1 and finished it.

    Here’s the link to read all about it:

    http://jamesclarkthenextiteration.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/outlined-in-mud/

    Hope it helps!

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  21. I guess I’m something of a hybrid. On rough drafting I do a lot of character mapping to fill in my characters, their backgrounds, and personalities, but with the outline it’s more of a series of milestone markers. I’m a student of Shakespeare so I tend to pace my novels in 3 or 5 Act structures, and generally set the goals for each “turn” but let myself find my way there through off the cuff writing.

    Using Beneath the Wood as an example, I knew my first act turn was my protagonist discovering a truth about her friend. I set the marker down at a place in time within my story’s world, and knew the circumstances that would fulfill that turn, but to get there I let my character wander some like exploring a park en route to a landmark.

    Generally, when I start a scene during my evening writing sessions I’ll ask myself what the purpose(s) the scene has. Revelation? Confidance? Conflict? Resolution? Miscommunication? However, beyond setting that goal, I like letting my characters find their own ways there by way of my knowing them as organic people. It ends up playing out a bit like an improv skit in prose with an endgame in mind, but the freedom for a certain amount of spontaneity allows for more natural dialogue and humor.

    The other benefit of being a little looser on the outlining game is that you’re giving yourself space to put real heart into the story you might not expect. On my original draft of Beneath the Wood, a character I only planned on being a cameo appearance ended up becoming a key player and the heart of the story. If I’d constrained myself too strictly with an outline, I’d have over-committed to other characters and not allowed a new character to blossom organically through my rough draft and multiple rounds of edits after.

    All this is to say: go with what works, but there’s no absolute argument for one, either, or both- just give yourself space to breathe some spirit in amid the process and science of it.

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  22. I often do basic outlining and plotting. The larger the project, the more plotting I do. Usually, the first bit of outlining is just to get my idea on paper when I don’t have time to work on it immediately. But when I do get to writing, I find that the story often moves away from my original plan. I think the most important thing in regards to plotting is to not force yourself to follow the original outline when the story wants to go somewhere else.

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  23. I do a bit of both as well…I have a general outline and I know all the places I need the book to get to, but after that, I kind of let the details flow as they may.

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  24. I’m a pantser. I usually start with a concept and maybe some sort of outline in my head, a basic “here’s where the story starts and here’s where it’s going,” but I don’t write any of that path down in a formal outline. I generally stick to plans really well, but different moods and different ideas strike on different days and for me that means writing is more enjoyable and more productive if I follow the new paths I’m forging each time I go back to the page instead of trying to force connections I don’t favor as much anymore. I think this goes back to the problem writers sometimes have of hating old things they’ve written–by the time I would get around to writing out the full version based on my outline, I wouldn’t be able to stand the outline anymore.

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    1. Hello, Literary Elephant (I love your name!). That’s a very good point, I find that when I am writing from an outline that I need to spice things up a little to stop myself getting bored. If I get bored writing it, I’m sure my readers will be bored when they read it.

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  25. I have a very basic reason for doing at least a skeletal outline – pacing. In my first novel, ‘Bunco’, I loved the excitement of just sitting down every day (I’m retired, so have the luxury of time) and allowing my story to unfold. However, I do have (faint) hopes of being published, and I became aware that I was 60,000 words in and not at the halfway point yet. I think I was being self-indulgent, enjoying adding layers and detail. I did go back and edit heavily, but I still feel the finished work is slightly unbalanced. It came in at 103,000 words, which is just about acceptable, but if I were to write it again, while the overall length may be about the same, the pacing would be different.

    I’ve now embarked on a second book which occurs over a 40 – 50 years timeframe. I have divided it into three parts and have set word count targets for each. I don’t plan to follow these targets slavishly, but I will use them as a rough guide to the balance of the book – background and build up; the critical event and resolution.

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    1. Thank you for your comment. One of the strengths of an outline is the ability to manage your pacing. As much as I know where the highs and lows should fall in a novel, I know I don’t have the ability to craft those effectively without sticking to a plan. Congratulations on finishing your first novel 🙂

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  26. There are advantages to each, of course. While I can crank out a chapter or two by the seat of my pants, a novel is a bit large for me to do that with. Typically, even for something as simple as a 5000 word short story, I had a short outline of the scenes. I usually revise these notes as I write because my fingers type things I don’t plan on. A romance suddenly becomes a mystery wrapped in a hard-boiled horror shell. I trust my gut and rewrite my outline, not my scene.

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  27. I’m a pantser. But I’ve come to realise that it doesn’t work. I need to become a plotter. One of my WIP has enough writing in it to be a full novel, but is a complete mess of double-ups, disjointed scenes, and lots of great ideas that just don’t fit.

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    1. i know some of the others who have commented have said that they are naturally pantsers but plot a little at the start to give them guidance. Perhaps a similar approach would help you? Don’t be disheartened though, even a perfectly planned novels needs editing to make it right.

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  28. Panster, sometimes where the story goes surprises even me. It is kind of a silly, romantic idea of writing though, you have to think ahead at least a little bit it’s just that that outline is less specific and exists in your head.

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  29. I have to plot. And I mean really plot. I take outlining to its illogical conclusion, writing the plot arc outline, then dividing it into chapters, seeing how many I have and dividing that by my ideal word count to give myself rough finish lines for each chapter.

    A friend and I tried writing together and wrote a novel out of order and the continuity errors were appalling!

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  30. Hi Amy, I am most certainly a plotter. When I was young and first decided I wanted to be a writer I always pants-ed, though I had never heard the term then. I always got about three boring introductory chapters and then got lost, it did not work for me. It wasn’t until I started plotting that I finished a manuscript and I have not looked back since. I have a three point plotting system which works well for me. First I do a basic beginning, middle and end. Then I break it down into mucb igger and more detailed versions of the same three parts and finally I write a chapter by chapter outline.
    There have been times when things have had to change or have naturally developed as I wrote, but in general I am a plotter and shall be until I die.
    The main advantage I would say I get from outlining is the ability to slip in ‘Set ups and pay offs’ without having to rewrite huge sections of the novel. It is great to have an idea later in the book and want to put a sly nod to it in near the beginning and being able to do that BEFORE you have actually written the whole book is fantastic.

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      1. You are most welcome, best of luck in your writing too. If you ever need a beta then I am always happy to read something new. P.s. I just wrote a post looking for advice myself, if you get a minute I would apprecite your input.

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  31. I do a basic outline to make sure I include key plot points. I know how a scene should begin and end, but once my characters start talking and acting, I’m not sure how I will get to the desired end. They sometimes bring up new points, which I incorporate.

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  32. I am definitely an outliner! I tried writing a novel without making a plot and I found it difficult. I tend to outline a couple of chapters, and once I’ve spend lots of time with my characters I find it so much easier to continue writing my novel without a detailed plot.

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  33. I’d say I’m a panster, but I do believe in lots of editing and revision. It’s also helpful to have beta readers and an editor. But I find it helpful to get my thoughts on paper and start from there.The first version is never the one that’s published, but it’s a starting point.

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