Plotting and Pantsing
There are two camps in fiction writing, one is often called “plotters.” They plot out their novel before they start writing. They outline it, create character and setting sheets, maybe even maps and diagrams, and know pretty much all of the major turning points of the story before they write their first draft. The other camp is often called “pantsers.” They have some idea of what they want the book to be about and just dive in at chapter one, developing the story as they go along by the “seat of their pants.” Many writers fall somewhere in between.
There is no “right” way to write and most of the advice I’ve seen says to do whatever works for you. I’ve tried both methods, and for short stories, I’m a pantser but for novels, I am most definitely a plotter. The way that works best for you has as much to do with personality and background as anything else so if you are thinking about writing and are wondering how to attack it, here is a quick list of things you might want to consider: plotter or pantser.
I think one of the reasons I’m a plotter is because my first real experience at fictional world building was as a dungeon master for the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons. The dungeon master must do many of the things a writer must do; create a fictional world, populate it with characters and settings, have an end goal for the players to reach, and create clues they can discover to help them and obstacles they will encounter to hinder them. Before my first D&D session as a DM, I worked for the better part of a year searching through rule books, and creating detailed maps, character sheets, and descriptions of the places and things the players were likely to encounter. Because I had all of this done ahead of time, it made it much easier for me to present a coherent and consistent fictional world with which the player characters could interact when we actually played.
I approached my first novel much the same way; researching, developing character sheets, outlining the plot and subplot, doing maps, creating a timeline for key events, and establishing distances between places and calculating the time it would take to travel between them. The major difference between a role playing game and a novel, I assumed, was that the major characters in a novel are created and controlled (for the most part) by the writer, and in the game the major characters are supplied and controlled by the players. I quickly learned there are other differences as well but for plotting and outlining, the process for me was very similar. I could not imagine being able to create a fictional world for a novel without doing all of this prep work up front.
I look at storytelling rather as building an imaginary house, one your readers will reside in for a while and, hopefully, enjoy while they are there. The writer is both the architect and builder and plotters tend to separate those two functions. Personally I think having a blueprint for the building or an outline for the story makes for a better final product. There are master builders who are able to make a great home without a blueprint just as there are writers who can weave a great tale with a tight, coherent plot and no loose ends without an outline. I just think it’s harder to do so and you risk ending up with something less than what it can and should be unless you do a lot of remodeling after you are “done.”