Stop Plotting Your Life Like You’re Plotting Your Novel (or alternately: Start Plotting Your Life Like You’re Plotting Your Novel)

Apparently I’m a self-help blog now. Actually, I’m quite literally a self help blog, because I’m writing this blog to help myself. Shocking narcissism, I know. But really, I mostly write for myself, and if it’s relateable to someone else, all the better. All this to say, I had a revelation recently as I was trying to visualize some steps for my life: I have trouble making concrete goals and executing a plan to achieve them because I’m stuck in the pantsing approach I take to writing.

As previously admitted on this blog, I am not an outliner or plotter when it comes to my writing. I usually start with a pretty vague idea, or perhaps one scene or detail that is specific, and then just start writing and see where it goes. Sometimes I get some pretty good ideas as I go along, as writing starts me thinking in interesting directions. Other times, though, I write what I had to being with, and then grind inevitably to a permanent, petrified halt. And that’s the risk of a pantsing approach—not all ideas beget ideas, not all ideas that seemed great to begin with seem great to continue with. Sometimes, I just get bored with them or realise that they’re going in a direction I’m not committed to and I just shelve the project indefinitely. Which is a problem when it’s translated to life.

On the positive side of a pantsing approach to life, I’m fairly easy-going—I adjust to what’s going on around me pretty fast and take things as they come. Sometimes, it works out great, and what comes from being flexible is an awesome opportunity or experience that I might not have otherwise had. But other times, not so much. And that’s my downfall—because I can’t just sit and wait for things to happen to me and expect to retroactively construct some great design out of what transpires: I can’t edit my past to fit my future the way I can a story. And something inside me knows this, so I hesitate to make any definitive changes or steps on my own for fear that it might be the wrong one. And then I sit and wait for time and chance to do its thing.

Well, time and chance has been doing its thing with the whole country for the past year and some now, and I don’t really like what it’s been giving me. I’m thinking it’s about time I stopped applying my novel-writing style to my life. It’s time for me to admit that my way is not necessarily the most efficient or best choice, and take some notes from the outliners and plotters. Which is why, if you’re an outliner or plotter in writing, the alternate title for this post is the one that applies to you. (For the low-down on the differences between pantsing and plotting, and their respective pros and cons, check out Becca’s great post at Words and Other Malarky: Plotters vs Pantsers.)

If you’re the person with the chapter outlines, the five-year-plans, the story arc diagrams, or the career trajectory mapped out, I applaud you and I want to learn from you. Does spontaneity stress you out? Maybe chill a bit, but also, keep on having a plan. The fact is, even if, as they say, a plan does not survive the first encounter with the enemy, you still go in with one. Because a plan is an idea from which to work, a basis from which to expand and evolve according to circumstances. You can’t anticipate everything, but having a plan can help you be prepared for anything.

If you’re a pantser in writing and life like me, maybe you should consider the benefits of a loose story outline, a few solid goals for certain areas of life, a character creation chart, or weekly progress reviews. (I’m preaching to myself, here.) Are you going to die of the boredom and predictability? Maybe dye your hair once in a while to keep yourself interesting, but don’t be afraid of establishing steady, healthy habits. There will be plenty of time to improvise when your plan all goes to pot—but you do have to have a plan. And those seemingly mundane habits will build your character, mentality, and even body (I have great intentions about exercising) to better prepare you for positive reactions when those crises arise.

In the end, your life, like your novel, will be what you made it, whether pantsed or plotted, and either way there are going to be some plotholes, inconsistent character development, dropped threads, plain old disasters, and typographical mistakes. But you don’t have to do either alone—yes, you are the principle mover, but any good novelist will tell you they couldn’t have done it without family support, beta readers, editors, publishers, and a slew of other cheerers-on. So get yourself some good supports—set out to learn from others who have a few more ducks in their row than you have yet, and ask advice. We all have a part to play. Maybe even reading this post helps you along your journey in some small way.  

6 thoughts on “Stop Plotting Your Life Like You’re Plotting Your Novel (or alternately: Start Plotting Your Life Like You’re Plotting Your Novel)”

  1. Most people seem to think I’m a planner, but actually I’m more of a pantser, in writing and in life. I turn phrases over a lot in my head, but I let the actual structure just develop (or not) of its own accord. I let my life just go where it’s going too, and if that’s nowhere in particular, I’m perfectly happy with that, and it’s encouraging to hear that others do the same. The only thing I plan really carefully is my time, to make sure I can squeeze in the writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s awesome to hear—yes, I’m not becoming a hard outliner in writing. Pantsing works best for my creative process. As far as life goes, I’m also not under illusions about becoming a five-year plan, hustle type person but it’s important to strike a balance with some intentionality, and time management is probably the best way to do that! That’s awesome that you have that figured out, and can still let life take you where it takes you.


  2. Wow, what a great breakdown! I love the parallels between life and writing – it’s so applicable! And thank you, by the way, for referencing my article!!! But as it pertains to life, I couldn’t have said it better myself! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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