The Nature vs. Nurture Clash (aka Plotters vs. Pantsers) … by Jim Heskett

JimHeskettAll across the internets, published and unpublished writers blog about how to write, edit, and market material. I find many commonalities and universal truths… show don’t tell, don’t be afraid to be bad in first draft, don’t join a critique group that meets on Wednesdays, etc. I might have misheard that last one, but I think you get my point.

If you spend enough time researching writing advice, one Nature vs. Nurture clash always recurs: Plotters vs. Pantsers.

The Plotters spend time before starting Chapter 1 (or the Prologue, if they're about to sit down to a 300,000-word epic fantasy) writing about what they're going to write. Outline, character interview, story arc, plot twists... most or all is designed before the first line of the story lands on paper (or keyboard. Or tablet. Or papyrus)

The Pansters skip all that careful planning and launch into it. They'll have an idea, or two intersecting ideas, and then let the story create itself on the page. The author has only some, little, or no idea where it will go once she begins.

As for me, I'm both. Boom. I just blew your mind.

I plot my story. But I pants my characters. (gross). What I mean is: I sit down beforehand to decide the sequence of events in the story, which somehow involves a character seeking a goal with obstacles in the path of that goal. Then I think up one or two details about each of the characters, give them desires, and determine arcs for them. Then I lock myself in my basement with plenty of bottled water and caffeine pills and just go.

I don't know my characters until after my first draft, or at least partway through.

My first draft goal is to get the story on the page as quickly as possible, so I can read it afterwards and see it as one whole work... find the plot holes, things that aren't foreshadowed properly, and the common themes. What I often discover is that the characters reveal themselves to me through the story. They create themselves. I'll find myself reading over a scene and think "oh, she wouldn't do that," because my original plotting conflicts with the character who grew into being during the process. So I adjust my outline.

So, you might ask, why bother plotting at all if I'm destined to make major changes to the story?

First of all, I write plot-twisty fiction. Planning where those beats are going to occur alleviates a lot of the pressure by reducing the scope of rewrites in subsequent drafts. Second, my protagonist’s arc and the events in the story are linked, so I have to think them through simultaneously.

So, I'll know in scene #463 that male antagonist Dastardly Devin is going to try to convince female protagonist Innocent Imogen to give up the location of the launch codes. And I know whether or not Devin will succeed. But when I'm outlining, I don't know what method he’ll use to persuade her, or how Imogen will resist or succumb. That's the joy of Pantsing my characters... there can still be discovery and surprises for me as I go along.

Do you Pants or Plot, and how has it worked for you?


Jim Heskett is a writer of short and long fiction, currently slaving away at a laptop in an undisclosed location in Broomfield. His next project is a novel about a woman who hikes into Rocky Mountain National Park to spread her father’s ashes, but she discovers something inside the urn that could put her life in danger.

For more information about Jim and his writing, visit his website.  His movie and book reviews blog is hidden away here. He can also be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

A Different Kind of Literary Journal

By Jim Heskett

Way back in 2011, while hiking the Royal Arch trail in Boulder and cursing the Egg McMuffin I’d had for breakfast, an idea for a novel popped into my brain. The general premise came from a simple idea: what if we thought the world was going to end, but then it didn’t.

The story would focus on a small group of friends who behave badly, thinking there are no consequences to their actions, but then have to face the truth when the world doesn’t end.

The tale grew in my head. I then decided I would write instead about a group of opportunistic politicians who fake a doomsday scenario as a way to cause chaos and stage a worldwide coup to “reboot” society.

But with so many dystopian novels floating around out there in book-world, I would have to set it apart somehow. I didn’t want this tale to be fantasy or sci-fi; it had to be hyper-realistic.

Would have to be a big novel. 180,000 words, at least. Or maybe a trilogy. There’s just too much story here; it clearly needs to be a sprawling, seven-book epic. At least seven.

As the mythology ballooned in my head, I was adding characters and locations and plot elements, and I started to feel as if the scope were beyond me. The book(s) would delve deeply into specifics of military action and politics, two things I know little about.

How could I devote so much time to something so unwieldy? How could I possibly keep track of so many threads and details? The logistics of the venture seemed daunting.

I decided to shelve it and work on other projects, but my uncooperative mind kept on inventing and pondering new details. The story insisted that it needed to be told.

So earlier this year, I reached a hard-fought compromise with my brain. Inspired by the cultural movements of Kickstarter and open-sourcing, I realized that there was another way: crowd-sourcing. I could tell my epic, quasi-dystopian tale by getting other people to do it for me. I’m either lazy, or a master at delegating. History will decide.

I created a website, wrote a brief and purposefully-vague history of the world I envisioned, and then set it free. I opened up the literary journal to short fiction submissions, in what (I believe) is the world’s first non-fantasy, non-sci-fi shared world literary journal experiment.

As long as submissions are loosely related to the established world and do not contradict anything already submitted, we will consider publishing it and therefore adding it to the overall tale.

Wherever the world goes next, and whatever backstory fills in the details, is up to those who submit fiction to us. If we publish you in our journal, you become a part-owner of the story. Eventually we’d like to have a forum where all past contributors can critique and vote on prospective submissions, in the spirit of keeping the journal “open-sourced” and community-based. So far we’re small and online-only, but we hope to expand into the print world. You can help us do that by submitting awesome short fiction.

The Five Suns Literary Journal is an epic tale that we all own together, and will go wherever we choose.


Jim HeskettJim Heskett, originally from Oklahoma, has called Colorado his home for the past ten years, except for a brief stint living overseas. He writes short and long fiction, blogs often, and creates music, all of which you can sample on his website. Finally, he is the founder and editor of the Five Suns Literary Journal.

His current work in progress is a novel titled AIRBAG SCARS, about a lapsed poet who longs to return to writing verse, but first will have to put aside the drink and repair his broken past.