The Writing Life: Outliner or Pantser?

I've had some of you ask for insights into my writing process, so I thought I'd start with the classic question that writers ask each other: am I an outliner or a 'pantser'?

Meaning, as a writer, do I develop detailed plot outlines before starting to write a story, or do I write "by the seat of my pants," just diving into the story and letting it take me where it takes me?

The answer for me is neither. Or maybe both. I describe my writing approach as "headlights on a highway," which I take from this quote by E. L. Doctorow:

“Writing is like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” 

I use a three-act structure generally for my novels. I know how the novel will end and the major event or twist at the end of each act, as well as the inciting incident that will start the story. I also know my characters very well and know the journey I want them to travel. 

But beyond that, as far as the plot, as far as how I will tell the story, I usually outline the next 2-4 chapters and write those and see where they take me. And then the next 2-4 chapters. I've found that this gives me enough structure to not drift too far off course, but enough freedom to explore new characters who show up and new twists and ideas that occur. 

Do I ever get lost on the highway? Yeah, occasionally. But not often and not too far. This approach, for me at least, is the perfect balance between control and freedom. A story is discovered in its telling. The "headlights on a highway" approach lets me have the main idea of the story as my signposts along the way but lets me discover the story my characters want to tell without trying to stuff them into boxes where they don't fit.

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