Plot can mean a lot of different things. On the one hand, it can be the sequence of events in a story. It can also mean a secret plan for accomplishing a usually evil or unlawful end.
Or, it can refer to the piece of land where a person is laid to rest in a cemetery.
I think the various definitions are fitting, particularly because a writer's approach to plot can kill the story. Some of the other posts on plot have touched on that; on Saturday, Scott talked about trying to avoid a particular plotting method, and not completing any projects. I could tell you a few stories myself.
The truth is, I don't use the same method for structuring my books each time. In that respect, maybe I am a true pantser. I go with whatever works.
However, I also don't believe there's strictly pantsing or plotting. There's also what Laura Lippman called distant shores.
I belong to the "distant shore" school of plotting. Imagine a trip across a broad river, where the destination is shrouded in mist. I think I know what I'm going to find, but it may change as I get closer. And the journey itself may be slower or faster in places, and the current may carry me farther downstream than I anticipated.
That process can be true of drafts 1-3, with discoveries still occurring. I believe very strongly in what I call the organic solution, revelations based on what the story has revealed so far. The one critic I really wanted to take to task was the reviewer who didn't like BY A SPIDER'S THREAD. She claimed the ending was deus ex machina. Love me or hate me, but I've never written such an ending.
At one point or another, I've used a little of everything. It is true that I wrote my first book by the seat of my pants. I had no idea where it was going. It's also true that when I wrote What Burns Within that I used the distant shores method. I had one particular storyline I could see an ending for, and everything ultimately wove itself toward that end.
When I write short stories, I tend to plot them out. The reason is that pantsing allows for you to go on tangents and explore subplots that might present themselves throughout the writing process. In short stories, you can't afford to indulge in a lot of subplots. I liken it to the advice Luke Skywalker got in his attack on the Death Star: stay on target.
In saying this, I don't think that means that I discount other plotting approaches, such as three-act structure or the quest motif. I think that once you've written enough, some things become instinctive. It's like playing an instrument. You know if you're playing 3/4 or 5/8 time signature.
One of the things I do as I write is keep a power point file. It's my electronic bulletin board. You see, if I was like Scott, I'd be fussing with cue cards and sticky notes and rearranging my display boards constantly. To avoid that, I work with a power point file. Power point allows me to have a lot of different slides, and to insert and move slides with ease. I keep slides on main characters, and slides with information on secondary characters. I keep a chapter list with pages and events. I bold out what I consider to be major plot twists or significant revelations, and then, once the draft is close to done, I check the math to see how close those events are to following three-act structure. I've been amazed to note that it's pretty instinctive at this point, and even if I'm not trying to employ that method, it's often there, as part of the support structure of the story I'm telling.
When I work on critiques with newer writers, I reinforce using three-act structure and the structure of a quest. I was always taught to plot out the story before I started writing. It never worked for me like that, at first. It was only after I threw the plot away and listened to the characters that I progressed with the story. Everything else felt forced and unnatural; like my characters were cut-outs there just to do what I needed, rather than integrally involved in the story and reacting themselves to the events I was throwing at them.
However, when you're starting out, it's good to have some ideas. If you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there. Many stories die due to lack of direction. That's another reason I like my power point files; I keep slides on events I think will happen at some point in the story, and I can plot out subplots as they're occurring and make notes that help me track all the threads, so I don't lose them.
In that respect, even if I haven't worked out the ending, I am seeing forward into the story and considering what I know is coming.
And when the things I don't know are coming arrive, I weave them in.
Some people cook following recipes strictly. And other cooks can taste the food and know if it needs more salt or oregano. No matter what approach you use primarily, most writers probably find themselves integrating methods at some point.