March 30, 2011

from pantser to plotter

So for those of you that follow along, I’ve been working on a new novel for about a week now. As far as the actual story goes, I have written a whopping two sentences in the manuscript document, a whopping forty-two words. Had I started this novel a year ago, I would probably already have at least 10,000 words written. This is the moment of truth, my friends… I am no longer a pantser.

Just declaring that makes me all giddy.

In the past, the thought of plotting a novel seemed a long, endurance-testing ordeal that had to be staved off with a crucifix. Every essay I wrote in college, every short story I wrote, and every novel I started (and didn’t finish) was written on the fly. I generally had a topic in mind, but that was it. For my first finished novel, I pseudo-plotted. I did a few character sketches and constructed half of an outline, but I still discarded all of that and wrote the novel on the fly. I did finish it, so that’s important. But in revisions, as I slaved day after day over a plot that wasn’t working, over characters cut from a stock of cardboard, and over a setting that failed to come alive, I slowly realized that had I actually made an effort to plot, I could have worked out all of those things before ever writing a word.

Here’s the truth: I’m lazy. Big surprise to my parents. My dad has been telling me this since I was born. My husband has come to realize it as the dishes pile up on the counter and dirty clothes recarpet the bedroom. I am all about doing the least amount of work, no matter what that entails. That’s why plotting was always so scary to me… all that upfront work for something that might not follow through. Now, looking at it retroactively, I realize that by not plotting, I have to do a lot of work on the back end of a writing project. More work than if I had plotted beforehand.

My first novel was a 62,000 word monster. I loved the story. I loved the characters. But I wasn’t in love with the novel. I was in love with what the novel should have been. In December last year, I started working on rewriting it, starting from the beginning and writing again. I still hadn’t learned much at this point. Again, I pseudo-plotted. I took that 62,000 word monster and found its problems, aiming to fix them by rewriting those scenes, or deleting them all together. I mean, that’s what was wrong with the novel in the first place. If I just changed those parts, then the novel would be perfect, right? Nope. Not even close. I failed to plan out exactly what I was going to write. I knew the plot points that needed to happen, but I didn’t have any sort of execution plan. The rewrite is now a half-finished, mutated monster thing that needs to go take a nap because it’s so ugly I can’t stand to be in its presence. Just thinking about it sucks the creativity from my bones. It was at this point, when the thought of the novel made me nauseous, I knew I had to change.

In an attempt to avoid work, I created a pile of animated word-vomit… 94,000 words and 15 months of work. At least I achieved one thing from that disaster: I learned that I need to be a plotter. My problem all along was what I thought plotting meant. I thought it meant detailing the story scene by scene, from beginning to end. That method may work for some people. What is working for me now would be better attributed as brainstorming. In addition to the forty-two words of my new project, I have drawn up a character sketch for my main character, and started on one for a secondary character (based on this character worksheet by Jody Hedlund), and I have brainstormed twenty-three scenes and counting. A week of work and roughly 3000 words. I will probably continue to brainstorm for another few weeks until I have as much information as possible. When I’m satisfied with that, I’ll start writing. I may end up with 20,000 words of brainstorming, plotting, and outlining, but I’ll have a good base for the story to come. I won’t have any question about where the story is going or how to get there.

I finished the first draft of my first finished novel within seven months. I spent two months revising and a month querying. I spent another month staring at it and devoted the final four months to a rewrite. What do I hope to achieve from plotting this project? Writing the novel in six or seven months, revising it in two or three, and being done.

So, the point of all this: stop being lazy. No really. If the thought of plotting a story scares the bajeezus out of you, try it. Really try. Take baby steps if you have to. Plot a short story. Plot a novella. Or plot an eight book series. The beauty of the whole thing? You may spend a week plotting and decide that you don’t like the story after all, or that you’re the wrong person to write it. But you’ve only invested a week into it, not a month, not six months, not two years.

I thought plotting a story would drain the creativity from me. I thought I would lose that magic that comes with pantsing, figure out the story as you go along. I still get both. Plotting stimulates my creativity. I still get the excitement of the story as I come up with new scenes and new characters. I feel so much more in control of what the story will become. I’m not a slave to the creative flow. I’m not a slave to the muse. By plotting, I took the muse by the ear and slapped it down next to my keyboard. Take that, you stupid muse.

[My exact plotting method can be found here, via Holly Lisle, who is an absolute genius]


  1. I'm a hybrid writer: plot a bit on the main points, know my characters, and think about the big turning points. The rest of it can be a bit of a mash up but it does work out in the end.


  2. That's the beauty of writing: you have to figure out what works best for you, and there are so many ways to do it. :)

  3. I've gone back and forth on my process depending on the story. Some stories just take hold of me in such a way that I've feverishly written them until the end. The one I'm working on now, due to the plot and underlying mystery, MUST be plotted out in depth. I tend to get carried away with the research and have to drag myself back to actually carving out the words.

    Great post and good luck!

  4. excellent point, amanda. it is about finding out what works best. it's a journey, and that's what makes it so fantastic :)

    thanks all for commenting :)

  5. Pardon the newcomer. What do you mean by 'pantser'? And for what it's worth, it took me almost 9 years to finish my first novel and it's only 83,000 words (of course, that nine years includes several beta reads and revisions).

  6. Welcome to my humble blog, Reece :)
    A pantser is someone who writes without plotting and without any sort of pre-writing. I can't imagine spending nine years on a single novel. The longest I ever spent on one was... well... five years. And I eventually gave up on that one.

  7. *Gasp!* I can't believe it! You must tell me what it's like on the other side. I am a panster and a wannabe plotter. But I find that sometimes I have to do both to keep that passion stoked for the novel.

    I saw Jody's character rap sheet and printed it immediately. I am about done with it - it's the most planning I have ever done before starting a writing project beyond a brainstorm and a few advance scenes. I know I need to be more organized in my approach, but it hasn't happened yet.