Plotting vs Pantsing

Hi, I’m Wren and I’m a plotter. 

Phew, glad that’s out of the way.  I’ve had 2 pretty in-depth conversations about my process in as many days and I decided that it might be worth exploring further via a blog post.  Courtney and Will are both pantsers (as in flying by the seat of their pants) and maybe they can write something from their perspectives.  If you’ve ever wondered what aspiring authors talk about, it’s really just about that exciting.

I never would have thought of myself as the type of person who would plot a book in advance.  I’m disorganized in real life.  I have trouble making short term goals and even more trouble meeting them when I do.  The idea that I’d be able to plot out an entire book before writing a single word just seems totally out of character for me.

I’ve tried just making things up as I go along.  I never made any progress.  I distinctly remember my first Nano as a perfect example.  I took off like a bullet and wrote in a frenzy for maybe 3 or 4 days straight.  I was around 10k words in when I realized I had no earthly clue where my story was going.  The story ended up scrapped and I felt like a failure.  

The same with my attempts at writing high fantasy in high school.  I had a notebook that I carried everywhere full of character sketches and pages and pages of long hand scribbles.  I’m a little sad when I think about how many hours I actually spent writing a story that was destined to fail.  It doesn’t matter how amazing the characters are if there’s no story for them.  Again, the story ended up scrapped and I felt like a failure.

I even attempted to do Nano again this past year.  I had epic notes.  Seriously, you can’t even fathom the amount of notes I have on that particular setting with piles more just on that one idea set there.  I was all set.  I even had an outline of sorts, but I still failed.  I understand now what was missing for me.  But still, it took the story getting scrapped and feeling like a failure to make me admit I was doing something wrong.

I want to share my process, not because I think I’m an expert.  I’m not.  But it took a lot of trail and error for me to figure it out and if I can help someone else skip some steps by putting it out there, then I’d love to help.

I think the biggest factor in me coming around was Lazette Gifford’s article about phase writing.  She writes about how she micro plans each scene.  Basically, she writes a really really skeletal first draft and then fleshes it out into a more traditional draft afterwards.  For some reason, that really resonated with me.  And from that article my method of writing was born.

So this is my process broken down into steps as clearly as I can explain it.

Step 1:  I use the world building/idea generation as described in my last post to flesh out an idea.  The idea has to capture my imagination or else it won’t take off, but once I find that idea and start the process, I’m off and running.  Just try to stop me. 

Step 2:  Once I have a solid idea about who my characters are, what obstacles they face, and where the story happens I start making a list of potential scenes.  I usually have a good idea of the start and end from the beginning because that’s a big part of knowing whether I even want to work with an idea or not for me.  I add all my ideas for scenes, no matter how stupid they might be.  This isn’t the time to cut anything.

Step 3:  Now I get to try to fit all the pieces into a narrative that makes some sort of sense.  I do this in the form of a long summary.  I leave myself a lot of snarky notes during this process so that I can address any issues that come up.  Do I need more information about a characters background or a scene that explains how the current political machine came into power?  All that kind of stuff and more are noted.  I also add notes about things I think about later in the summary but want to add earlier.  I use OneNote for this part, but paper and pen would work too. 

When I’m done I have a really good idea of what my story is going to look like finished.  It’s nowhere near what Lazette describes in her article, but there’s still quite a bit of information.

Step 4:  The last thing I do is make the outline.  I use that term loosely though.  It’s more of a scene break down.  It seems to work out that each paragraph of my summary becomes a different scene.  I then fill in any scenes that I’m missing and give each one a detailed summary of its own.  So that by the time I’m ready to start I have a really good idea of what I’m going to be writing about.every day.

It is a lot of prewriting, I’ll admit.  I Wish came out to 47k words (I’m currently editing, in part, to go back in and flesh things out a bit more), but the outline was 7k words by itself.  However, I was then able to turn around and finish the book in 2 weeks with 2 days in which I didn’t make my word goal.  2 weeks to write a ~50k novel isn’t a bad deal.  If I didn’t dread editing so much, I’d already be done by now.

Another advantage is knowing in advance how long it will take me to finish a project.  I know now that my scenes average out to 1500 words each, almost perfectly.  So I can guess at how many scenes I need to make my word count goals.

And the last reason I prefer to do it this way is that I can plan sequels more effectively.  I wrote I Wish already knowing what’s going to happen in the second book (not as sure about book 3 though yet).  Nothing happens in the book without a reason, even the seemingly random things make sense by the end of the second book.  That would be impossible if I didn’t already know in advance what was coming.

So the 10 second recap:  I like to plot because I can write faster, I can get a decent estimate on the length of time and number of scenes it’ll take me to finish a project, and I can create multi book story arcs easily.  If it sounds good, give it a try.  I wouldn’t have thought I was a plotter, but now I can’t imagine writing any other way.  I’ve found a way that allows me to get this story published and makes me feel like a success.


Filed under I wish, writing

12 responses to “Plotting vs Pantsing

  1. Pingback: Are you a Plotter or a Pantser? | Courtney Cole

  2. I just started outlining! It’s not that detailed and scenes only, instead of chapters, but it keeps me on track. And the way I am doing it now, it doesn’t stifle me, either, the way outlining used to.

    • Plotters unite! Seriously though, I’m glad to see someone else who does some outlining beforehand. I was starting to feel outnumbered. I’m actually reading Courtney’s post about how she writes, which is really interesting to me since it’s pretty much the opposite of how I work. And yet somehow we both end up with books when we’re done.

      • Well it is not exactly before hand, I had some written before I started my outline. But it was when I realized I needed to start over again.

      • Ah yeah, see that’d be me if I tried to write without an outline. I’d end up scrapping the whole thing after the first 30 pages or so. You didn’t ask, but I just thought I’d mention that I can’t recommend OneNote enough for the prewriting stuff. Not just outlining, but everything. I ❤ it so much.

      • I adore OneNote! I use it to keep all my notes on the wip.

  3. Well, rather than bog down the comments I figure I’ll put my two cents up in my own post. Pantsers for the win! Though I must say, if XMind comes through I may turn out to be some kind of mutant hybrid…

    • @Sonia In an earlier post I wrote an exceptionally long ode to the awesome that is OneNote. Words are not adequate to convey the passion I feel for that software. I think that to truly express my love and joy it would start to look like a really high class porno. But seriously, I wouldn’t want to try to plot a single short story without it, let alone a more complex work like a novel.

  4. Draven Ames

    I love your process. It sounds like it is very detailed because you go beyond outlining. I Wish probably came out great, but 50k words seems low. I like how you describe using different scenes. What do you do to weed out the bad scenes? Do you wait until after you’ve written them?

    • 50k WAS really low. The story just didn’t feel as layered as it should have. I went back in and added 12k more words. It was hard to fit the extra scenes in because my outline was tight. I didn’t leave myself any room for fluff.

      I didn’t need to edit out any scenes because I did that part while I was outlining. I had a few scenes I thought might work and then decided that they just didn’t add anything to the plot so I scrapped them. At that point they were just a paragraph or less of writing so getting rid of them didn’t hurt at all. I think that’s just one more awesome reason to outline first. It’s so easy to move scenes around. I know from adding the extra scenes that making them fit with smooth transitions is hard if you are a linear writer like me. I’m sure some people don’t have a problem with that.

  5. Pingback: A real look at how I outline « Wren Writes

  6. found you via freshly pressed …

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