From pantsing to plotting

Fox writingI’ve always been a pantser, sometimes called a discovery-writer, which means I get some kernel of an idea and then I just write my way forward from there. It’s like reading a book, only I happen to be writing it as I go along! Although, sometimes I don’t even write it chronologically…

Recently, though, I have become a bit disenchanted with pantsing, and for one simple reason–it takes too bloody long to finish a book. Not the first draft, granted–I can get that done in a few months given my current schedule (day job etc.). Unfortunately, the first draft doesn’t tend to be a complete book per se. It can be riddled with contradictions as I changed my mind about characters, or I might have dropped plotlines that weren’t interesting. Sometimes, I’ll have several different versions of a scene, and I like parts of all of them, but they’re not compatible with each other.

Fixing all this stuff, while at the same time preserving what I like about the book, is like solving an immense jigsaw puzzle. It can take me six months just to work out a plan that I think has a chance of solving everything. Then, when implementing the plan (i.e. writing the second draft), I invariably discover other problems. And by that time, I’ll have been working on the book for, oh, a couple of years maybe? Other ideas are nagging at me by then, other books wanting to be written.

So, I’ve come to the point where I’m going to give planning, or plotting, a real chance. In principle, it’s not so different from what I usually do, only this time I’m doing it before the first draft rather than after. Granted, I’ve already written a bunch of experimental scenes–35 K or so–and I suspect I’ll always need to do that first, to get a feel for the characters, their goals and their voices. (I never could get any of the “character questionnaires” to work for me.) So I’m not sitting down to invent this book from nothing, I’m happy to say, as that would probably scare the pants off me (Har har 😉 ).

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve honed down the idea to a sharp, shining little gem. The setting is coming alive, the characters, the stakes, the basic plot, all of it coming together. I think I know what I want to accomplish with this book, and it’s a great feeling!

Now the question is, how much further should I take it? I know I won’t plan the ending–I’ve realized I need that suspense for the actual writing. I do know the character arcs, the main conflict, and the final stakes, so I know what I’m working towards, even if I don’t know how it’ll all work out. What about the intervening steps though? How much should I plan it out? Key turning points only? Scene-by-scene outline? I always did love my notecards for the revision process… Hmm….

If there are any other once-die-hard pantsers out there who have moved towards plotting, I would love to hear how you went about it. How much plotting did you discover was the right amount for you?

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10 Responses to From pantsing to plotting

  1. I had been a pantser until NaNoWriMo 2013. I would find the gem of an idea and just run with it, but I never finished any of those stories. I would get lost / stuck / discouraged at one point or another and just abandon it to chase the next shiny idea.

    When I attempted NaNo for the first time, I realized that in order to put 50k words on the page in 30 days, I would need at least the bare bones of an outline. So I wrote one. And that’s the first novel I ever finished.

    I have been an outliner ever since, and every project I started, I finished. So I’m a believer now!

    • Sara Thorn says:

      What a great story, Elena! I’ve done NaNo a couple of times, and won both times, but both novels needed a lot of work before they were ready, alas. (One is still in first draft.) On the other hand, pantsing always gave me lots of great twists! I hope I’ll still be able to get that, plotting…

  2. Oh, I could have written this! Except for the title–I’m not ready to try plotting yet. It takes me years, sometimes, to finish a book, and I know exactly what you mean about solving a puzzle…that’s what I’m trying to do now, because I too have dropped subplots, eliminated characters, etc. Oh why do I do this to myself? Let me know if you have any success.

    • Sara Thorn says:

      I do love the fun of pantsing! But on the other hand, I’ve realized that I already do so much plotting, only after the first draft, and it’s such a headache… So I hope that going with some freewriting, followed by plotting, followed by writing the first draft, will work better for me. I’ll let you know how it goes!

  3. Your post echoes my experiences. I used to never plot, but my first drafts were a mess. I now do some plotting, and my drafts are much more cohesive. I didn’t do much plotting for my current WIP, though, and it’s messy. So yes, I’m a fan of adding in a dose of plotting to our pantser writing style.

    • Sara Thorn says:

      I hope I’ll be able to hit a good balance. I once plotted a novel, and then never ended up writing it because I lost the “spark” from plotting it so much. Maybe one day I’ll have forgotten my plans enough to write it. 🙂

      This time I did freewriting first though, plus I’m not planning the ending in detail, so I hope it’ll work out!

  4. Char says:

    On pantsing…it takes too bloody long to finish a book. Not the first draft, granted–I can get that done in a few months given my current schedule (day job etc.). Unfortunately, the first draft doesn’t tend to be a complete book per se. It can be riddled with contradictions

    This has been my experience with my 3rd novel. I don’t even call the original 90K words a 1st draft. It was rough. Very very rough. I started with a dozen scene ideas and added to it – see The Kill Zone blog on using/plotting with Scrivener – – the cork board – that’s how I got rolling on this rough draft. When I went back to the beginning to work on the 1st draft, I found the going slow, found I’d repeated myself, contradicted myself. Ugh. Messy! I originally thought I could go through it in 3 months. It’s taken me 6. Now I’m back to chapter 1 again on the 2nd (or 3rd) round.

    Honestly, I don’t think I could start with a detailed plot or synopsis! I do like the Scrivener functionality. The cork board is a great way to visualize key points and build off them.

    • Sara Thorn says:

      I’ve always loved using notecards for plotting (which I used to do after the first draft in great detail)! I have Scrivener as well, and I like the corkboard option, even if it doesn’t give you the easy overview of real actual notecards on a real corkboard.

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