My Writing Process (Or: How I Went from a Pantser to a Plotter to a Plantser)

Over the last few months, several people have come up to me, online of course because I only hang out with my toddlers, and asked me about my writing process. I’d explain a little bit here and there, but I’d never have the time (or energy) to really put the process in words. Again, I’m a mom of two toddlers. What really convinced me to write this post was someone in one of my (many) writing communities reached out to the group and asked if anyone had been a pantser and switched to a plotter, to which I raised my hand and screamed, “ME!” So, here is the story of my writing journey and my current process.

Let’s back up a bit first, though, and define some words because I know some of you are sitting there wondering what the heck I mean by “pantser,” and “plotter,” and “plantser.”

A “pantser” is someone who writes the story by the seat of their pants. They go in it knowing just about anything. They might have a character name, or maybe a vague idea of a theme, or maybe not even that. It’s like that parent who pushes their kid in the pool or lake with the belief that experience will force the kid to learn how to swim. (Don’t do this, though. My mom did this to me, and I’m still terrified of deep water.) But there’s the belief, like the child learning to swim, that, after it’s all done, there’s a finished novel ready to be polished.

A “plotter” is someone who needs to line up all their ducks before they start writing. You might come across something called a Story Bible, and this is a plotter’s dream. Someone who plots before writing will write down everything: plot synopsis complete with plot arcs and scenes, character synopses with interviews, world building notes including maps, fictional languages if applicable, and anything else that could be thought of beforehand. I’ve known some writers, and I won’t call anyone out here (me), who once wrote a Story Bible that was longer than the actual story. There’s nothing wrong with that; it can help the world come alive to the author and, by extension, the reader.

A “plantser,” which is a term that recently popped up in writing circles is someone who is in the middle of the road. They do a bit of planning and a bit of pantsing (mostly when they get tired of planning), and somehow it all comes out to a finished story. Plantsing is probably the vaguest approach of the three since there really is no set way to do it.

Whichever method you choose, though, the end result should be the same: a finished story from beginning to end. But this isn’t a post about the merits of each approach. Instead, I’ll show you how I went from being a determined plotter to throwing away all my writing notes to digging some out of the trash can.

True to my formal academic background, I approached writing by planning. I’d start with a concept or a character, and I’d learn everything there was ever to know about said concept or character. I’d develop my premise into a story then flesh out the details. Eventually, I came across the Snowflake Method, and when the creator released the Snowflake Pro software (for a paltry $10!), I snagged it, knowing it would completely revolutionize my writing. And it did. I started with the concept and developed a one-line sentence that summed up my entire story, also called an elevator pitch for all you trad authors. I expanded it to a paragraph, a page, and four pages, making it into a full synopsis. Sometimes, if I didn’t have a story idea in mind and had only a character come to me, I’d skip to the character planning side and filled out questionnaire after questionnaire about the characters to help them come to life for me. I’d write extensive (and I really do mean extensive) backgrounds for each character, even that minor character who gets mentioned on page 42, and not even by name. Yep, everyone was given a life and a story. After I had all that, I’d work on my setting. Since I used to write only literary fiction, set in contemporary times, I’d figure out which real city I wanted to base my fictional city on, print out the map, and go to work making it my own. (To this day, I love using mirror images of real cities, and I did that with my most recent cozy mystery series.) This fictional city was like its own character, so, naturally, it got its own background, complete with the town’s history and how it was established to all the skeletons the townspeople want to bury (but can’t because I like to expose them) to how life has changed over the (hundreds of) years. After all of that, I still wasn’t done. Now, I had to get down and dirty with my plot and craft all those scenes.craft all those scenes. Most often, there were between 150 and 200 scenes for each novel and between 20 and 40 scenes for each short story. (I typically used short scenes with less than 1,000 words each.) I knew where all my characters were at all times, and I’d track the main plot and all the subplots using a color scheme.

Except, by the time I finished planning everything, and I truly mean I planned nearly everything I could, I was left with something that already resembled a first draft in note form. I didn’t want to write the story in narrative form because there was little for me to learn. The times that I did just suck it up and write were usually short stories, and they either followed the outline to the letter–making it less than adventurous for me–or it’d veer so off course that entire chunks of the outline were useless. Characters tend to do what they want to do and not what you want them to do. Goodbye, synopsis and questionnaires! Needless to say, I burned out fairly quickly, in a few years of doing it that way.

Needless to say, I burned out fairly quickly, in a few years of doing it that way, and like anyone who sees the world in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms, I went to the polar opposite style and pantsed my way through a book. This was my NaNoWriMo project back in 2015. All I knew was that I wanted the story to be about gun violence in schools and the aftermath of it. And I dove in! I was tired of never really finishing anything of novel length, so I gave myself an ultimatum: Finish the story in November or else quit writing. Okay, I knew I couldn’t quit writing, so I had to finish the story. In my eight years of NaNoWriMo participation, it was my first year writing only on one project, and I wrote over 80,000 words. I didn’t finish it in one month, despite taking off two of the four weeks from work, but I did finish it the day before my youngest son was born in early January.  Let’s just say a train wreck looks better than that draft, but I still treasure it (even though I refuse to open the document) because it means I finished something. With pantsing, though, I found it difficult to keep my character’s names consistent (I think my main character changed names and ethnicities at least five times), and figuring out what was even happening was difficult. It was truly a Draft Zero because there’s no coherent story line, all the characters’ voices are muddled, and nothing is consistent. But it has “The End” written on it, and, for that project, that’s all that mattered to me. Okay, and I admit it was fun writing the first thing that came to mind without wondering where or how it fit in the grand scheme of the novel. It was strangely cathartic to be so wholly creative like that.

I finally had one completed novel under my belt, and I felt great. My creativity, despite just having a newborn and having a toddler to chase, was at an all-time high. I wanted to write more. Except I feared that Zero Draft. I knew that former novel had to be completely scrapped, and I was okay with that but I didn’t want everything I ever wrote to be scrapped. I had to come to a balance between plotting and pantsing because neither were viable approaches for me. Enter the plantsing approach! Now what I’ve learned is that everyone’s plantsing approach is a little different; after all, it’s on a spectrum. This is just my process, and if you find it leans too heavily toward the planning side–because it does–feel free to mix it up.

I start with an idea I want to explore. It could be a snippet of a scene, a full-fledged plot, a character, a feeling, or a theme. I get a blank piece of paper, usually a piece (or two) of legal-sized paper and write a complete mind dump of everything about the idea. Anything is relevant at this stage, and the more time I spend on this the more I can think to write. Still, I try to do this all in one sitting, though. After I’ve written everything, I just stare at the paper–in wonder or in horror–and I try to connect those ideas with lines to see what goes together. Okay, now I have a really messy piece of paper, but the idea is coming to life in my mind.

The next step is the first step of the Snowflake Method, and that’s boiling all that stuff down to one sentence. It contains the protagonist, the setting, and the core conflict. Ideally, it’s under fifteen words. Keep this sentence in mind; memorize it, even. This is the sentence you’ll recite to get people–agents, editors, future readers, other writers, your mom and dad–interested in your story. After you have this one sentence–don’t stress too much because it’s bound to change–move onto expanding it to

After you have this one sentence–don’t stress too much because it’s bound to change–move onto expanding it to one paragraph. This has more of the actual story in it, so it might be a good idea to consult your mind map for this. Again, this will likely change as you dive into your plot and characters, and that’s okay. Adjust as needed.

By now, I’m really wanting to get to know these characters because I don’t know how the story until I know the characters. (They’re fickle creatures, characters.) I have a quick reference guide to help me figure out these characters. I don’t write about everything, just the topics I think are relevant at this time.

  • Goal, motivation, and conflict (both inner and outer)
  • Strengths/weaknesses
  • Appearance
  • Important relationships
  • Education level (and how it affects the character)
  • Home environment (and how it affects the character)
  • Preferred travel method
  • Backstory as it directly relates to the story
  • Carried items (in a purse, bag, pocket, backpack, etc.)
  • Habits, mannerisms, quirks, catchphrase, etc.
  • How the character view themselves versus how other characters see character

 

Finally, I figure out the point of view of the story (I usually choose limited third person), the beginning, and the ending. I figure out the ending so I can have a basic roadmap to where I’m going to make sure I’m still heading in the right direction, and it’s kind of like a treasure map. It doesn’t matter how I get to the ending (what makes it a pantsing experience), but I just need to get there somehow (what makes it a planning experience).

And then I write! I start at the beginning and feel my way around from there. I rely on my paragraph that tells me the basic story to help guide me, but, otherwise, I’m on my own.

Because I have two young kids and very little time to actually devote to writing, I will sometimes go the extra step, which is planning out individual scenes. 

‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ E.L. Doctorow

By planning out only the scenes I need that day before I end my writing session the night before, I’ve turned on the headlights. Pantsing without doing this is like driving at night without any lights on. Sometimes a deer will jump out in front of you, and you will only narrowly miss smacking into it. (Or you might just fall into a ditch–or plot hole.) I never plan more than five scenes in advance since they’re bound to change beyond that anyway.

 

And there you have it! That’s my process of plantsing a story. Are you a planner, pantser, or plantser?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camp NaNo prep [3 days left]

Well, kind of. I’m writing this post-midnight since I had to work all day, and I’m just now able to get to this. So, really, it’s more like two days left, but who’s counting?

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Today, let’s focus on what happens in your story. This isn’t so much of an outline [I hear your rebellion, pantsers] so much as it’s a general guide. It’s difficult to truly pants a story.

[And if you’re wondering what pantsing is it’s simply writing by the seat of your pants and foregoing an outline.]

With events such as NaNoWriMo [and similar ones] where there’s a hard deadline, it makes it easier for you to jot down some basic notes about your story, your world, and your character. How much you jot down – whether it’s a small bulleted list or a full outline complete with character synopses – is up to you. I tend to gravitate toward something in the middle, making myself a “plantser,” a plotter and pantser. [I never did fit in one box, anyway.]

Because this topic is huge in scope and there are literally thousands of blogs and articles written about how to plan for different genres, I’ll only touch on my own genres and some of the bigger ones. I stay within the mystery/thriller and literary fiction genres, though I do write some young adult and children’s books from time to time. I’ll also briefly discuss world building in the scifi/fantasy genres.

All you need for this is a notebook and writing implement or a computer. I like doing all my planning on paper because it activates different parts of the brain that aren’t activated while typing, and paper gives me the freedom to doodle and mind map. Of course, choose the method that works best for you or try them both.

If you want to get fancy, you can choose to have:

  • Index cards – for characters, setting, scenes, plot points, anything else you think is important for you to write the story
  • Various colors of markers and highlighters – useful especially if you’re working with multiple POVs
  • Mapping software – to draw a map of your characters’ environment, which is useful for any genre and not just fantasy

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First, let’s give your characters somewhere to live. Setting is important to every story, not just science fiction and fantasy. Whether your story takes place at 221B Baker Street in London, on a faraway planet in a different galaxy, the street you grew up on, or a random city, it’s important to map out where everything is. Ideally, your setting will complement your story. It will enhance your characters and their conflict.

For now, describe your setting as an outsider would see it. Play tourist in your own world and note big things [like the Space Needle in Seattle] and the small things [the hole-in-the-wall pub that serves the best fish and chips that only the locals know about]. What kind of things are in your city or on your planet? Right now, this is a general look at it. You can be as vague or as specific as you’d like to be. Do you write

If you’re writing a historical fiction novel, this is the time when you need to show off your research skills. You’ll need to research different topics, such as: political/social/cultural context, manner of speech, clothing, geography [which may have changed over the course of time], etc. Number one rule? Fact check everything. Here are tips to get you started.

Do you write scifi or fantasy? Check out this great guide.

I typically write 5-8 pages of setting notes that include grocery stores, parks, schools, population size, basic statistics [average socioeconomic class, average ages of residents, and ethnicity breakdown], tourist attractions, shops, town history [origin of the town, who founded it, why is it called that], overall “vibe” of the town, local lore [like ghost stories], and newsworthy events [like murders either well-publicized or covered up by the powers that be].

Keep this setting description and we will dig deeper in setting after we develop the main characters. I recommend every writer read this excellent article on inspirational settings.

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It’s time to populate your world. Make a list of your characters – main characters, supporting/minor characters, antagonists, mentors, and what some people call “power players.” For this part, we’re focusing on a general list – names, ages, their roles, their goals, and their conflicts. What motivates your character to continue? What barriers are in their way? [These can be external, internal, and/or both.] How do they interact with the other characters?

  •  Your main characters are just that – they’re the people the story revolves. Without the main characters, the story wouldn’t be told.
  • Your supporting or minor characters help [or hinder] the main characters. Either way, they’re there to help keep the forward momentum and drive the story to the end.
  • Your antagonists are in competition with your protagonist [and sometimes the minor characters]. They want something, and the protagonist is in the way. The key to creating a believable antagonist is remembering that everyone is the hero of their own story. The reasons behind their actions will make the antagonist realistic and sympathetic.
  • Mentors are those characters that guide the protagonist through their journey. Traditionally, it’s an older person in a high role, but molds were made to be broken. Mentors could include: a teacher, a parent, a friend, a boss, or a wizard. The options are unlimited. Mentors traditionally help the protagonist, but they could also offer well-intentioned advice that causes conflict for the protagonist.
  • Power players are characters that have the power to change the course of the story. Is there a murderer running loose in the city, picking off people randomly? Does your mentor character hold a secret that, if divulged to the protagonist, will help defeat the antagonist?

It’s important to note that your characters aren’t meant to stay in one box. Antagonists can be power players, as can mentors. [If you really want to get twisted, an antagonist can be a mentor and a power player.] Play around with the roles your characters will play in the story. Develop their relationships with each other. How do they interact with one another? How do they affect each other? Characters, just like people, don’t live in a vacuum.

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Now you’ve got a world and people, so next you need them to do stuff to get the plot rolling. Dust off your work from yesterday – the one paragraph that gives you an overview of the what happens during the story. This is your framework to build upon.

Reread what you’ve written then see if your story fits one of these plot templates. Knowing the root of the story will help understand which plot details and subplots to choose. [Note: Your story might fit more than one template, and that’s okay.]

Rarely will a plot, by itself, sustain a novel-length story. That’s where subplots come into play. Take a moment and think about your other characters. What’s going on in their lives? How does it relate to the protagonist and the main storyline? Is there a love interest? Is there a family feud? Revenge? Jealousy? Murder? How will a minor character’s story converge with a main character’s story? What other character’s (or characters’) story will enhance the protagonist’s story?

I tried to structure a section about plot and how to layer different elements to create a deeper story while adding subplots to the mix, but it would turn into a book in itself. Instead, I’m going to direct you to these fantastic references. I recommend reading them in order since they build upon one another, but, of course, like anything, do what works for you.

  • This short article talks about what exactly are plot, plot layers, and subplots. It goes into how exactly to set up an easy-to-reference chart for you to use as you’re writing to make sure you’re weaving each element seamlessly.
  • This denser article, which has several other links with worksheets and checklists embedded, goes into more detail than I could ever imagine about how to work in subplots. I’ve read it four times already, and I pick up on something new each time. Definitely something to print and have handy. I highly recommend clicking through other links referenced in the article and printing off the checklists.
  • Finally, this article shows the methods in which to practically weave in your subplots. It talks about the different ways to write them on the page – whether to start each thread as a new chapter, parallel writing, or something else entirely. There are seven methods explored in this article, and it contains examples of each.

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Now that you have your plot, plot layers, and subplots, think of different scenes that are a part of each of these elements. Scenes, at their heart, do one of two things. [Sometimes, they can do both at the same time, which is wildly efficient.]

  1. Reveal characters – their motivations, goals, personality, etc.
  2. Move the story forward – getting characters to point A to Z.

By keeping these two categories in mind, it’ll help to ward off those information dumps that are common, especially in the beginning when it’s tempting to want to explain everything all at once – the setting and its history, the main character and their life story, the problem or conflict without actually doing anything to solve it. Ideally, this information can be revealed on an as-needed basis and intertwined within the story to where it’s almost imperceptible that you’re doling out information at all.

Take the time now to jot down a few scenes for each element – plot, plot layer, and subplot – to get you started.

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That was a lot of work, and if you’re still here with me, thank you. By now, you have a good idea of what your story is and the layers that make it up. You’ll also probably see where you can improve your story – gaping plot holes or topics to research. Jot these concerns down. We’ll address them soon.

Tomorrow [later today during the next post], we will dive into your characters and explore their role in the story. Keep the work you’ve done today handy. When you learn who your characters are, some of these plot and subplot details may change. Don’t be afraid to alter anything if it strengthens your story.