Writers in the Storm

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August 27, 2014

A Trick For Plotters & Pantsers

Marsha WestMarsha West

I’m searching for a non-cliché way to say how happy I am to be guest posting here at WITS, but Margie Lawson would pass out at everything that has popped into my mind. 🙂 Thanks so much for asking me, y’all.

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Several years ago, my friend Jerrie Alexander and I took Rose’s Plotting Bootcamp as a free on-line course because we signed up early to attend the NOLA Conference in Louisiana. The conference was excellent, but this course was awesome.

I’ve modified one of the tools Elle James and her sister, Delilah Devlin, presented in that Bootcamp class to use in my pre-writing work.

This is what they presented:

Picture a table about 6 sections across and 8 down. You can make them whatever size works for you. Across the top is Scene 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 etc.

Down the left side of the Bootcamp example were these words: Use a row for each

  • External Plot
  • Romantic Plot
  • Heroine’s Character Arc
  • Hero’s Character Arc
  • Hero’s Character Arc
  • Subplot 1
  • Subplot 2
  • Subplot 3
  • Subplot 4
  • Hook
  • POV
  • Setting
  • Calendar

Well, after a couple of attempts, I still couldn’t get the hang of it. But it did seem like a tool that might help me keep up with my story -- a way that allowed for fact checks so I didn’t spend hours scanning backwards through the text. Have you ever done that?

Pantsers, hang with me a bit more and you’ll see how this tool is good for you, too.

I used to call myself a plotter, but somewhere I ran across the term “plotser,” which I think describes my process better. Yes, I make character charts figuring out all their backstory, why they do what they do, what they want, that whole GMC thing. (And thank you Clover Autrey for your GMC questions!) I use a Bootcamp chart for Internal and External Conflict. This chart gives me the flow of the action. I work through about half the story that way before I ever start writing.

Let me just show you an example. This is an abbreviated table for chapter one from VERMONT ESCAPE, which in July celebrated its first Birthday and will come out in print version in September! Vermont Escape 100x150

Vermont Escape Chapters & Scenes

Chap 1 p. 1-19 S1 p 1-3 Wed 4/24 evening. Woodstock Inn Suite S2 p 3-10 Thurs 4/25morning Inn Dining room S 3 p 10-18 4/25 J’s office, street, his Mother’s S 4 p.18-19 4/25 Evening Anne’s home
  POV Jill. Discovers note and flashdrive from her deceased father. POV Jill Meet Karen, stash Flash drive in bank box. Dog saving scene. Goes to Anne’s store, meets Jerrod. Karen suggests Jill buy store. Anne invites to supper. POV Jerrod Works on contract, vists with Sheriff. J. wants Mom to sell to Vermonter, goes to house to take her out to apologize for behavior in store. He stays for supper, is attracted to Jill POV Jill at dinner, she’s upset to be attracted to him, agrees to go to store next morning. Asks Karen/Tim not to talk about murders of her husband and father.

I use landscape for these tables rather than this portrait layout.

The date, time, and location of the scene are super helpful to me so I don’t have something happening before it can have happened. Because I had a POV problem early on, I note the POV character to make sure I don’t head hop and that I stay in one character’s head a decent length.

The basic action shows up this way, too. I can check to see when character knew a fact or did something at a particular time. When did the sheriff arrive? It’s all there.

Now, Pantsers, I hope you’ve stayed with me. Here’s my confession:

I don’t write this until I’ve finished writing the scene or chapter.

Do you see how this can be a useful tool for you without messing with your creativity? You don’t have to fill it out after every chapter if you’re on a roll and those words are pouring out. But every couple of chapters for sure you should do this the purposes of fact checking later.

If you’re a really good plotter and can write it out before hand, which is what Rose’s Plotting Bootcamp suggests with all the other categories I listed above, good for you. I tried, but had to keep changing it as I wrote the story, which became time consuming. Humm. Maybe I pants more than I think?

So how about you?



Some combination of the two?

What do you call yourself? If you don’t use this kind of visual to keep up with the story, what do you use? I’m always looking for a good tool to make this writing job easier. Thanks so much for letting me visit.

Truth Be Told 100X150Marsha R. West’s first published book, VERMONT ESCAPE, was e-released by MuseItUp Publishing in July 2013. TRUTH BE TOLD e-released by MIU May 2014. She’s sold a third book to MIU scheduled for e-release Winter 2014/15. That book SECOND CHANCES is the first of a planned series about four women who met when they were kids at summer camp. In SECOND CHANCES, the hero, Mike Riley, played a supporting role in VERMONT ESCAPE, which releases in PRINT in September.

Visit Marsha at her website for more info. She’d love to hear from you.


55 comments on “A Trick For Plotters & Pantsers”

  1. Hi Marcia!

    Great to see you on the 'other side of the desk'! I guess I'm a 'Pantter', in that I come at this from a pantser, sticking my toe over the line of plotting only because I have deadlines, and don't have time to wander in the weeds (though that's where I'm most comfortable).

    I use a much less detailed version of the above - a chapter by chapter overview only that I sketch in scenes as I know them. Across the top, from left to right - chapter number, page count, word count, time passage from last scene, then a long box explaining the scenes in that chapter, separated by a / and color coded by POV character. Romance is in red.

    Then, scenes I know, but haven't written yet are a few lines down, in brown, to remind me.

    This allows me to see where I am, and where I'm going, but isn't actually plotting (shhh, don't tell me brain that it's close).

    Thanks for sharing your process with us today!

  2. Thanks for these ideas from both Marcia and Laura! I've struggled with various forms, beginning with note cards and too many stacks of papers, moving to Scrivener's cork board, and now to an Excel outline thingy that gives me a post-pantsing outline for the rewrite of a very old story. Very simplistic: chapter number, scene, page number, POV, basic note, and expanded note. I rather like the Excel mode for a story already in Word because it's so easy to add or delete a line or column and find the place where I moved a character, introduced a character, killed off a character, or just created havoc of one sort or another. I don't have the time evolution, which might be a great addition, especially as I have actual events that fit toward the end of the story. Thanks, ladies!

  3. My process is much like yours. I do have to start with certain facts - character backgrounds, hook, turning points, etc. I use a huge posterboard divided into 20 squares for chapters. I usually end up filling it in AFTER I complete a scene so I know where everything is in the plot/arc/timeline. And color coding the POV lets me see if I lean too heavily in one direction.

    Thanks for sharing the information!

    1. Hey, Deb. See what did I say about technology. Char told me this worked with the reply place, just the way my blog does. Ha! It's at the top rather than the bottom, so I just now saw it. Slow, but I get there.
      I love that you use a poster board. I'd love the size for a visual. My writing--hand writing is just not to be believed. Squiggles I'd have trouble deciphering later. I'm good for a day, but after that, I can't read it. Without the computer and the wonderful "Cut" and "Paste" I'd never be a writer. I may need to add in the color coding for the POV so I can see it faster on my form. Great idea. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing. 🙂

  4. Morning, all. I'm so honored to be here. Hey, Laura, your writing is so super. You string words together--well, it's amazing, Okay, enough enough Fan Girl response.
    A "pantter" huh? New term, and I guess I'm surprised you've got your toe over into that shhh! plotter line. I thought you were a pantser all the way through. So glad to hear it. I love that you've got the word count. Never thought of that. I keep that in a notebook next to me.Thanks so much for stopping and sharing. One of the best things about being a romance writer is how very helpful everyone is.

  5. Hey, Normandie. What a lovely and unusual name. I bet there a story there. 🙂 I know folks who swear by Scrivener. My friend Jo-Ann Carson is a new convert. Technology is always a challenge for me and the time involved to learn something new is just too much. I think I initially started with Excell on the form above and then modified to just use the table. However, when I first started commenting on blogs, I was pretty much lost there too, and have certainly picked that up just fine, thank you very much. Perhaps too much, since I love it and spend way more time than I should blogging and commenting. Discipline is a challenge for me too. LOL Thanks so much for stopping by, Normandie. I hope you'll drop back and tell us about your name. 🙂

  6. Aloha Marsha,

    I shut my eyes through the whole plotter bit. LOL. I know it works for some people, but I'd never write another thing if I did it this way. I have vague scribbled notes like: Henry, Southern Gentleman, plays sax. Beau, Tahitian, Tiare, Lei, Mum. LOL. I am a COMPLETE pantser and I'll never be anything else. I think there's possibly a method in my madness. I follow almost no writing rules. I write in the middle of things. I write the end first. I start a sentence half way through. I go back and fill. LOL. I drive the plotters up the wall. 🙂 I'm a very organic writer. And proud! 🙂

    Honestly, I'd never get a story down if I didn't write the way I do.

    In fairness, I do have yellow legal pads EVERYWHERE with scribbling's on them.

    And research is always done in word doc, so I have all my stuff correct.

    Thanks. I still enjoy reading these things. Aloha Marsha from Meg 🙂

    1. Aloha, Meg. You made me laugh! I put up warnings that the post got better for you pantsers toward the end. I'd use the legal pads too, but as I said I can't read my writing I even have a label maker to put labels on file folders. The best find I ever made! Truth Be Told, (sorry, I couldn't resist using that phrase), it actually hurts my hand to write now. Fingers don't want to hold the pen or pencil. 🙁 I so appreciate you stopping by and sharing the other side of the story. 🙂 Aloha, Meg.

      1. Aloha marsha :-). Thanks for commenting back. Glad I make you laugh. Ow on your poor wee fingers. That sounds most uncomfortable. Aloha Meg. 🙂

    1. Hey, Lisa. I've been helped by so many others (many who show up here at WITS).I don't think there's any one right way. We learn from each other's experience and take what works, or modify it or leave it alone. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

    1. Hey, Susan. You're welcome, glad you like it. As I said we take bits from here and there and weave our own system to write our books, even if it's a less structured system. Keep note of this web site. I've learned a ton from the folks who post and comment here.I so appreciate you stopping by and commenting. 🙂

  7. I'm entirely a pantser. At times in the past I've tried to plot things out beforehand and it never worked out beyond a few chapters. The characters seem to show up with their own agenda and I better get the heck out of their way. That doesn't mean they don't sometimes careen down a dead end road and hit a wall, but I can always back up and snip out dangling plot threads in rewrites. I do tend to make notes as I write, and even as I rewrite, like "make sure you explain ___ later" or "don't forget to resolve ___." But plot something out intricately beforehand? HA! My characters would just laugh at me like the unruly brain children they are!

  8. Hey, Morgan. Yes, your're a true pantser. I think that must be scary and empowering at the same time. I leave myself notes like you do. Usually in bright yellow highlight in the ms. Sometimes if it's just a name I can't think of at the moment I type XXXXX and highlight that. Quicker than taking time to look it up and mess with the flow of words, but also makes sure I don't ignore the problem. Real plotters would laugh at me claiming to be a plotter. I don't do the" intricate" stuff. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. Isn't it nice we all find our way to a finished product but by different paths.

  9. I'm a pantser for sure. My writing process is to sit down and start writing. I may scribble a few notes in my journal to remember something, especially if I can't start writing right away, but I tend to go with the flow. Then, when I have a skeleton of a story (usually about 80 pages), I go back to the beginning and make notes and do first round revisions.

    1. Hey, Brianna. Love your name. 🙂 Hmm. 80 pages for the main thing and then you go back and add to. I can see how that would work. How long are your books usually? Thanks for stopping and sharing. I hope you pop back to answer my question. 🙂

      1. My first novel, according to Amazon, is 242 pages. My current WIP is sitting at around 112. It needs at least one more round of revisions, though. I also have half a dozen other works of varying lengths in various stages of completion, excluding my middle grad series (I am, if I ever finish them, aiming for those to be about 100-150 pages).

  10. I'm a pantser but have learned the hard way that I need to keep track of what happens in the book especially the time line. I haven't tried the table which would be quicker for fact checks. I do chapter outlines with a list of scene highlights. I usually put dates at the top. And like you, I do them after the chapter is written.

    1. Hey, Sharla. I'd always put the times in the books as I wrote, then got some feedback before I sold that editors and publishers didn't like that. (I think that's like the rule they don't like prologues!) Anyway, I wrote the third book without putting any dates before sections. Oh my what a mess. I had to painstakingly go back and flip this and rewrite that. Now I always put the date before each break so I don't get lost as well as in my Chapter and Scene table. I may remove it before it goes to my publisher, but it has to be there. The time I lost fixing that one book is appalling. I hope I haven't offended any of you pantsers. LOL We all have to find what works for us. Thanks for sharing.

      1. Aloha Marsha. :-). No you haven't offended me. Lol. I'm just baffled. What is this date or time stamp think you speak of. ;-). I have no idea what this means. Lol. Now I think I'm missing out on something. 🙂

        Thanks and aloha Meg 🙂

      2. I did the same thing Marsha in my last book. I used to have this inner clock but life gets complicated sometimes and I lost my way. I spent a week going through the book chapter by chapter and mapping time. Lesson learned! 🙂

        One reason we post so many ways of doing the same things here at WITS is so that we might all find something that works for us. We try it and if it doesn't work, we move on. You have given us one more option and that's a precious thing. Thanks.

        1. Somehow, I missed this comment, Sharla. I'm babysitting the middle grandchild today and dealing with getting my refrigerator repaired. (Long story. See my blog tomorrow. 🙂
          You're more than welcome for the idea. I'm grateful I took the course. I sometimes I wish I'd known what I know now about writing when I began my first book. But so much of this is application. Even if I'd been presented with it, I wouldn't have had any experience to connect it to. It is what it is. I'm just grateful for the opportunity to learn, do and share. 🙂

  11. This is great! I've always thought of myself as a pantser, but I complete a GMC table for my hero and heroine and fill out a 50+ question questionnaire for each of them before I get started. With my last book, I wrote the synopsis first too. Maybe I'm more of a plotser. Love that word!

  12. I sat down and wrote my first book by hand, non-stop in a rocking chair sitting in a sun room, for 3 weeks. Then wrote profiles and back-stories on each character (16) and now have 3 1/2 prequels written in 1st draft. That 1st one is in 5th draft and about ready for agent subs. I looked at a lot of aps and use Write It Now for a global search and back up, but created my own excel system that grew, and grew to track an extensive number of characters, enchanted animals, kingdoms, locations, plot devices, created spell words, etc. I have time lines of events and clues. As I write my excel books for each book are minimized in the bottom tray - very handy. But, the most valuable is the excel book page of chapter summaries that I began filling in when I finished each chapter instead of going back and doing at the end of the 1st draft. I'll give plotters that one, but I still had the 1st draft semi-pre-written in free flow bio back-stories 🙂 Die-hard pantser.

    1. Wow, AR, you have quite a system there especially for a pantser! You do all it in long hand? Some is in Excell, so some must be on the computer. My mind boggles and then you're juggling different worlds. My gracious! Impressed, lady. I can really see how your Excell chapter summaries would be helpful for writing the synopsis. Readers really have little idea how hard the job of writing is! And yet no one holds a gun to our heads to make us do this crazy stuff! LOL Thanks so much for stopping and sharing.

  13. Hey, Collette. Also a great name. We stayed at Collete's B & B in Washington state. Gorgeous views of Puget Sound. I digress. Easy for me to do. LOL Another reason, the plan helps me. I frequently refer to the internal and external plot charts.
    50+ Questionnaire! Wow. You do know a lot about your characters before you start. I should add more questions to my charts. At some point, I get really eager to start writing and just go for it. LOL Glad you like the "plotser" term. I wish I could remember who I heard use it. Thanks for stopping and sharing.

  14. I'm an unorganized Pantser - boards and graphs make me itch. I just starting typing and hope the characters know what they're doing because I sure don't. I then try to keep notes on a word doc of things like names, eye color, important dates - but that clearly doesn't work very well as I just realized yesterday that a woman named Missy in book one is called Margaret in book 3 - so in book 4 (in progress) I wrote Margaret, known to her friends as Missy - LOL.

    how's that for a save?

    1. Hey, Chris. LOL Boy you were lucky you could do the name switcheroo thing. I've read several of your books. Hard to believe there's not some plotting going on. Very well done, lady. I do thing those of you who are full blown pantsers are especially gifted. I also think this may be a bit like those of us with straight hair envying the curly headed, and the curly headed envying the straight hairs. Ha! The grass is always greener (Apologies to Margie Lawson for the cliche!) Thanks so much for stopping and sharing.

  15. I'm pretty much a pantser, though I do use a beat sheet to plan my books so I can submit on proposal. Once I start writing and get a better idea of the story, I'll create a chapter outline, which I add to as ideas come to me. I do like the idea of color coding POV. I'm not so good at balancing the POV between the hero and heroine.

  16. Lots of great ideas, Marsha. We're more pantsers than plotters as well. Although we do often have a written outline to start, it can quickly go by the boards. A character list is essential in a long book, just to keep the names and spellings and physical descriptions in order.

    1. Hey, Ken. I can't imagine how you "pants" with a partner, even if she is your wife! 🙂 Is your outline a formal outline or just several paragraphs with main points? Thanks so much for RTing and for stopping and sharing. 🙂

  17. Hey, Ally. I've never quite gotten the idea of the "beat sheet." I probably should. Do you do your chapter outline in any special form? I can't imagine you mean a "real outline" like we learned in school. Thanks for RTing and for stopping and sharing.

  18. I am definitely a plotter, and work with a 3-act structure/beat sheet to broad plot. Thanks to Laura Drake's fabulous Excel worksheet she shared with me, I keep track of my scenes and chapters and what happens in them, etc. But first, I pencil the info for the worksheet on a yellow lined notepad as I write. At some point in time I'll transfer all this data to Excel before I do my editing. Somehow I love the freedom of pencil and eraser right beside me.

  19. Hey, Barb. Another one of the long-handers! I'm totally amazed by the number of you who write this way. Someone should do a survey. Maybe it's more common than I've assumed. And I should probably use the 3-Act structure. With my theatre background, it would make sense for me to. Maybe I do it internally. I need to ask someone who uses it to read one of my books to see if they can see it in the story. Thanks so much for stopping and sharing. 🙂

  20. I'm pretty new, first book, Tidal Falls, just coming out now but I do the same as Chris and wing it. 🙂
    I do use OneNote where I keep files of all my research, character traits and sketches as I come up with them, and a timeline so everything flows in the right direction, but that's it. 🙂

  21. Hey, Jackie. Congrats on your first release.I'm guessing you do all those files as you write or after, right? You panters, the gifted ones. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping and sharing, and good luck with your release.

  22. Great post. 🙂 I'm a pantser. I tried to be a plotter, but if I plot, then I don't write the story.
    If I know what happens, then I don't see the point in writing it down...because there are no surprises for me anymore. Does that make any sense?

    1. Hey, EA (seems odd to call you "evilauthor") 🙂 It makes perfect sense. I've heard that from other pantsers. It's the getting there that's the most fun for you. If you know how you're going to do that, what's the point. I'm fascinated by how differently our brains work on this subject. You just have to find what works for you. Trial and error. Be nice if you just knew--poof I'm a pantser. Poof-I'm a plotter. I think many of us morph as we go along. I certainly more pantser now than when I started. More willing to trust myself and the process. Being something of a control freak that's been tough for me. LOL Still more plotter than pantser, but sometimes....Thanks for stopping and sharing.

  23. It's always interesting to find out what works for other writers. Sometimes there are real gems to be found, and approaches that cause a reevaluation of what I'm doing. I seem to learn with every story I write.

    Good post, Marsha. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Hey, Nancy. I so agree with your statement about learning from each book you write. Looking back I can see what I was working on "learning" in each book. We're lucky to keep learning. Keeps our brains young. 🙂 Thanks for stopping and sharing. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  24. Marsha, I'm late to the party, but I am so happy to see you here!! One of my WANA sisters. 🙂

    This discussion is marvelous. My gals won't even talk to me about how I trick myself into a finished book. I do a bit of both plotting and pantsing, but more on the pants side since I write completely out of order.

    I write out a summary with the big events and turning points, write all the scenes I know. Check my 3-act structure and fill in the blanks. Critiquing me is a PITA, but they put up with me. Thank God.

  25. Hey, Jenny. Never late to a blog someone reminded me when I showed up after a couple of days. Blogs go on for ever. Aren't you surprised when a comment will show up quite a long time after a blog's been posted? Think it's pretty cool.
    I really should do more with WANA. I tried at first when I first got on, but I was writing a book, and it just fell by the wayside. Jeez, just what I need another piece of SM to focus on. LOL
    You do have a unique system for writing your books, Jenny. I've heard of others who write scenes out of order. I've only done that occasionally. Generally, it's when I've written the scene and later realize it's in the wrong place and needs to have other scenes before it. I'm pretty linear.:)
    I haven't been able to translate PITA, but figure it's not something you can write here. LOL I'm so pleased to get to be a guest here.I've long admired WITS. Y'all do great work!

    1. PITA = *pain in the ass* 🙂

      All the gals here are linear too, and I just can't write like that. You've seen the inside of my brain by now, and it's a jumble in some spots. My writing is like that too, but doing it my way keeps me going forward, instead of having to stop. I'm always afraid if I stop, it'll be forever.

      1. LOL I don't know why I couldn't figure that out! Jenny, you've hit on what all of us have to do: find what works for us. Glad you have. 🙂

  26. It's always fascinating seeing how writers work.

    I think I'm a mixture of both plotting and pantsing. I wrote down my entire trilogy flying on the ideas, but then I spent the last three years plotting it on the base of what I had writting the first time.

    I use Liquid Story Binder, which I understand is pretty similar to Scrivener. I love it because it allows me to creat a lot of notes, characters' sheets, timeline of events. For the first book (which I'm revising now) I wrote a journal of the events. And like you, Marsha, I break down a chapter-by-chapter and also a scene-by-scene outline (AFTER I wrote the entire thing) with POV and characters' arc (almost never the same thing).

    When I wrote short stories I never used any of these helps. I would write on the flight beginning to end. But I soon discovered I can't do this with a novel, and particularly a trilogy of novels. And besides, I find writing down notes, characters's sheets, timelines, characters' synopsis, any form of breakdown really really exiting and inpiring 🙂

  27. Hey, Jazzfeathers. What a cute handle. 🙂 And I love your term, "write on the flight" and "flying on the ideas." Good description of what happens when the "power," "muse," "inspriation," or whatever you call it takes over. I've never heard of "Liquid Story Binder" before. Like you said, always helpful to hear how others write. Even if after rethinking your own process, you decide to stick with it. You're stronger for the rethinking. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing. 🙂

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