Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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October 8, 2014

Plotting for Pantsers

Plotting for pantsers … The plotters out there are laughing, the pantsers are gasping in horror.

Trust me … it can be done!

I’m a pantser with suspenders. No matter how many times I try to plot before starting a project, I freeze, can’t do it! My writing process is to tighten the suspenders and jump in feet first.

I’m cursed blessed with a critique partner whose first drafts are pretty darn brilliant. She’s a pantser but a pantser-with-a-plan.

I, on the other hand, have a vague “somewhere in that direction” idea and don’t let the lack of breadcrumbs on my path deter me. So by the time I squeal “ta da” (how many of you still actually type “the end” at the end?), I have a happy helping of a holy-wow-what-was-I-thinking first draft.

Why? Because I don’t have those helpful breadcrumbs to guide me. I start writing, then part way in, realize something needs to change and off I march. I don’t go back and fix anything in the first draft.

This, my writing friends, is when the suspenders come off and I veer down the plotting path. Here’s how:

1) Read the first draft.

Start with a beta read. I do all beta reads on my iPad—I’ll save the manuscript as a pdf and read in iBooks, that way I can see the page numbers and it looks and feels like a “real book.” I’m also not tempted to edit as I read.

Take notes. I always have a notepad handy when I’m doing a beta read and jot down notes. For example, on page 32 I zoned out and start wondering if I’m back to full lives in Free Fall? On page 179 the dialogue turned cheesy. On page 225, I had a sudden “whhhuuuutttt?” moment. Jot down if a certain phrase or action starts becoming obvious. Did you just stumble over a detour in the plot?

2) Read it again, and this time, pull it apart.

photoFor the second—dissecting—read, I prefer hard copy. It provides yet another perspective and, for me at least, a more hands-on one. For this read I keep a stack of index cards and a notepad next to me.

Notepad: I write the name of each character on individual pages, the names of key locations in the story, a page for “timeline,” and any other key things that I need to keep organized. As I’m reading, I jot down key words/phrases for each. This becomes very helpful as I get deeper into the Harry Potter world staircase of my first draft—things shift; the notepad helps me stay true to the characters, locations, and timing.

Index cards: I use different colors for different plot threads. As I’m reading, I’ll pull the appropriate color card and jot down scene notes. For example: at the top of each card, I’ll write the plot thread, the chapter and the scene within the chapter, who’s in the scene, when does it take place, where is it happening, what’s happening.

During this second read is when I also refer back to any feedback I’ve received—critiques, contest feedback, even comments on previous manuscripts that may translate to the current work.

3) It’s puzzle time.

I take my fancy colored index cards and lay them out in chapter and scene order. This gives me a quick visual of what my story looks like. Armed with the notes I’ve taken and any feedback from other readers, I can see what’s missing, what scenes are redundant, which ones do nothing to move the story forward, and which ones are in the wrong spot.

Now I arrange the cards as necessary, mark ‘delete’ on some, mark ‘moved’ on others, and add new ones (note: use a different color pen and/or write “new” or whatever else works for you on these addition cards so you can easily tell what will be fresh copy versus editing existing).

At the end of the process I’ve—are you ready? Seatbelts buckled?—plotted. Seriously! Me … plotting. So there you have it—I may pants my way through a first draft but I’m a plotter with revisions.

What’s your process? Are you a pantser or a plotter? Or are you equal opportunity depending on the draft?

About Orly

OKL-NewAfter years of pushing the creativity boundary in corporate communications, Orly decided it was time for a new challenge. Three women’s fiction manuscripts later (plus a handful of picture books), it’s safe to say she’s found her creative outlet.  When she’s not talking to her imaginary friends, she’s reading or at least trying to ignore everyone around her long enough to finish “just one more paragraph.” Orly is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

You can find her on Twitter at @OrlyKonigLopez or on her website, www.orlykoniglopez.com.

43 comments on “Plotting for Pantsers”

  1. Thanks for sharing your process, Orly. From now on I'm going to read the first draft on my iPad...with a notepad handy. Love these tips.

    1. Thanks, Lori. Reading that first draft as a "book" rather than a manuscript reveals so many things. A glass of wine next to that notepad can come in handy as well. 🙂

  2. Oh. My. God. You know I'm scratching hives as I read this, right? SO glad your process works for you, Orly (can't wait to see your WIP after your first pass!), and I'm SO glad it's not mine! *shudders*

    But I'm also happy that as your crit partner, I get the advantage of that 'pulling apart' skill (I can hardly type that - my brain is cringing), when birds eat my breadcrumbs!

    Colored index cards for plot threads? Really? Frightens the bejesus out of me!

    1. I'm pulling together a care package for you, Laura - Benadryl and a packet of colored index cards. 😉

  3. I'm looking forward to the editing process in about a month (doing an early NaNo), so I'll definitely be coming back to this post! Thanks for your tips, I particularly like the iPad one as I'm guilty of editing as I go.

    1. YAY, someone else who says they're looking forward to the editing process. 🙂
      Try the iPad read - I'm like you, I twitch to edit as I go when reading on the computer or on a print out.

  4. I find index cards too small a space for me. I use lined 8.5 x 11 paper (white and colored sheets) when making notes. The story happens on the page for me too, not in outline so there is a lot of back and forth as I move through the story. There's something about big space on the page that makes me feel more free to create. Sometimes I don't even like the lined paper and have to use white typing paper for notes. Weird.

    1. I use the large notepads as well, Paula. But I found that boiling down the scenes to a few sentences helped me get a better sense of the big picture. Plus I don't have enough wall space to tape up that many sheets of paper to get the overall flow of the book. 🙂

      That's interesting about the plain white paper. Do you write out the story longhand or is that for notes?

    1. All those index cards go up on the wall when I'm done scribbling on them and shuffling them into order and adding more cards and scribbling again. Not so condensed. 🙂

  5. Orly,
    I love your analogy: Pantser with suspenders. 🙂
    I sort of do this too, now. I hammer out that first draft, then I go into plotting/editing mode. I've had trouble finding index cards big enough to fit me like some of the others mentioned.
    This is the perfect place for Scrivener, though. I still write in Word, but I use Scrivener to organize my editing. Steep learning curve, and I abandoned Scrivener for Word at least ten times, then it finally hit me how a Pantser could use the power of Scrivener for good.

    Great post!

    1. That's interesting. I have Scrivener and tried it once but couldn't warm up to it. Maybe because I was trying to write a first draft. As much as I complain about Word, it's still my go-to for writing. I need that blank page, no outlines, no sticky notes, no photos. Thanks for the tip ... I'll have to look into Scrivener again for the next edit!

  6. Plotting... I actually have a process for pantsers, Orly. I can't and don't plot, but I've come up with a system that works for me. I'm like you, no breadcrumbs, and that has gotten me into trouble more than once. 🙂 In fact, last week I was forced to start over on a wip because three chapters in I realized it wasn't working. But I will be pulling out my system this time. 🙂 I can't do the index card thing and outlines are a scary hell I'm not willing to dive into...yet. Give me note pads, big and small and I can manage. lol Great tips and I may try some when I get to an editing stage.

    1. I have a notebook that I keep for each project. I'll jot down notes, brainstorm character details, location details, I'll write down phrases that I read in other words books that inspire me, and research on whatever topic that WIP needs. But that's if for the first draft. The index cards and notepads come out when I'm done writing.

      I love how crazy writers are with our process. 🙂

  7. I used to be a full on pantser, but now I find I need a bit of structure. I do a lot of brainstorming about the character and the world, know how the story will begin, end, a few key scenes in between. Then POW, I start writing. I like the idea of doing a first read in ibooks to stop the temptation of editing, too!

    1. I do that as well, Angela. I brainstorm characters, locations, careers, etc. and have the main ideas for the story in my head before starting. Yet I always manage to find myself wandering down different paths and discovering new details about characters. Oh look, another rabbit hole to dive into. 🙂

  8. Oh my gosh, you've just written almost exactly my writing process on my first manuscript ..whcih I'm finishing right now. I wrote the first draft straight through (not intentionally, I had a little pitch accident that went differrently than expected and owed an editor a book) then I sent it to my Kindle to read as a book...with a notebook by my side. After a couple of rewrites my desk is currently covered with a hard copy of my manuscript with post its all over it, and stacks of index cards. At least now I know I'm not 'doing it wrong'! Although, next time the cards will be color. I'd post a picture of my desk if i could. Thank you for sharing. I have to head back to my 'writing desk' now.

    1. I'm looking around for the camera because you just described my desk. 🙂
      I love that you wrote "At least now I know I'm not 'doing it wrong'" - there is no wrong way to do it. I often wonder why I can't do it better, do it like someone else. There's a quote out there - and, of course, I can't for the life of me remember who said it now - "There's no right way to write, only your way."

  9. I can not fathom pantsing my way through a first draft! I know a lot of people can and do do it. And a lot of very successful authors have said they are pantsters, but it is beyond me. For my first novel, I outlined heavily, which kept me on task and focused, but a bad idea in the long run. I had way too much info in one novel. Now, I plot the whole thing in my mind as if I'm watching a movie. I take notes in notebooks for things i"m afraid I'll forget, but when it's time to write, the scene plays through my mind and I just have to transcribe it, and make it sound interesting! Congratulations to you pantsters! I am in awe, but I much prefer to know where I am going before staring at the blank screen.

    1. I'm actually not that far from your approach, Jennifer. I tend to jot notes down for the next couple of chapters and in the morning before sitting to write, I'll play out the scene in my mind. Once in a while it even sticks from treadmill to computer keyboard.
      The one time I tried to "outline heavily" I got so bogged down that I couldn't find my way to the end of the story.
      Thanks for sharing your process!

  10. My method: Chuck sanity out the window. Do everything wrong. Somehow end up with a story anyway. Mix in a bowl and bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees. Don't bother sticking a toothpick in, because we all know a story is never really done.

    1. Take it out of the oven and watch as it collapses in on itself.
      Yup, sounds familiar. 🙂

  11. I sit down with a tablet of paper and pencil, start writing at the beginning, and the story flows out chapter by chapter, and when the ending arrives, it is the end and I know it. Then I have created spread sheets I use during the revisions. Chapters change, word count changes, but I've yet to have the story change in plot, character arc, climax, or ending. In my opinion, I'm a true pantser. I have no need to organize or outline, or even do any thinking on a story prior to writing. All I have to do is sit down with the paper and pencil, or at a blank screen and start typing. The stories just start flowing beginning to end.

    1. I love that you can write on paper. I can't do that. I've never had a story change in plot or character arcs although I have changed endings during the revision phase.
      And yes, I think you definitely qualify as a full member in the pantser club. 🙂

  12. I am a die-hard plotter. I need to know, at least in a general way, where my story is headed. In fact, I sometimes have the clear ending scene before I even begin. It was so hard for me to turn off my inner editor to make BIAY by Sept. 30, but I managed it. I'm just starting the editing process to my VERY rough draft and the idea of reading all the way through on my iPad is a great idea! I'm going to try it (looks for fresh, thick notepad for gazillion notes). Thanks for a great post, Orly!

    1. I bow to you, die-hard plotter, Barb! 🙂
      And extra deep bow that you were able to turn the internal editor off. I struggle with that constantly. I finally had to put up a note next to my computer that reminds me, "Before there was order, there was chaos. Learn to welcome the chaos and let the words flow."

  13. I started out as a full-out pantser, but honestly, my first drafts were such a mess and I had to backtrack so many times I finally decided to do a little bit of plotting. I'll write the first chapter or two and then step back and think about where I'm going. Then, armed with a very, very rough outline, I move forward. It's nowhere near as detailed as what some writers do, and there are still lots of mysteries to solve, but it's helped my process immensely.

    My read-through process is similar to yours. I read my manuscript on my Kindle, armed with a notepad and pen to take copious notes. I like the idea of doing a second read-through with index cards. Will have to try it.

    1. You've given me hope, Denise. I tend to redo the first couple of chapters a couple of times before hitting the groove with the rest of the manuscript. But I still can't think about outlining without breaking into hives. Maybe I'll give it another shot. 🙂

  14. I wish I was a plotter, but it destroys the urge to write the story for me. I am a panster-with-a-plan, although I can go off on tangents along the way. I also put my ms on kindle, using Calibre to beta read it. Then edit the hard copy because you miss a lot on a screen.

  15. Gosh, after reading these comments, I've decided I write by rubics cube. Each project is different-Eric-you made me laugh out loud, Thanks. Orly I love what you said and now I have to find out how to put the blasted work on my ipad-what a great way to get around the blasted editor on my shoulder.

    1. DeNise, if you save it as a pdf and email it to yourself. From your email on the iPad, you can open the pdf then I think it's the top right corner you'll have the option to read it in iBooks. That's how I do it at least. 🙂

  16. I'm with Laura, Orly. This really feels like plotting--just "after the first act." I wish I could do something like this because when I'm in revisions I swear at how long it takes me to find a particular scene (it's never in the chapter I think!) for the "quick fix." I think I'll call your process the hybrid model. Kudos to you!

    1. It is plotting after the fact. But it's like doing a puzzle and I LOVE puzzles. 🙂

    2. Fae, you're GOT my Excel spreadsheet for a book! Chapter numbers down the left, then describe the scenes in that chapter in a few words. Put in word count and # of pages in the chapter, and voila! You can find any scene easily!

      1. Exactly Fae ... Laura's spreadsheet is great. I've seen a ton of others out there too. There's one that follows the spreadsheet JK Rowling used when she wrote Harry Potter. All sorts of fabulous ways to track.

  17. Wonderful tips! I'm a pantser for sure. The idea of plotting stops me cold - and stops my writing. But I do envy the writers (like my fellow co-author for Twin Desires) who plots with a fierce happiness.

  18. I'm also a pantser and I always hate myself for it after that first draft when I have to clean up the mess I made.

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