Pantsing or Planning?

As most of you know by now, I spend about as much time writing books as I do reading them… Depending, of course, on how much time I actually have. I spent most of the day writing. And, surprisingly enough, story-boarding. Which always gets me thinking… As you read this, be aware that my exercises and thoughts about writing directly reflect the kinds of things that I look for signs of in a good book, and comments from below will therefore relate to my book reviews, as is evidenced by my earlier review on The Iron King

I used to write with absolutely no plan in mind, and I always felt like it worked out just fine. Until I started the editing phase of the first draft of my very first 100% completed novel. Then I realized (with the help of continued complaints from some of my best friends—thank you!) that it was pretty obvious that I had no idea what was going on for the first half of the book. I’ve done at least 3 re-writes since then, and now I think I have something pretty reasonable, with a very well-outlined plot. You’ll notice I don’t say a very clear plot, but that’s not really relevant to this post.

Anyway, I learned my lesson about “pantsing” it, and I try not to do that anymore. Well, at least not entirely. Now I generally prefer somewhat of a mix between the two approaches—I like to have a large plot arc pretty well defined, and maybe some idea of where I want a sub-plot to generally meander, but I try to let the characters fill in the rest of the details.

My current work, The Bookkeeper, which I am posting one chapter per week on my other blog (we haven’t begun promotion yet, so I’m not really mentioning it here, savvy?) mostly fell into this category. I knew how I wanted it to begin (kind of) and I knew how I wanted it to end… But I had no idea how I was going to end up there. The first draft of the first chapter resulted in quite a few surprises—my main character had developed a history for herself that I couldn’t reconcile with the events I need to keep fixed to make this work. Which is great, in one way—that means Molly has/will have a strong personality, and it will probably show. But at the same time … Stubborn characters can be great for a plot or they can completely destroy it. Molly was going to fall into the latter category.

My initial solution was to enter her life earlier in her time-stream. Instead of having a jaded 20-something version of Molly, she’s now a sophomore in college. And instead of being used to city dwelling, she’s still an insanely naive country girl. Seriously, she is probably the most naive character I’ve ever written (perhaps with exception to the girls I wrote in back when I was actually that naive myself). This, in and of itself, seemed to help for a while.

Enter the supporting characters. I’ve got random characters I didn’t even intend to exist. Honest, they came out of nowhere. They even named themselves, which is a truly amazing feat for something coming out of my head (admittedly, I’m pretty certain they have mostly stolen and slightly altered names from books I’ve been reading, but that’s not the point). I was beginning to have character overload, so it was time to reign it in.

And since this weekend I’m swamped with math homework, what better time is there?

I spent probably—oh, 5 or 6 hours?—today brainstorming. When I moved apartments and bought real furniture a few weeks back, I got a huge dry-erase board too, and I’ve mostly been using it as a to-do list or doodle board for math problems. Today I cleaned it off, pulled out the sticky notes and colored markers, and made a full-up story board. Here is the result:


Doesn’t it look so organized?! Trust me when I say the intermediate steps were very … chaotic. I’d use up at least half the board with a thought-tree that bubbled out of one question. I’d be stumped on something and I’d write the problem on the board, then sit and stare at it for a while. Eventually, I’d end up with 5 or 6 potential solutions I’d write around it, and they’d in turn get their own problems and solutions mapped out around them. Whichever chain of thought made the most sense is what got put on a sticky note and added to the sequence of events up above.

Now, I’ve kind of done this on paper before. It’s a mess. I’d need a whole notebook to be able to do everything I did today, and when I was done I wouldn’t be able to find anything. Almost all of my thoughts and decisions are evident in the sticky notes. And what details didn’t make it into the green ones (plot points), were jotted down on a blue one and set to the side or the bottom as background information.

Most of the characters don’t have names yet, but otherwise I feel pretty good about having a sense of direction. And I’ve managed to make all of those random characters that kept popping up happy (so far at least). Maybe they’ll pull out fewer surprises now that I can better guide them. Here’s hoping, at least.

Anyway, the point of all this rambling… I think I might start doing a story-board like this more often. It was far more effective in this setting than it used to be in my notebooks, especially when I was moving so often and flipping between book notes and class notes. This is … consolidated. I’ve come close to this level of organization/thought with other works, but never on the first draft. This is truly unique for me.

And now I know that I will have at least 24 chapters, the book will take place over about a week, and I think I’ve already thought through most of the stump-spots that I would normally have waited until just a chapter or two before to think about and fix.

I may start moving even closer to the planning end of the spectrum.

Thanks for reading my late-night ramblings about writing. Cheers!


Posted on May 26, 2013, in Miscellaneous and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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