Exploring Pantser and Plotting Approaches to Fiction

Anyone looking for how-to tips on novel writing is bound to come across the old debate about whether to outline a book before typing a single word or to just sit down and write. I’ve experimented with both and have found that what works best for me is somewhere between those options.

When I wrote my first mystery, I didn’t create an outline. I simply faced the blank page and wrote down whatever came to mind. This is the pantser method, although I didn’t know the term way back then. Many times I had to go back and fill in the plot holes and logistical issues.

For the second book, I decided to spend more time plotting the novel first by creating a chapter-by-chapter outline. It became important to know who was killed and why before I started writing. Now, this sometimes changed once I got into my second and third rewrites while sorting out the story’s development. It’s also why I believe that flexibility with outlines is important.

Ten books later, I still outline with those key questions in mind, but primarily just for the first third of the book. For the middle section, or second act, I jot down key elements and plot twists that I want to happen. By the last third, there’s almost no outlining as the story is set up to reach a logical conclusion, hopefully one with a twist.

When I began my writing my urban fantasy, I decided to try the pantser version again. Despite the pitfalls, it just felt important to free myself and let the ideas and connections unfold without direction from an outline. Before I started writing, I did a lot of thinking though, and did have four main characters in mind and a good idea of what the book’s theme would be. On this sixth, intense draft I’m going through now, I’m still working on nuance issues and connections that I wish I’d thought of in earlier drafts. Would outlining have helped with that? I don’t know.

After reading every draft, I make notes along the way, which probably sounds familiar to you authors out there. The further into the edits I get, the more I need to check my notes, which is what happened this week. To ramp up the excitement, I introduced another element, which forced me to go back five chapters and rewrite the scene, which created a domino effect for most of the remaining chapters. Despite going back, I’m still moving forward with my improvements, so that’s a good thing. I just wish I’d been a little faster at picking up on the nuances and connections. Thank goodness I’m not writing to deadline or I’d be really hooped.

When I was writing essays and articles twenty years ago, outlining key points was essential, as was giving careful thought to the message I wanted to convey. If I return to nonfiction, outlining will be essential. Should I get around to writing a second fantasy, there will definitely be more outlining but who knows how much?

There are a number of online quizzes to help you determine if you’re a pantser or a plotter, but really the best way to decide is to try both. So, I’m curious about my author friends out there, which method do you use, or have you got a completely different method?

Pondering the Trade Paperback Question

Back in 2015, I parted company with my publisher and got the rights back to my four Casey Holland mysteries and cover art. It was an amicable arrangement and I purchased unsold stock at a really reasonable price. Until COVID, I was selling copies of those four books at various craft fairs, festivals, and other events until COVID.

I ran out of stock on the first book, The Opposite of Dark, so I reformatted the book to match the formatting I did for books five and six. What I didn’t do was create a paperback version on Amazon. Given that my publisher sold few print books through that venue, I never seriously considered this option. In fact, the vast majority of indie authors I know sell few print books on Amazon.

As I suspected, the book cover art that my publisher gave me no longer fits. With my formatting, the font is slightly larger to make the text more readable, but it also adds 40 pages to the book. After discussion with a colleague and some fiddling with my daughter’s help, the cover still won’t fit. It looks like I’ll need to have all four covers reformatted by a professional, which I’m hoping my jacket designer can do.

I haven’t reformatted the other three books yet. I’m down to between 50 and 100 copies of each book, which will last a couple of years or more, depending on how soon craft fairs reopen. Honestly, though, reformatting is a finicky, time-consuming process, especially when I’m busy editing new work and marketing my ebooks. So, now I’m wondering if it’s worth the time and effort to redo the print books now, when I won’t need them for some time and they’re not likely to sell on Amazon. The thing is, I don’t plan to sell at craft fairs indefinitely. I’ve done it for seven or eight years now and, on some levels, I’m ready to wind down that part of my writing life.

I’m curious to know if those of you who are authors consider it essential to have a paperback version of your books available on Amazon and other platforms?

Progress and Nostalgia, an Uneasy Mix

Last week, British Columbia’s lower mainland enjoyed an unusually warm, sunny week. I used the opportunity to walk through my neighborhood and a little way beyond. I live in Port Moody, a city of just over, 33,500 people, one that’s rapidly growing. We’re about about a half-hour drive east of Vancouver, faster if the many traffic lights work in my favor, and share borders with Burnaby and Coquitlam. I’ve lived in this beautiful, mountainous area at the end of Burrard Inlet for over thirty years, and I’ve seen some changes. But when Vancouver’s SkyTrain, our above ground, light rail transit system came to Port Moody four-and-half years ago, things began to change. They’re now changing at a head-spinning rate.

I live in a 40+ year old home a quiet residential street, a 7-minute walk from the local SkyTrain station. So, I guess it’s no surprise that there are four major developments under construction within five minutes of my house. I don’t oppose the six-story rental units because people need them, but as you’ll see below there are also concrete condo towers being crammed onto fairly small lots.

There’s another tower being built behind one of them

These changes and COVID isolation have made me nostalgic for the past lately. So, I thought I’d share some of the structures that represent fond and/or poignant memories. All of these locations are within walking distance of my home. The photo below is a small part of the recreation center where I facilitated writing workshops until last October. It’s also where I brought my kids when they were toddlers to their first play sessions. I miss facilitating.

A newer, larger part of the complex is to the right

Right next door and sharing the parking lot, is Port Moody’s city hall and library, where I’ve done readings, attended launches, presented workshops, and launched one of my own books. I remember when this structure was built. Until COVID, it was bursting at the seams as more people come to our city. I haven’t stepped in the library for over a year.

So many fond memories of the library, on the left side of this building.

The lovely building below is actually a seniors’ retirement home, but the top floor is the hospice where my mom spent the last month of her life. I remember the kindness of the staff and the inviting atmosphere of the lounge, where the larger windows face out onto the street. As you can see, there are plenty of trees around. Mom loved looking at the trees through the window in the room she rarely left.

The lounge winds and building entrance are behind the blossoming tree.

Last but not least, is my friend Julie’s former townhouse complex before she moved to the BC interior. I remember many great critiquing sessions with talented, inspiring colleagues. Julie’s now lives much closer to her family and has certainly enriched the writing community in her area. I know she reads this blog, so shout-out to Julie! See how much the trees have grown around your townhouse?

Port Moody loves its trees!

As you have gathered, I have mixed feelings about my area and about the prospect of leaving it in a couple of years time. We will be moving to a quieter part of the lower mainland, not yet invaded by progress on this scale.

I write about Port Moody in some of my books. In 2008, I published a mystery called Fatal Encryption which depicted scenes of my city. The final confrontation between villain and hero takes place in an empty parking lot at Rocky Point Park (a much-loved landmark) during a stormy November night. By the time the book was published, half of the parking lot had been replaced by a restaurant. Maybe I’ll try to incorporate more scenes of Port Moody in my work as it is now, because tomorrow will look quite different, and one day I fear I won’t recognize it.

More Free Writing Workshops and an Editing Booster

Last week’s newsletter promotion has resulted in 155 downloads of my first Casey Holland mystery, The Opposite of Dark, so far, which is great. The downside is that there aren’t nearly as many new subscribers. In other words, people check the subscribe box, download the book, then immediately unsubscribe. But free things rule this year, right? If you had a chance to check out free mystery and suspense novels, you can find the link HERE. Clearly, you don’t have to stay subscribed!

Now for another freebie. ProWritingAid is offering four days of workshops on crime fiction from April 19-23. Presenters include Karin Slaughter, Ian Rankin, and Lisa Gardner among authors. If you’re interested in attending, check out the link HERE. You’ll see a registration button on the page.

The beauty about registering is that if the timing doesn’t work for you, you can view them later for up to a seven-day period. I learned a lot from the fantasy workshops I took in February. Although I’ve been writing mysteries a while, there’s always something to learn.

During the fantasy week workshops, ProWritingAid organizers offered a significant discount on their editing program. I signed up for a year because I was hoping to find a way to speed up my editing process. I’ve been trying it on my mystery novella and so far find I’m finding it quite helpful. It’s designed to assist with copyediting needs and does everything from pointing out overused and repetitive words, to grammar glitches, punctuation errors, passive sentences, overlong sentences, and so forth. The program also gives me a summary report that lets me know how strong some areas of my writing are and where I could use some tweaking. The link to the editing program is HERE, but if you hunt around, maybe you can try it for free.

They also offer a ProWritingAid university program, which I haven’t signed up for, but I won’t rule it out in the future.

One Promotion Done, Another Underway

Happy April, everyone! I’ve never been a fan of April Fools Day, so no pranks will be found here.

Today launches the start of a brand new promotion I’m taking part in. In a bid to find more newsletter subscribers, I’ve joined a group of 50 other authors, and all are offering free mystery/suspense ebooks if readers sign up to their newsletter. The promo lasts until May 9th , which provides ample time to find great new reads. I have no idea how this event will go, but if I don’t try I won’t have my answer either. The link to all of the offered ebooks is HERE If the link doesn’t work, please let me know!!

Last week’s series promotion on Freebooksy went well, I think. Of course, when you’re trying something new there’s nothing to compare it to. But I sold a couple of hundred ebooks and wound up ranking #52 in the free Kindle books category and #5 in the women sleuths category. This is a rarity for me. I had just over 2,000 downloads on my featured day, but Amazon and other outlets are keeping The Opposite of Dark free until April 5th, and sales are still trickling in. Perhaps the most important part of this exercise is that I improved my discoverability, which is wonderful.

A year ago, I gave no thought to promoting an entire series, or a newsletter, for that matter. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone and taking some risks. One of the best parts is that I’m learning a lot and by sharing my experiences, I’m hoping it’ll help with your strategizing too.

A Writer’s Recycling Conundrum

Pexels photo by C. Technical

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to downsizing my home this week. It’s probably because we’re in a hot housing market in our area and three houses on our street are suddenly on the market, one having sold in a matter of days, above asking price, which is a common occurrence right now. Since we’re planning to downsize and move in two years anyway, should we step up our plan? This leads to a more immediate issue. How do I begin to sort and recycle over thirty plus years of paper in my home office?

I’ve been writing since the early 80’s. During my first fifteen years, it was all about submitting short stories, personal essays, and articles in paper form, complete with a self-addressed stamped envelope for an editor’s response. I still have tons of correspondence from those days.

I keep our family’s household records in another filing cabinet, but I’ve been much better at shredding and recycling those. Canada Revenue Agency only requires folks to keep records dating back seven years. So, why haven’t I done the same with my writing files?

Two reasons, I think. One is that I have an emotional attachment to my writing things. All that correspondence, all the paper drafts and final drafts of stories, and all of the notes represent four decades of work. Tossing it away seems counterintuitive. On the other hand, everything I’ve written is on the computer and backed up on flash drives.

The other reason is one of habit. For many years, I’ve printed out a final draft of a book, blog, or review, though I’ve now stopped doing so for blogs and reviews. It took a conscious effort and some resolve to break an old habit.

I have two scrapbooks filled with memories about fun book launches, writing events, and reviews of my work. I also keep a binder containing my publication credits, publishing stats, income and expenditures, and so forth. Maybe that’s more than enough of a physical reminder of those decades, and I should just let the rest go.

I’ve managed to sort and recycle a few things. In a blog last year, I mentioned that I cleared off unnecessary information from my two bulletin boards and I’ve managed to keep them clear. I also went through my collection of articles on writing and began organizing them into binders. I’ve found that it’s a 50/50 mix about whether I look something up in a digital folder or a paper one.

I’ve also renewed efforts to pare down my book collection. Last weekend, I began filling a box of books to give away, but it’s part of a larger downsizing and spring cleaning project that will also involve dozens of cookbooks I haven’t used in years. Sorting and recycling all of my cupboards could take a while and I expect I’ll need to set up a schedule.

For you writers who’ve built quite a collection of notes, drafts, correspondence, and such, what do you do with all of that material? To you keep it in boxes and binders? Is it organized? Or do you recycle almost everything and rely on digital backups?

So, How’s Retirement Going?

Before I start this week’s topic, I want to add extra information I received regarding Access Copyright, which I mentioned in last week’s blog. An author kindly provided a link which indicates that if you are self-published you can apply to Access Copyright as a Creator Affiliate. I’ve provided the link with more information HERE. As my colleague pointed out, it’s not that easy to find the info on their website. But if you’re interested in registering with the program, you can fill out their form HERE.

So, I’ve been retired from my day job a little over nine months now and if you were to ask me how I find it, my answer is that it’s great, except I’m still working full time. It’s just that those hours are spent on editing and the many tasks that go with being a published author.

I’ve been keeping track of I’ve the hours spent on writing, editing, and promotional stuff each week, and was a little surprised to see that I’ve been averaging a 37 hour week from the get-go. Hmm. Am I okay with this? Yeah. It still gives me more downtime than I had this time last year. Did I set out to create a 35-40 hour week? No, not really. It happened because I’m enjoying what I’m doing and I’ve spent a fair bit of time implementing some of the new things I’ve learned in workshops over the past six months.

I start each day, thinking about what I need to get done, what I would like to get done, then head downstairs to my office, and work on what I can get done. I often ask myself how much can I accomplish each day without pushing too hard?

Another reason for the all the computer time is that winter’s kept me from gardening and going for long walks. No matter how bundled up I am, I wind up with runny noses and a cough in damp, rainy weather. Secondly, I’m focused on completing the next round of edits to send my current WIPs to beta readers. Third, I’ll be babysitting Ellie starting in August, which will definitely cut down writing time. We’re also planning to downsize our house (a chore in itself since we’ve lived here over 30 years) and move in 2023, which will likely throw productivity way off course.

I still keep a routine because it helps with productivity and creating more downtime, but I also need some flexibility. Life still involves appointments and unexpected situations. I have no idea what my writing life will be like a year from now. All I know is that I’m enjoying the moment while looking forward to the future. And maybe that’s enough.

Writing Income, Beyond Bookselling

Photo from Pexels

Surveys and data collection sources in the UK, Canada, and the US, have shown that writers’ incomes have decreased significantly over the past decade. 2020 made things worse for many, so I thought I’d share ways that authors can potentially earn some extra cash through their writing. The list below represents things I’ve done over the years to supplement my income.

  1. Submit, articles, personal essays, and short stories to magazines and periodicals
  2. Enter contests
  3. Guest speaking
  4. Workshop presentations
  5. Facilitate creative writing sessions for my local community center
  6. Joining PLRC and Access Copyright (available in Canada)

I haven’t submitted shorter pieces or entered competitions for years, so maybe it’s time to reconsider. Most magazines don’t pay well but every bit helps and it’s a great way to build your CV if you’re just starting out. Competition prize money averaged around $200 for me, which was a great sum when I was starting out. Still is, actually.

I know writers who also offer professional editing and publishing services. Others conduct virtual courses for reasonable prices. Of course, grant money can be available, and many cities have writer-in-residence programs for authors. There’s also mentoring and coaching for beginning writers, plus tutoring for people who have difficulty with English or writing in general.

Until November’s shut down, I was facilitating creative writing sessions through my local parks and recreation community, which is work I really enjoy. It also pays better than my day job did, although facilitating is only 2.5 hours a week. Happily, that might be starting up again in April.

For those of you unfamiliar with Access Copyright and PLRC, here’s a little info.

The Access Copyright Foundation is a Canadian non-profit national organization that compensates authors whose work is being photocopied at educational and other institutions. Those of us whose work is not directly copied still receive a small share of the collective pool every November. It’s available to any Canadian who registers with the program and has published work (but not self-published, as far as I know) in a variety of categories. To learn more, check out the link HERE.

The Public Lending Right Program compensates authors whose books are available for free use in Canada’s library systems. According to their website, over 30 countries offer similar programs, so it’s worth checking out to see if this is available to you. I joined many years ago when I published my first book in 1995 and still receive money for it. Seven more titles have been added over the years, so the check I receive every February is now in the modest four-figure range. To learn more about how the program works, see the link HERE.

I’m sure more opportunities are out there. It’s just a matter of doing a little digging. So, do you find other ways to earn writing-related income or plan to near in the near future? I’d love to hear your ideas.

I Read Canadian Day

Today in Canada, we’re celebrating a day of reading Canadian books for young people. I’ve already seen terrific Facebook posts by Canadian children’s authors, Darlene Foster and Eileen Holland to promote exactly that. As stated on the I Read Canadian website, its purpose is to “raise awareness of Canadian books and celebrate the richness, diversity, and breadth of Canadian literature. You can read more about it HERE.

When my kids were in school, reading was a high priority in elementary and middle schools, but it dwindled somewhat in their high school years. When I was in school, oh so long ago, the majority of our required reading was by American or British authors. It’s great to see that more Canadian schools and libraries are reaching out to local authors.

Some of the books I love are Darlene’s, who many of you know through her WordPress blog. I also want to give a shoutout to children’s author Eileen Holland, whose two children’s books found a home with a Canadian publisher a couple of years ago. If you have school age children in your lives and you’re looking for good reads, please check them out.

Darlene can be found HERE and Eileen can be found HERE

There are many other great children’s authors, but a google search will help you find many more. And if you know of any, feel free to share their links with others.

As it happens, I’m also reading a Canadian mystery author this week, named Winona Kent. Although Lost Time is written for adults, it’s still Canadian and Winona is another terrific author who deserves attention. Canadian books and Canadian authors have been working hard to raise their profile over the years. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that the number of Canadian publishers has risen all that much recently. Our country is a small market, so we have to work hard to gain a little attention. But we’re a tenacious lot with plenty to say. It’s always a thrill to find new exciting authors, not only here in Canada, but everywhere. 😊

Finally, a Newsletter

Those who’ve followed my blog for a while know that I was resistant to starting a newsletter. After all, I keep a blog, shouldn’t that be enough? Well, based on what I’ve now learned, the answer is no, for a couple of reasons.

First, any mail list I create is mine. As was pointed out to me by others, Facebook, Twitter, BookBub, WordPress, and LinkedIn etc. could disappear overnight for various reasons and I’d lose all of my contacts and followers. I’ve seen authors be banned on FB and Twitter, lose their ads, or have other things diminish their presence. Whatever happens to social platforms over time, I’ll still have my email list of subscribers.

Secondly, I’ve learned that I am not my readers. The newsletter will therefore be written for people who are interested in my mysteries or who are curious about me as an author. I’ll be focusing on insights about other authors’ mysteries, the writing process, and also sharing excerpts, and book cover reveals.

To that end, if you wish to join my mail list, I’m giving away a free ebook of my first Casey Holland mystery, The Opposite of Dark, for the next couple of months in order to help build my list. You can click on the link HERE, which should take you to my original landing page inviting you to subscribe.

I’ve chosen SendFox as my provider because it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles and the current price is just a one-time offer of $49.00. In other words, no monthly fee!. SendFox is fairly new and there might be glitches to sort out, so hopefully it’ll work for you.

What you should see is my original landing page. Once you subscribe, you should receive a welcome page with the link to the free ebook. This will take you to BookFunnel, which is a great service for readers and authors to giveaway their stories, send Advance Review Copies, and do joint promotions with other authors. If you want to learn more, you can find the link HERE.

BookFunnel will then ask you which email address you’d like your book sent to and voila it should work. A couple days after that you’ll receive a follow-up email from me asking if you received your book. If you do sign up, let me know how it goes, so I can work out any glitches.

I plan to send a newsletter at the beginning of each month, so my first one will be in March. If you’re thinking about starting your own newsletter, but aren’t sure where to start, I recommend reading Newsletter Ninja by Tammi Labrecque, which I’ve recommended before. It really helped change my thinking. Now I just have to change my mindset about ads.