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?

The Edits Are Back and It’s Go Time

Types_of_Freelance_Writing_Services[1]It feels like a long time since I released my fifth Casey Holland mystery Knock Knock, in November 2017, but a heck of a lot has happened since then. Through it all, I’ve been slowly editing draft after draft of the next installment, The Blade Man.

I reached a point in May where I felt that I’d completed as many drafts as I could, and it was time to send the manuscript to my editor. I was in no rush, but as it happened, my editor had a sudden opening in her schedule, and she finished the edits by mid-June.

Last week, I began making the editorial changes. I’ve also acquired ISBNs for the print and ebook, and have contacted my designer, who’s slotted me in for December. I don’t have an exact launch date yet and probably won’t for a while. There’s plenty of prep work to do in the meantime and when it is published, I will celebrate.

This book has been a long time in the making. I remember first meeting the person (over a coffee at Starbucks) who became my technical advisor on bus-driving issues. That was over seven years ago. At that time, my publisher was working on bringing out book #3, Beneath the Bleak New Moon. Book #4, The Deep End, was probably on its fourth or fifth draft, and Knock Knock was still in its early stages.

I therefore knew it would be quite some time before this book would be published, but finally that date is on my radar.

A Casey Holland novella won’t be too far behind (I hope) which will be completely unlike any Casey story I’ve written. It explores the lighter side of her transit security work in all it’s raunchy, awkward, and humorous glory. But I’m getting ahead of myself…stay tuned!

That Perplexing Umpteenth Draft in Mystery Writing

Cartoon of Girl WritingThis summer, my main writing project was to edit my Casey Holland novella for the ninth time. Given the good feedback from writers’ groups and the number of drafts I’ve churned out, I thought number nine would be the final edit and proofread before sending it to the editor. Boy was I wrong. More to the point, I should have known better. I’ve been through this before, not only with all of my novels but with every short story as well.

I don’t know if this happens with other mystery writers, but here’s what happens to me. I spend the first two or three drafts refining the plot, subplots, twists, pacing, and so forth. Then the next three are on character development and detailed, line by line editing to sharpen each paragraph. By the sixth or seventh draft I think, wow, I’m almost there! One more quick edit and I’m good to go…and then the zinger happens.

I reread the book from beginning to end and start finding subtle, but important glitches. Skewed logic, a misplaced bit of timing, repetition, and other subtle nuances that ultimately have a huge impact on how well the story works.

It feels like a setback at first, but it isn’t. It’s a weird, perplexing, near-the-end stage in which I truly—and finally—understand how the subtext and connections and movement in this story are woven together, sometimes rather delicately. It’s a little bit frustrating that this happens so late in the editing process, yet it feels like a necessary rite of passage.

A couple of days ago, draft number nine was finished. There were changes to  every page, and a few of those pages involved substantial changes. Perhaps I was naïve and overly optimistic to think that with 30+ years of writing experience and not an overly complex 26,000 novella to polish that things would go smoothly.

I’m not sure I’ll ever outgrow this phase, and to be honest I’m not sure I should. Clearly, I’m still learning, but that’s okay. Because without a doubt I know that draft number nine is much better than draft number eight and, really, isn’t that the point? In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter how many drafts it takes to get where I need to be. Just that I’ll get there.