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 Tough Financial Road For Writers

Types_of_Freelance_Writing_Services[1].jpgI learned a long time ago that when it came to writing and income, I’d be taking more risk than I wanted in trying to earn a living from writing and publishing fiction. When I started getting paid for my published short fiction, the average paycheck was about $100, which meant I’d have to write and publish far more stories than I could possible manage.

After sharing my paltry income experience with a writers’ group back in the early 90’s, one of them loudly announced that she didn’t want to hear it. I learned then that not all writers want the truth about writing income. Since that time, I’ve read of, or even met, writers who wrote fiction as a means of earning needed retirement income. I worried for them. In fact, I worry for anyone who is depending on writing income, especially given the latest stats to come from the Authors Guild 2018 Author Income Survey. In a nutshell, the survey shows that writers’ incomes are dropping significantly. Keep in mind that this is one survey, but I’ve read of similar results from UK, Australian, and the occasional Canadian survey as well.

If you don’t want to know what the Guild report says, then stop reading here. I don’t mind. If you want to read the entire report (it’s interesting), you can find it HERE.

I want to focus on three highlights: 1) the median income for American writers in 2017, was $6,080, down 42% from 2009. 2) book earning incomes fell by 21% to $3,100. 3) on average, self-published authors earned 58% less money than traditionally published authors. A number of reasons are cited for these circumstances. Like many of us, the authors who took part in this survey supplemented their income through teaching, speaking engagements, and writing reviews.

I can certainly attest to the significant decline in ebooks sales for indie authors. In 2008 when I published Fatal Encryption, readers were trying their new e-readers and Kindles, and authors were buying one another’s books and reviewing them regularly, which Amazon eventually frowned upon. I used to sell paper copies on Amazon too until they decided to allow secondhand booksellers to sell my books at a cheaper price. It was either learn from this and adapt, or quit. I’ve chosen to adapt.

After reading the Authors Guild Report, I want to mention two things. One is that most authors (of course there are obvious exceptions) haven’t made a decent living from their work for well over a century. You can find references to what your predecessors have endured going back to Charles Dickens’ time and earlier.

My second point is that the desire—if not urge— to create won’t stop writers from expressing themselves in whatever form they choose, despite low income potential, nor should it. Dream big. A decent income does happen for some authors. It might not be easy and could take years of work, but nothing worthwhile comes easily, but then you already knew that, right?

A Night of Mystery: Authors’ Secrets Uncovered!

The title above  headlines a poster from Port Moody Library to announce an evening of discussion I’ll be taking part in, along with terrific writing colleagues and fellow Port Moody residents, A.J. Devlin and W.L. Hawkin.

We’re very excited to share our thoughts, tips, and yes, a few secrets about ourselves and mystery writing.

The event will be held on Tuesday, May 14, from 7 – 8:30 p.m. in the Fireside Reading Room at the Port Moody Library, 100 Newport Drive, Port Moody. Registration is required, which you can do at 604-469-4577. Hope to see you there!

Cobra ClutchTo Charm a Killer