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 Importance of a Novel’s Timeline

During the editing process of my first Casey Holland mystery, The Opposite of Dark, my publisher asked me to submit a timeline of events so that the editor could keep track of the story’s continuity. Although I’d always used outlines, I hadn’t kept a detailed hourly timeline of events. Now, I couldn’t imagine writing without one.

As you can imagine, timing is crucial in thriller/mystery novels. I need to know what’s happening to whom, where, why, and when, sometimes right down to the minute. Think about it. If you’ve set up a traumatic event like a high school shooting, then you’d better make sure that your protagonist isn’t at Sunday church services when it happens.

I use an Excel spreadsheet to nail down my timeline. I’m sure there are useful apps out there to do this now, but I’m used to Excel. It’s simple, flexible, and free. My 6th Casey Holland mystery is 35 chapters long, but to keep the sheet from becoming too wide, I start a new column below chapter one at the halfway point. Everything is on one sheet and easy to see at a glance. Here’s a sample of the first six chapters:

Sat. Sun. Mon. Fri. Fri. Mon.
17-May 18-May 19-May 23-May 23-May 26-May
6:30 PM 2:30 AM 9:00 AM 11:00 PM 11:10 PM 9:00 AM
ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX
on bus with Wesley-riot at home after the riot-Lou introduced at meeting with Stan-talks to Benny & learns more about Lou’s injuries on the bus with the Friends-Benny attacked attack scene at Benny’s bus. Glimpse of suspect staff mtg. at MPT – graffiti on bldg. Just over a week since the riot.

The opening chapters are straightforward and don’t require many notes, but there’s room to added things if needed. As the book goes on, descriptions grow longer. The names and abbreviated content won’t mean much to you, but notice that the date, weekday and time of day are at the top of each column. Those are the details I’m going to forget during the numerous drafts.

I wait until the second or third draft before creating an Excel sheet because I know that chapters will either be merged or deleted during the first couple of rewrites.

Real-life disruptions can pull us away from writing projects for weeks or even months at a time. Using a timeline will help get you back on track quickly. It’ll also save you time and money if you’re hiring an editor. So, find a way that works for you and go for it. The bit of extra work is well worth the effort.