The Uncomfortable Pantser: When Your Method Doesn't Fit Your Personality

Photo by Dennis Crowley (CC)I've blogged a lot over the years about my pantsing ways (meaning I write by the seat of my pants and don't plan a lot ahead). And I've also admitted that I'm a pantser with plotter envy. I'm constantly reading structure and plotting books so that I can learn new methods and maybe find something that clicks with me.

And I have had some things really help. Here's my current writing method when developing a story:

1. Fill out the Save the Cat beat sheet to give me an overarching structure.

2. Filling out the inner journey stages (from Michael Hauge's method) for both my hero and heroine. (To see more about that check out Janice Hardy's and Jami Gold's posts about Hauge's workshops.)

3. I write a one page synopsis to send to my editor. This reads more like back cover copy but does include the end.

4. Then I start writing.

5. After drafting, I go back and lay the Save the Cat structure over my manuscript to make sure I'm hitting the turning points at the right percentages (or at least close) to make sure my pacing is on point.

6. Then I check to make sure my characters have made a full arc.

7. Last, I fine tune edit things using a lot of Margie Lawson Deep-Editing techniques--though I haven't had time to do the full highlighter method yet.

All right, so that seems like a pretty thorough process, right? It's gotten me through three books and two novellas (well I probably shouldn't count CRASH because I just pantsed my ass off with that one.)

But here's the thing, I kind of hate pantsing. It goes completely against my personality. I'm the girl who doesn't like surprises, who wants to know what the plan is, and who wants a method for everything. I always want to be prepared. I'm the girl who enjoys following recipes and not effing around with extra pinches of this and that. And if I go to the grocery store without a list, I'm lost and completely uninspired on what to cook. I like to plan out what I'm cooking for dinner every night, earmark those recipes, and then go to the store with a grocery list divided by sections of the store. I'm the person who actually reads the instructions (or tries to) when building IKEA furniture.

But then I have these weird quirks outside of that box--like I HATE planning vacations. I don't want to know every single thing I'm going to do or every place I'm going to eat. My husband loves that so I leave it to him. And as much as I like routine, I hardly ever cook the same thing twice. That's why I have a bazillion cookbooks and subscribe to three different cooking magazines. I want something new every night. And I don't reread books--even the ones I love--because I've already been there done that.

So I have this strange combination of plotter and panster tendencies in my life and it leaves me with some screwed up hybrid of a process.

And that wouldn't be a problem; a hybrid process can be fine. But not when it makes me anxious and on edge. Most pantsers I know are those writers that can bust out a book in a few weeks. They don't stop and edit as they go. They just freewheel and the words pour out of them. But then they know that at the end, they'll be left with a big editing and rewriting process. And they're okay with that.

Then the plotters I know are more the perfectionist type. They may edit as they go. They have a nice outline they are following and note cards stacked up on what happens next. They may take a lot longer to write a book but at the end, the edits are more minor because they've been tweaking the whole time.

Then there's me. I'm a slow writer who edits as I go AND writes by the seat of my pants. This results in a neurotic, perfectionistic author who is constantly stressed over the book not working and not knowing where to go next. It's insanity. (Can you tell I'm in the middle of drafting a book under a tight deadline?)

I have tried to be more plotter-oriented but haven't had much success with that so far. But I am not giving up. I feel like I need to learn to play on one side of the fence or the other. I either need to learn to let go of the perfectionist side of myself and just dump a first draft on the page. OR I need to pick some method and really commit to trying to plot a book. Maybe not some crazy scene by scene outline but something to fluff out the broad beat sheet I'm currently using.

My inclination is to try the plotting way again first because I've attempted to just "write without looking back" but haven't been able to do that thus far. Perfectionists die hard.

So what's your method? Does yours feel comfortable to you? Does your method match your personality or are you like me? 

Figuring Out Where Your Pacing Went Wrong

Photo by Jason Ilagan (cc)Last week I received the edits back on my third book, FALL INTO YOU, from my editor. Those emails are always a little scary to open. You pretty much say the "please don't hate it, please don't hate it" prayer a few times before you click.

And so far, I've been pretty lucky. My edits for the previous books have been relatively minor (though CRASH went through a pretty major edit with my dear agent before we sold it.) But this time I had a feeling it was going to be bigger stuff. Mainly because this is the book I struggled with at the beginning of the year (and was late on deadline with.) I *knew* something wasn't quite right but I was too deep in it to be able to see what that something was. And that's why we thank the writing gods for a fabulous editor.

So what did my lovely editor have to say? Basically--I love this story. It's fabulous...after I get through the first third. The first part is slow and you need to figure out how to get to this, this, and that faster. Get rid of stuff.

There were some other things--making my heroine more sympathetic, building more chemistry early on, etc. But the major issue seemed to be PACING.

And pacing is one of those things that can be really overwhelming to look at because it's such a big picture thing--the pacing of an entire story arc. Most of my problem is that I keep insisting on putting in suspense subplots, which trips me up because I have to plant information and set up things for that AND the romance, which can bog down a beginning.

So when I got these edits, I had a week to fix everything, rewrite a good portion of the beginning, and get my pacing in check. After eating some chocolate and a few deep breaths, I sat down to tackle the issues. How was i going to figure out where the pacing had gone awry?

Well, as most of you know if you follow this blog, I'm a Save the Cat fan when it comes to story structure. I find screenplay structures make sense to me. So I took out my Save the Cat Beat sheet and looked at the turning points. The nice thing about the Beat Sheet is it gives you page numbers for where this turning point should happen in a 110-pg. screenplay. (To apply these numbers to a novel, either multiply by 3 since most novels are around 300-350 pages or just use them as percentages.)

When I did this, it was so much more clear on where I had flubbed up. My set-up was on track (roughly first 10%), and my Catalyst/Call To Action was in the right spot, but then my Debate section (where the character has to decide whether to DO something about that call to action) was way too long. My Break Into Act Two (where the character enters the new world) was pushed back way too late because of it. Act 2 was where my editor started liking the book.

So I cut out an entire chapter and rewrote most of two more, getting my break into two back in the right spot. Seeing it on paper with that simple structure made it so much easier to see (though it doesn't necessarily make fixing it any easier, lol.) I turned in the revisions this week and hopefully what I changed works out.

But if you find yourself struggling with pacing or have this vague feeling that something just isn't quite working, it may benefit you to take out your favorite story structure and lay it over your novel like a blueprint to see if things are happening where they are supposed to be.

And if you've never looked at an overarching structure like that, here are some of my favorite books about structure:


1.Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

(are you tired of hearing about my love for this book yet?)


2. Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II by Alexandra Sokoloff

(Alexandra gives a more detailed structure that can be super helpful if you're not sure what should go in between some of those beats from Save the Cat.)


3. Writing Screenplays That Sell, New Twentieth Anniversary Edition: The Complete Guide to Turning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals by Michael Hauge

(I don't actually have this book, but I attended his workshop and that's where I first discovered the screenwriting techniques for novels. I still use my notes from that workshop with every book.)


4. Plot & Structure: (Techniques And Exercises For Crafting A Plot That Grips Readers From Start To Finish) by James Scott Bell

(My one structure book that is not screenwriting based. :) You can't go wrong with James Scott Bell.)


So have you ever had issues with pacing? Do you use any kind of formal story structure when writing or revising your novels? What are some of your favorite craft books on structure?

Before Fingers Touch Keyboard: My 6 Pre-Writing Steps

Photo by -stamina- (click photo for link)Right now I'm writing a brand new novella, and as soon as I finish that, I'll be jumping right into book 4, CAUGHT UP IN YOU (which, for those of you reading the series, will be Kelsey's book.) This means I've been in the phase of story planning. 

Now I'm a pantser, so even that word "planning" kind of makes my writing muscles quiver. But I've learned over the course of writing...six books--whoa, when did that happen--that jumping in like a blindfolded monkey isn't the way to go. At least for me.

With each completed novel, I've learned a lot and am constantly honing and refining my process. It's not perfect. I still hit a big, fat wall of writer's block with my last book and ended up being over deadline. But that was less about my writing process and more about me going through  The 5 Emotional Stages of a Book Launch  for the first time and not knowing any better.

But I figured I'd share with y'all what I do as of right now when that seed of an idea blooms in my head and I decide if it's going to be a story.


My 6 Pre-Writing Steps

1. I spend days of "thinking" time. Running the story in my head, getting a feel for who the characters will be, how it will connect with my series, etc.

These usually feel like unproductive days because I'm just sitting and staring, discarding ideas left and right, shifting things around in my brain. But this step is, of course, crucial. It's story birth--messy and primal.


2. I find my hook.

What is going to be the hook of this story? What's that quick logline? If I can't find one, then maybe this isn't a story idea to pursue. There has to be something that makes someone go--oh, I want to read that. For instance, my novella coming out next month, STILL INTO YOU, my hook was "A husband who loves his wife but knows his marriage has lost its fire hears his wife call into a relationship radio show and admit she almost cheated on him. Knowing that they may be on the verge of divorce, he comes up with a dramatic plan and brings her to The Ranch where any fantasy can be had. Three days. No rings." See, it's a little long and clunky. If I had to pitch it to an agent, I'd have to refine it but the hook is there.


3. Fill out the Beat Sheet from Blake Snyder's Save the Cat.

As I've mentioned before , Save The Cat! totally converted me from my full pantsing ways. I don't think I'll ever be an outliner or someone who writes thirty pages of synopsis. But this simple one sheet way of plotting using screenwriting techniques speaks to me. I can roughly plan the story on one piece of paper and it doesn't take much time at all. You can see the Beat Sheet on Blake's site but you'll need to read the book to understand what those beats mean.


4. I flesh out my characters using a technique I learned in a Michael Hauge workshop (another screenwriter).

This is another one page deal. Each main character gets one sheet--so usually hero, heroine, and antagonist. And then I write out the following things--Need/Longing, Wound, Belief, Fear, Identity (their face to the world), Essence (who they really are). This gives me the main building blocks and makes me think more deeply about who this character is and what their arc will look like. What their hair color is or what kind of movies they like isn't all that important until you know these underlying things first. Everything will grow out of these roots.


5. I write out a brief one page synopsis for my editor.

I used to freak out at the thought of writing a synopsis after I finished a book. And I would've had a panic attack if you'd told me I'd have to write one BEFORE I wrote the book. But now it's part of the deal. Your editor wants to see your idea before they pay you to write it. And let me tell you, writing it beforehand is SO much easier, especially once you get the hang of the Beat Sheet or 3-act structure. I now can whip out a synopsis in an hour or two because the pre-work is there. (That's not to say things in the synopsis won't change once I'm writing the story, but if you keep the story strokes general enough, it usually still fits within the original idea.)


6. I come up with a hooky opening scene and spend some time visualizing it.

Usually the opening scene or ideas for it come to me early on in step one of this process. Often, my story ideas are born from first getting an idea for an opening. And almost always, that first chapter is one of the few that never change, even in revisions. There may be a tweaked sentence here or there, but I've never changed major content or cut my original first chapter in any book so far. That's my mental anchor for the whole story.

Then after all those things are done, I start writing. The stuff in between the story beats, I pants my way through and inevitably discover new directions. And things shift along the way--a change in character motivation means I rework the character worksheet, a change in plot means I tweak the beat sheet. It's all very organic.

So that's my whackadoodle process, what's yours like? Do we share any steps? Are there things I do that would totally freak your writer brain out?