Monday, 8 February 2016

The Perils of Pantsing when you’re a Plotter

By Narelle Atkins

A few weeks ago I independently published my eighth book, a contemporary Christian romance novella that I wrote for Love Blossoms, a multi-author indie box set. I’ve always been a plotter, and I’ve written detailed outlines for my seven previously published books.




For my latest book, The Bridesmaid’s Hero, I decided to try something different. The time frame for the novella project was tight. I agreed to write the book in mid-October, and I needed to indie publish it on Amazon Kindle in January.

The three month time frame included the Christian Writers Conference in Victoria where I presented a workshop, a One-Day workshop I presented in Sydney for the Australian Christian Writers Fellowship, an additional interstate weekend away for my son’s golf tournament, the end of school year in December, and the busy lead up to Christmas.

I signed up for NaNoWriMo but I didn’t have time to put together a detailed outline with index cards (my usual process) before the end of October.

In November I became a pantser for this story. I enjoyed the freedom of writing and discovering more about the characters as the story progressed. I had a basic story outline developing in my mind that included the main turning points, climax, dark moment and resolution. Without preconceived ideas from the outline on what should be happening in each scene, I was able to explore different directions that naturally evolved from the story. I gained a new perspective on character-driven plotting. It was fun and exciting.

There was also a downside. I discovered the perils of pantsing when I was used to plotting. My basic story structure was robust and I didn’t need to add or delete scenes. But there were other issues that needed to be addressed.

I didn’t have time to rest the story before I sent it to my critique partners and beta readers. On December 26 I finished writing and editing the first version of the story. I had a copy editing deadline of January 10 and a box set deadline of January 15.

My lovely critique partners and beta readers read the early version of the story during the Christmas and New Year break. They found a number of problems that I didn’t usually encounter when I outlined my stories in advance.

The first third of the story was messy. Many of the character motivations were unclear because I’d unknowingly changed my mind about the details as I wrote. This included details in the back story. For example, the relationship between the heroine and the hero’s mother was inconsistent. Did they know each other before the story started? In one scene they did, in another scene it seemed like the opposite was true. 

My time line was off. The time references in the scene transitions needed to be tracked and adjusted. During the editing process when I reviewed the feedback from my critique partners and beta readers, I reverse engineered an outline in an Excel Spreadsheet and dealt with the time line problems.

I learned a lot from experimenting with my writing process. I like having time to brew my stories in advance, and rest my stories before I edit. An outline helps me to keep track of the details and generates fewer time line, back story and character inconsistencies.

I’m currently writing my ninth book. For my new novella I’ve typed up pages of background information. I’m writing a fast and rough first draft as I complete my outline. For my traditionally published books I wrote proposals in advance (three chapters plus synopsis).

Are you a plotter or a pantser? Have you tried different writing methods? Do you have a defined writing process, or does it change depending on the book? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.



A fun loving Aussie girl at heart, Narelle Atkins was born and raised on the beautiful northern beaches in Sydney, Australia. She has settled in Canberra with her husband and children. A lifelong romance reader, she found the perfect genre to write when she discovered inspirational romance. Narelle's contemporary stories of faith and romance are set in Australia.

Narelle's latest release, The Bridesmaid's Hero, is available for a limited time in the Love Blossoms box set.



22 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Narelle. I love hearing the ins and outs of different writer's actual writing techniques. For me, I like to plot, at least a little, before I begin writing, which is great when the ideas are bubbling, more of a challenge when they're not! I also like to 'rest' my stories to enable fresh eyes to spot the editing requirements, which makes me wonder, how long do you prefer to rest your novels for?

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    1. Hi Carolyn, In an ideal world I'd like rest my mss for at least a month. Since I sold my debut book in 2012, I've been writing to either a publisher or indie box set deadline. I haven't had the luxury of rest time for most of my books. This was my choice, but it's something I'd like to change, moving forward. :)

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  2. That all sounds a bit complicated and tight timing, but you got there! Well done!

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    1. Hi Malvina, Yes, it was a bit crazy but it all came together in the end. It's also helpful to feel like you have an extra day when you're working to a USA deadline. :)

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  3. Narelle, I've tried a couple of plotting methods but found it hasn't really worked for me. It's like my characters tell me this is their story and they'll write it how they want. So I will typically get to 30K words then do a rough outline of what I think might happen next, then another at 60-70K before the run home. However, this method requires a lot more reviewing of timelines and sequencing.

    I do wish i was a plotter because I think it's the plotters who spend more time upfront and can fundamentally let go of the story (to the editor or Beta reader) after the one to two drafts. I'll keep trying.

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    1. Hi Ian, It's interesting how difficult it can be to try and alter our natural creative process. Pantsing isn't the best fit for me, especially if I'm on deadline, although I enjoyed the different creative space that it provided. Your books are big stories with complex plots. It would be challenging to try to plot out all the intricacies in the story at the start. That said, the thought of writing a trade length book without a detailed outline is very scary!

      I wrote 3 proposals (3 chapters plus synopsis) for my 6 book contract with Harlequin. I think it's easier for plotters to sell on proposal because they can tweak their outline to create the synopsis. I wrote my first indie novella, His Perfect Catch, without a synopsis. I really missed having the synopsis to refer to as I wrote the story.

      I usually show my critique partners and beta readers a more polished version, ideally after I've rested the ms and done a thorough self-edit. When you're short on time, the feedback on a less polished version is very valuable. But you do need a thick skin and people who aren't afraid to provide honest feedback.

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  4. The tight deadlines must have been very stressful!

    I like to have quite detailed outlines, but not have every detail decided, I enjoy the character finding their own way through the details.

    The characters seem to find their own way. Sounds strange, but it sort of works!

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    1. Hi Elaine, I find my outlines are fluid and the smaller details will change as I write the story. It also can depend on the book and the characters. The further I write in a series, the easier it can be to plot and outline. I'm more familiar with the setting and I know at least one of the main characters from a previous book in the series. Our characters like to surprise us with unexpected details. :)

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  5. I am a mixture of both plotter and pantser. However, I've discovered over the years that once I've chosen the basic setting and story line, the most important preparation has to be a very detailed, written down knowledge of my main characters. Because I write romance this means the hero and heroine, especially their differences and the conflict that has to ultimately be resolved. However, major minor character also need considerable time getting to know them. Like Ian, I too have discovered that by about 15,000 words (usually three chapters) I feel I really know those characters and how they will respond to different emotions like anger, disappointments etc. I simply love it when I am so deep into knowing them that when writing a scene they seem to be telling me their reactions. If only that could happen more often!

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    1. Hi Mary, I agree, it's great when we're in the zone and in tune with our characters who are driving the story forward. :)

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  6. A plotter of the highest order!!! I often think how neat that would be. Congratulations, Narelle, on such a clear minded approach to your work.

    I am very much like Ian. My characters, whom I really know well by the time I begin writing, guide me. (Spooky music here.) At least their personalities, quirks, strengths and weaknesses dictate how they would act in any situation. One exception to this was my planning the ending - of a full length novel I have just completed - before beginning it.

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    1. Hi Rita, I think romance is a genre that tends to be character driven, regardless of whether you or not we plot and plan our stories at the start, or write by the seat of our pants. It fascinating to hear about the different approaches we each take to writing our stories. :)

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  7. I'm glad you managed to meet those deadlines.

    I'm a bit of a mixture. I tend to be a plotter when it comes to the basic frame of the story, but with the freedom to be a pantser, when fresh scenes occur to me any time during the writing. I consider that as I've plotted the basic outline, I can then assess whether these pantsing bits really contribute to the whole and keep things moving.

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    1. Hi Paula, I suspect most writers fall somewhere in the middle rather than at one end of the spectrum. As a plotter, I definitely appreciate the freedom to be a pantser within the framework of an outline. The best of both worlds in many ways :)

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  8. I really want to be a mixture of both methods so I'm working on it. I'm a plotter by nature, so it's not easy but I'm determined to get there.

    Congratulations on making it to your deadline. Not an easy feat at that time of year!

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    1. Hi Andrea, I owe a big thank you to you and Nicki for your contributions in helping me meet that deadline! :) It's an interesting question you've raised. If we're more wired in one direction, either as a plotter or pantser, can we change our ways? Is it something we can learn, like a new skill, or are we fighting our natural creative process by trying to change our methods?

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  9. Like several here, I'm a in betweener. Though I'm wanting to plan out the second book much more than my first.

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    1. Hi Jess, My conclusion is I sit in-between as well. It took many years, and three mss that were progressed to at least the end of the first draft stage, for me to refine the process that I followed for my short novels. All the best for book 2 :)

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  10. I am very much a pantser and oh did I pay for that with my most recent story with some large-scale rewrites during developmental edits. I may not manage to become a plotter with the next one but I'm determined to at least become a plantser!

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    1. Hi Kara, I'm sure those large scale developmental edits have refined your story and made it significantly stronger. Short term pain for long term gain :) Plotting, outlining and writing a synopsis at the start is kind of like taking a flu shot - it should prevent you from getting sick, or at the very least decrease the symptoms, but it's not foolproof. Plantsing will definitely help you when you're writing proposals for your next contract :)

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  11. Hi Narelle, thanks for your thoughts. I think I'm a hybrid of the two styles. I find a detailed outline stultifies me but if I don't have a direction in which to head I have trouble starting ��

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    1. Hi Sue, I think many of us have a hybrid process. Experimenting between the two ends of the spectrum can be fun :)

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