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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Pantser Dilemma--Plotting

To plot or not to plot. That is the question. At least that was my question for years. When I first started writing with publication in mind, I had a story idea, a couple of characters and an opening scene. I took those things and began a book. A year later I had a completed manuscript. I sent if off to a publisher, and five months later I received a rejection letter. That was the first of many rejection letters that I received over the course of twenty years of writing before I finally made my first sale.

During those years, I learned a lot about writing. I discovered that people had actually written books to tell other people how to write books. Amazing! I bought some and read them with enthusiasm, because these were going to be the key to publication. Sadly, that was not the case. I bought a few more books about writing and read, if not all, at least part of all of them. I discovered Romance Writers of America and a local chapter, Georgia Romance Writers. I joined these groups and found fellow writers who taught workshops and gave wonderful advice about writing. I joined a critique group, attended conferences and entered contests. I learned about self-editing, pacing, point of view, characterization, emotions, conflict, character goals and motivations, synopsis writing, and yes, even plotting. Even though I applied the lessons I had learned to my writing, I still didn't sell.

I began to suspect that I didn't sell, even after the lessons on plotting, because I still didn't plot my books before I wrote them. So I bought more books--books on plotting. Pictured below are just a few of them. These are all very good books, and if you are a plotter, they will give you lots of good information.
When I went to workshops on plotting, I did learn about turning points, the black moment and the final resolution. All of this was good, but I would find my mind glazing over with a thick haze when the presenters did graphs and charts with lines and boxes that you had to fill in with plot points. When I tried to plot the book before I wrote it, I would find myself working for hours without much to show for that time. I finally decided to push aside all the plotting charts and graphs when I couldn't answer the questions they required. I couldn't think that far ahead in my story no matter how hard I tried. I just started writing the book. What a freeing experience!

I finally realized that it is all right not to be a plotter. To me, writing a book is kind of like walking down a long corridor and opening the doors to rooms along the way to see what is happening inside. Each room represents a scene. I don't know what will happen until I get there and open the door. I might have a hint as I get closer and see the label on the door.

After I made the liberating decision to go with my gut and write by the seat of my pants, the next book I wrote won the Golden Heart for best inspirational romance in 2003, and the book I wrote after that was my first sale. My second sale was made on a complete manuscript. So I wrote the synopsis for each of those books after I had completed the book. According to my contract, I could make my third sale with a proposal rather than a complete manuscript. This meant I had to come up with a plot. Was I back to the terrifying prospect of plotting? Maybe. I had to come up with enough of an idea to satisfy an editor. This was uncharted territory for me. So I decided that I couldn't give a lot of details about the plot, but I could come up with the main characters' back stories, their goals, motivations and conflict that all stem from that back story. I would throw in a couple of turning points and the black moment that would hopefully be there when I actually completed the book. Now I have sold five books with either a proposal or only a synopsis. On each one, I have had to change the synopsis to fit the final story, because the storyline always becomes more clear as I write it. Nothing about my synopsis is written in stone. Such is the dilemma of the pantser.

So here is my final advice. If you are a pantser, don't let anyone make you feel inferior because you don't plot. If you are a plotter, have a great time making all your charts, grafts and outlines. For the panster, charts and graphs on plotting may come in handy after you have written the book to see whether you have all of those important plot points. But whatever you do, write the way that works best for you. Happy writing!
Merrillee

29 Comments:

At 10:51 AM, Blogger Terry McLaughlin said...

Merrillee--I love your analogy about walking down a long corridor and peeking inside rooms. It sure feels familiar.

And your process for writing a synopsis that avoids the story details looks familiar, too ;-).

I stopped buying how-to-write books a long time ago. I never read more than a few pages of each of them--they made me feel as though I couldn't do what I was supposed to do, and I don't need to feel any more insecure about writing than I already feel!

 
At 11:46 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great advice, Merrillee. Your story sounds a lot like MY story...except the sale part. :)

I remember spending weeks on the graphs and charts and answering a million questions and I think that's the book I never finished.

Thanks for making all of us pansters feel a little better about their process.

 
At 11:49 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

And don't forget everyone...just by commenting you have a chance to win a $20 gift card to Borders! Winner will be announced March 31st.

 
At 1:11 PM, Blogger Merrillee said...

Terry,
I know what you mean about the writing books. In the beginning I did read several all the way through, but usually all the information overwhelmed me.

I have another analogy I can compare my writing process to. Sometimes when I walk on the beach near my house, even on a sunny day, there may be a fog that obscures everything in the distance. As I draw closer the details become more visible. That happens when I write. The more of the story that I get on the page, the more I can see ahead into the next scene or the next chapter.

I was just glad to realize that however I chose to write was okay. I had to block out those voices that told me if I didn't plot I wasn't doing it right.

 
At 1:12 PM, Blogger Merrillee said...

Theresa,
I'm sure that with more Golden Heart finals under your belt that A SALE will be part of your story.

Congratulations on being a double GH finalist!!!

 
At 1:46 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Sometimes when I walk on the beach near my house, even on a sunny day, there may be a fog that obscures everything in the distance. As I draw closer the details become more visible. That happens when I write. The more of the story that I get on the page, the more I can see ahead into the next scene or the next chapter.

I love this analogy, Merrillee. That's so true for me, too. I can't see the next scene until I write the one that comes before it. :)

And thanks for the congrats, Merrillee. And thanks for the wonderful phone call, Terry! That was the icing on the cake today!

 
At 1:49 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

LOL! I love this post! Why? Because I pantsed for a couple of years, never finishing a manuscript. I could write and even sell a short story but a whole novel? Daunting!

Then I decided last year that the answer must be plotting, and that to do so sufficiently, I'd first have to sketch my characters. After all, I'm a pretty analytic, methodical type person. Only now I find myself writing character background sketches and synopses but getting bogged down when it comes to writing the story.

I'm thinking I'm a plotser or a pantter or some weird combination. I've gotten so bogged down that I've all but stopped writing.

I think I'll go back to square one and use a little of this, a little of that. Couldn't hurt.

 
At 2:09 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Theresa, huge congratulations!!!

May I share that Pam Bolton Holifield, Doglady, has picked up a Regency GH spot? We are so thrilled!

 
At 2:09 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Patricia, LOL! I think we're all weird combinations of plotter and pantster, don't you?

When you are writing your story are you looking too far ahead of the scene you are working on? I only ask because that slows me down...and used to stop me from finishing books. But if I just keep on writing, everything seems to work out just fine. For instance, you might not know who the murderer is until suddenly it hits you that it's the aunt...it's been her all along, but it didn't reveal itself until you were nearly done with the book!!!

Does that make sense? I don't even write murder mysteries but I was just trying to show how a lot of writers don't need to know who did it or how exactly things are going to turn out until they write it!?!!

 
At 2:10 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Go Doglady! Terrific news, Pam! Woohoo!

 
At 2:23 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

YES, Doglady!!! Whoo hoo! Thanks for telling us, Gillian!

I plot, but my plots change as I write the books. I just need something to get me going. I have the feeling plotting versus pantsing is more of a continuum than an either/or thing.

 
At 3:33 PM, Blogger Terry Odell said...

I've tried to plot. Have the Story Magic grid, the white board and sticky notes. But my 'plots' start out so vague -- mostly it's just figuring out one of the main characters and what his/her problem will be, then finding the right counterpart.

I don't have many how-to books; I figured if they were really "right" then everyone would be published.

Right now I'm in revisons, and have to include the scene I left off the page in the first draft. My agent said I had to show more of what happened to my hero between the end of chapter 32 and "five weeks, fice days and an undetermined number of minutes later" in Chapter 33

So -- the book has been plotted, but I have to plot the scene. All I know is what I already knew when the scene was off the page. The hero got called away on a covert ops mission, and in the course of the mission was captured. At the time, I didn't need more than that. Now I do.

Previously, the chapter ended with "Take us home."
I got as far as adding, "No can do."

So, I wander around the house, listening to the characters, trying to ask the right questions so I can flesh out the scene. Why couldn't he call the heroine and let her know he couldn't meet her? What was important enough to call him away? And that's about all the plotting I can do. The answers come as I write.

 
At 4:50 PM, Blogger Lee McKenzie said...

This is such a great post, Merrillee. You wrote for twenty years before you sold? What an inspiration!

Like Terry, I adore the way you compare walking down a corridor to pantsing your way through a book.

Over the years, I acquired a shelf full of how-to books. I tried various plotting methods, from drawing up timelines to making an index card for each scene. When I realized I was spending more time rewriting index cards than writing a book, I knew I had to abandon those!

In many ways I envy plotters because I think it would be great to have even a basic road map that led me to "the end." Instead, I wander down that never-before-visited corridor, and I periodically panic when one of the doors is locked.

It always takes some time to overcome the paralyzing fear and figuring out how to pick the lock, but I get there . . . eventually!

Most of all, I find it interesting that each writer's journey seems to start and end in the same place -- with the dream of writing a book and ultimately achieving the goal of having it published -- and yet we all seem to take a different route to get there.

 
At 4:52 PM, Blogger Lee McKenzie said...

Theresa, congratulations on being a double GH finalist! WTG!

Congrats also to Pam/Doglady! Is this your GH final? Savor every delicious moment of it!

 
At 6:19 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

YAY YAY YAY to Theresa and doglady! I'm so thrilled for both of you.

This is the BEST news!!!!!

 
At 6:23 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

okay. now I'm calmer.

I love writing as a pantser, but I find I need a little roadmap. So far, the synopsis, including just the bare minimum is working for me.

So Patricia, I'm a hybrid like you - a bit plotter, a big bit pantser.

Terry O, hope you figure out your scene without too much agony!

 
At 6:24 PM, Blogger MaryF said...

PAM!!! That is TERRIFIC!!!

Terry, I'm like you with the writing books - they make me freeze up!

 
At 8:01 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Two other Noodlers have had "the Call, GH RITA Version"

Priscilla is a GH finalist and Stephanie Rowe is a RITA finalist!!!

What a day for Noodlers and noodlettes!

 
At 8:43 PM, Blogger doglady said...

Wow! A double Theresa! Huge congrats!! Congrats to Priscilla and Stephanie too!! This has been a great day!

Thanks so much Noodlers for all of your great information, tips and support! You have no idea how much help they have been!

And of course I credit the Diane Gaston critique I won here with making LOST IN LOVE a finalist!

I am primarily a pantser, with a rough outline / synopsis coming in there after the first few chapters. I tend to listen to the characters about what happens next. It can be a good thing, BUT sometimes they do then do tend to ramble. I can end up going off on tangents with them and then realize I need to go back or completely rewrite it. Still, it does give me a lot of material with which to work.

 
At 9:02 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

Merrillee, I never took the time to say, this was an excellent post! Usually hearing lots of detailed "how-to" advice makes me freeze up, but I'm getting better at taking every little bit of advice for what it's worth and evaluating whether it works for my process or not.

And Bless You for sticking with it! A lovely lesson for us all.

 
At 9:58 PM, Blogger Merrillee said...

Wow! Lots of comments. I commented earlier today, then got involved in pantsing my way through my latest book. Then we had a dinner engagement tonight. I got home and was caught up in the flurry of GH and RITA announcements. Congratultations to doglady on your GH final.

Lee, I had to laugh at your comment about finding one of the doors locked. Yes, that sometimes happens. So you have to move on to the next door.

Thanks, Gillian, for your sweet comment.

 
At 8:47 AM, Blogger Eden Sharpe said...

okay, look what happens when you miss logging on. Congrats to you all finalling in the GH and Ritas!
Now is there a list of the GH and Rita finalists? I haven't seen one on the rwa website.
And Diane, congrats on your 4-book contract!

 
At 10:00 AM, Blogger CM said...

I just wanted to stop by and say thanks to the Wet Noodle Posse. Your help in November, particularly with the synopsis, made a huge difference for me. I'm a GH finalist!

 
At 10:15 AM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Congrats to Steph and Priscilla, and also to CM!

Yay, all of you!!!!

 
At 10:55 AM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

CM, CONGRATULATIONS!!! And thanks for giving the WNP some credit with your finaling, even though we all know you did it all yourself.

And Eden, check the RWA site today. It's all there.

This has been a fun and informative plotting month so far, if I don't say so myself...:)

 
At 12:12 PM, Blogger Patricia W. said...

Congratulations to all the Noodling finalists: Theresa, Pam, Steph, CM, and Priscilla. If I left anyone out, congrats to you too!

Theresa, you might have a point. I do think ahead while I'm writing sometimes which screws with my ability to stay in the scene.

I just think I'm overthinking the whole thing.

 
At 2:23 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Patricia, that's EXACTLY what I was thinking...that you might be overthinking the whole thing. Just let the scenes come and then just move on without over-analyzing what you've written. Many times I think I'm going to have to go back and delete a scene or two but with just a few tweaks everything works out great. :) And I'm a big believer of getting to the end and then coming back...

 
At 5:38 AM, Blogger MaryF said...

I could have written this post - I feel JUST the same!

CM!!! Congratulations!!!!

 
At 12:20 PM, Blogger Norah Wilson said...

Doglady and CM!!!!!! Congrats on the GH final. What an exciting time you're in for!

 

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