Plotting and Pants-dropping

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Oh, hey there weekend. It’s about time you showed up.

Today I am plotting the next chapter of my otherwise pantsed novel. I’m in need of some serious organization and deliberation that only a package of index cards arranged and rearranged across my living room floor can accomplish. That, or, Scrivener, but while there may be a fresh Douglas fir standing next to my fireplace, Christmas is still a few weeks away.

According to my Kindle, I am 82% of the way through Rachel Aaron’s book, 2,000 to 10,000: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love. While I feel that some of her suggestions might not work as well for erotica and romance writers as they would for, say, science fiction or fantasy authors (Aaron is a sci-fi and fantasy author, herself), her advice on plotting has been helpful, as evidenced by the highlighted portions and notes on my device.

Consider this quote from her section on Story Architecture:

“In day-to-day terms, this means knowing what you’re going to write before you write it, but in the bigger picture of your life as a writer, it means understanding your story choices on a deeper level. If you want your writing process to be fast and reliable, it’s not enough to just trust your feelings for what works. You need to know why it works and how it works, if you ever want to make it work for you.”

My goal for this post isn’t to convince pantsers that plotting is the way to go because everyone approaches storytelling differently and there’s no such thing as the Eternal Correct Method for Everyone and Everything. I can even see the benefits of flexibility between projects. For example, a short story might pour effortlessly from one’s subconscious while a novel may be better served by an outline and character sheets. Experimentation is paramount.

Regardless of which style you subscribe to, rewriting is an integral part of writing. However, since I also happen to be posting the story chapter-by-chapter online, I have to be really certain about my timeline and events, because once they’re up, I can’t change them.

(I’d like to take this opportunity to state that I have no intention of publishing this story elsewhere, at least not in its current form. It’s generally a bad idea to post a book in its entirety for free on the internet, regardless of what route to publishing you intend to follow. I’ll go into the reasoning behind that some other time.)

While I’ll admit to being pleasantly surprised by my subconscious’ ability to tie certain aspects of my story together without much prompting from me, I’m at the point where there are too many loose ends to simply let my fingers fly and hope for the best. I’ve had an idea for how I would like the story to conclude for some time now, but I’m beginning to think that it might not be what’s best for the plot. When your characters refuse to do things, even fun things, like hook up, you know it’s time to sit back and ask yourself, “What am I doing wrong?”

Yesterday, I utilized one of Aaron’s tips for establishing motivation: character sheets. In her book, she suggests noting certain factors for each important player in the story, such as Name, Age, Physical Description, Likes, Hates, and Wants. Since my characters are already established, I skipped Age and Physical Description and went with this list:

Name:
Likes:
Dislikes:
Wants:
Knows/Believes:
Doesn’t Know:

Those last two are my own additions. At this point in the story, I’m attempting to keep track of who’s been lying to whom, who is oblivious, and who is secretly privy to sensitive information. It’s a lot to manage, hence the usefulness of things like timelines and character sheets.

What about you? Are you a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between? Do you have any tried-and-true techniques that keep you from getting and/or staying stuck? Share your wisdom!

All right, time to refill my coffee mug and make a mess on my living room rug.

31 thoughts on “Plotting and Pants-dropping

    1. I’m curious, how much pre-writing brainstorming do you usually do before you sit down to work? And, if something comes to you randomly (a scene, a conversation, etc.) do you take notes or trust that you’ll remember it when the time comes to write it?

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      1. It all depends…I’ve written things on receipts or the back of my hand or text things to myself when necessary:) And yes, great thoughts have been lost before because I don’t have a notebook on me. It’s hard to line up inspirational moments with “the time I have to write.”
        I feel like there is a story constantly running through my head. Which means I’m only half paying attention to my real life most of the time:) That story is where my writing comes from.
        I hope that makes sense:)

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        1. Maybe I’m a plotter/pantser hybrid because I can totally relate to everything you said here. 😛 Especially the part about only half-paying-attention to the real world most of the time and constantly having a story in your head.

          Do you consider those poems you wrote prior to starting your novel (was it prior or had you already started writing it?) to be a form of plotting?

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          1. Yes! That idea was in support of the novel, kind of an attempt to get in my characters’ heads. The draft I wrote for Nano (it’s only half done) didn’t turn out nearly as well as the poems did; so if this ever gets published, it will probably be a book of narrative poetry.
            Thanks for asking;)

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          2. A book of narrative poetry would be fantastic and something really unique. That’s one thing I do love about pantsing: the element of surprise. Sure, you didn’t come out of November with a novel, but you came out of October with a fabulous series of poems. That’s a major win right there! 🙂

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  1. I guess my preferred method would be to plan a bit, write a lot, then tidy up my mess. Although I’ve also been guilty of chronic over-planning, planning as procrastination.

    Note cards have definitely helped me in the past. I tend to have the finale in one place and then write out every individual thing that needs to happen to get me there, then I can organise those things however I think will work best. It just helps to visualise the flow of the story and provides the space to add further notes wherever they’re needed.

    I hope you planing and writing go well. You left us on a pretty damn big cliffhanger and I’m eager to read more.

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    1. I’m sorry, okay!? 😛 Fine, no I’m not, but I will be if it takes more than a couple of weeks to write and edit chapter 8.

      The process you described sounds exactly like what I’m gearing up to do. I would’ve started sooner, but I had to check my e-mail and put a potato in the oven. I’m doing things now!

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  2. So, I would say I come somewhere in between. Of course, you and I have already been talking about these subjects a bit. I’m a plotter by nature, but some of my best writing has been “pantsed.” That said, for longer works, while some very nice scenes may result, and some decent prose, it still requires a lot of rework to get it to fit a cohesive plot. So, I find myself in the end building a plot almost like a blueprint for a building that is already half built, just not finished, and then fitting the scenes already written into it. That is actually a fair amount of work, and this is where a lot of “killing your darlings” comes into play. Wrote a beautiful scene, but in the end it has nothing to do with the story you want to tell? Well, maybe it’ll work in another story, but it has to go. Put it aside, use it later as the kernel of the next story.

    I don’t tend to use traditional character sheets, but I do try to take character archetypes and assign my characters to them. So, I’ll start with a main character and an influence character (who is usually the “romantic interest,” but doesn’t have to be), an antagonist and contagonist (who may also be the romantic interest), a sidekick and skeptic, a voice of reason and a guardian/mentor, and an emotional foil. Then I may mix up the roles a bit, or drop some if they’re not really adding to the story (especially for something shorter, where there may only be two, perhaps three, characters in the whole thing). I’ll work out higher-level motivations for them based upon these broad archetypes, as in what are the guiding principles to how this character tends to think, and also what are their goals within the framework of the story. Then I drop them into the story and let them develop a bit as I write. Usually at some point the characters take on a bit of a life of their own, developing their voice and manners of speech or thought and behavior. This is hard for me to have all worked out in advance — I need my characters to speak to me a bit first before I really know who they are.

    I tend to plot at a high level, as in working out the basics of a classic three-act structure. I don’t necessarily try to ensure all the “hero’s journey” elements are there, or anything like that, but I’ve studied most of those classic plotting techniques, so they’re always in the back of my mind even when it feels like I’m just pansting it. Perhaps that’s why pantsing does seem to work for me: it’s built on a foundation of classic plot structures, and even when I’m writing totally freehand, I still know that certain things need to happen at certain points of the story. I’m always cognizant of how at least my lead character is developing over the course of the story.

    Still, though, afterwards I find myself rearranging scenes when they seem to fit a different act, moving them to different parts of the plot, and then that requires rewriting at least parts of those scenes, to make sure they stay consistent. This is an area where a tool like Scrivener really shines and is a real aid to keeping it all straight.

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    1. It’s all about finding that balance, isn’t it? Allowing enough flexibility for creative license while drawing yourself a road map so that you don’t end up lost.

      I’m guessing the archetypes you’re referring to are from a particular method/writing how-to text. Care to share which one? I’ve read articles that advise against using archetypes for characters, as it supposedly makes them “flat”, but I’m wondering if it’s even possible to avoid archetypal character design, as in, you’re probably using it even if you don’t think you are, because we’re all just telling the same stories over and over with slight variations. I totally get what you mean by needing your characters to “speak to you” a bit before you fully know them. I tend to have a pretty good idea of who they are before I begin, but getting the voice right requires a bit more time and a lot of extra words that usually end up scrapped once I have a feel for them and the tone of the story.

      Aaron’s discussion of the classic three-act-structure was pretty good, though I think I might benefit from picking up a book that delves a bit deeper. That stuff really does become second-nature the more you study and practice it. Perhaps pantsers are simply better at unconscious implementation of this. Maybe we all become pantsers in the end. 😛

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      1. Character archetypes have, of course, been around a long time, and many writing “how-to” books talk about them, from “The Hero’s Journey” which reaches back to the psycho-anthropological work of Joseph Campbell, to more recently “The Theory of Dramatica,” which is a free online book on plot, structure, and characterization (http://dramatica.com/theory/book). The Dramatica theory gets very mechanical, too mechanical probably, but as a guideline and as foundational background knowledge I think it’s very useful. Rigid plotters like Tamsin should love it, though. 🙂

        The theory doesn’t state that all your characters should precisely fit the archetypes. Rather, the archetypes are starting points, each built on a set of 64 different characterizations. It’s almost like a math model. You can then swap out the characterizations as you wish to create “complex” characters, and indeed, usually a bit of this goes on. However, what’s often the biggest measure of success for a novel? To become a Hollywood blockbuster movie, right? So, if a novelist wants that kind of adaptation to occur, then it might make sense to write a novel that fits into traditional movie storytelling patterns (or stage play patterns, for that matter). Obviously, many bestselling and famous novels don’t do this, but it’s one strategy, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to keep the most successful movies in mind when planning your novel.

        So what’s one of the most successful movies, that many, many people are familiar with? How about ‘Star Wars?’ Well, Star Wars follows a *classic* hero’s journey plot, and the main character/protagonist (Luke Skywalker) is accompanied or hindered on his quest by: Mentor/Guardian (and Influence/Impact character) (Obi-Wan Kenobi); Sidekick (C-3P0 and R2/D2); Skeptic (Han Solo); Reason (Leia); Emotion (Chewbacca); Contagonist (Darth Vader); Antagonist (the Empire/Tarkin). The 8 archetypes. And, interestingly enough, the “love interest” in this story isn’t the Emotion character, nor even the Influence character, but the Reason character, the one who’s always the “brains” in the action. Though later she turns out to be his sister, so that’s a bit icky. 😉 Anyway, no one is ever going to call Star Wars high literature, but it certainly did well as a story, and is that such a bad thing? Anyway, that’s one example that’s an easy one, because George Lucas hardly deviated from the archetypes at all.

        Anyway, in the end the model can feel very rigid and constraining, so I like to think of it as a starting point, but then let my imagination and my characters run where they will after that.

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        1. This makes me wish I’d majored in English. 😛 Though, I suppose the fact that you can learn all of this for free and in paperback makes such a degree somewhat obsolete. Thank you so much for explaining that and breaking it down for me, with a Star Wars reference and everything! Though, I’m now a bit concerned that I’m distracting you from your work. How’s that coming, by the way? 🙂

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          1. I have written a whopping 700-ish words since posting that #amwriting tweet earlier this morning. Wow, amazing progress, huh? 😦 Um, how’s the index-card organization on the living room floor going? 😉

            I didn’t go for any English degree or anything like that, it’s true, but I would say that what I have learned is built on a solid foundation of English studies. I was an AP English student in high school (far too long ago), you know, studying the classics like ‘Lord of the Flies’ and ‘Catcher in the Rye’ and analyzing them to death for symbolism and meaning until all the fun in them was stripped away. And of course I’ve been *attempting* to write since I was 9 or 10 years old, but that’s not unusual, is it? I have taken several “adult education” classes in Popular Fiction at the local university, and I took several classes at a local highly regarded non-profit school that specializes in writing (and I will take more when my schedule settles down again, plus I donate money to their foundation because they’re that awesome). As for books… well, I’ve spent enough on writing books to have paid for some of those classes, too. I’ve even read a few of them. 😉

            However, the main thing I’ve done is read. A lot. I read lots of genres, though I tend to go through genre phases. I’ve read some breathtakingly good books, ones that haunt me for a long, long time afterwards, and I’ve read some… so-so books. I’ve read a lot of erotica, and some of it is also breathtakingly good, and a lot of it is… not so much.

            I think all of it builds together to help the aspiring writer. The classes, the how-to books, the reading, and simply getting out there and writing, as much as you can. That’s where I am now. I’m trying to write more, and more, whenever I can find time. I keep trying to come to peace with the idea that my first published work will not be my best, but that I’ll get better.

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          2. There are cards. There are words on these cards. There could be more cards and more words. They’re in some kind of order. 😛

            I, too, took quite a few English/writing courses in high school and even college, before deciding on a major. My major also happened to be very writing-intensive, so it sort of felt like I was earning at least a minor in English along the way. There’s really no replacement for reading a lot and writing a lot, especially when it comes to fiction. It’s not just about putting the words in the right order. If there’s one thing that school (and “the real world”) is good at, it’s squelching imagination. If you can keep your imagination intact and then pick up the technical stuff here and there, you’re on your way.

            Your first piece may not be your best ever, but it will be your best right now and that’s just fine. I think most loyal readers grow and evolve alongside their favorite authors. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, but I’d bet every author thinks their latest book is better than their first, at least when it comes to craft.

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  3. As a rigid plotter, I found Rachel Aaron’s book really useful. And, Rachel, if you’re posting the story on your own site, of course you can sneak back in and change things – though it will only benefit latecomers to the story! 🙂

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    1. Oh yes, and I have certainly done that! But once you submit a story to Literotica, there’s really no changing it, and that’s where most of my readers are (I think…as far as I’m aware, only my personal beta readers read it on this site). You’d have to ask the Lit admin to remove it, then wait a few days, then resubmit it, and then it would take a few MORE days for it to show up again. It’s an unfortunate process. 😛

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      1. I counted 19 at 77%. 😉 I guess it depends on how many other books you’ve read. Her basic spiel is that if you plot really well beforehand, you’ll be able to write your first draft really easily. That said, there are a LOT of typos in her “Editing” chapter, which kind of leads me to believe what I found to be true for myself: the less careful I am and the less time I take to write a first draft, the more editing it needs down the line. Depending on how you feel about editing and rewriting, this might be fine. Some people are just thrilled to have a “completed” draft at all. Her claim is that, the more you do it, the better your first drafts will get and the less editing they’ll need. I guess the only way to know is to give it a chance! Theoretically, you could test her theory by writing a few books over the course of a few months. I’d imagine your word count would improve, at the very least, as a result of the exercise.

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