Pantser to Plotter: Why I Switched

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I’ve always considered myself a die-hard pantser. As a budding writer, all my first attempt at a chapter-by-chapter outline did was convince me that outlining removed my need to tell the story with an actual novel—I got a few chapters into drafting it and then gave up, my driving need to write that book gone. After that experience, I usually plunged into my books with a decent idea of what the protagonist was like and a very hazy concept of what the plot could end up being, and let the story take me where it would. I’d make a rough outline as I went, but that was it: I was committed to letting my stories grow organically.

Right up until last year, as my daughter hit her second birthday and her naps were dwindling rapidly. I was losing anything that resembled regular, uninterrupted writing time, and was now forced to write in drips and drabs—ten minutes here, twenty there, maybe forty-five minutes at night a few evenings a week if I was lucky. Each super-short writing session increased my frustration, since it felt like it took me at least that long just to get back into the flow of story, let alone producing meaningful content. I knew that if I was going to make a true go of writing as a career, I needed to change my methods.

In May of 2015, I attended the LDStorymakers conference in Provo, Utah for the second time. While there I attended a myriad of fabulous classes, but one in particular that lit a fire under me and gave me the courage I needed to ditch my pantsing ways and switch to—gulp—plotting on my next project. The class was taught by author extraordinaire Melanie Jacobson, who said she’d switched from pantsing to plotting a few books into her career, after realizing that she was regularly having to cut and rewrite enormous chunks of her stories before they could go to print. After that wakeup call, she started using a revised version of Rachel Aaron’s plotting method—one that doesn’t require you to be writing full-time—which she’s been using ever since. Melanie shared lots of her productivity-boosting tips in the class, and finished up with a challenge for everyone there to try it out at least once.

I went home scared but inspired, determined to put on my big-girl pants and plot my way into greater productivity. I started plotting my next book on the flight home from the conference, one notecard at a time. After a week or two, when I was ready to begin drafting, I was shocked to realize that I was now regularly able to write a thousand words in half an hour. Even when I was stuck or distracted, I was getting at least half that—a far sight better than anything I’d been able to do before. I also was much, much more able to maintain my focus and re-access my “writing zone” better when I had to split writing sessions up into small segments throughout the day. In just about every rubric I used, my productivity had at least doubled.

And that wasn’t the only benefit—I also was able to make much better use of writing tools like subplots, themes, and objective correlatives, because as I outlined I was able to see which sections those things were lacking in. In that book, for instance, I needed my main character’s mother to be under a lot of stress, and decided that one way I’d do that would be to make the main character’s baby sister a spitfire prone to massive temper tantrums. As I outlined, I was able to make sure that the baby sister was having meltdowns frequently enough that a reader would easily be able to see the stress her personality was putting on the mother. I was also able to make sure that other subplots, themes, and metaphors were carried all the way through the book, evenly balanced in each of its acts. As a result, instead of having to fight to unearth the aspects that make a book emotionally resonant in revision (the way I always had before!), I was able to work them right in to the first draft.

As I drafted, my outline was neither perfect nor foolproof. I made changes as I went—about two-thirds of the way through, I realized that the thing I’d outlined as my climactic event just wasn’t working, and I ended up bringing in a new plotline that dramatically changed my book’s course (and even its genre). And, of course, I still had to do plenty of ripping out and rewriting as I revised. But, to put that in perspective: With my last pantsed novel, which I revised during Pitch Wars 2015, I had to change the order of almost every chapter and rewrite probably upwards of 50,000 words. With my first plotted novel, I was able to leave the structure exactly as it was, and while there were a few chapters here or there that were trimmed or rewritten and one plotline whose timeline changed during my revision, the changes I made were much smaller and more manageable.

And one last thing: my new outlining system? It’s fun! As I worked through it for the first time, it felt like doing all the most delightful parts of writing—researching, daydreaming, and creating the raw stuff of story—without the anxiety and insecurity that comes from actually drafting or the tooth-grinding frustration of revision. I always enjoyed the excitement of pantsing a book, the thrill of sitting down at a keyboard and watching the story take shape before my eyes—but this was like that feeling distilled down, without any of the very real angst that comes with having to dump large sections of a pantsed book because they didn’t support the overall arc strongly enough.

I gotta say, after having done it this way? I can’t imagine going back to pantsing again anytime soon. As a querying writer, I also experienced much more measurable success with my outlined book than any book I’d ever queried before; I ended up with ten agent offers! A few of the agents involved had read my previous (pantsed) book, and as we were chatting on the phone during the offer call, mentioned that the plot of the new book was so much stronger and tighter than the plot of the old book—a fact I definitely attribute to the outlining system I used!

Check back next week for part two of my “pantsing to plotting” series, in which I’ll give a breakdown of how I plot now!

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is now gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Find her on Twitter at @beingcindy.

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