I’m about to begin writing my fourteenth novel, and my plotting style has evolved considerably over time, from plotting absolutely nothing and seeing where the world took me (SOME GIRLS BITE), to using an almost absurdly detailed outline (FIRESPELL), to using a plot board (BLOOD GAMES).
Today, I thought I’d share a little bit about how my process has evolved, and the plotting methods I’ve used to prepare for and draft my novels.
Plotting refers, as you’ve probably guessed, to creating an outline of some degree for a novel before writing it. “Pantsing” refers to the act of writing by the seat of one’s pants. No outline, no plan, no agenda but to fall into a story, create a conflict for a character, and pull her out of it again.
I wrote SOME GIRLS BITE, the first Chicagoland Vampires novel, as a pantster. It was a freedom afforded to me because I had no agent, no contract, no risk of retcon errors. I don’t know many published authors who prefer pantsing, probably because their editors insist on an outline or summary of the manuscript they’re drafting. But I’m sure they’re out there, madly inventive and immune to the fear – or energized by it that – they’ll have no idea how to finish a scene.
It was the first and last time I’ve “pantsed” a novel. I now have an editor and an agent and an obligation to turn in an “outline”, so it’s in my professional and financial interest to prepare something along those lines. Also, since I’ll soon begin writing the eleventh novel in an adult paranormal series, I need to prepare before I draft in order to ensure that what I’m writing is consistent with what I’ve done before, but not rehashing former territory.
I don’t actually create an “outline” per se. Rather, I prepare a two to three page synopsis in paragraph form that describes in a few sentences each of the mystery, romance, and secondary plots in the novel. It also identifies the steps in the investigation and resolution of the mystery plot, since that’s a central component of these novels. I don’t refer to the synopsis very often while I’m actually writing, but it’s crucial for setting down the landscape of each novel and identifying any obvious potholes.
In addition to the synopsis, I create a roadmap of scenes for each book. Those have varied and evolved over time.
FIRESPELL, the first book in my YA Dark Elite series, was written using a very detailed outline. It was several pages single-spaced, with most scenes and some dialogue mapped out. I loved the final manuscript it produced, but I hated the process, which felt like reduced fiction writing to an administrative task. My job was no longer to create, but to complete the scene I’d already imagined, and the writing was less enjoyable because of it.
I wrote WILD THINGS (released last week), the ninth Chicagoland Vampires novel, using a very brief chapter by chapter “bullet point” list. Using a suggestion from urban fantasy author Nicole Peeler, I created a numbered list in a Word document with 22 items, one for each chapter. (That’s an approximate number found in most of my CV novels). Each numbered item was a chapter, and got a very, very brief description. The first chapter? The introduction to the characters and the conflict. The last chapter? The denouement. That made the next to last chapter the final conflict, and I usually planned for three or four additional “tense” scenes (fights or battles), a romantic interlude, and other primary book components that could be mapped out using the outline. If it fits on a single page, the chapter outline is a very handy way for visual folks (like me) to get a sense of the entire novel’s arcs and pacing in a single glance.
I wrote BLOOD GAMES, the tenth CV novel, using a combination of the chapter outline and the “plot board” method I learned from UF author Jaye Wells. (This is why conferences are awesome—you can learn about everyone else’s fantastic writing tools.) I used a sheet of foam core divided into three vertical sections of equal width. These were intended to represent the beginning, middle, and end portions of the book. I used Post-It notes to identify and place scenes in their appropriate places, one color for each subplot in the book. (Thus, all the romance scenes were one color, all the mystery plot scenes a second color, etc.)
As I noted above, I’m a very visual writer, and using the plot board gave me the opportunity to very clearly track the plots through the novel, figure out where I needed additional scenes and development, and move around any parts that weren’t working. It was a great help, and I look forward to using it for my next novel, as well.
I hope this has been helpful, and good luck to everyone who’s doing their own pantsing or plotting!