Chloe Neill — To Plot or Not to Plot, That is the Pantsing


Hi All, 

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.

Perhaps needless to say, I don’t get that specific anymore.wildthings_3-ChloeN-199x300

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! 

ChloeNeillphotoBIO: Chloe Neill is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Chicagoland Vampires and Dark Elite series.  She was born and raised in the South, but now makes her home in the Midwest–just close enough to Cadogan House and St. Sophia’s to keep an eye on things. When not transcribing Merit’s and Lily’s adventures, she bakes, works, and scours the Internet for good recipes and great graphic design. Chloe also maintains her sanity by spending time with her boys–her favorite landscape photographer/husband and their dogs, Baxter and Scout. (Both she and the photographer understand the dogs are in charge.)
 Photo credit: Dana Damewood
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9 comments to Chloe Neill — To Plot or Not to Plot, That is the Pantsing

  • Thanks Chloe, very informative post.

    Sounds like you’ve tried various methods over time. Do you think you’ll stick with the plot board from here on, or will you continue to experiment?

  • sagablessed

    Excellent post!! Most excellent.
    I am guilty of the system you used for Firespell for most of my works. I have one about 1/3 finished (and on back burner for now) I am utterly pantsing. Both styles work, but I have discovered plotting works better for me.
    Yet I get too in depth, too bound by the limitations of my outline. I am glad to know I am not the only one who has this probelm. Like you, I have to find the balance like you did. Plotboards (I use post-its) however give me a headache. Likely because my glasses need new lenses, LOL. And the tiny writing on the screen does the same.
    Do you have any other tricks you could share? Or how you stop yourself from over-plotting every bit of dialogue and action?

  • Jeremy Beltran

    I’ve always been a pantser mostly because I don’t know how write an outline. I’ve read a lot about them on several sites and I’m giving it a try by just writing a paragraph or two telling what each chapter is supposed to have in it. Hopefully this works.

  • Chloe, so great to have you back. I’ve done the back and forth thing too. The book I just turned in to my editor was detailed and plotted. Until I got about 2/3rds in and the outline went out the window (figuratively speaking). I totally pantsed the last 1/3rd. It was surreal. (scratches chin) Hope it worked.

  • Thanks for this glimpse into your process, Chloe, and also into the ways in which that process has evolved over the course of your career. I’ll be posting about plotting and pantsing tomorrow, so this is very much on my mind right now.

  • Really appreciate the detailed descriptions of the various methods you’ve tried. I don’t think I’ve figured out what works best for me yet, so I like seeing the different options 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Very interesting post. I love seeing how other writers do their plotting.

    I’m a mix of pantsing and plotting. I can’t do the super-detailed plotting or I lose interest in the story; it feels like I already wrote it. I usually write out notes, almost stream-of-consciousness style, to keep track of ideas for plot elements, characters, places, events, etc. These are more or less in the order they’re going to happen in the story; of course once I start writing the story, the ideas change shape, the characters do completely unexpected things, and new things occur to me.

    I don’t think I could do the board thing, although the visual element appeals to me. I just don’t have room for things like that where I write 😀 Maybe post-its or 3×5 cards, though….gotta think about that.

  • quillet

    I’ve always been a plotter, so I really like the idea of the plot board method. I’m going to try that, though I may adapt it to work with the cork board in Scrivener. Hmmm…

  • chloeneill

    @Dave – I’ll be using all three — the synopsis, the chapter by chapter, and the plot board – for the next one.

    @sagablessed – I never plot dialogue (unless I want to note a clever turn of phrase). I plot events (i.e., Fight Scene. Kidnapping. Discover Clue.) in very general terms.