Plotting from a Pantser’s Brain

I had never realized just how thoroughly I pants my way through stories.

When I began Novel #1, it was a NaNoWriMo project. I’d had the overall arc in my head for years—maybe as long as a decade—but just hadn’t ever put anything in writing. It made for an exhilarating experience when that November rolled around, and I finally spewed whatever came to mind, day after day, just to get to that final word count goal.

Revision became quite the task then, because events hadn’t been well (or at all) planned, and lots of details had to get cut or added to make sense of the damn thing. But in its own way, that was an exploratory process, too, and it’s been another painful, rewarding experience.

Before I started Novel #2, a couple of short story ideas cropped up, and so I pursued them. Trying to be more methodical about the whole thing, I decided to try outlining the shape of a story before diving in. Before I could get farther than the Big Idea of the story, though, words came to me. Desperate not to lose them, I hurried to make notes. Next thing I knew, I had half of the story drafted. “I’m new to short stories,” I told myself. “I can plot out the next one.”

Sadly, the next one evaded me. Using my inborn stubbornness to my advantage, I turned instead to Novel #2. “This one I simply can’t start without a good outline. Rewriting the whole damn thing was too hard the first time.” Duly self-instructed, I’ve been doing my damnedest to flesh out the ideas that have been floating so carelessly through my subconscious.

Much to my dismay, ideas are few and far between.

Based on the rest of my life, I’d not have pegged myself as a Pantser. It seems I always need a Plan (though I’m not as desperate for one as some in my family). So I’ve been somewhat boggled to realize just how difficult I find it to brainstorm ideas without writing out scenes. It’s been a mental adjustment to stop considering myself a Plotter, but the evidence is overwhelming; I find it much harder to plan ahead than to see where the words lead me.

Given my experience with Novel #1, though, I can’t stomach the idea of another painful slog through ground-level revisions. I refuse to let the easy road now dictate my future path. So it’s time to brew some more coffee, put in my earplugs, and get on with it. I will conquer this plot yet.

Now What?

I’ve been quiet here lately. I’d like to say it’s because I’m so busy writing awesome things, but that would be a partial truth at best. That nasty little “Real Life” thing keeps getting in the way of my more esoteric pursuits, like updating this blog, so while I have been working on my novel, it’s more accurate to say I’ve been absent because real estate concerns have been eating my brain.

Enough  of that, though—I’ve reached a new, exciting, scary point in my process! All of my chapters have been revised and reviewed by my CPs, and revisions based on their feedback have been made. Now I’ve submitted the entire last chunk of the novel to them for review as a whole, and once they’ve had a chance to read and comment and I’ve made revisions based on that feedback, I’ll hand the entire manuscript back to them to read as a single unit. It’s a thrilling place to be, though still scary to think I may have missed something important along the way. The biggest change from my perspective, though, is that I don’t have anything else to work on in this story while I await comments. What do I do with myself now?

Every writer knows the obvious answer: go work on the next thing. I’m just not sure what my “next thing” is.

I could work on a new short story. I saw another writing contest/call for submissions recently that looked cool, but would require me to create an entirely new story. New stories are good—except that I kind of suck at devising storylines. I can find story seeds pretty easily, but I have difficulty molding them into feasible plots.

Which leads me to my other option: plotting out my next novel. This route feels more likely to bear fruit, yet is incredibly daunting. I’m still polishing my first novel; I know full well how important a logical, engaging plot is. I’ve also never been good at writing outlines; I tend to think of ideas for actual text and dive into writing before I have a road map. Obviously, there are pros and cons to that method, but given my experience this time through, I really want a clear sense of where I’m going before I set off on this journey.

So here I sit with my Save the Cat! beat sheet and my list of stages along the Hero’s Journey, trying desperately to solidify what plot points are already flitting about my head and bring others into being to create a cohesive whole. Given that brainstorming doesn’t lead to words on the page, the part of me that monitors whether or not I’m working has been jangling its alarms—a state of affairs not conducive to clear thought. It’s a struggle to recalibrate my Procrasto-Meter™ and get on with things.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer facing this challenge, but enticing one’s muses into action feels like a lonely road. I just need to buckle down and walk it. So wish me luck—I’ll need it.

A Reindeer for my Lawn

I’m getting down to the last couple of chapters here in Round Two of major revisions. All the plot wrinkles that I’ve ironed out through the rest of the manuscript have bunched up here at the end, and are proving more irksome than I’d naïvely anticipated. On the one hand, it’s frustrating to see how much I still need to do, but on the other, it’s actually encouraging to know I have learned enough since I first wrote this chapter to improve it so markedly.

The biggest stumbling block in the chapter to this point has been the spot where—I finally realized—I broke the pact with my reader and completely glossed over an important moment that should have contained serious plot and character development. One moment it’s all “what if we tried this?” and the next it’s “and now we’re at the denouement!” No sense of struggle, of the protagonist having to work for the end result—nothing.

Today I finally muscled past it. It’s not pretty, or smooth, but I’ve drafted a patch. Score one for me! I was all set to do another micro-draft dance when I read on to the next half-page.

~headdesk~

Another half a chapter lies ahead, and within those pages, another non-negligible obstacle awaits. Now one of my supporting characters (or maybe two or three) has to change his reaction to events in order to be consistent with changes earlier in the story. The entire shape of the resolution needs to be different, and I’m not entirely sure how to mold it. (For some inexplicable reason, I’m now put in mind of a mold for some sort of garden statuary—and my brain has chosen to insert the form of a reindeer. My denouement has become a lawn ornament…)

So I’ve got quite a bit more work to do on this chapter, and I have only the vaguest idea what the reindeer should look like. Guess I’ll start by shoving four plot-legs on it, and hope it comes out looking vaguely quadrupedal; I can save the antlers for a later version.

Time to roll up my sleeves—I need to start massaging that word clay!

Achievement Unlocked?

Beginning Writer Achievement Unlocked: first rejection letter!

I hadn’t really expected to reach this milestone so soon; in my head, I’d always assumed I wouldn’t be sending things out to get rejected until my novel manuscript was ready. A glorious fit of optimism overcame me, though, when Women Destroy Fantasy! was announced, and I set aside the novel long enough to write a short story I could submit. I was actually fairly pleased with the results, even after beating my head against the desk during the revision process.

In the end, about 4900 words stared at me and politely suggested I send them on to their intended destination. I fidgeted and fussed over the cover letter and finally gave in, sending my little darling off into the æther. I told myself it had a newt’s chance in a supernova of being accepted, and tried to maintain a healthy balance between cautious optimism and callous realism.

It still hurt when the rejection came.

I suppose now I can consider myself a bona fide writer; I’ve not only put words on paper (well… electrons), but I’ve sent them out to an actual publisher and had them summarily dismissed. It’s a rite of passage for every writer, right? I know there’s more to come, and I need to get used to it. It’ll only get worse before it gets better—and the only way for it to get better is to keep at it.

So now I have a short story that needs a home. I’ll need to collect a list of other possible venues for it, and start sending out more submissions. I’ve heard that the only reason anyone doesn’t get published is that they give up. Maybe this story will never see the light of day, but it will serve a purpose nonetheless. I’ve got to build up the emotional calluses necessary to keep putting my work out there time and again, right?

Well, the first abrasions against my tender psyche have initiated the process. Only about a million more to go.

Needz Moar Cowbell

Having finished my short story as much as possible before getting feedback, I’ve moved back to the revisions on the last couple of chapters of the novel. On the up side, I can tell I’ve grown as a writer since I first wrote these chapters. On the down side… Damn.

Because of the revisions to earlier sections of the plot, by the time I got back to the ending, several things obviously had to be adjusted. The chapter I finished reworking yesterday had to be ripped apart, and stitched back together Frankenstein-style. Certain chunks remained, though often in quite different sequence from before, and many others had to be added in from whole cloth.

That proved a grueling exercise, though I got something mostly useable by the end. Once I moved onto today’s chapter (Ch X), though, it was a different story.

Ch X is, by and large, still viable as written in terms of plot. However, there’s little or no tension in the text. As I read through it to re-familiarize myself with it and determine what needs revision, I realized the climax—the bit that the entire rest of the book leads to—had been utterly glossed over in a couple of sentences. There’s no sense of effort, of the protagonist’s struggle to accomplish this huge deed. Just “Voop! There ya go!” and it’s all over but the exposition.

Obviously, that needs to change. Who wants to read “voop!” at the end of all that other stuff? There needs to be a payoff for whatever emotional investment the reader has made. I count myself lucky that I figured that out before handing it off to my CPs; as I said above, it’s proof of my growth.

So, note to self: needz moar cowbell. Get on that.