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Balancing Pantsing and Plotting: Part 2

If you missed part 1, find it here.

As I mentioned in the last post, finding a balance between pantsing and plotting was elusive and frustrating. So, I decided to take off my pants.

Taking Off My Pants

Well, not exactly, but I did read Libbie Hawker’s ebook, Take Off Your Pants!: Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing.

Faster? Yes, please. All of my outlining was starting to feel like a way avoid actually writing. However, I didn’t want to just pants the book thing again and end up where I’d started. I also knew that the first draft of Flight of the Ceo San, which I’d written with a bare-bones structure, was in way better shape than that of Strange Bedfellows.

Take Off Your Pants, a short 108 pages, turned out to be just what I needed. Hawker’s three-legged story structure and five-element story core made sense to me, but more than that, after she explains her theory, she shows step by step how she used her formula to outline her own novel. Her explanation of pacing helped to explain the structure of a scene to me in a way that clicked and that turns out to naturally fit with other Goal/Conflict/Disaster structures that I’ve read about.

Her elements, in the form of thwarts and displaying flaws, made sense for me in a way that plot points and pinch points don’t, even though they could be defined as the same thing. Pinch points can be easy to spot once their written, but telling myself to write a pinch point, a scene in which “everything changes for the character,” just seemed vague. “Show your character’s flaw in action,” as paraphrased from Take Off Your Pants—THAT I can do.

I outlined the Strange Bedfellows rewrite as I read Hawker’s book and finished over the course of two or three one-and-a-half-hour writing sessions. My outline was short, only 807 words.

Coming Together

Things really began to come together after that. Using my shiny new outline, I moved on to writing scenes on index cards, a la Rachael Stephen, complete with the Conflict/Motive/Effect plus Setting on each one. All the while, the information I had learned from my character interviews was swimming around in my head, making them tangible entities. So, after spending most of January and more than half of February on this whole process, I was ready to write again. It was a glorious feeling.

My paranormal romance is now a solid urban fantasy with lots of series potential that it didn’t have before. It has a new name: Blood Mastery. The characters are still there, but it is a completely different novel. The second protagonist has taken a backseat to the first and has changed so much that I renamed her. The story went from third person point of view to first person.

Lessons Learned

What I learned is that for me, less is more. I do need to at least dig deeply into my main characters to give them their own unique voices, but I get impatient with too much outlining, and when I get impatient, I start to lose my motivation for writing—not good.

So for me, outlining is good as long as there is not too much of it. My new method makes sense for me personally, and I’ll likely continue to use it in the future. The Hero’s Journey structure was extremely helpful, but not every novel I write will be a hero’s journey.

With my scene cards, I have a brief road map to get me started writing every day. I have pacing and Motive/Conflict/Effect to consider after I write each scene to make sure that I have hit all of the relevant points. No more staring at the screen, going What was I thinking there? Now, what am I supposed to write?

Will it pay off? I will know for sure only when this draft is finished and I send it to some readers, but I have a good feeling.

Lessons for You

What I’m not saying is that you should forget all of the other advice and run out and buy Take Off Your Pants. You can if you want to, but what I’m really saying is do your research. Put in the time learning, but when something clearly isn’t working for you and starts to feel like nothing but a grind, try something else.

balancing pantsing and plotting
Balancing Pantsing and Plotting © 2017 Janell E. Robisch

Like any experience, you can learn what works for you only if you go through the process and try new things. Like that little slider on an old-fashioned standing scale, slide back and forth between pantsing and plotting until you reach your own personal balance. Just as your weight changes, that balance may change from book to book and along your writing journey. Wherever you end up, you will take bits from each path that you have explored and mix them with your own authorly instincts to create a unique voice and a unique method, forging a new path that is just different enough to be yours alone.

Explore, learn, do well, and keep writing.

Are you a plotter or a pantser? What tricks have you used to find your balance?

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Balancing Pantsing and Plotting: Part 1

Pantsing and Plotting: A Never-Ending Debate

Pantsing (also known as discovery writing): Flying by the seat of your pants while writing, letting the stories and the characters come to you as you go.

Plotting (also known as outlining): Planning the details of your book—the plot, the structure, the characters, the settings, the theme, everything—before you write.

Pantser or plotter? Which one are you? There always seems to be a battle over which is best. However, rarely are writers completely at one end of the spectrum because that’s what this whole thing is: a spectrum. Plotters often find some bit of instantaneous creativity creeping in and messing up their well-laid plans. Discovery writers often get stuck and need to take some time out to figure out (i.e., plot) where the story is going.

This post is about my journey with pantsing and plotting and how I have found a tentative balance between the two.

pantsing and plotting, lost, stuck, writing, writerMy Story: Pants First, Plot Later

When I really got serious about my fiction writing, I was terrified. I had spent many years writing nonfiction and editing other people’s writing. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten it into my had that I couldn’t finish a novel. I had started so many times over the years with a brilliant idea, only to get stuck at 500 words or 5000 words, sometimes even 10,000. The problem was, I’d always reach a point where I came up blank. I didn’t know where my story was headed or I’d get overwhelmed because I couldn’t figure out the perfect plotline. It was usually the former. In other words, I was a total pantser, and when it came time to plot, I’d freeze.

A friend helped me realize that I could write the worst thing ever, and it wouldn’t matter. I am an editor by trade. I can fix almost anything. What I can’t do, as they say, is fix a blank page. Another friend helped me realize that fear was holding me back, keeping me from coming up with those stellar endings. Funny how that revelation lifted the very fear that was stopping me.

I decided then that I would finish my novel, Strange Bedfellows, no matter how bad it was. With my new friends from the Twitter monthly writing challenge to keep me accountable, I started writing at least 500 words a day. At first, I would skip days when things were too crazy. But before long, I was writing every single day.

By the the time three months has passed, I had finished the first draft of Strange Bedfellows, a lesbian paranormal romance. It was a fantastic day!

What Next?

Of course, I really wanted to jump right into editing, but I knew better. Author blindness is nothing to trifle with. I needed time away from my manuscript, and it was October 31. Everyone on social media was posting about National Novel Writing Month, which starts every November 1. Honestly, I had always thought NaNoWriMo was crazy. Fifty thousand words in one month? That was 1667 words a day! But when I looked at my writing log from the month before, there were plenty of days when I had capped a thousand words. Maybe I could do it, but I had only the barest idea for a story, the vision of one character in my mind. I didn’t even know if it was epic fantasy or urban fantasy, and I had one day to begin writing.

The Beginning of My Plotting Journey—Well, Sort Of

By that time, I had learned more and more about writing structure, among other things. Self-education is important in my line of work, especially since I work for indie authors in an industry that is constantly changing. I knew enough about the whole pantsing and plotting debate that I knew I wanted to try more plotting.

However, I didn’t have time to outline an entire book, but I decided to take a structure that already had the major plot points mapped out for me: the Hero’s Journey. I printed out a road map to that famous story structure and made each plot point (ordinary world, call to adventure, refusal of the call, etc.) a scene in my new novel’s Scrivener file. It was the barest of structures, yes, but it got me through NaNoWriMo. Every once in a while, I’d stop and write notes for a few days ahead using The Hero’s Journey. It worked! I won NaNoWriMo, reaching 52,359 words by November 30! With a little bit more plotting, in December, I finished the first draft of Flight of the Ceo San, a heroic fantasy, which was closer to 80,000 words.

So with mostly pantsing and some plotting, I had finished two first drafts.

I Really Need to Plot More

When it came time to revise that original first draft, I was tentative. By then, I’d had an alpha reader tell me that it had no plot and that he didn’t care for the characters. While I was trying to take the feedback with a grain of salt, I knew my story had problems. I couldn’t ever quite get a handle on my main character’s motivation. I had just kept pushing her forward in the story because I just needed to finish it.

To be honest, I never even started to edit it. Instead, with the characters in my head, I decided to go full-on plotter for the revision.

Plotting Is Hard

Over the course of six weeks or so, this is what happened. At first, I filled half of a Moleskine notebook with the answers to the character interviews in K. M. Weiland’s Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life. I ran out of steam after finishing my two protagonists but still managed to fill another ten pages or so with my antagonist and a side character.

Then, it was time to figure out motive, conflict, and effect. Here, I turned to Rachael Stephen’s How to Build a Novel. I also used K. M. Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel, and a favorite of mine, The Fantasy Fiction Formula by Deborah Chester. I wrote down lots of ideas but couldn’t get to the point where I could map out scenes containing the magic Goal/Conflict/Disaster (Motive/Conflict/Effect) trifecta. Sequels, I could handle, but scenes? My brain felt like a pile of mush. I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of the story. It changed from one day to the next. It seemed like maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a plotter after all.

Part of my problem was that I wasn’t able to kill my darlings—those scenes and ideas that weren’t fitting but that I couldn’t let go of—yet.

I got so desperate that I considered taking off my pants.

Continued in Part 2.


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Book Review: Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland

Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success
K. M. Weiland
PenForASword Publishing, 2011
187 pages. Available in paperback, Kindle, and Audible formats.
Category: Nonfiction, Writing Reference

Over the last year or so, K. M. Weiland has become one of my favorite resources for writing advice and information, and it all started when I read her book, Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success.

When I decided to purchase this book, which promises that “the outline is one of the most powerful weapons in a writer’s arsenal,” I was trying to rejuvenate a story that I had started to write years ago. I thought that an outline would get me on track, like a carrot on a stick. If I had an outline, I would always know where to go next.

The problem was that the only thing that I knew about outlining was the old “I, II, II, A, B, C, i, ii, iii” method that I had learned in high school over two decades ago. I hadn’t found it useful then, and I still don’t. An Amazon search and hundreds of ratings with an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars convinced me to give this book a try.

Weiland’s goals in this book are stated clearly on the cover. Among other things, the book is designed to “help you choose the right type of outline for you,” “aid you in discovering your characters,” and “instruct you in how to use your outline.” Weiland promises to help authors prevent dead-end ideas and provide foreshadowing while dispelling common, crippling misconceptions of the outline in terms of fiction writing.

She delivers on her promises by attacking those misconceptions first thing, covering why outlines don’t require formal formatting (that old I, II, III) and how they can actually expand instead of limit your creativity. She goes on to provide the many benefits of outlining versus my old standby, “pantsing” (in writer speak, flying by the seat of your pants or winging it).

That is all well and good, but I wanted proof, and Weiland delivered. I could tell by Chapter Three that I was going to like this book. After covering the types of outlining and the possible tools that one can use for outlining (from a pen and a spiral notebook to yWriter software), Weiland offers step-by-step, practical tools for creating an outline that works. Some of her steps include:

1. Craft your premise (”But, Ma, what’s a premise?!” Don’t worry, she covers that, too.).
2. Use general sketches to summarize your scenes and explore motive, conflict, and theme.
3. …

While I won’t list everything in the table of contents here, you get my drift. Weiland introduces a concept, defines it, and then gives examples of how to apply it. Surprisingly, she shows the reader not only how to outline the plot and scene structure but also how to use the outline to manage backstory, develop characters with depth, and use the setting to bring “to life not just the scenery but also the characters themselves”—all in a manageable format and a length of only 187 pages.

As a bonus, between the chapters, Weiland includes interviews with different authors with descriptions of their own outlining processes, the benefits and pitfalls of outlining, the times when pantsing might be the best way to go after all, and the biggest contributing factors to successful outlining. The benefit of these sections is to show us as readers—and writers— how many different ways outlining can be used and how various authors have twisted the process to their own ends in so many flexible ways.

If you are anything like me, when you are finished reading this book, you will find a place for it close to your writing station with your other treasured reference tomes, subscribe to Weiland’s blog and maybe even her YouTube channel, and refer to this book over and over again as you develop your own stories.

Please note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I receive a small percentage of sales through these links but at no extra cost to you. My editing, design and consulting services are paid for by clients, but affiliate links help me to provide free blog content, videos, and writing and self-publishing resources for all of my readers.

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REVIEW: Scrivener Writing Software (Updated Nov. 2017)

In the last couple of months, Scrivener writing software has become an essential tool for me both for writing and business tasks. Literature and Latte, the makers of Scrivener, describe the software as “a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents.” I have found it to be very helpful so far.

Some Reasons that I Love Scrivener

  1. It has the most awesome free trial period ever. Scrivener’s 30-day trial period is unique in that the program code only counts a day used when you actually open the software. I knew within a few days of use that I wanted to buy the program. However, because I didn’t open it every day, it was probably two months before I actually bought it. I couldn’t resist taking advantage of this weekend’s Black Friday sale (if you read this right away, you might still have time to catch it!)
  2. I can store all of my writing “stuff” in one place for each project. For my novel, this includes my outline, the actual manuscript, character sheets, photos of my characters (pulled from lookalikes on the Internet), setting sheets (again, including pictures), and other research, whether in the form of notes or full pages from the Web.
  3. It has various ways to organize and look at your project. You can write in full screen. You can write in split screen so that you can look at your notes or character sheets on one side while you type a chapter on the other. Use the cork board view to see summaries of various scenes and even move chapters or scenes around right from this view. You can look at your whole manuscript at once or look at just one scene at a time.

    scrivener review, scrivener
    Scrivener’s Split View
  4. It is set up to help you self-publish. I haven’t decided yet whether I am going to self-publish my novel or go the traditional route, but the tools are here. Scrivener can automatically compile your book into ePub format (and other formats). I already have plans to help clients by using Scrivener to format their books for electronic publication.
  5. I can set targets for my writing. If I want to write a thousand words a day or if I want my novel to be 100,000 words long, I can set project and session targets, and Scrivener will let me know when I have reached my goals.


It is a surprise that although I have used it for my novel and my blog (yes, I am writing in it right now) for a couple of months, I have only scratched the surface of what Scrivener can do. My only real complaint is that sometimes it is a little difficult to find out how to do something without searching the help file or the Web. So, while the interface could be more user-friendly, there is a lot packed into this little program.

I’m sure I will be discovering more about it as I go. If you decide to try Scrivener, you can go on Literature and Latte’s website or YouTube and find lots of free tutorial videos to get you started. I hope that you like it as much as I do!

Update: November 2017

I’m still using Scrivener two years later and still love it. It even sometimes helps me organize developmental edits as well as my own drafts.

I still adore it for drafting and organizing my thoughts and chapters, but if you want to do any revision, especially with track changes (such as while working with your editor), it becomes more difficult. So, I tend to use it in combination with Word and not exclusively.

I also prefer Word hands down for ebook and print formatting, but I haven’t taken a great deal of time to learn how to best do it in Scrivener.

Dictation also works in the program with Dragon NaturallySpeaking, and that helps, although dictation is still smoother in Word. As a caveat, like many things, this may still work better in Scrivener for Mac.

And we’re still waiting for Scrivener for Android, although Mattias Alvin at Tall Tech Tales did write a tutorial on ways to work around that and using Scrivener on the go.

So, overall, I still recommend it highly, but with some caveats.

Do you use Scrivener? What things do you love? What things do you hate?

Please note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I receive a small percentage of sales through these links but at no extra cost to you. My editing, design and consulting services are paid for by clients, but affiliate links help me to provide free blog content, videos, and writing and self-publishing resources for all of my readers.



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“Awesome! This is a great course. Beautifully made and super-clear. If you want to write better and get organized in the process, Scrivener is brilliant. This course is too!”—Will Roffé, Learn Scrivener Fast Student

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