Creating: Finding What Works

My name is Carol, and I'm a pantzer.

Not. Any. More.

During the chaos that was my most recent manuscript, I vowed to never work that way again unless I had no choice. Life ran amok for a couple of years beginning right about the time I started on the manuscript. It was drafted in fits and starts, sometimes weeks or months in between short writing sessions.

The finished first draft bore no resemblance to what I'd envisioned originally. Characters had no pizzazz; story had no pop; the plot waved a white flag.

After much work, comments from my awesome critique partners, and returning to the drawing board about a million times, the story finally came together.

During the last six months of solid work, Shiny New Idea spoke up. I made notes. And notes. And more notes.

Off and on, while I was finishing revisions to my WIP, I tried out a few writing programs. I didn't find any I liked. So I made some Excel spreadsheets to hold all my SNI notes. So far Excel is working very well for me. I still have a lot of blanks and some unanswered questions, but I'm an organic writer - one thing grows out of another. One idea may fill in several blanks.

A couple weeks ago, I started working on a plot. OMG! This is the first time I've ever plotted anything before writing it. Before now, I've come up with a plot as I'm writing that usually needs revising, beefing up, and backtracking. This time I'm doing - or trying to do - all that first draft thinking before I write. My goal is to save myself a lot of time, confusion, and heartache. And to have a guideline to return to if life goes haywire again.

I had pages of circled words. Lines from one word to one or more other words. Crossed out words. Lists of words. Phrases. All in pencil.

How in the world was I going to keep track of everything? The main plot, subplots, clues. I don't like clutter. I like everything where I can see it. These two statements are not contradictory. I wanted a neat, tidy way to keep track of my plot and characters and story.

Remember this keeping track problem. I'll get right back to it.

Another thing I always have trouble with is getting a handle on the protagonist's voice. I'd decided early on to have her blog in first person - to a Word file - so I could hear her and start with the real her in Ch. 1 and not have to rewrite many times to finally find what she wanted to hide. I'd find that out as she blogged.

Last week both of these things came together.

I set up a Word document with a book fold - I see pages 1 and 2 at the same time, landscape across the screen. On my left is a bare bones outline for Ch.1. On my right is my protagonist's journal - maybe a blog later if I feel I still don't have a full enough grasp - for what is in Ch.1. So far her words are briefer than the outline. I like this because since I'm working with half a sheet for each I'm forced not to get too detailed. And I can hear/see the protagonist's voice reacting to what's happening with her in that chapter. It's a beginning.

I also made a little square and filled it with a different color for the main mystery plot, each subplot, and for clues - all clues, real, misleading or otherwise. I'm going to paste one or more of these at the beginning of each chapter outline so I know what's in the chapter. I'm planning for this manuscript to be told only from the protagonist's viewpoint, so I don't need to track who's POV I'm in. I'm also going to graph it out on Excel so I have an instant visual as I go along so I can see if someone or something is getting too much or not enough face time.

I'm a few chapters in. Will I continue with all of this throughout the planning process? I have no idea. If it continues to work as well as it has so far, I'm sure I will. If not, I'll tweak or experiment with a new method. The best thing I like about this is I can see everything for that chapter on one screen.

I hope I've explained this well enough you can understand what I'm doing. The idea isn't to get you leave your free-wheeling pantzer self behind or to suggest you give up your favorite writing software.

The take-away idea is to keep at a problem until you find what works for you. Keep at those revisions until your story is the best you can make it. And keep moving forward.

Never give up.


Joanne said…
I write out plot notes ahead of time too, though not as detailed as yours. But, yours looks very appealing because there's nothing like sitting down to actually write and not have to think where the story should go. This way, with the advanced details set, we get to just be creative with the actual craft.
Jan Morrison said…
Carol, tempting. I don't know what I am anymore. I'm not in anything to new so can't tell. I did make a mess of my one shot at nanowrimoing when I got my fifty thousand all right but I've been struggling with it for a year and a half! The book I'm working on now was totally pantsed. My first mystery was so totally pantsed I didn't even know originally that it was a mystery. I usually go at the first draft like you're doing - which means I write the dog's dinner and then I use things like beat sheets (like your coloured visuals) to see what is happening and what is left out. I like this and if you could see your way clear to taking a photo of one page of it so I could really grok it - that would be so appreciated.
Glad you came up with a system that seems to be working for you! I can't imagine writing without at least an outline. I couldn't start writing if I didn't know where I was going.
Julie said…
I really enjoyed reading about your process, and especially like the idea of blogging/journaling as your character to get to know her. I'm totally unorganized and a pantzer but this post gave me some great food for thought. Glad you have found a system that is working so well for you!
Hart Johnson said…
This sounds like a great plan. You are so right that we each need to figure out what works for us. I always intend to keep track in that orderly a way (though so far as plotting ahead, will stick to just the timeline), but I seem bad at the documenting as I go.

I LOVE your main character blogging for you to get to know her.
Carol Kilgore said…
Joanne - That's exactly what I'm hoping for. In real life I do much better with a list or a schedule - some type of structure - so I don't have to think about what to do next.

Jan - I'll find your email and send you stuff :)

Alex - It's like walking into a fun house with a maze and crazy mirrors.

Julie - I hope it keeps working!

Hart - My brief outline is more a timeline on steroids.
Carol Kilgore said…
Jan - I looked for your email on your profile and didn't see it. Email me at tikihuttimeATgmailDOTcom and I'll send you stuff.
VR Barkowski said…
What great insights into your process! I, too, love the idea of blogging as my protag and wished I'd thought to do that with my first book. In my current WIP, neither of my protags are blogging types. While I've tried to keep track while writing, it's hopeless. Fortunately, Scrivener allows me to pants along while it creates an outline, cork board, research files etc. after the fact. Better that than nothing.
Never give up! Great motto. I needed to hear that today. I don't like clutter either. Sounds as though your setup is a good way to eliminate.
I *have* to have a plan- if I just try to wing it all that happens is I write in circles. I'm glad you've found something that works for you. Keep going!
Janet, said…
Sounds like you have really gotten organized. I don't think I could do that. I write shorter manuscripts, the longest one around 27,000 words and lots of picture books. So I just kinda sit down and write and when ideas come to me to add to the manuscript I jot them down so I don't forget. But, no matter what you do you need to keep moving forward!
Laura Eno said…
So organized! It sounds great, especially the character blogging. Who knows what nuggets she might let slip?
Talli Roland said…
I find different things work for different novels. Some come together easily and others need a lot more work. Sounds like you've got this one under control!
Clarissa Draper said…
I use a program called Scrivener and right now it's in beta and that means it's free. (When the program comes out it will be about $40.00) I love it. It keeps me so organized. You can always try it and if you don't like it, drop it. Here the link:
Carol Kilgore said…
VR - I tried the beta Scrivener for PC and was disappointed. Tried some other software 'trial offers', too. My first surprise is that my character has a much harder than I thought. I'm hoping it's just hiding the real her or I'll need to change more than I want.

Emily - All I can do is hope it works.

Elspeth - Yes, ma'am :)

Janet - It feels good to be organized.

Laura - I can't wait to find out!

Talli - I hope so.
Carol Kilgore said…
Clarissa - I did try the beta version of Scrivener back in the spring. It wasn't my cup of tea. Too many screens, too many choices. I might go back to it at some point, but not yet. I really wanted to love it, so I'm happy it works for you.
Lydia K said…
Plotters unite! I've always been a plotter. I just need to know what's going to happen before I write it!
This is way more organization than I currently have. Good for you! I might have to try this (or my own version of it, at least). I do write a lot of notes, but I find that if I stick too much to my notes, I get stuck in a different way.

I'm glad to hear you found this strategy that works for you. =)

-Miss GOP
Rula Sinara said…
It's always interesting to hear about other writer's methods. How you approach your writing is indeed an individual thing...what works for one may not work for another...but hearing about different ideas and methods can help a writer piece together what'll work for them.

I started as a pantser, and although I'm not a hard core plotter, I do try to work out my core plot and conflict ahead of time because they're so critical to the story. Like you said, it saves a lot of agony in the end!
Maryann Miller said…
Thanks for the explanation of what is working for you. I am somewhere between a panster and a plotter, leaning more toward the former, and got in trouble with my last book. It took much longer to complete than it should have, but it was the first one to give me that kind of trouble. So I am not sure if I need to change much about how I approach each story, but you gave me some good ideas if I decide to try.
I'm so happy you found a better method that works for you. A reformed panster!

I used to be pure panster. But my last manuscript I thought about most scenes and where it was going before I sat to write. And I stopped and edited 3 chapters before continuing each time. Does that make me a quasi-panster? A deliberating panster? Pansterish?

Good luck!
Carol Kilgore said…
Lydia - I'm hoping the switch is relatively painless for me.

Miss GOP - We'll see. I'm so hopeful, but I'm a long way from writing yet. I'm hoping for a strong, flexible skeleton to hang the story on.

Rula - I'm all for saving the agony.

Maryann - Good! That was my goal.

Theresa - I'm laughing because I've already gone back and changed some things in the outline for Ch.1.
Anonymous said…
I never used book fold or color coordination, but they sound like great ideas. All writers will find a system that works for them. :)
LR said…
Hey Carol. I don't outline but I've always separated my novels into three files beginning-middle-end. Then I go back and forth between them. Write a beginning scene. Write an end scene. Fill in a space with a scene.

It's chaotic but it works for me. :)The advantage is that I'm always intimately connected with all parts of the book - rather than a linear approach where I've forgotten the beginning by the time I'm working on the end.
Manzanita said…
I think you nailed this and your work is well worth it. I've read your stories and I know.
Carol Kilgore said…
Medeia - I agree. We have to. And since we all write differently, it's for sure no one system will work for all.

LR - Before now, I never could have written that way because although I had a general idea of the ending, I had no idea what would come in the next chapter, much less the middle. With a plot, I can move ahead if I become stuck at some point.

Manzanita - Aww, thank you. You made my day!
Glynis Jolly said…
Wow! You may have developed a system that newbies would like to have. I can't visualize all of it but it does make sense. You should be able to pick where you leave off easier. Keep us posted on how this way of writing is working for you.
Ciara said…
I am a plotter. Well, I am after I had to rewrite an entire book. :) I'm a new follower.
Carol Kilgore said…
Glynis - I'll keep you posted!

Ciara - Welcome to the Tiki Hut! And thanks for the Follow. I so know that rewrite-the-book feeling. We should join Previous Pantsers Anonymous :)
Michelle Fayard said…
I’m always curious to learn the behind-the-scenes details of how someone’s stories come to life. Thank you very much, Carol, for sharing these excellent ideas and for reminding us of the importance of having a battle plan for our books so that we can make them better the first time.

Carol Kilgore said…
Exactly. A better, higher quality first draft is my goal.