What worked for me and what didn't.
Plotters or Planners are writers who thoroughly plan their novels.
Pantsers write by the seat of their pants.
Plotters work out the essentials before typing or writing the first word. They pick a genre, map the plot, develop character profiles, and establish a strong voice. Then, they fill the gaps by working through the sub-plot, world-building, and setting. In the end, most Plotters have well-organized scenes, timelines, and character biographies.
On the flip side, Pantsers go with the flow when crafting a story. They want the characters to lead the readers through the plot as it naturally unfolds. There's something magical about allowing characters to guide the story, weave the readers through the ups-and-downs until they reach their happy ending. Doesn't it?
Let's be honest; there are pros and cons to both techniques or styles. Plotters write faster and more efficiently. While Pantsers jump right in, bypassing weeks or months of planning and plotting.
Before I began writing my first book, I had the story brewing in my mind for a while, and I did little to prep before I started. I knew how I wanted my story to begin and how I wanted it to end, so I dove right in. With time, the plot formed, and the characters grew. So, did that mean this style worked for me? No, and here's why.
When I finished my book and started editing, I noticed several gaps, parts that didn't connect, and sudden shifts in character personalities that ran flat. I figured I'd go back and fix the changes, but without a plan- a reliable foundation- I found that the issues were not easy to improve. So, what did I do? Prepare yourself for the horrible truth.
I had to rewrite and rewrite some more, many sections, both small and large, multiple times. One part didn't connect with the next. Characters acted in ways that didn't feel authentic. My voice shifted from unique to contrived, and the theme wasn't well established. Meaning, I didn't have a strong enough foundation (a.k.a plan) to begin my story. At least, not for me- a newbie author on the rise. In the end, I was stuck with a 80,000 word puzzle that needed not only to come together and make sense to the readers but also to connect and unfold naturally.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying Pantsers are lacking. I'm speaking from personal experience. I finished my first draft within a year, but because I lacked a solid, organized plan, the editing took twice as long and made the process twice as complicated—a total headache.
Being a Pantser didn't work- not for me. And, even after multiple rewrites, the story still didn't come together. I had holes in my timeline, curveballs in my plot that were never answered, and my characters got even flatter. By this time, I was raking my fingers through my hair, going bald in the process. I had to take a huge step back, almost to the very beginning.
My plan formed.
I started with the essentials.
To keep my voice consistent and unique, I did several techniques, some original, some borrowed, but all worked for me.
I picked a theme and stuck with it. This helped keep my voice consistent and unique to the genre.
I used Pinterest. I gathered pictures and made storyboards. Visit my Pinterest account.
I read books from multiple authors with a similar voice. Doing this gave me the confidence to find my own voice, something unique to me and my chosen genre.
To know my characters and to know them well. I did a couple of fun things.
I used Pinterest. I gathered pictures that made my characters feel real; things unique to each one: photos of the car they drove, the food they ate, the city they lived in. You get the idea.
I interviewed every main character. I'll be honest; I didn't look forward to this part of the plotting/planning journey. I thought it would be boring and a waste of time. I was wrong. When I started, my mind went with the flow, and before I knew it, I had six pages of questions and detailed answers. I became the characters, and I answered each question unique to each one's personality.
I wrote backstories. This was my least favorite, but necessary. A character's past dictates who they are and how they act in the present, and believe it or not, their past guides the plot. For the plot to move forward, characters need to make decisions, and their decisions are dictated by events that had happened to them in their pasts.
After better understanding my characters, I went in and filled the plot holes. I could dedicate an entire blog to this section, and maybe I will. Though, for now I'll highlight the helpful tips and tricks.
To begin, I wrote summaries for each section (beginning, middle, & end). Then, I took a step back and asked myself a few important questions:
What is the character's motivation? What was my character's goal, and did that goal relate to the plot? Was that goal going to move the story forward?
What was the reason for this section? Was it to show backstory? Was it to introduce a new character?
What was the catalyst? What caused the event in this section to happen?
I had to ensure my characters had plausible reasons/actions/ behaviors that connected to their goal/motivation(s) and to the larger plot. As well, maintain character authenticity- sticking to their personality that was relevant to their backstory.
Add backstory. In my book, Perfect Freedom, Maeve, the main protagonist, had suffered a traumatic event, leaving her with PTSD. If I hadn't explained to my readers her backstory right off the get, the readers would have scratched their heads, wondering why the flashbacks.
Add world-building. Some plot holes are a simple fix. For example, you're writing a scene, and in that scene, your character's cleaning house at some underground gambling joint. Again, your readers are scratching their heads, unconvinced by the character's sudden cardsharp abilities. Unless it's vital to the plot, I wouldn't add a lengthy overview dedicated to your character's love for poker. That might bog down your story and slow the plot. It's an easy fix. I would add a pack of cards in the background of their apartment or write in a scene where the character is shuffling a deck. Most of the time, giving subtle hints is all that's needed to make the scene feel credible.
Last but not least, I had to set a relevant setting. To do so, I asked myself:
Does my setting fit my story's time period?
Does the setting reflect the genre well?
Does my setting reflect my tone?
Those are important questions to consider when planning a novel. It's vital to establish a distinct setting that represents you and your story. The setting helps give life to the story, give the story a certain feel. Without a setting, there's no tone. Without a setting, There's no foundation.
In the end, most Plotters have well-organized scenes, timelines, and character biographies. Now, I'll be honest. When I started my newest novel, I did a little bit of both styles. I did plan, plot, and create character bios, but I didn't spend weeks or even days obsessing over the details. Why? Like I mentioned earlier, there's something magical about allowing characters to guide the story, weave the readers through the ups-and-downs as they adventure through the plot, finding their happy endings on their own.
Tools to help you plan your novel:
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