When it comes to writing a novel, there are two schools of thought: you can plot it out first with an outline, or you can just wing it, writing by the seat of your pants. I’ve always been a pantser.
But after years of endless revisions to a novel I started in 2003, I decided to give outlining a try. And I’ll never pants a novel again.
I used to pants everything
Some background: I’ve been writing short stories since I learned how to write, and seriously writing with an eye to publication since high school. I took part in the 3-Day Novel-Writing Contest in 1999, and that broke a huge psychological barrier for me: I could write a novel-length story in a long weekend.
I took the same approach — just sit down and write — to revising that novel for three years, only to conclude that it was no longer a story I wanted to tell.
So when it came time to start Bark At the Moon in 2003, I did the same thing. I just sat down and wrote it. The entire saga of this is recounted in another blog post, and there’s a good reason I started calling the feeling of successive drafts “rewriting-revising-it’s-all-going-to-be-crap.”
By the end of each draft, I’d have found tons of great new material that was fresh and exciting and deepened the story — and didn’t fit with anything else in the manuscript. (By the way, the opening chapter for each draft was usually revised from scratch several times on its own, which should come as no surprise to other writers.)
Keen eyes will have already detected I’m talking all about process, and not about the actual story structure. For a long time I confused the two. That is, since it became clear I was getting better material after revising, all I had to do was keep revising and it would be perfect, no?
You can write some things on instinct (if you’re Stephen King or Roger Zelazny, that includes basic plotting, characterization and/or world building), but for me, writing a novel is not one of them. Short fiction, sure — I had internalized enough about it to write publishable stories I liked.
But I was drowning in my novels (I wrote at least one other since 2003 that remains I first draft). By the time I got to the end of draft seven of Bark At the Moon, it had ballooned to 135,000 words. (For those keeping score, the typical word count for a debut novel in my genre is 70,000 – 80,000 words; 100,000 tends to be the maximum.) That draft took me a year to write.
And when I looked at it, proud of how some things were working, confused why most of it was not, I started looking for another solution. I couldn’t face another year of pantsing it and hoping for the best. I needed to know why it wasn’t working, or there would be no point revising yet again.
And yes, I have had some great help in this – beta readers who read entire drafts; an editor who has seen different versions of the whole thing and still offered hours of tireless feedback.
But I needed to figure out how to do the heavy lifting myself.
Getting help with plotting
One of my favourite phrases is “macro before micro” – you have to work on the big things first. Sadly, I was getting bogged down in scenes and dialogue and tweaking things when the whole thing needed an overhaul. I should have taken my own advice sooner.
Fortunately, there was social media to help.
Thanks to other writers and editors I follow on Twitter, I became aware of several great books on structure and how to plot your novel. I’d read previous books on structure that I’d enjoyed, but none had broken it down like these.
When I decided to give my novel a total overhaul, I started with The Art and Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual by Victoria Mixon, and Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.
Both their approaches use a variation on three-act structure (Brooks calls it four-act structure; but Mixon’s handling of the second of three acts, with a story fulcrum at the mid-point, amounts to the same thing, structurally). Brooks stresses nailing your novel’s concept at the outset, which is invaluable advice. Mixon’s explanation of dramatic structure lets you chart out the big movements in your plot as well as where and when they must occur, such that with her approach you can sketch out your novel at a scene level.
I’d also strongly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! – it’s meant for screenwriters, but it’s a short, snappy breakdown of three-act structure. Again, a hugely helpful resource for determining what scenes your story needs and which it doesn’t.
Frankly, my friends on Facebook have put up with plenty of meaningless status updates from me about “my book” – which keeps getting written but never finished. Aside from their patient support, I should also thank them for the occasional kick in the pants. Thanks to my friend Blaine’s threat to repost one of my status updates (I said I was close to finishing the novel – yet again) in a year, I decided to get the next draft done before the spring equinox this year.
What three-act structure did for me
I decided that to shoot for a novel of 70,000 words and complete it by March 21, if I started on January 15 I would need to write 1,500 words a day. For me, that’s roughly an hour and a half per day. (I allowed myself to copy chunks from the previous draft if they still fit with the new outline. About 95% of the previous draft, as it was written, did not.)
I outlined my novel from memory, carefully using Victoria Mixon’s basic plot structure, and was surprised at how short it was looking. Where were all my extra characters? All those tangents and meandering subplots? Gone.
And looking at the story in outline form, it was obvious how much better it was. It worked in macro. So I set out to write the draft.
To make a long story short, it was a breeze.
Some may argue it was easier this time because I’d written so many drafts already. That’s only partly true. (Writing six drafts did not make draft seven easier at all.) My story had already had plenty of narrative meat: plot developments, characters with backstories, a fleshed-out world, and an era I spent years researching. But until I got a handle on the story structure, it had no bones. Or maybe its bones were arranged in a jumble that wouldn’t let it move gracefully, if at all.
Outlining it according to three-act structure showed me where to put which of my ideas for the story, made plot holes obvious so I could fix them before writing the draft, and amped up the inner and outer conflict.
It didn’t mean I didn’t think of new things along the way. If I could make the conflict more intense, or the antagonist more clever and driven, or the protagonist more flawed and heroic, I did. Sometimes I had to look at the outline and tweak things.
So what should have been a painful seat-of-my-pants draft of 130,000 to 140,000 words, which would then need to be cut nearly in half to reach my target word count, what I got was a tight, turbocharged draft of 69,200 words, which I finished ahead of schedule on March 4. Outlining let me hit my word count to within 800 words. That’s a margin of error of less than 2 per cent, for all the math nerds out there.
And based on what happens in the final act, I can already see some of the tweaks and fixes that need to be made to acts one and two.
Note: not huge rewrites or massive cuts, which is what I’ve faced at the end of every previous draft.
I know there’s more revision ahead. I’ll listen to feedback from beta readers and others before I send it out for submission, and when it finds a home with a publisher there will be another round of editing and rewriting based on what the editor there has to say.
As a bonus, just to see what would happen, I also outlined a short story before writing it, aiming to come in at a certain word count. Not only did I write the story in one pass and end up with something I was happy with, it took only a fraction of the time it usually does to write a story. If you count the outline as a draft (which I do), the short story took three drafts, total: outline, draft, and polish.
So, I’m sold. Pantsing is for suckers (or virtuosos like Stephen King). I’m outlining from here on in, until such time as I can do it in my sleep.
I may not be a virtuoso, but I’m no sucker either.
What do you think? Do you plot or pants your stories? Which is better? Let me know in the comments!