Plotter versus pantser

I don’t know how standard these terms are outside of my writing network, but for those who don’t know, a plotter is someone who plans or outlines their story ahead of time and a pantser flies by the seat of their pants, so to speak, and makes things up as they go along.

Some people are die-hard plotters or die-hard pantsers, but in my experience most writers are some parts each.

I’m probably one-third plotter and two-thirds pantser. I’m working on my third novel now, and although I’ve approached the actual execution of my ideas differently in each case, my creative process is still pretty much the same. I plan a little and then let the rest come as it comes.

For example, in my first novel, I knew the main character would be a young man in a Moses situationhe was born on the side that lost a war and without his knowledge was raised to be the elite of the side that won. I knew he had to have a Jean Valjean story of remarkable redemption. I knew that his planet’s population would be descendants of a space-travel accident, and that they would, one thousand years later, have split themselves into three societies of distinctly different moral codes.

I did not know at first the true nature of my character’s special sci-fi ability (what? you’d say, if you read the novel, his secret ability is the central concern of the story), or the circumstances of his family members he lost because of the war (what? the whole story is about reuniting them). I did not know of the existence of the secret societies or admiralty intrigue or extra-terrestrial beings that basically drive the entire plot. I did not know the ending or how to get there, only the nature of the choice the character would have to make.

With the basics of the characters and world-building fairly set, I come up with an inciting incident, and from there start writing. As I get a little ways into the story, it’s like turning a casual acquaintance into a dear friend. Spending time with my story brings us closer, and plot twists present themselves. So, basically, I begin plotting my story in earnest after I’ve written chapter two or three, and by this time I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out the ending. I’m always planning several steps ahead, but I’m hesitant to chart a firm course all the way through because I know that most of my best ideas come with timein the shower, in the carand only as I think through the consequences of the chapter I’ve just finished writing.

The consequence of pantsing much of the plot is that I have to do major revisions. A story must build to its climax, and since I never know exactly where I’m going to end up, I have to go back to the beginning and make sure the road is clear from page one. I do at least as much work revising as I do the original draft, and that works for me.

So, are you a plotter or a pantser? Has anything worked for you that might help another writer like me?

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STORY-inspired plot chart

One of the most importantscratch thatTHE most important book I’ve read about writing is Robert McKee’s Story.

McKee’s book is based on his famous seminars he delivers world-wide and is actually for screenwriters, but his advice is completely relevant for novel writers. On his website, he says his alumni have won 35 Academy Awards (160+ Nominations) and 164 Emmy Awards (500+ Nominations). The dust jacket of my hardcover copy says works written, directed, or produced by his alumni include Batman Forever, Beauty and the Beast, E.R., Forrest Gump, Friends, Law & Order, Saving Private Ryan, Seinfeld, Sesame Street, Toy Story, and the X-Files, and my copy is something like eight years old.

Two important concepts I took from the book are the “gap” and “two goods/two bads.” Essentially, the “gap” opens up when a character takes action they expect to yield a certain result, but the reality turns out differently. Two goods/two bads refers to character choices, which are only meaningful if the choice is between two equally strong goods or two equally strong bads. To really understand these concepts, read the explanations and examples in McKee’s book.

Reading Story led to my creation of a “gap chart” for my first manuscript (science fiction set on a faraway planet). My main character, Aiden Carter, is an ambitious eighteen-year-old on the fast track to the equivalent of the presidency. His skeleton in the closet is his mother, who frequently breaks the law against charity. Here is the very top of the chart:

Plot advances What Aiden expects What happens instead Possible choices/ consequences Decision/new direction What is risked
Aiden Carter cheats in a track meet, next morning called to “principal’s” office. Fears either a punishment for cheating or questions about his collapse on the track. Questioned by the military government about his mother, Hannah Carter.INCITING INCIDENT TWO GOODSTell truth-avoid getting in trouble.

Lie-protect mother from prosecution.

Lies. University honor status.
Aiden walks home.PROGRESSIVE COMPLICATIONS BEGIN Hannah Carter is safe. (because his lies will protect her) Hannah Carter is arrested anyway. TWO GOODSDon’t testify-possibly prevent her conviction.

Testify-save his own career.

Testifies. Hannah Carter’s life.

This chart goes on for twelve more rows with Aiden taking actions and having his world react unexpectedly, which then causes him to take more actions where more and more is risked. It is that far-right column that gives the story it’s drama. My “What is risked” column progresses from “university honor status,” through things like “his identity,” “his secret power,” “his life,” “the entire planet.” As you go further down my risk column the stakes for Aiden get higher and higher until the largest possible thing is at stake.

I made this gap chart after I had written the manuscript. It helped me see my story in a way that was much more useful than a mere outline of the plot. It’s one of the most important writing exercises I’ve ever done.

For me it had to be part of the rewrite, but a different writer might benefit from doing this exercise at the outset. Some entry soon I’ll write a few words on the plotting vs. pantsing question.

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Where I’m at Part 2: my agent submissions for Prosorinos

While still maintaining a grueling pace as a teacher, I managed to send Prosorinos, my first novel, on submission. I queried 14 agents. Here are my stats:

form letter rejections: 8

requests for partials: 3

requests for full: 1

no response: 2

I queried eleven of the top agents representing science fiction and three young agents building client lists. One of those young agents I actually queried in a pitch session at a conference (as opposed to mailing the query), and she requested one of those three partials. She later rejected it saying the subject matter was too dark for her.

That leaves one full request and two partials. One agent starting her own agency (she had worked at one of the big houses in New York) asked for a partial. We exchanged a couple of emails leading to a request for the full. It took many months of waiting to hear (as I remember it, close to a year) before I sent her an email requesting an update on the manuscript’s status. She did not respond. A little time passed and I emailed again. Again no response. To this day I have not received a response from this agent who had my full manuscript.

One of the partials went to another young agent. I followed her on her blog, over time learning that her personality might not be ideal for me to work with, so I didn’t send a follow-up. It didn’t matter. After one and a half years (yes YEARS) she sent me a rejection.

The part that slays me is that the other partial was requested by a very successful and highly regarded agent. She requested the partial exclusively, but since I already had a partial and a full out to other agents, I never did send her my sample chapters. Back then, I was a noob in every sense of the writing word, and I didn’t know how to handle the situation other than to continue waiting on the agents who had my stuff. Knowing what I now know, I would have done things so differently.

The consequence is that I never sent out Prosorinos to other agents. I had waited so long and lost so much confidence that I decided it would be best just to write another novel. A shorter novel more easily sold. I figured Prosorinos would still be there if I could attract an agent with my new novel. Thus, Wishstone was born.

On to next post . . .

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Where I’m at Part 1: from teaching to my first thesis

This three-part post is probably more appropriate to the “About” button, but for my own sake, I’m starting by defining where I’m starting.

In high school I would have been surprised to be told I’d end up as an English teacher. I was pretty set on a career in science. I did, however, enjoy English and took electives in creative writing and journalism because I liked to write. It didn’t matter much to my career plans at the time that I won a major book award as a junior and a major English achievement award as a senior. I was accepted at Dartmouth, and I was going to be a biochemistry major with a future in cancer research.

Then in my sophomore spring, the deadline for Dartmouth students to declare their majors, I took a course on contemporary issues in education. It changed everything. Once I decided I wanted to teach, it suddenly became clear that the subject I needed to teach was English. I did the whole English major and education minor in my final two years. I got a job and taught English for fourteen years.

Throughout my public school teaching, I sometimes regretted that I didn’t choose a medical research path, especially when it seemed like all the care I gave and work I did went unappreciatedor worse, actively railed against. (Many of my students, and some of their parents, didn’t feel the same way about plagiarism/cheating that I did.) For the most part, though, I really enjoyed my job and was content to teach and coach track and field, and advise a class and a club, and serve on committees, and mentor new teachers, and all the other things that went along with my teaching life.

Where I worked, a teacher could receive a pay raise in three ways: 1) yearly contracted cost-of-living increases, 2) moving up a step (which means a pay raise for each of the first few years teaching until you reach a particular year), 3) becoming more educated. I stood to gain a bit of salary by getting a master’s degree, which I didn’t mind doing since I enjoy being a student. The problem was that a traditional degree would mean a lot of time commuting from where I lived, and I already worked a six-day week from dawn until, often, into the dark.

I found a program at Seton Hill University called Writing Popular Fiction and wrote to the director asking how many graduates of the program were actually published. She replied that the program was pretty new so there weren’t any yet (or maybe she said there was oneit was a super low number either way). This was back in 2004. Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program is low residency, which means students only have to travel there for one week twice a year. The program is unique in that it stresses popular, as opposed to literary, fiction. Although I adore much literary fiction, I wanted to write a science fiction story, and the answers I had received to inquiries at other grad schools left me with the impression science fiction would not be accepted with open arms. At Seton Hill it was embraced. Now there are more published authors from the Writing Popular Fiction program (some award-winning ones and some with large national and international followings) than I can count.

Long story shortened, my experience at Seton Hill changed my life. Until that time, I had not really considered a writing career seriously. I didn’t know what a writer’s life entailed. I didn’t think I had enough talent. I graduated from Seton Hill with a completed science fiction novel of over 160,000 words. It’s title is Prosorinos, the name of the planet on which it’s set. I thought maybe I could be a writer.

On to the next post . . .

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Be as you wish to seem.

— Socrates