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Can a SOTP Writer Become a Plotter?

Monday, July 7, 2008

I have always been a seat-of-the-pants (SOTP) writer, even well before I had ever heard that term. I almost never knew, beyond the fact that the hero and heroine are supposed to end up together, where my stories were going when I sat down to write them. With my first three manuscripts, I just sat down and wrote. Started with Chapter One and wrote straight through, discovering the story as I went along, being as surprised by the twists and turns the story took as if I were reading a book written by someone else.

Of course, that was before I started graduate school and learned all the ins-and-outs of plotting, character development/arc, story beats, and pacing. All of a sudden, there were elements of writing a story I kind of had to know before I could actually sit down and write one. Which is why my three manuscripts since then, Stand-In Groom, Ransome’s Honor, and Menu for Romance, have all taken me much longer to write, and have all required a couple of re-starts—because once I got into them, I found major holes in the stories or characters behaving in ways that didn’t lend to a good character growth arc.

A week or so ago, I pulled out the notebook containing the printed copy of my first complete manuscript—a six point-of-view romance/women’s fiction novel that I wrote in nine months following the first writing conference I attended. It’s the one where I practiced what I’d learned about limited POV and writing every day even when I didn’t feel like it. The amazing thing is that the story is strong, the main conflicts and plotlines are easily identifiable, and, even though the pacing suffers in places, the narrative drives toward the ending.

So why, over the last four years, have I had trouble repeating this process of just sitting down and writing a story?

Part of the difference is that I’d been “working with” the characters in What Matters Most for a couple of years before I started writing it. I’d started developing the lead female character, Bekka d’Arcement, and her four best friends several years before I figured out which of their stories I was going to write first. So I knew her quite well by the time I started writing. I knew less about the main male character, Andrew Blakeley, when I first started writing; but like Bekka, I got to find out his background and personal history as the novel moved along (which kept me from including too much backstory in the beginning of the novel). The other four POV characters were some I’d been working with for a while too.

So, in essence, even though I hadn’t been actually writing the manuscript for a couple of years, nonetheless, the story had still been in development for a couple of years. Same with the second book I wrote, which centered around another one of these five friends.

My third manuscript was an exercise in writing a contemporary-set tribute to my favorite Jane Austen novel, Persuasion, so I already had a pretty good idea of which direction the story needed to go when I started writing. Even though I hadn’t come up with the characters but about a month before I started writing the stories, they were based on Anne and Frederick, so I knew them in essence.

Stand-In Groom, however, started from the fact that I didn’t like the storyline of a certain movie about a wedding planner who falls in love with a client. I wanted to tell the story of a wedding planner who falls in love but doesn’t break up her client’s wedding by stealing the groom. Unfortunately, it took me about a year and a half—and three versions of the first ten chapters—to figure out who my characters really were and what their conflicts were.

With Menu for Romance being a spinoff of SIG, you’d think it would be easier to write, right? Well . . . while Meredith and Major are secondary characters in SIG, they don’t have a significant on-page presence, so I didn’t really spend a lot of time with them. In fact, up until I realized I wanted Meredith to be the heroine of a spinoff novel and that Major was the guy she was going to end up with, he was actually married in the original draft of SIG! But as I expanded his role a little bit, as he grew on me, I realized he was the perfect hero for Meredith. However, I still didn’t know that much about either of them when I started writing MFR.

Now that I’m facing a deadline to get this book written, I realize that winging-it isn’t going to suffice with this manuscript. So last night, I pulled out my big flip-chart pad and my copy of Billy Mernit’s Writing the Romantic Comedy and determined the seven story beats of Menu for Romance. I also started penciling in the ideas for conflicts I’ve had and brainstormed a few more.

Just like What Matters Most was an exercise in learning POV and how to finish a manuscript, Menu for Romance is going to be an exercise in determining if a dyed-in-the-wool seat-of-the-pants writer can become a plotter.

  1. Monday, July 7, 2008 9:28 am

    Okay being a want to be fiction writer I never realized how complicated it could be. Especially if you tend to be an analyzer. I liked Austens Persuasion it was my favorite. So when is your contemporary version going to be finished for me to read?


  2. Monday, July 7, 2008 9:36 am

    Kaye, I am a panster, too, usually, but after I read your April “seven story beats” post, I forced myself to outline a novel that I nearly completed in May! See how effective your posts are? I know you can do it!


  3. Monday, July 7, 2008 10:10 am

    Pantser or plotter, writing is hard work. I think the best writers are what they need to be to get the story finished. There may come a time when a story just flows, no plotting required. Or, you may find yourself, as you do now, needing to plot more and “pants” less.

    Pantsing didn’t work for me on my first manuscript but I learned a lot of things. I too think I still have a strong story, and through my plotting efforts on my current wip, I’m starting to see how I might go back and fix the first one.

    It’s always a learning experience. Happy Plotting!


  4. Monday, July 7, 2008 10:21 am

    I was a pantser too, with my first two manuscripts, but somewhere in the middle of the 2nd one, I realized I could make my life a bit easier if it started plotting. So the third and fourth books are getting the royal treatment. 🙂

    I like what you said about development. I have to do that, too. Usually a character comes to me (the 4th book, by way of dream!), and then I begin building from there. But sometimes it just has to “set a spell” before I can do any writing. During that time, the characters are cementing themselves in my mind, and becoming real to me.

    Now I’m going to study your seven story beats to help me! Thanks!


  5. Monday, July 7, 2008 10:31 am

    While I wish I could claim the seven story beats were of my creation, all credit must go to Billy Mernit!


  6. Monday, July 7, 2008 10:36 am

    I finished writing that manuscript (Love Remains) about five years ago. It’s safely tucked away in the recesses of my computer. It would need major revision before I would let anyone read it!


  7. Monday, July 7, 2008 10:43 am

    Like most of the pp, I’m a recovering pantser, too. I’ve been through this in varying degrees: starting a book, like you, Kaye, without much more idea of where it’s going than the H&H will get together to having most of the plot figured out (but not very strong).

    After replotting my current WIP twice, I read a great book on plotting a mystery (this is rom. sus.) and decided to write each step of the plot out instead of just having a vague idea of the direction in my head. And not only is the plot about ten times stronger, but it’s also been much faster in coming during the rewrites–up to 5000 words/day (though that’s probably partially because I already know the characters really well).

    Since then, I’ve had a few story ideas that I’m in love with (oddly enough, not much romance in them, but w/e), and I’ve satiated the “must write this now” need by writing out a synopsis–a beginning plot outline.


  8. Monday, July 7, 2008 10:47 am

    I believe there are varying levels of plotters. Some plot extensively and some just go by a general guideline. Until now I’ve been a seat-of-the-pants, also known as intuitive writer, but I’m starting to plot generally, so as to have enough leeway to allow my creativity to keep churning while I write, but keep me focused enough to not get in a huge muddle along the way, either.

    I’m really focusing on goal, motivation, conflict, disaster, reaction, dilemma, decision key points to be sure I’ve got that all covered, but a lot of that is done during the writing. As long as I know the goal and where it came from, then I can usually dig up some conflict along the way and make sure I include the reaction and process of digging them out of the hole to move onto the next step to once again attempt to reach their goal.

    Oh, what fun writing is!


  9. Monday, July 7, 2008 11:20 am

    I am a panster, but I am doing more pre-planning. I would love to be a plotter, but I have to write to find things out.


  10. Monday, July 7, 2008 12:03 pm

    I am a self-professed “Person who wings it” aka WinGer.

    I am this in my writing as well as my whole entire life. I like to have an overview of what we are doing, where we are going etc, but I am used to and really good at dealing with life’s twists and turns. Very rarely do things just ‘fall’ into place for me, so I have become pretty good at batting them out of the park when things are thrown at me. I LIKE the idea of planning, but things just never end up that way. I view it as God’s sense of humor:-)

    That said, I like to think anyway, that I’m pretty good at pacing in my writing. I know that is usually a problem for SOTP writers, but I am a very logical thinker, so my story has to logically flow as I write it. It has to have a rhythm.


  11. Monday, July 7, 2008 12:30 pm

    Man, I am feeling your pain, Kaye. With all my soul I am a pantser…and yet, I MUST plot. Agony!

    I’ve tried scene cards, an outline, plot skeletons, you name it. What works for me?

    Talking the plot out loud with my daughter. She can find the holes in a plot quicker’n Shurgar won the Derby!


  12. Jess permalink
    Monday, July 7, 2008 12:33 pm

    I miss your progress page. What is your deadline? You should put a counter on the site so we can remember to pray for you.


  13. Monday, July 7, 2008 1:11 pm

    You can do it! You’ll do what you must to make it happen. I’m the opposite since I felt secure being a plotter, then tried to pants and suffered horribly. Now I’m back at it with a plot.


  14. Nicole (ikkinlala) permalink
    Monday, July 7, 2008 1:16 pm

    I used to think about being a writer when I grew up, but then I discovered that I really didn’t like planning it out that far ahead. I’m sure you can do it, though!


  15. Caleb permalink
    Monday, July 7, 2008 1:45 pm

    Granted, screenplays have vastly different pacing styles than novels, but I think I’m with Eileen. I like to outline the general story, but only focus on the main story elements to allow the creative process to continue once the actual writing starts. A lot of my writing is dialogue based because those are the movies I love (Pulp Fiction, Chasing Amy, American Psycho, When Harry Met Sally, etc.), so most of my fun in writing comes from inventing the conversations on the fly, but it’s important to know what they are leading to and what information needs to come across without sounding like you’re spoon-feeding your audience. Unlike novels, where you can take a time-out to explain a few of the ins and outs of your characters or what they’re thinking almost anytime you like, you can only get away with voice-overs for so long in a screenplay, so determining how to balance information is tricky.

    However, personally for me, when I’m writing I don’t like feeling like there’s a formula I need to stick to. I know and understand Freytag’s five steps of dramatic structure and I don’t deny the importance of those steps, but I hate having that be my driving force when I’m writing my outline. Rather than say to myself “Okay, I’ve got my exposition, now WHAT is the rising action going to be” I prefer to look at it from the perspective of the viewer in terms of “What would I want to see next? What would keep me interested?” Once I get those parts out of the way, I find it’s easier and more effective to make sure I organize those pieces I have into a more sensibly paced narrative afterwards.

    Step by step rules and formulas scare me just because I feel like it’s too easy to corner yourself into a cookie-cutter plot. They’re good guidelines or references, but I think it can be dangerous to use them as more than that.

    But I’m also not at the point where I’m writing for a living or have deadlines that I need to meet, so I have a bit more time on my hands for story and pacing development.


  16. Monday, July 7, 2008 9:03 pm

    I am new to your blog,
    but I sure do like it.



  17. Theresa N permalink
    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 4:58 am

    John Grisham was on one of the morning shows and they asked him if he was ever surprised by his characters? He said no he does a detailed outline of the story and works from that. Ken Follett does the same thing. They make it seem so easy when we know it’s not.


  18. Emilie permalink
    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 1:53 pm

    When I was in undergrad studying writing, all my literary-writing profs told me it was WRONG to outline–to do so meant you were cramping your characters and not letting yourself be open to the real story.

    What a relief to come to SHU and be told that my natural tendency to outline (at least a little bit) was a good thing!


  19. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 3:43 pm

    I used to “rewrite” movies all the time: putting an extra character into the story (okay, okay, it was me. I started when I was about 8) to tell myself a new story as I was going to sleep.

    I never wrote any of them down, though, just spent hours with them in my head. I wondered if that movie was where you’d gotten your idea, because I was thinking it was such a good answer to the breaking it up b/c it was bad anyway cliche.


  20. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 3:49 pm

    That cool-dude was supposed to be an age-*8* and a close-parentheses. {sigh}


  21. greyfort permalink
    Tuesday, July 8, 2008 3:51 pm

    Leslie S. again (I am so not logging out cause that would cause other problems)

    Part of my issue is I am so not an organizer at all – so outline is difficult – but I find that I have a hard time writing because I don’t know where the characters are going. Keeps me frozen most of the time. I know where I want to start and how I want to end – but the middle part (90% of the story) is kicking my behind.


  22. Tuesday, July 8, 2008 4:03 pm

    I was glad to hear about the book by Billy Mernit. I went to the April post and copied it from there. Always good to be reminded to not forget the basics!


  23. Wednesday, July 9, 2008 3:34 am

    Automatic emoticons: 2
    Properly ended parenthetical phrases: 0

    Down with super-cool-smiley-man!


  24. Wednesday, July 9, 2008 8:15 am

    One thing I definitely have learned this year is to always put a period between the 8 and the close parenthesis (8.) if I don’t want super-cool smiley guy 8)


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