Are you a Plotter or a Pantser? Writers love to bandy around that question in online chatrooms and Facebook forums. Do you plot out your novel to the very last scene before you start writing, or do you let the Muse guide your pen, and write by the seat of your pants?
I’ve found that neither strategy works well for me. I’ve tried plotting intricate outlines and lost inspiration fast. When I sat down at my computer and just “went for it” I ended up with story arcs that fizzled out.
Over the course of many years and two published novels, I’ve created my own method of plotting that fits my needs. It’s an easy structure to remember because PLOT says it all: Ponder. List. Outline. Type.
The Ponder step is the most important. The publishing industry is so competitive, that unless a concept is perfect a book is doomed. I spend several months, and sometimes years, formulating the right idea. I let the story germinate in my mind while I drive around town running errands, or struggle to fall asleep at night. During the Ponder step, I determine what my logline hook will be. With GENESIS GIRL it was “An Internet innocent gets sold to the highest bidder.” For DAMAGED GOODS it was “Scarred by a childhood spent in captivity, Blanca struggles to recognize friend from foe.” The hook is the one sentence description that describes the whole novel.
Before I start writing a book, I list out my main characters. One of the hardest things about writing a book is making characters seem alive. If Good Morning America interviewed the people in a novel, the author should know exactly how the characters would respond. But getting to that level of intimacy is difficult. One trick I use to help flesh out my characters is a graphic organizer I call my Character_Map. I print out a page for each major person in my book and fill it out in detail. These lists of descriptions, quirks, backgrounds and secret desires give me a strong cast of characters to utilize.
Every writer has a different level of comfort when it comes to outlining, but even a simple outline can help keep a manuscript on track. Jotting down the main plot points ahead of time gives a story structure and helps define story arcs. If I’ve done the Pondering step properly then I already have a one sentence description of my book before I start writing an outline. Taking time to formulate a beginning, middle, and end saves me time in the long run.
For a writer, following the Muse is essential. That’s why when I finally sit down to type my story, I sometimes change course while composing my first draft. Story arcs change. Characters are eliminated. Often I don’t nail down a person’s name until I’ve written hundreds of pages. Typing out the first draft is the hardest part for me. But the effort I spend in the Pondering, Listing, and Outlining steps, makes the Typing step easier. Once I’ve written my first draft, it’s time to celebrate—and let my manuscript sit for a couple of months before I start revising. For me, revising has its own separate process, but unfortunately, I haven’t come up with a cute acronym yet!
Jennifer Bardsley writes the column “I Brake for Moms” for The Everett Daily Herald. her novel GENESIS GIRL debuted in 2016 from Month9Books. GENESIS GIRL and its sequel, DAMAGED GOODS, are about a teenager who has never been on the Internet. Jennifer however, is on the web all the time as “The YA Gal” on Facebook, the @the_ya_gal Instagram, and @JennBardsley on Twitter. Jennifer is a member of SCBWI, The Sweet Sixteens debut author group, and is the founder of Sixteen To Read. An alumna of Stanford University, Jennifer lives in Edmonds, WA with her family and a poodle named Merlin.
Eighteen-year-old Blanca has lived a sheltered life. Her entire childhood has been spent at Tabula Rasa School where she’s been protected from the Internet.
Blanca has never been online and doesn’t even know how to text. Her lack of a virtual footprint makes her extremely valuable, and upon graduation, Blanca and those like her are sold to the highest bidders.
Blanca is purchased by Cal McNeal, who uses her to achieve personal gain. But the McNeals are soon horrified by just how obedient and non-defiant Blanca is.
All those mind-numbing years locked away from society have made her mind almost impenetrable.
By the time Blanca is ready to think for herself, she is trapped. Her only chance of escape is to go online.
Damaged Goods: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | TBD
Genesis Girl: Goodreads | Amazon | B&N | iBooks | Kobo | Books A Million | Google Play | IndieBound
I do a bit of both plotting and pantsing. For me it is as much about discovering as it is filling in the blanks. More than once I’ve let the characters guide me. I’ve changed their names from one draft to the next. I research a lot. Sometimes to ad naseum on a single insignificant (?) point. Sometimes I know big things and have to get there and other times I know little clues I want to share between books. I see we both do some of the same things and I love your acronym for it. Perfect!
In answer to the question, I am very much a ‘Pantser’ (interesting term). Yes, I suffer from a lot of unfinished pieces that have led me nowhere, but I take the view that they probably weren’t worth the trip anyway. Why am I inclined not to plot? I love the process of giving my characters life, and simply following them to see what happens. This is the game for me, far more absorbing than writing purely to publish. I care very little if somebody buys my people: I just feel priveleged to have been briefly a part of the life I have given them.