One of the reasons it took me so long to write Old Souls is that when I began I had no idea what I was doing I focused on writing sentences instead of writing the story. Writing a beautifully perfect sentence can be an intoxicating idea. But, it’s those perfect sentences that can sometimes distract a reader (and a writer) from what’s actually supposed to be going on in the story. I remember sending a few opening paragraphs of my book to my sister and waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting for her to get back to me. (Our family isn’t known for punctuality.) And, when she finally texted me back, she was very polite.

My pretty sister

My pretty sister

At the time, the book opened with the main character laying on the floor of his apartment, suffering from a combination of withdrawal symptoms after giving up alcohol . . . and his particularly potent brew of antipsychotics. Every sentence was perfect (to me, anyway). I’d spent months writing a paragraph about the way the wind blew through the yellowed lace curtains of his cracked window. But, when those beautiful sentences were put together the story itself was murkier than the water in Winnipeg’s Red River.

In the writing world, some people identify as “pantsers” and others as “plotters,” and I was ready to make a switch, because pantsing was getting me nowhere. I had too many ideas to tame into my sentences. My story is a fairly complex contemporary fantasy, which means that pretty much anything can happen. Love? Sure. Cannibalism? Why not? How about a people who reincarnate over and over along the line of their own descendants? That is an EFFING GREAT IDEA. AA

I experimented with a few different outlines, including the Snowflake Method and Larry Brooks’ Story Structure. But, what worked best for this novel was Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. It’s an outline based on the “monomyth,” or the Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell.

Some people say that using an outline is cheating, but in my humble, newbie author’s opinion, different tactics work for different writers. And, the sequence of the various stages of the Writer’s Journey outline can be shuffled at the author’s whim, so nothing is set in stone. I skipped one or two stages completely in Old Souls. If you think about it, without the monomyth movies like Star Wars, The Matrix, The Lion King, and Titanic would be a LOT different. And, probably not in a good way. r85ve

But, when I finally had the plot narrowed down, my characters began to run amok. Once again, I had too many ideas. Looking back, I imagine my confusion regarding who my characters were, and why they did things added another two years onto the completion of Old Souls.

Because my characters are immortal in their own way, I decided to pick a few ancient gods from different cultures to weave into the plot. Is this the “right” way to tackle character development? I’m not sure. But, it had a calming effect on me. Instead of feeling pressured to create people out of thin air, all I had to do was get to know the gods I chose to include in the story. Using gods as characters organically added another layer to my book, and I ran with the concept that many of the same gods appear in various cultures throughout the world because they are the same gods, reborn again and again into different

The trick to writing my story has been to narrow the field of possibilities into what actually happens. This particular method for building characters won’t work in many other books, but, I’ll use a variation of it when the time comes. Many authors base their characters from real people, and there are a few characters in Old Souls who are loosely based on real people too. The “Heroes Journey” worked for me here, but it won’t work for every story. But, now that I have come to understand that I am a plotter, maybe my next book won’t take me six years to write.

How about you? Plotter or pantser?



30 thoughts on “Plot/Pants

  1. I’m a panster! I tried to plot and failed miserably every time. Personally, my characters are unbelievable when I plot; I have an awful habit of trying to shoe horn them into a scene and then they get peeved at me, and won’t play ball.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just mentioned this to Cathleen Townsend on her blog today so I’ll repeat it here if that’s okay.

    Before I seriously sit down to write Word One, they whole outline is finished. I know how it starts and ends and I know most of what happens in the middle. I may change it, and I have, but it is all mapped out ahead of time. I know where I’m going and how to build layers and back stories. I am not against getting a cool idea at the end that needed to be painted into scenes in the beginning, so I’ll go back and add it all in, but otherwise I have AN ending. If I come up with a better one, or several, I’ll use it or use the best one. For example, right now I have an amazing ending for The Water Castle. It’s awesome. Then tonight on the treadmill I came up with an even better, more mind blowing ending. Now I have two really good choices. That’s so much better than wondering how I’m going to end it, like “pantsers” do – and that not knowing stuff is the seed of a lot of writer’s block, I think. But I still have the freedom to end it any way I want if the mood strikes me. So it’s the best of both worlds.

    – from “The Beauty Of Words,” blog by Cathleen Townsend

    Or am I really pantsing?

    I have my ending – an ending – and I have some structure, but I can still go anywhere else I want. The outline doesn’t bind me, it frees me. Here’s the home base if you need directions. If not, have at it. If better ideas come along, I’m all over them. I’ll end somewhere else if it’s better, but if nothing amazing comes along, I still have an ending.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for sharing your comment! I’ll have to go back and look at Colleen’s blog to see what she wrote that inspired it. I think you and I operate the same sort of way. I am not opposed to making changes as I think of them. Along the way I have added and removed characters and changed subplots, but the basic foundation of my story remains the same. Just like you said, to me, that structure is incredibly freeing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can’t even go to the store without making a shopping list first. There’s no way I would try to tackle writing a novel without an outline. I am definitely a plotter. (but I still obsess over making pretty, perfect sentences 🙂 ) Of course there’s always wiggle room for slight changes or additions, but I basically know what’s going to happen throughout my story… now all I have to do is finish writing it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Pretty, perfect sentences are an easy trap to fall into. I say that because I did, not because I think you will. The effort you have put into your sentences really shows in your book, and whatever you are doing is obviously working for you, CJ 😉
      As for me, I HAVE to try and remember that many of the books I have loved, I have not loved because of the author’s attention to sentence structure. I loved the books because of their character’s passion. If I don’t, I can easily spend all day on one measly line!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Books are complex and I am both incredibly squeezed for time and attention that it’s too hard to just hope it turns out well.

    I write a loose outline usually about one paragraph about each chapter and why it is needed. I typically state who is in it, the setting, and their goal. I also include the inciting incident or the major point of the chapter.

    I’ve tried to just write and I always end up with so much meandering. I want to finish and putting up some guardrails on helps me stay on the road.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is exactly how I feel.
      If I don’t have an outline, I go off in tangents–and half of the time what I’ve written ends up deleted from the story. Who has that kind of time? Aside from the outline of my book itself, I write up chapter outlines similar to yours.
      I have heard that after writing ten books or so, outlining becomes less important as the writing of the story becomes more natural. I must say, I’m looking forward to that!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t think I’d write if I had to be a plotster. I need to begin a story and let my imagination run free. Usually the character takes over. After many pages of this, then I get a semblance of an idea of what the book is about, and I allow a plot to take hold. In my romantic suspense writing, the plot may change a few times, until by draft 5 or so, I get the ‘aha’ moment, and the book flows on.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Jenny, I like the way you amble through your musings about your work–talking about this for awhile, talking about that, and moving on. And I can see the benefit of that. I work differently. All my musings go on in private and are never shared with anyone, and what I’ve learned over the years is that the public musers and private musers are about equal in number. I remember the story about Kurt Vonnegut, a private muser, who once let his wife read what he was working on. She frowned while reading, and he couldn’t work for a month.

    I too am enthralled by description. What I remember most and what I read for is not the story, but the writer’s facility with language.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello David,
      You and I may have a little more in common than you think. Until recently, my musings have been very private as well. In fact, I spent years teaching myself to write the book that I am in the process of finishing now, and for most of that time I never told anyone about it. I considered myself a closet writer. In a way, I still am. My husband still hasn’t read any of my work.
      I have purchased many books on a whim after flipping through the pages and coming across a description I loved. But, more often than not, my favorite thing about reading is not what is written, but what is said between the lines.


      • Jenny, your blogging style is so natural and you write with such ease that people can learn from it. My best friend is a writer. I once worked on a book full-time for eighteen months without ever mentioning it to him, although I saw him often. The first he knew about it was when I told him the pub date. That reminds me of your husband not reading your work, which I think is mind-boggling. My wife reads my work very closely and edits it, but only after I’m satisfied that it’s finished. I might try a post with your approach of public musing. You do it so well.

        Liked by 1 person

    • “She frowned while reading, and he couldn’t work for a month.”

      That would totally be me. My wife isn’t allowed to read anything until it’s finished. Sometimes even discussing it with her and not seeing enthusiasm bubbling out of her head can kill the drive.


  7. Interesting! I am definitely a plotter! I know exactly what is going to happen, which is why I can sometimes use foreshadowing or refer back to this or that throughout the book as I’m writing it. The details themselves often come in the moment, but I also keep reading it and rereading it as I’m writing. As for the beautiful, flowery language, no thanks. More than once I’ve had bibliophiles tell me they skip over all that because it’s a waste of time. They just want to get to the meat. A little bit, yes. But not overdone.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. I’m a hybrid. At least I think so.

    I wrote my first seven novels retelling fairy tales, and for the first six, I totally pantsed my way through, except, of course that it was a retelling. So it already had some structure.

    My seventh novel had my characters taking the California trail (I do historical fantasy), and to get it right they had to be in certain places by particular times. So I wrote up a schedule for that one. That’s the only one so far.

    For my eighth, I submitted a synopsis for online critiqued first, trying to ferret out any story weaknesses before I wrote the silly thing because the multiple revision drafts are NOT my idea of fun. I at least want to cut them down somewhat.

    I liked that process and will probably repeat it. But for short stories, I still quite often just sit down with an idea and start typing.

    I like having enough of an idea that I’m never stumped when it comes to what should happen next. But I also like my structure loose enough that a character can do unexpected things, and I can incorporate it into my story.

    It takes all kinds, though. I wouldn’t force structure on someone who can’t write with it, nor take it away from someone who needs it. I think everyone has to find their happy place on the plotting continuum. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Pingback: Anne Rice and Scribbles on Cocktail Napkins | J. A. Allen

  10. The next person who tells you that using an outline is cheating, give ’em a slap on the side of the head. If I learned anything from my years of teaching fiction writing (not to mention editing a writers magazine) it’s that no one way of writing fits everyone. People who give inflexible writing advice should be inflexibly ignored.

    Liked by 1 person

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