Notes From a Desk (2): Respecting Your Process

photo by rob.knight

The last time I posted, I mentioned the notes near my desk–the ones I used to help pull me through while writing what will be my second novel, The Moon Sisters. I’ve already shared the first note: Don’t doubt. Just work. Today I want to share something completely different.

Anyone who’s followed this blog for any length of time knows I have issues with “the process.”

I’m a pantser by nature, but after the protracted process with my first book–the complete rewrite, the significant revisions on top of that–I developed a serious case of plotter envy. I didn’t want another Sisyphean experience with book number two. I didn’t want to be a writer who could only pop out a book every four to five years.

Though some pantsers shun plotting, saying the story will end up stale and formulaic if it’s planned out ahead of time, I’ve seen plotters work through outlines and synopses, use Scrivener and the like, and end up with beautiful works of fiction that read as organic and authentic.

So I decided.

I’d control the  second book. I’d make the characters do what I told them to do.

I invested in several giant packs of index cards, determined to be Queen of My Domain. And then I filled those cards with snippets of dialog, plot twists, character arcs, backstory, ideas for how the dual storylines in my novel would weave together, etc…

I used over two hundred index cards.

I ordered them all, and then I began to write. Uneasily. Going through the motions. There was no passion in the process.

You only feel this way because you’ve never written like this before, I told myself. You’re stressed because you have a contract and a deadline. Just  follow the cards; you’ve already thought through this. 

Every once in a while, I gave into the pull to go “off-script.” The story would curve and arc and bounce, and sometimes surprise me. Times like those, I might not fully understand what a character had said or done, but I’d leave the offering in the script just in case it came to make sense. Because this I remembered well from my meandering, ofttimes frustrating journey with my debut: Those bits could be the most rewarding in the end.

I finally finished the draft, but you know what? It showed the stress of my process tug-of-war. My editor at the time noted that the story at times felt episodic.

I’d love to blame the index cards, but it was I who stuffed my story into a box, who didn’t heed the gut-sense that screamed not working, wrong way, stop. 

And I know better.

Ray Bradbury, genius writer that he was, had much to say about process:

Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.

You can’t try to do things; you simply must do them.

It’s important to get out of your own way.

I needed to get out of my own way. I needed to let the story breathe.

I rewrote my second story, just like I rewrote my first story. I let it bloom messily off-script, as I toyed with new ideas and let the characters have their way, revealing nuances my pre-plotting mind hadn’t grasped, all the while knowing there’d be a lot of pruning later. (And there was.) Still. It’s what the story needed. It’s what I needed to love it, too.

This was the note I stuck on my desk during that rewrite:


I still have plotter envy, and I may still try other techniques and tools down the road. (Scrivener, you are so tempting!) But I will never again force my story to fit a mold just because I think it should, because I’ve labeled my process lesser than. I may not be a natural storyteller, but I am a storyteller just the same.

Have you tried to adapt your process? Did you find success, or just stress? I’d love to hear about it.

Write on!


About Therese Walsh

Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed in 2006. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal and BookRiot. Her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, sold to Random House in a two-book deal in 2008, was named one of January Magazine’s Best Books, and was a Target Breakout Book. She's never been published with a lit magazine, but LOST's Carlton Cuse liked her Twitter haiku best and that made her pretty happy.


  1. says

    As I read the start of this post, the only thought on my mind was – good luck with that, sister. Like you, I envy the plotters. I tried to plot my last novel and similarly relented and let the characters lead. I’m now challenging the pantser method on a murder mystery.
    So glad your story…er, post…has a happy ending. Congratulations on The Moon Sisters and I wish you success.

  2. says

    I am going to make this my note – “But I will never again force my story to fit a mold just because I think it should, because I’ve label my process lesser than. I may not be a natural storyteller, but I am a storyteller just the same.”

    It’s only lately that I’ve started to relax into my own messy hybrid pantser/plotter process. This post is such a great reminder for me to go my own way, realizing, yes, it might take longer etc but it will feel better and the story will ultimately be better for it.

    • says

      That’s what I’m coming to accept about myself as well, Madeline: a messy hybrid process. Though I’d be happy to make it a bit less messy! Best of luck with your work.

  3. says

    I like to keep the outline in my head. If I write things down that I have to follow, it gets too confusing. You have to feel the force!

    • says

      I like this, Dave, though I know myself well enough to say I’d worry about losing good ideas. Then again, too many ideas may be one of my writerly flaws!

  4. Lisa Threadgill says

    When I travel, I make a reservation for where I will be the first night. I also make one for where I will be the last night. In-between? Who knows. I write the same way. I let the story happen, otherwise it feels forced, and I find that I’m not nearly as clever as I thought I was or as the characters themselves are. The part of me that used to work as a stage manager is attracted to the idea of plotting, but the bigger part of me that spent more time as a theatrical designer can only breathe in the chaos of unbridled creation.

  5. says

    The “process” is why I’ve stopped writing many times over the years. Letting things develop as they may is hard. Especially when the writer (me) is anxious to control everything. My process is a daily lesson in trust and letting go. And I don’t always like it. :)

  6. says

    “Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.” is, in my mind, one of the best possible tips that you (and Ray Bradbury) could possibly offer. My other favorite Bradbury quote is “Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, siomething to live for.”

  7. says

    I have an outline (but no contract) for book two. For me it alleviates having to remember where I want the story to go, yet it allows me to indulge myself and go off the page, because if I get lost, I have reminders of my basic ideas and direction. Yesterday, a new character inserted herself into the story complete with a name I’d never heard of. I know what she represents to the main character but the rest? I think it’s going to be up to her to show me.

    • says

      There are definitely advantages and disadvantages with having a contract. Enjoy your big advantage: pure freedom to explore the story in whatever time frame works best for you and your characters.

  8. says

    Thanks for this, Therese! I’m much the same way. I spent a great deal of my early writing obsessing over plotlines and outlines… until I realized I was spending too much time rearranging thing that hadn’t been written yet. For a long time now I’ve written my novels by feeling my way through them, and while I write down what I think will be the plot, I know that it will change course like a meandering river… but that makes it an adventure. Doesn’t it?

  9. Scott McGlasson says

    A year after starting, I’m still slogging through my first MS. As a former radio DJ, I feel far more comfortable talking about the story, plot, and characters than I do writing about it. Ditto interviewing various experts for research purposes. Actually sitting down to write the beast, though, is proving a daunting task.

    My first couple of chapters were looked at by other writers who all came back with “too many adverbs, too passive”, so I set about slaying those two monsters, but in doing so, I logjammed the creativity because I self-editing as I wrote to make sure I was using as few adverbs as possible and keeping the voice active.

    Getting out of my own way is MY Sisyphean task and I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet.

    A friend who’s already got a few indie novels published suggested using place holders with around them. When you get a description that bogs you down, simply put “” and keep friggin’ going. If you get to a big fight scene that bogs you down, put down “” and keep going.

    • says

      Scott, you might consider separating the creative process from the editorial/revision process and keeping your draft away from critique partners until it’s finished. It’s hard to go back and forth between those right- and left-brain processes, and as you’ve just learned, being critical with your story too early can effectively shut down the “muse.” Best of luck with your work!

  10. says

    Oh, how I love this post! I also love your current book title. :)

    And you know, what you say reminds me of parenting. When we helicopter over our children, when we don’t let them breathe and be and grow in their messy, inefficient, convoluted ways, we stifle the soul of that small person. Our books are no different.

    Such a good reminder. Thank you for this.

    • says

      Such a smart comparison. I’m going to print these wise words about parenting and keep them handy for future reference. Thank you, Sarah!

  11. says

    Excellent post. I’m a panster, too, Therese, and have tried to do the outlining thing. Doesn’t work for me. It isn’t that I start without a plot. My plot is there. It’s in my mind the entire time I’m writing, in a ghostly sort of way, guiding me toward the ending that I’m aiming for. I love what Mr. Bradbury said! He is one of my all-time favorites. I always think that a person would have attain writing nirvana in order to write like him. But I’m off subject. The thing is, he’s right. It all comes when you let it flow and allow the story to come, instead of trying to chase after it.

  12. says

    Hmm…I guess I’m so new to this writing life that I never experienced plotter vs. pantser angst. I am a planner by nature and spent a long time working on an outline, which, when I sat down to write the first draft, I never looked at again. The outline held me to the core of the plot but did send me to a false conclusion. After layer upon layer of revisions, prodding from beta readers, and–most importantly–listening to what my characters wanted to do, I found the right ending. Isn’t that what revisions are for?

  13. says

    I’m not at ALL a plotter, but I use and LOVE Scrivener. LOVE it. Can’t say the word “love” enough about it. I still let my characters run rampant with the plot, but I don’t have to worry as much about continuity and organization, because Scrivener helps me with that so much. I scoffed at it for years before trying it out. I’ll never go back. It’s become my new process. I’m not afraid to admit when I’m wrong. ;)

  14. Jackie Mull says

    Love, love, love this: “Not working, wrong way, stop.”

    As always, great post, Therese.

  15. says

    After all the revision work I’ve done, adapting my trilogy to the elements of story structure, I’m also very interested in a way to avoid your “Sisyphean experience.” When I wrote the next ms, since it’s a prequel, occuring beforre the events of my first story, I pretty much knew the outcome, so I thought it was an opportunity to work to three-act structure. It was a ‘limiting’ experience for me.

    I tend to be an over-writer. It all floods out, then I rein it back. I’m going to have to find a process that fits it. If I’m a plantser (plotter + pantser = plantser), then I need to avoid overwatering the ‘plant’ part of it with gushing verbosity. And yet I know that flow is part of my process. So am I a seaweed writer? (Pretty much drowned that metaphor, didn’t I? ;-)

    Thanks for sharing, T! It helps to know I’m not alone.

    • says

      Seaweed is good for you. Just saying.

      I think it’s important to be true to your natural proclivities when you’re writing a first draft. If that means you write big or small or take wrong turns, then you do. I guess what it comes down to is honoring the creationist within you, and letting that part of you play with all of the elements in whatever way is the most engaging. (I need to take my own advice!)

  16. Cat Moleski says

    I pantsed my first few manuscripts and discovered I wasn’t very good at that method. Then I revised with an outline and my stories improved, but lacked life. Now I pants the first draft, outline the next draft and pants individual scenes around ideas that I know I want to include but don’t quite know how to work in. Often that will lead to a deeper understanding of my characters and to interesting insights.

    I used to berate myself for not being a natural storyteller, but now I will simply say, “I may not be a natural storyteller, but I am a storyteller just the same.” Thanks for that.

    • Scott McGlasson says

      “I may not be a natural storyteller, but I am a storyteller just the same.”

      That’s a great line.

      I’ve had a lot of success breathing life into dialog between characters by pantsing a script format. Sort of like,

      Michael: (frowning) What the hell?
      Penny: Well, what did you think was going to happen?

      etc etc. I’ve found that doing this lets the dialog flow well and allows me to dedicate brain power to playing the different characters rather than concentrate on sentence structure. I go back and turn it into novel format later after the lines are hammered out.

      I tend to think of great dialog while driving so I downloaded an app called “Catch” which lets me record quick stuff like that and assign a hashtag to the file for later retrieval. Very handy.

    • says

      Thanks for sharing your evolving process, Cat. It’s good to know there are so many possibilities out there. Best of luck with your work!

  17. says

    Oh Therese, you and I are writing twins. I’m an uneasy Pantser, with serious plot envy. Right down to dying to try Scrivener.

    I think I always will be the above, but I’m coming to terms with who I am, as a writer. But THE most important thing isn’t what I’m doing – it’s what ‘the girls in the basement’ are doing.

    My job is just to stay out of their way, and scribble down what they tell me as fast as I can. When I do that, good things happen.

    Good luck on your next book!

    • says

      You are so spot on, Laura, about the girls in the basement — getting out of their way. I think I didn’t trust them enough after my first book. They took too long to deliver, and things needed to happen in a more timely manner (and yadayada). But I was wrong. Lesson learned.

  18. says

    I’ve always considered myself a panplotser, I make an outline that grows and changes, I fill my notebooks and office walls with thoughts, dialogue, backstories, and when my office overflows, I cut and paste and storyboard on my dining table.
    I’ve never felt constrained by having an idea of what I want to include in my story or scenes that I think would work perfectly, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. I’ve never felt like my skeleton of a story has fettered me or made me feel like the story was stale. I take flights of fancy, some of which work and some that don’t; discover things that my subconscious must have come up with, or things that just appear that must be used.
    I grossly overwrite and have to cut. It’s my process and though it isn’t the most efficient, I haven’t found another way that feels so right.

    • says

      “It’s my process and though it isn’t the most efficient, I haven’t found another way that feels so right.”

      Love this. Thanks, Shelley!

  19. says

    Thank you, thank you for this post. Much like you, I love my debut novel, its originality, but it took FOREVER to bring to fruition. Having used no outline–and following expert advice to “edit later”–I ended up with a massive 160,000 words by the end of it! Another painful year of editing ensued. Obviously, it is a process I can’t afford to repeat.

    But also like what you’ve experienced, I fear that to approach my second novel in a completely new manner will hurt the flow of creativity, not to mention remove much of the fun I’ve always associated with writing.

    So for book two I’m going to compromise. I will LOOSELY plot the three act structure to stay on task. I will use it as a skeleton only to make sure turning points and black moment and climax are kept on the radar. From there I will flesh out per the will of my characters, letting creativity abound. Skelton: the course. Fleshing out: the adventure.

    • says

      This sounds like a beautifully wise compromise, Bonnie. It’s probably the course I’d take with another book, too. In retrospect I *know* I bogged my story down with too many demands right from the start. Travel light. That’s always good advice, right?

      Best of luck with book #2!

  20. says

    Well said. I enjoyed your other piece as much as this one. I even have a note card by my computer with “Don’t doubt, just work” written on it.

    I have found I have to discover the story just as a reader would discover it. I spend my time completely in the dark and just let it come out.

    • says

      Thank you, Jon! There’s so much that goes on beneath that top-lit layer that we don’t understand, but what can we do but trust it? Best of luck with your work.

  21. says

    When I finally told my editor that I’d try to write something she’d talked to me about 2 years ago, I put all this pressure on myself to write this “different kind of book” — so much pressure that I wasn’t writing it. I was even hating it. Hating the thought of the book, hated the wooden way I felt about the character(s).

    Finally, finally, I just said, “Have some fun with it – just write the danged thang how you always do – just get the thang on the page and clean it up afterward.” I did what I like to do – write about the character(s) and see where they take me – I have to care about them; I have to want to follow them wherever they go, all willy nilly all over the danged place. Then, once that was done, I went for more “control.”

    Apparently, that’s what works for me – even with this more “plotty” kind of book I’ve written. Yeah, it makes for more work, maybe, than someone who outlines, etc, but I have to work with my blippy black hole brain, not against it. Yeah, I’ve had to tear up and delete and reorganize and tear up and delete and reorganize and pull my hair and sob and cry – but, it works for me *laugh*

    • says

      Oh, Kathryn, I hope we meet in person one day, because I want to hear more about “the danged thang” and your “blippy black hole brain.” I think we have a lot in common, and you can teach me a thing or two about voice. Carry on, sister. All is well.

  22. Denise Willson says

    Hmm… I have to admit, I don’t understand what the difference is. If I brainstorm the story to create a planned plot or I brainstorm the story to create a plot while I write the manuscript, aren’t they, at the core, the same thing? The order might be different, but the process is really the same.

    That said, could it help to not think of yourself as either a pantser or a planner? It’s just a process with the same end result. A bit of both might just be what the doctor ordered. :)

    Best of wishes, Therese.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

    • says

      A bit of both is definitely required, at least for this writer, Denise. But to answer your question about approach and how one is different from the other… For me, “pantsing” means relying heavily on the workings of the subconscious mind. This is why “the characters” take over — say and do things I may not understand until a full draft is finished. If I don’t let the characters drive the story in this mysterious way, I miss out on a deeper, richer, better version of the tale. It doesn’t mean not having a plot, but it means letting the girls in the basement/the muse/the subconscious take the lead. It means trusting them all. With my second book, with the first draft, I didn’t trust enough.

  23. says

    Love the Bradbury quote, and love “I’d leave the offering in the script,” too! That’s exactly what those little creative spurts are: offerings for our future selves — the mean ones who wear the editing hats. =) Very nice post, Therese.

  24. says

    I started writing with the idea of being a panster, but I kept hitting a wall midway, so I switched to outlining. I thought it would be easier. It wasn’t, but I did progress, so I decided to stick with it. I realized my outlines had to be flexible. I primarily know the general beginning and the general end. The middle part of the outline is very vague. For example, I know what my main character’s crisis will be and that it will be solved, but I will not know exactly how, if they will live or die, who will helped them solve it, etc. The planned solutions to the crisis may change as I piece the puzzle together. If the story is far from the original outline and it still has promising momentum, I will redo the outline from that point forward.

    I don’t know what it’s like to have a character take over a story. It sounds like a great experience though. I always feel my omnipresence, control, or responsibility, because I’m every character in the story.

    If I make my outline too rigid it will break. It took some trial and error for me to learn that.

    My outline has to be like water.

    Ha, I have panster envy.

  25. says

    To me it’s 6 of these or a half-dozen of those. The pantser edition of my draft is just as messy as the plotted rewrite. The pantser draft needs pruning; the plotted draft is too controlled.

    I’ve decided I’m a gardener who’d rather let the garden go a little wild, then make judicious cuts–after all as long as we hold the finished vision in our minds eye, it doesn’t matter if we prune too much. It’ll always grow back.

    • says

      “I’ve decided I’m a gardener who’d rather let the garden go a little wild, then make judicious cuts–after all as long as we hold the finished vision in our minds eye, it doesn’t matter if we prune too much. It’ll always grow back.”

      Brilliant, Denise! After trying both ways, I have to say I agree with you. I’d rather be wild and prune, then be too controlling and stifle my creative process.

  26. says

    It’s so hard for me not to plot, since it seems that’s what all the cool kids are doing these days. But every time I try, my story feels soulless and dead. I used to worry that not plotting meant ‘not crafting’ but I’ve decided the two are worlds apart. You can be a plotter, or a pantster, or, as Vaughn says, a ‘plantser’ and still craft a story with care. It all seems to depend on how your brain works.

    Thanks for sharing this, T!

  27. says

    I so, so needed to read this, Therese!! Thank you so much! I plotted my way through three novels, but the fourth absolutely refused to be outlined.

    Don’t know how the pantsers operate, but for me, it looked like this: I kept writing snapshots of the book, polaroid pictures of scenes, dialogue, everything. I wrote the whole book like that, wildly out of order, some scenes getting written three times, with different outcomes. Characters introduced, then re-introduced later.

    It was insanely difficult for me to work that way: I was in an eight-month panic. I literally had to write in bed under a fortress of blankets and pillows, because the sight of my desk and my computer gave me nervous fits. I cried a lot. (I mean… really. Embarrassingly so.) It was a really miserable experience… and then I reread the MS. And I *LOVED* it. A brutal, shapeless, unholy mess, but it was so fresh and unpredictable and I adored it.

    And now I’m rewriting it. Correcting the thundering flaws of the first draft, all the rambling tracks that went nowhere, getting rid of abandoned characters, etc. etc. Trying to make clean brilliant sense of it.

    With a huge outline to keep me on track. And I’m hating it. Dreading it. Reading blogs instead of writing. Oh gosh. What do I do now??? Do I burn that outline this afternoon?? Do I really have to do all that crying again?? Ack!

    But seriously… I needed to hear this. Thanks for your post.

    • says

      Lucy, what you’ve described sounds like my pantser experience with my first book, right down to not wanting to face the desk! I’ve found that once the mess of creation is over, it’s a good idea to work with an outline. After the drafting phase, you know what the book means to be, so it’s time for your internal editor to kick in, employ the right structure, improve characters, etc… So, my two cents? Keep the outline for now, but like Brian said just above, imagine that it’s made of water and allow yourself the freedom to swim off occasionally, even in revision mode. Best of luck!

  28. says

    Oh I needed to read this today. I have various outlines going for novel #4. I have TWO handwritten timelines. I have several drafts lined out. I have a red story board complete with photographs and index cards that I put together last summer. This story is so offbase to where the story went that it would be a different book. Ha!

    I’ve been halfway “done” for a year ~ stuck in the middle. I’ve messed around with following all of these process ideas for over a year. The fact is I’m a pantser and people (including me) are just going to have to get over it. I did a fast draft class (with Candace Havens) in February which allowed for my pantser style to come through and when I finally got the back-half written. Now, I’m busy going through the manuscript to get the plot lines to come together. The next book is just going to written as it goes because that is what works for me and I will not apologize for that any longer.

    FYI – I used Scrivener for this novel. (the last one I wrote in InDesign) The one thing I do like about Scrivener is being able to move scenes around but it doesn’t jive with my pantser style and does feel restrictive much of the time when I’m not sure where things are going. In the editing process, it’s working fine.

    Your post today was a permission slip/a blessing/a reminder. I’m not going to apologize anymore for not being able to outline my story and stick to it. My stories are better when they are written organically. My characters develop and sometimes lead the way. My fan base ends up appreciating that and are emotionally involved when I allow the writing to work that way. I’m just so happy to hear that other writers also struggle in trying to apply structure and come to the realization for themselves it doesn’t work that way for them.

    Thank you, Therese.


    • says

      Katherine, this is a very worthy note from a desk, right here: “My stories are better when they are written organically.” I am on that boat with you. Best of luck as you finish up your tricky book #4.

  29. says

    I found a lot of wisdom in your article, Therese. Thank you for it.
    My note (from your article): “I needed to get out of my own way. I needed to let the story breathe.”
    I’d describe my process as a combination of plotter/panster. The plot is my security blanket–ensuring me that there is an end to the story. However, I find that each manuscript I write is written in its own way. For example, I’m currently writing two manuscripts: I’m panstering through one (it refuses any attempt at plot); the other is calling for intense research each step of the way (slow down…there’s no rush…is the lesson here).
    Happy writing

  30. says

    I decided long ago that process is a function of how we think. At the beginning of my writing journey, I decided like you (but in the opposite direction) to give pantsing a try. I was as miserable as you were plotting. I had no idea where to go, the characters milled around in my mind and I ended up with pages of dreck that could not be salvaged.

    But guess what! When I write reports, I have to have an outline as well. I have to schedule my day, so I actually get work done. My being a somewhat-plotter (I outline to a point, write, and then outline some more), is just the way I am. I’ve always been surprised at the pantser/plotter controversy, and have felt it’s best to just do what works! One way is no better than the other.

  31. says

    Oh gosh. So true. The first book took sooo much rewriting and reworking and changing and reinventing, I thought the second book HAD to go more smoothly.

    Alas, it was not so. Same convoluted process, same throwing-out of entire characters and chapters and plotlines.

    But the good news: such a messy process has helped me arrive at a book I love, so… what’s so bad about mess, really?

    • says

      Mess is good. And you have a sweet kiddo at your house to remind you of that daily, right? More seriously, I recognized my (out-of-)control issues after writing the first tough draft of book #2, and purchased a book called “Mess,” by Keri Smith. I don’t know that it helped with the writing, but it was good to explore the book’s exercises–coat the pages with cocoa, glue, paper towel shreds and more, and call it “good.” Some of the best things in life arrive through experimentation and mistakes. Shouldn’t writing a book be a mirror of that?

      p.s. I can’t wait to read your second book.

  32. Liz Tully says

    I recently read (here at WU?) that Hemingway re-wrote the last page to “A Farewell to Arms” 38 times. When asked what he was doing, he replied (something like), “I was getting the words right.”

    I think you have to go with what works for you. We constantly read books by people who advocate organized systems. It only makes sense. I think it would be difficult if not impossible to write a how-to book on an unstructured creative process. Who would buy it? What agent or editor would even work on it?

    So we are swayed that rigid structure works for everyone. It can’t.

    Sometimes I think that strict outliners are really writing a skinny first draft. After spending my first 6-8 months writing and then fixing POV problems, I found a book called the Marshall Plan. It is a technique which has you write scene outlines. It worked for me because you have to know your POV character, and their goal which kept me from meandering into territory that was not advancing the plot.

    I will admit that I am finding the last few scenes very difficult, but I think that would be happening with a plot or not. I have begun to think of my first draft as ‘the bones’ of the story and I am looking forward to the revision process to get ‘some meat on those bones’ where needed.

    At 120k and still not yet in the end, I also will need a nice sharp scalpel to slice away the fat. Ah, you can tell by this post I am long-winded.

    PS It took JRR Tolkien 10 years to finish the Lord of the Rings

    • says

      Trust me, if I were writing anything like The Lord of the Rings, I’d breathe easier about the amount of time it takes to write a story. :-) But thanks for the thought!

      “I have begun to think of my first draft as ‘the bones’ of the story and I am looking forward to the revision process to get ‘some meat on those bones’ where needed.”

      I think that’s a smart way to think about it, Liz. If I were you, I wouldn’t worry about trimming away the fat. It’s easier to do that than add meat.

      Best of luck with your story!

  33. says

    I am basically a pantser too but I actually managed to mostly plot out my last book and it went fairly smoothly. I thought I’d finally found my process, my holy grail. But when I tried to repeat the process with my next book it didn’t work at all. In fact, it so didn’t work I shelved the whole novel and started something completely new, via the pantser method. I can’t say why the same process of plotting didn’t work again but I’m glad I listened to my muse. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong way to write; it’s whatever works for you AND the story you’re writing.

    • says

      It’s like what Leanne said just above: “each manuscript I write is written in its own way.” Good for you for listening to your gut. Best of luck!

  34. says

    I am on draft 7.2 right now. And I’m considering changing the entire POV. D’oh! I’m a plotter. I need to know where I’m going, but there are little discoveries that just happen. Like symbolic items appear. Then I wrote those ideas down and try to remember to weave them in once in a while. It’s exhausting, and I’m starting to feel like I’m really an essayist. The energy is so different writing a book. Each time I revise, I have to start back at the beginning. It’s slow and tedious, but I haven’t found a better way. Yet. And I suppose if it were easy, everyone would write a book.

    I love the more you found. I need to relax and allow it to be more convoluted!

    • says

      Renée, is this your first book? I had so many versions of my debut novel, it was ridiculous. But this is so true: “I suppose if it were easy, everyone would write a book.” And, for what it’s worth, I’m intrigued to read your book. Stick with the community here, and be sure to let us know when your masterwork is available!

  35. says

    Ray Bradbury IS a genius! Thank you for sharing that quote.

    And for sharing your own story, which obviously a lot of us can identify with. At least for me, the core of this is so true: Writing isn’t the hardest part; getting out of one’s own way is.

  36. says

    For me, I started with a very clear ending in which a group of people were facing death, then worked backward to show how they all happened to get there.

    My first runthrough consisted of just the action events, without much of a human-response element worked in. (a skirmish in the civil war, then later a major battle, the hero almost accidentally kills himself). I thought I was getting close to “done” but then early beta readers showed me the light. After that I spent time methodically going through and focusing on point of view, thoughts and feelings, characterization. In that way, the original draft was more like a fat outline, though I think of myself as a pantser.

    The main thread is a love story and I knew that readers needed to identify with the heroine, but I also methodically revisited the relationships between any two characters at a time (there are six) and fleshed those out.

  37. says

    You didn’t know it, but you wrote this post for me. I am also on my second book. Also under contract and deadline. I was DETERMINED not to write a book every five years and so I tried to plot this one out. And the more I plotted, the more I hated everything about the story.

    I recently had lunch with my editor and when I told her that I was doing it differently this time, she looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “Respect your process,” was what she said. It took my stubborn self another month to really listen to her and give in to my own creative pull. But I finally did and the draft is going along smoothly and it keeps surprising me, which I feel is where the gold is.

    I think pantsters are natural storytellers, too. We just have to trust our internal sense of narrative WHILE we’re writing, instead of planning things out before. But we get there just the same :)

    • says

      Tracy, I am so happy for you. And what a smart, supportive editor you have.

      “We just have to trust our internal sense of narrative WHILE we’re writing, instead of planning things out before.”

      Absolutely. It’s like the “trust fall” exercise. You have to believe and trust that someone will catch you.

      Keep doing what you’re doing!

  38. says

    I’m also a pantser, and I’ve wrestled with my process a lot. It’s taken me forever to write my book, with many, many revisions. I did try an outline — off the revision — and it did absolutely nothing for me. I can’t connect my creativity to an outline. And forget all the formulas and stuff people have. I end up focusing on getting the formula and ignoring the story.

    But just a few weeks ago, I saw an article called “Go Organic” in Writer’s Digest. It’s written a writer who doesn’t outline, so his advice wasn’t filtered through techniques derived from outlining. Something in it really clicked for me. I ended up answering four questions for each scene and have plowed through more than I have in a long time.

    • says

      I’ll have to try to lay hands on that article, Linda; it sounds like a great one. Glad you know yourself and your process so well. That’s a huge part of the “battle.” Write on!

  39. says

    My process is very much like yours. I, too, am very tempted to try plotting, and so on. It seems so clean and efficient. But I’m afraid it never works. It’s kind of like my housekeeping. It’s messy, lived in, and yet, I know how to clean when I need to. I think we all need to be happy with what works for us–it’s so easy to compare ourselves and our processes and productivity to other writers. But we need to resist! So glad to know another book is on the way. I loved your first one so much.

    • says

      Thanks so much, Mollie, for your kind words and for making me feel better about the dust-bunny situation at my house. I can’t wait for your next book, either.

  40. says

    I love the word “panster” so much I want to claim to be one.

    However, I need some direction. I love to start with an end point in mind, and discover what happens along the way to reaching that end point . . . even if the original end point shifts by the time I get there. Having a goal gives direction to the story but having the freedom to meander and explore on the way gives it life.

    So that makes me . . . a panster on a mission?

  41. says

    These are wonderful comments! I’m sorry I’ve been unable to respond to them today, but I’ll be back with fresh energy in the a.m.

    Thanks, everyone!

  42. says

    Do you think that “natural storytellers” belong only to the plotter realm? I’m not sure I buy that. Maybe that’s my desperation talking, because I, too, am a pantster who tries to be a plotter and it doesn’t work for me, even within blog posts.

    Anyway, I’d urge you to give that belief more scrutiny!

    As for Scrivener, if you completely ignore the index cards, it’s good stuff for a pantster. I often am visited by dialogue or scenes, and like you, find those bits are often the best work. I write them on their own “page” within the manuscript, give it a title which identifies the essence, and then shift it around where it needs to go. I’ll often end up combining two or three snippets into one chapter. In other words, a good 50% or more of my index cards are filled out after the fact. *shrug*
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Ongoing Brain Wars (Plus Writer Unboxed Redirect)

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Jan. What I meant is that I’m not a natural because the story evades me for such a long time.

      Thanks for the Scrivener tips. I’m going to give it a try sometime soon!

  43. says

    I find motifs through my writing and must work them back into the book backwards; so yes, I’m a pantser. But I have a whole a great deal of research done and looked at various POVs as well as doing a great deal of research for my characters. Those are who lead me through my story. The guideposts for “all of us” as I write are the three stages of the arc. I am so glad you wrote this article. It means a lot to me.
    Lee J Tyler´s last blog post ..Which Two Industry Giants That You Use Every Day Are Ready To Rumble?

  44. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I came upon this post late tonight, just when I really needed it.

    Plotter, muller-over, write, plot and mull some more, that’s me. It takes me a long time to complete a first draft.

    Recently I’ve been questioning myself because of a lot of comments and articles that claim you must push through the first draft, just get the words on paper, or you’ll never get done.

    And you go and point out the obvious that is not always so obvious in writing advice. Do it whatever way works for you.

    Thanks Therese.

    • says

      Bernadette, it’s interesting that you bring up the “push through the first draft” suggestion. I’ve often thought things might work better for me if I could write that first draft quickly, within a few months. But I worry that all of that stuff in the underground — that “girls in the basement” knowledge — wouldn’t have time to make it to the surface and onto the page. Maybe it’s worth a try, though, especially if I can draft something in a few months.

      Best of luck with your own draft!

  45. says

    Ahhh, interesting and timely post. I never used to plot much. And the writing flowed. I just had an idea and grew it as I went. Then I fell prey to the “thou must plot” crowd. And I have not been able to write since. I lost my process and don’t seem able to get it back.

    Before, I listened to my characters and they always led me where the story needed to go. For me, plotting it all out “restricts” things and boxes the characters into molds where they cannot grow, and it limits the outcome. Where as just going with it and letting the story unfold and the characters grow, you discover hidden subplots that you may never have found when sticking to the plot you outlined.

    So I am trying to get my process back because frankly, the character won’t play when I plot it all out. They don’t like to be forced where they do not want to go, lol! They very much have minds of their own….. humph, should I be worried about that?

      • says

        Therese, thanks – yeah, I know. It’s just getting back in the saddle is um… a bit more thorny and difficult than I had anticipated. I have not quite pinned down what the opposition is. I am dipping my big toe back in the waters to see if it’s warm enough yet. LOL

  46. Scott McGlasson says

    I’d not written much in the way of fiction before starting on this novel and I’ve always been of the pantsing persuasion. However, as I’ve got what amounts to a cohesive trilogy with a very definite ending, I had to work back over the previous four decades and two generations of family to figure out just why in the hell these characters were doing what they end up doing.

    The goal was to have a character twist at the end that’s so emotionally gut-wrenching the reader will need to set the book down and look around for help.

    I wanted to drop little clues throughout the first and second book, though (little Easter egss which I have nicknamed “red doorknobs” after M. Night’s use of color in “Sixth Sense”) and when you’re trying to tie all of that together, there’s simply no way to do it without a roadmap.

    My hope is that someone that enjoys the overall story and characters will be able to re-read it and discover many new things. I want them to look back after that first read-through and say to themselves, “I just read two different stories and didn’t realize it until just now.”

    • says

      Scott, love this idea of “red doorknobs,” and I’m all for stories that need to be read twice. Best of luck with your trilogy! I’m intrigued.

      • Scott McGlasson says

        Thanks! It’s a beast, but I’ve bounced it off some writers in the genre and they’re excited to read it when it’s done. I had some real trouble getting the first one written, but I finally knuckled down and “pushed through”. The logjam was broken by doing a chapter summary/timeline. Lot’s of good ideas flowed from that simple exercise and I was off to the races.

        • says

          Mixing it up like that really can help, right? Sometimes when I’m stuck I’ll do something completely different, like journaling for a while from a character’s POV. Whatever works is what you should do.

  47. says

    Teri, I have been wondering how your try for a pants-free approach would work, and am grateful for the report. I think it just boils down to how minds can work so differently to achieve a similar result. I remember reading Elizabeth George’s book on writing and thinking that I could never, never, never do what she does to achieve her outstanding work. On the other hand, since my novels are not exactly bestsellers, maybe I should rethink this. Hmm.
    Ray Rhamey´s last blog post ..Flogometer: would you turn Andre’s first page?

    • Scott McGlasson says

      On the other hand, since my novels are not exactly bestsellers, maybe I should rethink this. Hmm.

      Didn’t Buddha or someone once say “hmm” was the start of all knowledge. Hmm, maybe it was “owhmm”.

    • says

      “Pants-free approach” made me laugh, have to admit. It sounds so freeing, but really it was confining for this writer. I want my pants back.

  48. says

    I’m somewhat a minimalist. I don’t use notecards. I don’t outline. I plot the story in my head. I do think. I ponder. I come to definitive conclusions about the plot and just write. This has worked so far. My second book “At the Crossing of Justice and Mercy” will be out in a few weeks.
    Dan Erickson´s last blog post ..could this be the one?

  49. says

    Lessons of trust are so important for writers. I’ve never attempted to plot—knew instinctively it wasn’t for me. But I have succumbed to external advice. The person providing feedback was a seasoned professional and her reasoning behind the story changes made so much sense, I thought I’d be a fool not to accept her advice.

    In the end I was a fool for following her lead. Once I recognized the mistake I was angry, but then I realized it was my own fault for not trusting my instincts. Our stories are personal. The journey of our characters must proceed from our hearts. If it comes from anywhere else the story rings false.

    Self-trust can easily be clouded by the noise around us. I’ve found the best way to silence the intrusions is to sit quietly and listen to my characters. It’s their journey. They know what they need to do.

    Thanks for sharing, Therese. Wishing you well as you move Onward and upward.
    Jocosa Wade´s last blog post ..SIX YEARS by Harlan Coben

    • says

      If there’s one thing I know–and this only serves to underscore the folly in my particular scenario–it’s that you must heed gut-sense. I’m glad that you know that now, too, Jocosa, even if the lesson came at a price for you. Good luck with your writing!

  50. says

    Great input. I’m working on my first book with a friend of mine and thus plotting has been important to us so we knew where the story went. We’ve spent a lot of time making notes about the characters, places and scenes of the book to make sure that our vision was the same. And we’ve changed the route to the end a few times along the way. But when not writing solo it is unavoidable to plot ahead :)

    I’m working on the plot to a solo book as well and I’m not sure how much I’ll plot down on that before hand – I’m writing notes at the moment and know sort of how it will end… but that’s just about it. I’m tempted to just write and see where the characters will take me. :)
    Jesper´s last blog post ..Dræb København!

  51. says

    “I remembered well from my meandering, ofttimes frustrating journey with my debut: Those bits could be the most rewarding in the end…” –

    really enjoyed reading your detour and back route to writing your work ;-)

    reminds me very much of my own!

    i do create a “working” outline, though by many writers’ definition, it might be called a chapter summary list, but it in itself is the result of meanderings and such

    overall, i now tend to balance “an working outline” with letting the story develop (which is how it began) with “allowing the story to breath” my dominant half

    thanks so much, all the best wishes ;-)

    Felipe Adan Lerma´s last blog post ..Paris in 5 1/2 Weeks : Photos # 8 – At the Eiffel Tower (Day 7, 2 of 2)

  52. says

    This post could have been written about me. The constant reworking, rewriting, and pruning makes for a lengthy writing process, but my pantser brain refuses to operate any other way. So like the notes you write to yourself, I have to tell myself “This book will take as long as it takes.”

    Good luck with your second novel!
    L.K. Donovan´s last blog post ..Pacing for Pantsers