From Enthusiastic Pantser to Reluctant Plotter

By Gwen Florio

Whoa. Book 3 is done. Not just manuscript-done, or first-through-zillionth-rewrite done, but outta-here-and-off-to-print done. And Book 4 is send-the-manuscript-to-the-editor done.

Which means — this is where you hear the dum-dum-dum of ominous music — it’s back to the Blank Screen, which as far as I’m concerned, is scarier than any of the deadly situations I put my protagonist in. I’d rather face a guy with a gun any day. Even if he shoots me, it’ll be a quick death, rather than the lingering agony of trying to fill that screen with the words for Book 5.

Until now, I’ve always seat-of-my-pantsed my way through my manuscripts, starting with a character and a place. Those are the easy parts, given that I write a place-based series featuring the same protagonist. Then all — as in “all” — I have to do next is figure out what happens to my protagonist in that particular place.

It’s a meandering process, one that results in a lot of words being thrown out, once I finally figure out my plot. It’s worked for me so far, partly because I’ve had the luxury of time, writing novels as I await a publisher. When people asked if I outlined, I parroted indie author Jim Heskett, saying I regarded my first draft as a sort of outline. Writing to a real outline seemed so … secretarial. “There are no surprises,” I’d say. (As if I’d know.) “No way for characters or situations to take unexpected turns.”

Now, though, I have a lovely contract with unforgiving deadlines that don’t allow for the sort of shilly-shallying around that I’ve always done. And so, this lifelong pantser is tiptoeing toward the dark side, the one labeled plotter. I envision it as a room full of well-groomed people, calm in the certainty of where their manuscripts are headed. They’re armed with 3-by-5 cards and whiteboards and spreadsheets and outlines — things that, even if I had them, I’d never be able to find in the mess that masquerades as my office.

So I’m starting slow. The idea of an outline still makes me break out in hives, but a synopsis seemed manageable. I was surprised at how quickly a rudimentary plot took shape as I typed. Score one for plotters.

Still avoiding an outline, I looked around for more tools and found this 2013 post by Susan Spann on plotting mysteries, which is basically a 25-step program for recovering pantsers. Spann is an author (check out her Shinobi Mysteries) and an attorney, whose #PubLaw on Twitter is essential.

I went through 24 of the 25 steps, addressing each in terms of my nascent Book 5. I paid particular attention to Step 25 — “Put A Shiv Through The Heart of Any Advice That Doesn’t Work For You” — and so ignored Step 11 — “Outline, Outline, Outline.” When finished, I’d fleshed out my synopsis quite a bit more. Still not feeling secretarial. Good.

Finally, I took a deep breath and dove into the Scrivener pool, with its intimidating research folder and character sheets and virtual corkboard. For awhile, I thrashed around and was pretty sure I’d drown. Now I’ve mastered a dog paddle. Early chapters are taking shape. There have already been some surprises. Not secretarial, not at all.

Scrivener’s outline tool beckons, but I’m not quite there yet. Maybe Book 6.

Gwen Florio is a veteran journalist whose first novel, Montana, won a High Plains Book Award and Pinckley Prize for crime fiction, and was a finalist for an International Thriller Award, Shamus Award and Silver Falchion Award, all in the first novel category. Dakota was published in 2014 and her third novel, Disgraced, comes out in March 2016.

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