The age-old question for novel writers regarding how they work:
Are you a plotter or a pantser? It sounds funny, but writers really do fall into one of two categories. They usually make a detailed plotline before they write and then follow it, sometimes allowing for a little serendipity. OR they write by the seat of their pants, meaning they write as they go, following the muse wherever it leads. Then there’s the plotser. I believed myself to fall into this category, as I always know the beginning and end of my story as well as some major plot points, critical scenes, and the climax.
But which one is right for writing?
Truly, either style CAN work. What I’ve learned over time is that the pantser tends to have more freedom in the beginning but will have more work after the first draft. The plotter takes more time to choreograph all the details ahead of time, but ends up with a more polished first draft.
So really, what you want to ask yourself is whether you want more work after you write (pantser) or more work before you write (plotter). Either way, there is significant work involved! 😉
For plotting tips, I recommend reading Outlining Your Novel by K. M. Weiland. The author makes plotting seem like an organic process. It’s not so much about roman numerals and bullet points but more about figuring out what drives the narrative and building around that. You basically keep a notebook of the details you do know in the order in which they happen and then just keep building on that until you connect all the dots. Ask yourself a lot of questions and write in a stream of consciousness format, allowing for many different possibilities to unfold. By doing this now, you’re more likely to figure out plot holes and fix them instead of writing yourself into a corner. You’ll also quickly notice where your story lacks tension.
One great suggestion the author offers when you get stuck is to consider working backwards. If you know what happens at the climax and you know one of the major events leading up to it, but you don’t know what happens in-between, you can use the climax as a springboard. Meaning, think about what is necessary for the climax to occur, ask yourself some questions, and you will likely discover ways to lead up to this point. That way you are less likely to add random, meaningless events just to fill space from point A to point B.
Once you get to the level of crafting individual scenes, consider Darcy Pattison’s advice on her popular blog, Fiction Notes. In her post entitled “My 4000 Word Day: Prewriting,” she says, “Scenes need a beginning, middle, end; add in conflict and a pivot or turning point; stir with some great emotional development.”
Consider using a set of index cards and have one per scene. Identify the POV, 3 reasons for each scene (i.e. character, theme, plot/subplot advancement), the number of pages, and on which day in your story the scene takes place (from your timeline or story calendar). You can also rearrange the cards to determine the best scene progression.
Now if you insist on pantsing, which is OK, you might try these tips that I learned at Detcon, the North American Science Fiction Convention held in Detroit last summer. When you get blocked, try using tarot cards, especially a literary archetypes deck. You can also consider collaging ideas or creating a mind map. You want to at least have a broad story arc and know up to 2 or 3 scenes ahead. The voice is key, so try to nail that within the first 10,000 words before moving on.
The coolest thing I discovered about detailed plotting is how it actually heightens creativity rather than stifles it. You’re still making up every detail from your imagination. I would argue you can actually keep the flow going more easily at this stage, because you aren’t also focused on language and crafting the perfect sentences. Furthermore, plotting reduces the anxiety of sitting down to write, since now you have a guide to follow. Every sailer needs a map, even if you plan to go off course every once in a while.
So plot the course of your novel, and prepare to sail through your first draft with unexpected ease!