Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: How a Pantser Became a Plotter

Hi. My name is Gail and I used to be a pantser.

During a presentation on co-writing at the Midsouth SCBWI conference a couple of weekends ago, I mentioned that writing the You're Invited books with Jen Malone turned me from a pantser to a plotter. This devolved into a discussion of pantsing versus, well, pantsing, but it got me thinking about why and how I changed my entire approach to writing. 

Before I start in on the how and the why, I want to say that there is no one right way to write. You have to do what works best for you and your stories, whether that's starting a book with only a vague idea of where you're headed, meticulously planning each scene, or some combination of the two.


You're Invited chapter outline
I was a diehard pantser. I wrote three books that way, and two of them sold. And then . . . Jen and I started co-writing You're Invited. Turns out, you can't pants your way through a co-written book unless you develop some kind of mind-reading device! We plotted that book because we had to, with a synopsis and a simple chapter-by-chapter outline. 

The biggest surprises to me were 1) the book was still fun to write even though I knew where it was going, and 2) it didn't need massive rewrites, the way most of my books had up until that point. The plot was decent, the character arcs actually made sense the first time around, and the pacing worked.

Considering I'd rewritten half of my most recent manuscript twice before I even sent it to my agent, I was sold.


Gail's Five-Step Method to Becoming a Plotter (a.k.a. Plotting for Dummies, Like Me):

1) Buy Scrivener. Okay, you don't have to buy Scrivener, but it was on sale and I was curious. And holy wow, this program is a plotter's BFF. It has an outliner. It has a virtual corkboard with index cards. It has a place to collect all your research so you aren't floundering for names when your editor says, all brightly, “Can you send me your acknowledgments by tomorrow?” It has character worksheets, a place to collect images, and more color-coding than I could ever figure out how to use.

Pretend this is my backyard. Used under a Creative Commons
license, credit: Abe Kleinfeld.
2) Acts and Scenes. I started with a three act structure because it's simple and not intimidating, and, after all, I was a recovering pantser. I mean, anyone can think up a beginning, a middle, and an end, right? I typed those out on the faux-notecards in Scrivener and felt very proud of myself. Next, I wrote out the major turning points in the book. Then came the scenes that fit in between the turning points. The ones in the first act of the novel came easily, because I'd been thinking about them for a while. But the second act? Uh....wait, stuff has to happen in the middle of the book? I had some serious brain block, so I sat myself in my backyard and refused to go in until I'd come up with something like fifty possible things that could happen in the middle. It didn't matter if they were brilliant ideas or useless things, like Joey eats a pizza and learns that he really, truly, and with an undying passion worthy of a daytime Emmy, despises mushrooms. If I thought of it, it got written down. Out of the fifty, I culled about ten decent ideas, arranged them in an order that made sense, and plopped them down onto my wannabe-notecards. Voila, an outline-type-thing!

3) Characters. I'm of the opinion that most of what I learn about my characters, I learn as I write. So I didn't fill out any crazy questionnaires about the characters' favorite colors or fondest childhood memories. But I did come up with a physical description, suss out the character's biggest need and want, figure out how the character changed from beginning to end of the book, write out a little backstory so I could figure out their secrets, and brainstorm a few personality quirks and tics.

4) The Wall Method. Here's where I got crazy with post-its. I saw this on a few blogs and loved the way it looked, so I gave it try. I put the major action of each scene on a post-it and slapped them on the wall. Underneath, I used different colored post-its to track each main character's emotional arc and the romance. Each act of the story got its own “line” on the wall. It looked like this halfway through, and I loved it:
FYI, actual post-its work better than
note paper and tape.
But . . . I didn't use it as I drafted. I rearranged my fake notecards in Scrivener as I figured out that certain scenes would go better a different places in the story or added scenes or changed the pacing of a character arc, but I didn't rearrange my wall outline. Verdict? Great, if you can keep up with it. Otherwise, in the future, I'm going to save this method for revision.

5) Pinterest and Playlists and Research. I'm adding these because they helped me with the actual plotting. I've never actually used Pinterest – it always seemed to be the realm of the Crafty People who have endless hours to create adorable shabby-chic things I'd mess up with my first shot of Elmer's Glue and who organize clutter in pretty baskets and never seem to have pet fur anywhere in their houses. But, my fellow messy-house, non-crafters, Pinterest is AMAZING for book inspiration! I pulled together images of people who looked like my characters, the setting, and even a character's car, for heaven's sake. I kept it in  a browser tab as I wrote so I could flip back to it. I also made a playlist, which was fabulous to listen to in the car as I parsed out scenes in my head while on the way to and from my day job. And research! I did tons of research – and the key here is that I did it before I wrote, rather than chasing it down after the fact. I talked to several people about various aspects of the plot and googled like mad, and all of this helped me figure out different directions the plot might take.

Did I stick exactly to my outline? Nope. I rearranged as I went when I needed to. But did it give me a first draft that was more than just word vomit? Yup.

And that, folks, is how I became a plotter.  


  1. I love Scrivener too. I've seen several versions of the post-it note on the wall outline, but never found one that works for me. Still, I'm always curious to see how others use it. Thanks!

    1. I'm curious to see how well it works for revision. I'll have to report back!

  2. Love this- plotting You're Invited turned me from a pantster to a plotter too, and I'm trying it now on my solo project (haven't tried the Post-it Note wall yet, but I'm not ruling it out!). Great post, Gail.

  3. Great ideas, Gail! My first MG was written in true pantser form. And after a second rewrite, it still needs work. But by bleeding through that process, I learned the importance of outlining internal and external conflict. And I outline all my picture books.

    1. Bleeding -- that is the PERFECT way to describe rewrites! I love that you outline PBs, too.

  4. Great post, Gail! I too am a pantser but you're so right about Scrivener. It makes me feel like a plotter! I highly recommend Scrivener! I'm not sure I'm brave enough for the post it wall yet. Baby steps.

    1. Yeah, the post-it wall is kind of intimidating. I'm definitely going to try it for revisions, next go-round though.

  5. This post both inspires me and terrifies me! I'm afraid Scrivener will turn me into a blubbering idiot. Is it as intimidating as it sounds?

    1. It's definitely a big program with a lot of features, but I'd been told by more than one person to take the time to go through the tutorial before attempting to do anything in it. And I think that's what helped it be less intimidating -- I felt like I had at least a minimal handle on it before I jumped in. I think it comes with a 30 day trial period, so if you find you hate it, you don't have to keep it. :)

  6. As a tried-and-true Post-It devotee, do you think I'm ready to try Scrivener? It seems like something I'd love! But if I use it, I can't type in Word, right? Change is hard!

    1. Oh yeah, you'd be able to do Scrivener easily! But yeah, it's not in Word. You can export your document into Word, or they have an option where you can see the entire ms at once in Scrivener (as opposed to a chapter or a scene). I always had problems revising in Word because I couldn't remember which scene happened when, so I really liked revising in Scrivener because I named each scene and could tab between them easily.


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