Pantsing vs. Plotting: My Road to Damascus

manuscriptThe Terrors of that crappy First Draft

I have always hated first-draft writing. A year or so ago I came to understand why.

After a quarter of a century in the writing game, I had made a habit of sitting down to the keyboard with insufficient preparation. Specifically, with mega-bundles of notes but an outline that amounted to little more than a handful of key ideas and scenes in my head.


The upshot: after a variety of missteps and false starts, it always took me w-a-y too long to finish a fracking first draft. Of almost anything.

Case in point, my Freshman effort as a novelist.

That manuscript was well over a foot tall. It had so many characters, digressing scenes, and winding subplots that after years of work the first draft clocked in at 250,ooo words.

That’s the size of the entire Lord of the Rings.

No surprise then that, coupled with other newbie mistakes and a busy big-family daily life, it took me fourteen years to publish that book. A book I had intended as the first in a series of five or six modern thrillers with mythic themes.

At that rate, I realized, I’d be as old as Gandalf before I finished the entire series.

writers-blockMy version of Writers Block

After a few more years of busy life and short-piece writing (during which time my series plans languished) it dawned on me that my first novel, The Mystery of Things, whatever its virtues, would not serve the Grail saga as it was growing in my imagination.

If I wanted to continue with the series, I’d have to rewrite the whole damned thing.

That was…depressing.

Worse, I also came to the conclusion that TMoT should really be the second novel in the series, not the first. There was another story I needed to tell first.

This is the kind of confusion you end up with when you brainstorm a Big Idea, but are too impatient (or ignorant) to take the time to sort  it out before you tackle that dreaded first draft.

Did I mention this was all very depressing?

It was everything I could do to conjer the energy to plunge into the next book. But I did. I slogged away at it, sharing my uncertain drafts with my patient critique group, all the while sensing that something was wrong.


Finding the Path Forward

Then, about a year ago, after slogging maybe a third of the way into my second novel, I realized panic and dismay that I was repeating the great mistake of my first novel:

I was writing scene after scene without a clear idea of where I was going. I was stumbling blindly down a false trail.

At least this time I understood how I’d got myself off-track: Not only had I failed to outline the book, I had insufficiently envisioned, outlined, and researched the entire series.

No wonder I was lost. There were no breadcrumbs to follow through the forest.

Now, I don’t doubt there are sometimes good reasons for pantsing. Too, even when you’re unsure of your destination, you may, in Zen fashion, find the meandering journey worthwhile for any number of reasons. I get that. But I was undertaking an epic literary journey. Without a map. The chances that flying by the seat of my pants would take me anywhere near where I wanted to go were not promising.

That’s when it hit me, like lightning out of a clear sky.

I was working like a Pantser when the epic story that had driven my imagination for going on twenty years demanded I be a Plotter. And a hard-headed. meticulous one at that.

So I hunkered down with a stack of how-to-outline books. (I’ve put together a bookshelf of the ones I found most helpful at the end of the post.) Then I gathered my ten years’ worth of accumulated notes, powered up my Scrivener, my Evernote, organized several shelves’ worth of  research material, and finally, finally, got down to doing my Due Diligence.

Hey, sometimes I’m a slow learner. But when I finally learn something, I learn it very well.


It’s been almost a year since my Road to Damascus moment. I have a detailed scene-by-scene outline of the book, including a clear idea of how to rewrite the scenes I’d already drafted. The plot, characters, and themes of the book have taken shape.

I also have a plan for rewriting The Mystery of Things, plus outlines and character maps for the entire series.

Consequently, my imagination has taken flight. It’s incredibly liberating.

Like the old song says, I know where I’m going and I know who’s going with me. I even feel confident enough to set a specific goal: to wrestle down a first draft by Christmas, 2014.

That’s why, when a month or so ago someone reminded me that November is NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month, I instantly knew the timing was a bit of Synchronicity worthy of Herr Doktor Jung.

I am, as Bilbo would say, ready for another adventure. I’m ready to undertake the Quest, along with thousands of other writers, to chunk out fifty thousand words in the month of November, 2014.

All hail the NaNoWriMo fellowship!

Next Page, My How-to-Outline Bookshelf.

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Categories: Writing.

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