Plotting vs. Pantsing: How to have the best of both worlds

Lots of people ask me how I write so fast. Not only because I make time to write, but I genuinely enjoy the writing process and sitting down with my characters is actually fun for me. I don’t need all the accountability groups out there, nor do I need someone guilting me into getting my words written. Other writers ask me what I do, and I’ll tell you.

I’m a plantser.

It’s as simple and as messy as that.

Being a plantser, for me, means I come up with the general idea of the story. This means piecing the plot together weeks, even months, before I start putting anything down on paper. Hey, my brain is a messy, yet, organized, place. As the sign says in my nail salon:

watercolors in blue and grey. Text: welcome to my beautiful chaos.

Anyway, bits of dialogue comes to me, what the characters look like, their motivations and stakes. When I do sit down to write, what I know looks like this:

If you think about your book as an alphabet, I know the beginning, some of the middle–the biggest plot points that make up the story–and the end. I don’t always know the exact end except that they’re going to be happy and together, usually with a marriage proposal. I’ve been told in reviews I rush the endings of books, so I try to take my time, really make the characters work for it.

The rest I kind of figure out as I go along. I write completely in chronological order because I’ll mess up the character arcs if I don’t. Some say they write out their favorite scenes first, but I think that’s silly. The whole book should be your favorite scene, and a reader is going to know which scenes you didn’t like writing because they won’t like reading them.

I should have bolded the O, because at around 40k is when I make something huge happen. I’m not sure if this is the best way to combat that sagging middle, but so far it’s worked for me. When that happens, I try to make sure that it strengthens the couple and they can see how good they are together.

In romance you also have the “big bad” where they break up and the characters have to figure out if love is a good enough reason to go through the changes they have to go through to stay together. James Scott Bell says that’s a character’s “look in the mirror” scene in the book, but he pegs that at about 50% of the way, where I think mine is more 75% of the way, or I try to have about 20,000 words of the book left.

So I suppose we could add a few tags to the chart above:

There are little things that you have to add, but I think when you write a lot of books you do this intuitively and you don’t necessarily need to be told to include it. Like the Getting Together part of the story. They reconnect, or they meet, whichever romance trope you’re writing, but with the attraction also comes the reasons why they would never work as a couple. He’s a recovering alcoholic, she owns a popular bar. In the story I’m writing now, Juliet left Finn in college for another guy. She comes back eleven years later, and while she’s keeping a huge secret, that’s not even part of the story right now. He is still in love with her, but he hates her for leaving him. That’s a lot of conflict, and we’re not past the first chapter.

I like the freedom to fill in the blanks. Pantsers think that they don’t have any freedom when they have to plot a book, but if you think of the bones of the story, you can fill in the muscle as you go along and adjust accordingly. In the series I wrote last year, a character killed another character. It surprised me as much as it surprised the other characters because I was already planning books with this character still alive. The books I wrote after his death though are so much better. So while I like having plot points to work with, I appreciate having the freedom to pivot when needed.

This doesn’t mean that when I start writing that I have the whole book planned out. I notice now looking at the chart I made, I have the Something Bad figured out and I’m at 38k right now, about where I like the Something Bad to happen, but I completely have no idea how the BIG BAD is going to work, or what it’s going to entail. They have to break up at some point. There has to be so much weight on their relationship they crumble, but they have to come back better than ever. So, I’ll keep plotting as I write and something will come to me.

Sometimes when you’re traveling the main highway, you have to take detour but you can find some awesome things when you’re taking a side road.

All filled in, my chart looks like this:

This will be as close to a formula as I get. I’ve tried reading craft books like Save the Cat Writes a Novel, and Romancing the Beat and a few others. Nothing makes sense to me. I mean, in Save the Cat, the idea is to have your main character save a cat so your readers can see what a good person he is. Okay, then they say, well, put that in the first five percent of your book. I can’t think like that. The closest thing I come when thinking in those kinds of terms is when I say, “Put your inciting incident as close to the beginning as possible. The first page, if you can.” I go by this because the longer you keep your reader from finding out what the book is going to be about, the more of a chance you have of losing them. In romance, that means shoving your main characters together ASAP. And maybe the guy does “save the cat” by helping her cross the road, or he’s the grumpy boss who swallows his temper to help an intern pick up scattered papers. But it feels so, I don’t know, contrived when you say, I’m going to put that in, right HERE.

Some of the best writing advice I have read was from the book The Bestseller Code. I love that book, and I think I might have borrowed it out because I don’t know where it is but I want to read it again. They explained why the 50 Shades books did so well, and it’s simply this: for every good thing that happened to Ana and Christian, bad things counteracted it. Their highs and lows in book one looked like this:

I grabbed this from Deidre Beecher who posted this on a Quora thread, and you can look at it here. That’s what I try to do with my stories, too. Give my readers emotional highs and lows. You have to give them hope the couple will make it while tearing them apart.


So that’s my process in a nutshell. When you write a lot some things become innate and you do them without knowing you’re doing them. I’m not saying my way is the best way–I’m hardly a bestseller, but I’d like to think I know what a romance consists of. I’ve been reading them long enough. A lot of the secret is finding out your genre’s tropes and being sure to include them.

I plan out more than a pantser is probably comfortable with, but I leave way too much out to make a plotter happy. That suits me. I have a process that works and I’m not going to question it.

What’s your process? Let me know!


Here’s the first scene of book one of my billionaire series–not the one I’m letting breathe, but the second series I’m working on.

Thanks for reading!

***

My gut twists and sweat runs down my back. 

This is the meeting I’ve been waiting for. This is the meeting where Ryan Carmichael finally gives me what he promised me the day he took me under his wing. I shift in the leather seat that sits in front of his desk. My jacket feels too tight, my tie threatens to choke me. I’ve worked for this moment since I was ten years old, a little boy crying in his backyard.

The man standing in front of a wall made of glass looks over the city of Briarwood, his hands clasped behind his back, the world, literally, at his feet. 

I’ve always wanted to be him when I grew up.

Now he’s giving me the chance.

“My daughter needs a husband,” Ryan says without turning around.

I should have known his deal would have shackles. Shackles I will gladly lock around my ankle. “And you want me to marry her.”

Ryan laughs. “Not what I meant, son.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“Colt, I’ve raised you like my own kid the second your father high-tailed it out of the city. I’ve rewarded you like my own flesh and blood, and punished you, too.”

I press my elbow into the chair’s armrest and rub my lips with my finger. In the twenty-six years since my dad abandoned me and my mom, Ryan has been more of a father to me than my old man ever was.

“I’ve never complained.”

Ryan turns away from the windows and leans against his desk. “You haven’t. Not once, and that makes me believe you’re the only one who can do this job for me.”

Not marry Elayna?”

“No. She needs someone. She’ll be thirty-five years old in three weeks. Her mother is planning her the biggest party since . . . God knows what, hoping it will show her she finally needs to grow up. You know as well as I do that girl parties every weekend. She doesn’t need a birthday excuse to hit the clubs, and it needs to stop. She needs a husband to rein her in, and you’re just the man to find her one.”

“Elayna’s gorgeous, Ryan. She can find her own husband.” For the past ten, no, fifteen, years, I’ve been waiting with dread for her to do it. The only thing I want more than Elayna Carmichael is half her daddy’s company.

“She’s drunk all night and sleeps all day. She’s not looking for a quiet life. If you want to sign on the dotted line, you’ll make her see reason. When she has an engagement ring her on finger, I’ll draw up the contract.”

I think he’s joking, but his eyes glint hard, and his lips are pressed together.

“You’re serious.”

“As a heart attack.”

Fury zips through me. I haven’t worked my ass off for the past fourteen years to have a woman determined to do her own thing come hell or high water take it away from me. “How in the fuck am I supposed to do that?”

Ryan stiffens. “Watch yourself. I don’t think you should talk to me like that.”

“How the fuck—” I say deliberately, looking him dead in the eye— “do you think I should talk to you when you drop something like this on me? You promised.” 

I sound like a whiny kid, but what he’s asking me to do will be impossible. I’ll never see half this company. All the time, sweat, and tears I put into helping Ryan Carmichael build Carmichael Financial into the powerhouse it is today, right now, will be for fucking nothing because Elayna Carmichael, gorgeous, rich as sin, Elayna Carmichael, is a high-functioning alcoholic who does nothing but party and spend live off her trust fund. Almost thirty-five years old and she doesn’t have a job, does nothing with her social work degree she earned from the private university Ryan sent her to. The paparazzi have a blast reporting her comings and goings from all of Briarwood’s hotspots. 

She’s a train wreck.

A heartbreakingly beautiful train wreck.

“I did make a promise, and I’m not breaking it. I just need you to do this for me, Colt. You’re a good judge of character. You’ll find her a man who will treat her right. Dry her out. I’m not getting any younger. I want to see her settled.”

I swallow thickly. “You’re not sick, are you?”

Ryan huffs a laugh. “No. Just getting old. I don’t want to run myself into the ground. Marla wants to travel, see the world. Can’t do that when Elayna—well, we don’t need to talk about that. Finn Sullivan, bless the man, has kept her out of trouble, but he’s not God.”

“I’m not either.”

“No, but you can find her a man she’ll want to dry out for. Find her a man who will take over my fifty percent when I retire. Find her a man you’ll want to work with.” He stares hard at me.

I get it now. He’ll write off fifty percent of his company to me. Later, when he retires, I always assumed the other fifty percent would go to Elayna who is an only child. She’s not capable of running her father’s billion dollar company. Didn’t go to school for it. Ryan’s asking me to find a partner. 

“That’s a tall order.”

Ryan rounds his desk and pulls out a piece of paper from a drawer. “I’ve done some preliminary work for you. I’ve shortlisted my picks.”

I meet him halfway and take the paper he holds out. I scan the names and push aside a twinge of hurt when I see Sullivan’s name on the list, but not mine.

Ryan thinks I’m good enough to take over half his company, but not good enough to marry his daughter. 

Well, fuck him.

And fuck her too, for not seeing what’s smack in front of her face.

2 thoughts on “Plotting vs. Pantsing: How to have the best of both worlds

  1. Oh, I’m a planster, too!!! I jot down plot points in my document with characters, their physical features and any other unique things (in fantasy, their magic speciality, I suppose). They keep adding up as I write the story. If I get pieces of dialogue from some time in a possible future, I write that down, too.

    I usually write fantasy, so this works. But when I wrote my second romance novel, it was a different genre for me, so I had to plot a lot more. I still had times when I moved the plot points around – or made a few chapters longer than I had planned. I still had space to move.

    So yea, that’s my method. I rather like this second way of writing, because then, writing became so smooth, without many writer blocks. 😃

    Liked by 2 people

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