Confession: the earliest incarnation of Manipulator’s War was not planned. I swiftly created a cast of thousands, moving sometimes with purpose, sometimes without and usually taking too long to get there. I’d imagine a scene or two, then sit down and write —I was a pantser. From the murk emerged main ideas and characters. The rest got deleted and the best re-written, informed by character craft and story structure studies. From there, several rounds of critical reader and editor feedback informed notes that led to a full fleshing out of my characters and story. If your first pantsed novel or two are a mess, what can help you bring structure to pantsing and help you minimise epic edits? I’ll interview three SFF authors below to find out, tracking their journeys from their pantser’s journey from story chaos to a semblance of order.
In the beginning, did you have scenes, themes or conflict ideas in mind?
A. E. Bennett: I had an overall idea of where I wanted the story to go and who my characters were, but when I wrote the initial draft of Gathering of the Four, I didn’t have any of what you might call the “meat” of the story. My characters had vague motivations, but nothing concrete to really do, which is I think part of the reason why my first draft was such a mess.
Azalea: I’d have characters and a general idea of certain scenes and plot, but nothing really concrete. I just went for it, with whatever came to mind at the time. I’d usually burn out after a few chapters.
Miriam: I had a general idea of the world I wanted to play in and a few snips of witty banter, that was it.
Did you know your main character, what makes them tick, or how they would grow?
A. E. Bennett: Oh, The Four were well-developed when I started. I already knew what Leora, Roland, Aurora, and Leopold looked like and all about their personalities. What I didn’t have was how to get them from point A to B to C. I was in search of a plot!
Azalea: I thought I had them figured out, but once I moved away from pantsing, it took a lot more planning and deep-diving to actually get into the meat of them. There were some stories I’d tried to write that I had zero idea who they were—I planned to find that out in the first draft.
Miriam: Not at all. I knew the MC was sexy and had wings haha.
When did you first let a critical reader read your work?
A. E. Bennett: I sent a version to critique partners before my editor. Some were incredibly helpful, others… not so much. I was new to understanding what makes a good critique partner and I didn’t properly vet some of the folks I sent my work to. Lessons learned!
Azalea: When I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse, it was the first time I tried bullet outlining. It was the first time I felt like I had come to the keyboard prepared, and with some semblance of confidence that I could at least finish a story. It was extremely barebones, but I had made a commitment to myself to bring the novella to completion. I wasn’t even sure it would reach novella status—short story at best. I may have let my critical reader at the time read some early chapters before I completed the first draft, but they definitely helped me work on all the drafts I had after that.
Miriam: I initially made the mistake of letting friends and family critique my work, and none of them had the balls to tell me it was awful. They either thought it was amazing, or were “too busy” to finish it.
How did critical readers help your pantser’s journey produce a well structured book?
A. E. Bennett: Well, I think the critique partners who helped me the most made me realize that, for something like the epic story I’m writing, pantsing doesn’t really work for me. As I’ve started work on the second book, I’ve realized that I do need an outline and structure in order to make The Serrulata Saga work. I guess you could call me a “reformed pantser” – haha!
Azalea: It wasn’t until I started structuring and writing a general bullet-outline that I started taking writing more seriously, and felt like I was capable of completing a story. Critical readers have helped me strengthen said outlines, however. If I had stuck to pantsing, I don’t think I’d have ever finished a story. I don’t mind being a bit loosey-goosey with chapter outlines at times, but I find the more structured I get, the less work I have in the long run.
Miriam: Finding people who weren’t afraid to hurt my feelings shot my writing forward, but I would say it was attending writing conferences that made the real difference in my career. I ended up shelving that pantsed series and plotting something completely new. Working with a group of critical readers is important because all writers have different skills and struggles.
How could you work more efficiently with critical readers?
A. E. Bennett: I’ve gotten much more selective about who I share my work with and whose work I critique with regards to genre. My books don’t appeal to everyone (which is fine, obviously) but I’m not going to get the feedback I need from someone who’s writing high fantasy, when that’s not what I do. I also don’t tend to enjoy critiquing certain genres myself, and I’m much more open about what types of books I will/will not make a good critique partner of. It’s been a learning process!
Azalea: Knowing what I want out of a read-through/critique helps, and asking for that particular feedback helps everyone stay on the right track. If I feel like a certain area is weak, I try to focus on questions in that area.
Miriam: As Azalea said, know what you want out of a critique. So many times I’ve sent out an early draft looking for plot holes and structural issues, and a reader has fixed the grammar instead. Those readers need to be cut from your team or brought on later in the writing process.
When or how did you move towards a form of outlining?
A. E. Bennett: I now make an overall outline – where I want the story to go and how I want it to end up. Some of my books are starting to overlap now, so I use an Excel calendar to keep everything sorted. I then go back and write bullet points about what needs to happen in each chapter to keep things moving. Sometimes my characters surprise me – I’ll certainly admit that – and I have to move things around, but after all of the pain involved with ripping Gathering of the Four apart and putting it back together again, I find this method to be much more efficient.
Azalea: My outlining started in 2017, when I started writing Witch in the Lighthouse. It was very light bullet outlining, one to two sentences per chapter of basic scenes, and I’d figure out the details as I went along. Now my outlining has evolved to one to several paragraphs per chapter, and I like utilising character sheets. I started using Fantasia Archive to help me stay more organised, and this helps tremendously.
Miriam: My outlining started just shy of a decade (or 300,000 words) into my writing career. I start with my character’s goal, motivation and conflict, and then outline the end of the novel so I know where I’m heading. From there I write a line or two per scene for the entire novel. Namesakes was the first novel I properly outlined, but I didn’t have a good handle on structure until I wrote Blessed Prey.
With the benefit of hindsight, when was the best time to plan?
A. E. Bennett: I should have thought about some of my side characters earlier. In the first draft of Gathering of the Four, I had a lot of side characters standing around doing nothing or entering or exiting scenes with no real purpose. I could have saved myself some time – and heart ache – if I had thought more about why they existed.
Azalea: It feels like every time I start a new novel, my method changes, even if just slightly, but one thing that never changes is that there are some things I just can’t predict in the planning that I end up having to scramble over later. There is still a pantser in me, I guess.
In my current WIP, my first draft has been very transformed from what I had written initially, all just from changing the attitude of a single character. That led me to push deeper into the background of what happened offscreen, to really get a handle on why characters were behaving the way they were onscreen, and for it to make sense to the reader. Planning all of these aspects before I’d even written the first draft would have been a blessing, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. I’m learning all the time!
Miriam: I wouldn’t change it. I learned the things when I was ready to learn them.
Where You’re At
Are you a pantser, plantser or plotter now, and what’s your current process?
A. E. Bennett: I’m much more of a plotter now. Since The Serrulata Saga is shaping up to be more books than I originally planned. I do need to think more carefully about who is doing what and when and why.
Azalea: I’d call myself a plantser, with an emphasis on plotting. Each time I try to plot more and more, but as usual, you can’t predict everything. I am much more detail oriented now than I was in 2017, my writing has improved by quite a lot, and I’ve found, for now, what works for me with critical readers and who helps me more than otherwise. I still wind up editing many, many drafts!
Miriam: I’d call myself a planner. I don’t have every aspect of a book or series plotted out, but I do have a solid road map before I go in. I know how the series ends before I begin the first book. My writing time is planned so that I always have something to work on, even if a WIP is off with critique partners. I draft fast and messy, then go though 6-10 rounds of revisions and edits, first working with early readers for character, structure, and plot, then more feedback from another group of readers to make sure those issues are fixed and address scene and line-level stuff. One of my readers is specifically for consistency (makes sure if the character had a coffee at the start of the scene she doesn’t have boba at the end etc) and other readers for sensitivity.
I use ProWritingAid so that my editor gets the cleanest draft possible, and when she’s done, I have the book proofread.
What advice would you give to pantsers, plantsers or aspiring plotters?
A. E. Bennett: Take your time! There is a lot of pressure to churn books out (at least, in my opinion) and you won’t do yourself any favours by rushing. I self-published two books last year and I should have held off on pushing out Gathering of the Four. It was sloppy and I think a lot of people gave up on it because of that. It’s in much better shape now, and I’m proud of it, but for a long time I wasn’t and that was really painful. Don’t be like me – have patience!
Azalea: Find a method that works for you, but try many. Ask questions, opinions, for help, and take your time. I also like to tell writers to just get the first draft down—you can edit later. Little, minute edits aren’t going to stop your progress (usually), but getting hung up on a sentence or paragraph can really turn your process into a slog. Leaving yourself notes in areas you’d like to go deeper on later can help to keep your momentum instead of stalling. Keep going!
Miriam: No one is interested in stealing your stuff, they have their own books to work on, and your early work is awful. Don’t worry, it’s supposed to be awful! But no one wants to steal it, so get it out there, get feedback from other people who write your genre. And show up. So much of writer culture is complaining about writing, making memes and tweets about not writing… that won’t get you anywhere. Do the work.