Get Your Plot Out of My Pants: A Breakdown of My Writing Process

Introduction

Generally speaking, writers fall into one of two different camps:

A “Plotter” (or “Outliner”) is a writer who carefully plans their novels before they actually write them.  Plotters may delve into detailed chapter summaries, outline every last plot point, write extensive character backgrounds, and diagram how everything in their novel fits together.

A “Panster” is the opposite of the “Plotter”.  This is a writer who makes things up as they go (“writing by the seat of their pants”).  A Pantser detests outlines, eschews character backgrounds, and laughs at the notion of planning out their work.

The avatar of Pansters everywhere.

Neither camp is better than the other, and the majority of writers insist that they actually fall somewhere in between the two.  I’m one of those “in-betweeners”, but I have a couple of other practices that some may find…unusual.

The Outline

I usually have a good idea of what my next novel is going to be about, but rarely do I know how it’s going to end.  I usually just start with something simple, like this: “Book 2: The characters destroy something old and evil.  They will meet a creature called the Woman in the Ice.  Will have gladiator duels.  End with a battle scene: think Saving Private Ryan meets Hellraiser.”

There you go.  That’s what I had to work with when I started writing Black Scars, Book 2 in the Blood Skies series.  Now here’s where things get strange.

I read a lot (albeit very…very…very slowly), and there are a lot of authors I admire and steal from wantonly try to emulate.  If I like the structure of someone’s book, I’ll sometimes try to mirror that book’s form or format.  This is where my version of an “outline” comes into play.

The first thing I do before I start writing is decide how many chapters my book will have.  I generally write books in three “parts”, so my instinct is to go with 21 or 24 chapters.

If I intend to tell the story from more than one character’s Point-of-View, I’ll go through and try to break down who I’ll be focusing on for each chapter.  This assignment is often arbitrary – I just try to give my characters equal “page time”.  (Starting with Book 4, I made the decision to split POV time between my main characters, Cross and Black, as well as a random third member of the mercenary team the novels revolve around.  In Book 4, that third POV belongs to Kane; in Book 5, it’s Ronan.  And this means jack to you if you haven’t read my novels, but I’m telling you anyways. ;P)

This breakdown is only a guideline: I’ll often add notes as I go along.  (For example, if Chapter 8 ends with Character A about to be eaten by a subaquatic marauder, I’ll make a note that when the character makes his next appearance in Chapter 12 I’ll need to figure out how he escapes…stuff like that.)

In addition to the number of chapters, I’ll usually start with some sort of word count in mind.  If another author’s book has what I think is the right length, tone, and “feel” of what I’m trying to write, I’ll steal…are you ready for it?…that book’s CHAPTER LENGTHS!  That’s right.  I’ll start from my favorite part of whatever book I’m stealing from emulating, and do a chapter-by-chapter word count estimation.  I’ll note those chapter lengths in my own chapter outline, and stop when I’ve covered every chapter.  I’ll then do a quick tally and see what the total word count will be in my novel.  Considering a) that my average book is about 86K words long, and b) that I’ll cut at least 12K words between the rough and the final draft, my target is usually around 98-100K words or more.  If I haven’t reached that number with the outline yet, I’ll figure out the difference between what I’ve got and what I’m aiming for, divide that difference by the total number of chapters, and assign that many words to each chapter across the board.  (In case you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a giant dork.)

My chapter length formula, broken down and made easy.  There will be a test, so pay attention.

The Pants

And then comes the writing.  At this point, “outline” in hand, I plow through the actual “writing the novel” part.  How much I write on any given day completely varies – if I’m in the throes of multiple editing and blogging deadlines I’ll be lucky to write 400 words.  If it’s a “standard” writing day, I’ll get down 1,000-1,500 words.  If I’m in full “writing” mode, 2,000-2,500 words is the norm.  And if I’m in the “I’m going to finish this novel before I allow myself to go to the bathroom” stage, I can pour in 3,000-5,000 words in a day.

At this point, I’m “pantsing” it.  I just write.  I probably have some notes about what will happen in the chapter (mostly made while writing previous chapters), and that’s usually enough to get me going.  Everything else comes to me on the fly.

As I mentioned already, the outline is a living document.  What happens while I’m actually writing takes precedent.  If a character dies halfway through the WIP and I had plans to write later chapters from his POV later…well, then I’ll improvise.  If the books winds up finishing before I hit my word count, oh well.  If it ends up going longer…well, you get the idea.

The Example

To pull it all together (like’s it’s possible to pull my scatterbrained BS together), here’s a snapshot of part of my outline from the book I’m currently writing, THE WITCH’S EYE, Book 5 of the Blood Skies series.  The format is simple:

Chapter (POV character): Word count [notes]

Eight (Black): 4,070 [Danica is “re-trained” to be more obedient to Lynch]

Nine (Cross): 2,250 [the escape from Tain’s slavers; trapped in the Bone March; do Flint and Shiv survive?]

Ten (Ronan): 2,330 [as a member of the Southern Claw unit; discuss how Jade is held captive]

Eleven (Black): 4,330 [assault on the Witchborn nest located in Wolftown]

Twelve (Ronan): 4,350 [big battle at Wolftown, Ronan sees and maybe battles Black]

Thirteen (Black): 4,680 [aftermath, stranded, hunted down by Ronan]

Fourteen (Cross): 6,130 [finding out where he needs to go; he and the others avoid Dirge, meet Lith hunters searching for the Witch’s Eye]

Fifteen (Ronan): 4,470 [meets Creasy; he and the team decide where to go]

Sixteen (Black): 4,950 [flashbacks in the river]

Seventeen (Cross): 7,530 [searching the coast of Rimefang Loch w/ the Lith]

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13 comments on “Get Your Plot Out of My Pants: A Breakdown of My Writing Process

  1. That is quite the writing process, Steven! I don’t know how knowing your goal for chapter word count but having only one sentence of the potential plot comes together, but I’m glad it works for you. You’ve actually had characters, whose POV you planned to write in later, die unexpectedly!? That would be such an “oops” moment for me. 🙂

    • I rarely plan character deaths. If they’re shocking for me, they seem to be that much shocking for others. But yeah, I’ve had it happen, and I’ve had to go and re-work things. And it did feel like an “oops” moment. ;D

    • I was thinking the same thing, except that most of those chapter descriptions don’t come around until I’m already writing the novel (they’re usually blank when I start). So I’m not sure what the heck I am. Maybe I’m a pantser with a flashlight. =D

  2. I’m a plotter who is constantly trailed by a bunch of hippies encouraging me to “be free” and “go where the wind takes me”. And I very heartily say yes, as long as the wind has mapped out a three page “this happens and then this happens and this is how we feel about that” pseudo-synposis of the whole blasted way. Only then do I truly feel the freedom to write. Seriously, interesting stuff on chapter lengths and word count. Found that applicable. Cheers and happy writing!!!

    • That’s about right, Tara. I think I secretly want to be a plotter, but I know I’ll just change my grand plans anywhere, so there’s no point. My (admittedly strange) method gives me some flexibility. ;D

  3. Great post, Steven.
    I typically have a pretty good idea where I’m headed as I write, with a sentence or two of idea for each chapter, a word or two for each plot point (sometimes just whose POV, like you). I don’t out any thought to the number of chapters or word count (total or per chapter). I know my books will always end up at 100000+, so no worries there, and I like to keep my chapters from being too long. No matter how much planning I do, though, it seems everything ends up changing.
    Can’t wait to start reading Blood Skies!

    • Thanks, Bruce! I think I got in the habit of counting out chapter lengths during my third Nanowrimo tour and the habit never really left. Not sure if that’s good or bad, but it’s become a part of my process. =D

    • In all seriousness, though, plotting is one of my favorite parts of the process, but I have to keep things open ended. The actual writing more often than not veers me off into very strange places, and if I try to force things back into a pre-drafted outline it just….gets messy.

  4. Pingback: Back in the Blogging Saddle, and a 3 Free Books for Friday the 13th « Blood Skies

  5. Pingback: Blood Skies: On Writing: The Book That Swallowed My Brain

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