Sunday, April 8, 2018

Two Ways to Write a Novel

There are two main ways to go about writing a novel: you can plot it or you can pants it. 

If you plot your novel, you work out the plot before you start writing. You know how it ends, and you know how you get to that ending. You create an outline before you start writing.

If you pants your novel, you probably have an idea in mind when you get started, but you may not know the ending, and you don't outline the plot ahead of time. You write by the seat of your pants, as it were. You improvise.

It’s best to think of these two options as opposite ends of a spectrum. Your personal style may lie somewhere in the middle. It may even vary from project to project.

Each side has its pros and cons, and what works for one writer may not work for another.

Plotting your novel ahead of time means you don’t have to worry about writing yourself into a corner. You’re far less likely to realize you need to cut fifty pages or eliminate a character. Foreshadowing is much easier when you know what’s coming. Although you’ll still have revise your work—there’s no way to avoid that—the revisions will generally be less intensive and less painful if your manuscript was plotted ahead of time.

If you’re a published writer and want to pitch your agent or editor before you’ve finished a project, plotting is essential. Yes, your plot may change a bit as you go, but you need something substantial to show others.

But pantsing has some advantages, too. Some people don’t like plotting and will drag their feet through the process. They may find that discovering the story as they write is what keeps the passion for the project alive. Once they’ve plotted it, they know the story, and they’re no longer interested in working on it.

Other writers may opt for pantsing because they want their characters to dictate the story. If writers force their characters to follow predetermined plots, some of the decisions and motivations may seem unnatural and, well, forced.

My debut book, Dead Boy, was pretty much pantsed. I started with an idea for the character and a few vague ideas for the plot, but I didn’t know how the story would end, and much of the middle was pretty hazy, too. I was working on the project for fun after another project fell apart. I had a lot of passion for it, but not much else.

This resulted some pretty major revisions as I figured out the plot. Characters changed. Backstories got replaced. It was a lot of work, and I think it would have been easier if I’d done more plotting ahead of time.

These days, when I start a new project, I write a summary. It’s usually one page, single-spaced, and it tells the story from beginning to end.  It may include some subplots, but not all. It includes most major developments, but the order is flexible.

Everything else is flexible, too. As I write the project, I adjust the summary as needed. The point isn't to write everything in stone. It's to have an idea of where I'm going and to make sure I have a solid story.

Another good way to plot is to use a beat sheet or outline. These tools help you break your story down into major plot points. If you're worried about the structure of your story, these are perfect. 

  • You can see how The Hunger Games is broken down using Blake Snyder's Save the Cat here.

I’m not going to tell you how you need to write your novel. Writing is an art form, and each artist approaches it differently. If plotting works for you, great. If pantsing works for you, keep it up. If you’re having trouble, though, it’s smart to look at other options.

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