Tuesday, April 28

Making the Move from Panster to Plotter

By Kristi Helvig, @KristiHelvig

Part of the How They Do It Series

Every writer has their own process for writing a novel, and it's not uncommon to want to improve that process and make our writing sessions more productive. Help me give a big welcome to Kristi Helvig, who takes to the podium today to share her journey from pantser to plotter and why this works for her.

Kristi is a Ph.D. clinical psychologist turned sci-fi/fantasy author. Her first novel, Burn Out (Egmont USA), which Kirkus Reviews called “a scorching series opener not to be missed,” follows 17-year-old Tora Reynolds, one of Earth’s last survivors, when our sun burns out early. In the sequel, Strange Skies, (out today), Tora makes it to a new planet only to discover a whole new host of problems—and the same people who still want her dead. Kristi muses about Star Trek, space monkeys, and other assorted topics on her blog at and Twitter. You can also find her on Facebook. She resides in sunny Colorado with her hubby, two kiddos, and behaviorally-challenged dogs.

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Take it away Kristi...

You’ll often hear writers discuss whether they’re a plotter or panster, meaning they either write a detailed outline prior to writing the book or they wing it and fly by the seat of their pants. I’ve done it both ways so I’ll share my experiences and why I’ve (mostly) embraced the plotter side of things. Keep in mind that every writer is different and the approach that works for one person might not be another’s cup of tea.

Advocates for the panster method talk about the wide-open creative berth they have to explore their characters and stories without constraint. They describe it as a more organic process than plotting. Before my first published YA novel, Burn Out, I’d written a YA fantasy using the panster method. It was a blast to write and was considered “high concept.” I got a crazy amount of full requests from agents based on the premise in the query. The problem? Then they read it. Seriously.

I revised it close to a gazillion times (okay, well it felt that way), yet never felt it was quite right. Even writers who love the panster approach acknowledge that they have to rework a lot of the book, so it generally takes longer than the plotter method. I read one article by a self-proclaimed panster who discussed how she had to rewrite her entire book several times after writing herself into several dead ends. Even if you’re a fast writer, that’s not a quick day at the office. Anyway, most of the agents were very kind in their rejections and offered to read my next book, so I knew I wanted the next book to be the best it could be.

Writing a better book meant I wanted to learn more along with just writing more, otherwise I could just keep repeating the same mistakes. Along the way, I’d read several interviews by plotters who did things like use colored index cards and write pages and pages of notes for each character and scene—some mentioned that their notes on the book were longer than the book itself. This seemed way too extreme for my panster self, so I did some research and bought Blake Snyder’s screenwriting book, Save The Cat, which completely changed my thought process about plotting. I also stumbled upon Alexandra Sokoloff’s blog around the same time, absorbed all the elements of a three-act structure, and decided to give it a go.

Fast forward to my then 4-year-old’s 30 minute swim lesson. The idea for Burn Out, the first book in my series, had recently appeared in a vivid dream and I wanted to make this book “the one” that would get published. I whipped out a scrap of paper I found in my purse and scratched down eight numbered sentences. These would be the key scenes in the book, and we’re talking basic sentences, like “They run out of water” and “Climax: Tora has showdown with Kale and James.” It took all of 15 minutes to finish. True plotters might scoff at that, but for me, it worked. I’m all about baby steps, so to go from panster to writing 8 lines was doable.

I’d been worried that writing out those key scenes would hinder my creativity, but it turned out to be very freeing. It’s like knowing your destination and being able to enjoy the ride on the way and even stop for ice cream, rather than driving aimlessly, white-knuckled and worried that you’ll never get there. Not that I had any clue at the time what the actual “showdown” would involve, but I knew I’d get there.

That time around, I had offers from multiple agents and my publisher bought the second book based solely on a short paragraph that included several key scenes from the sequel, Strange Skies. For my current manuscript, a YA thriller, I’m edging even closer to the plotter side. I went to the store and bought, wait for it…colored index cards. I had serious writer envy when looking at a picture of fellow Egmont author Bree Despain’s magnetic white board, so I’m going to give it a whirl. I have Scrivener as well, but have found I’m pretty old-school when it comes to writing. Plus, flowery notebooks and pastel-colored index cards are just prettier than my laptop. My writing goal is to keep improving my process in order to increase both productivity and quality of work. Fingers crossed.

About Strange Skies

Action, adventure, and romance are heating up in this sequel to the futuristic science fiction thriller Burn Out. Perfect for fans of Across the Universe and The Memory of After. 

Caelia is the new Earth. That's what the Consulate told everyone and, against all odds, Tora finally has made it there. She can't see the ocean from her cell in the Consulate's containment center, and she doesn't know what happened to the weapons her father died for and she's risked her life to save.

But as she plans her escape, she runs into the last person she ever expected to see--her dad. The Consulate has held him prisoner in a complicated plot designed to lure Tora out of hiding. Now Tora has a new purpose: break free, get the guns, and save her father.

But first she'll have to navigate a strange new planet, track down James (whose loyalties still remain questionable), and find Kale . . . before he finds her first.

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  1. I traveled a very similar path - pantsed my first novel (that's in a drawer somewhere), discovered Save the Cat, tried Scrivener (and backed away from it because I'm not THAT structured). I find having a beat sheet helps keep the middle moving. If I know I want six scenes to carry me from one beat to the next, I end up brainstorming a long list of possibilities, then let the writing "decide" which ones I use. I don't need a lot of structure, but a little does help.

  2. Good post, Kristi. Bottom line, as you say right at the onset, every writer is different. And I like the tiny steps approach you advocate.

    I'm a pantser, and TBH I think we all evolve differently, though I believe I'm veering onto the same road you followed. People tend to see everything in black and white and ignore the middle ground; there's a world of difference between the approach you take and the rigid, mechanical plotting that leads to, uh, rigid, mechanical books.

    All this said, I suspect the trad publishing world of today, like Hollywood, is more receptive to the ms. that feels like it's on rails, conforming perfectly to a formula, than the looser, more organic, open framework book a born pantser is likely to produce. Of course, genre will have bearing on this: the expectations for the modern YA adventure SF novel or a crime thriller come with some market constraints. In simple efficiency terms the pantser may be at a disadvantage...but after all the rewriting, I think either approach can lead to the same book if the writer is skilled.

    For myself, the only plotting rule I have is to know--in loose terms--what my ending is before I begin; I usually block in the first couple of scenes so I know my setup...but the rest is wiiiide open.

    Ultimately, it comes down to the writer's own path of discovery. There's no right way, but in the pressure-cooker of modern writing dogma, the word "plot" comes with baggage. You make some nice distinctions.


  3. Kristi,

    Your post produced several chuckles and an equal amount of "Yeah. Been there, done that". The only difference is that the manuscripts (yes, more than one) I've written by the pantser method didn't get anywhere near the attention yours did and I've yet to have any of them published.

    All the rest of it...? Spot on.

    I've come to be a big believer in planning before writing. Even if I spend a year mapping out a story and if it takes a year to write, that's still better than what I've been doing. My best manuscript has been in the works almost 20 years and has been through at least 14 revisions. Sigh.

    I have yet to try colored index cards, but I like the idea of eight key scenes. I'll have to give that a try!

    Thanks again for the chuckles and nods of understanding, but also for the encouragement!

    Best wishes, Carrie

  4. Blake Snyder was actually a good friend, and even he had to alter his "formula" for pantsers like me. I may, in fact, have helped him tweak his approach as I continuously pushed back against rigid plot rules. I was one of the first students he'd ever had who just could not follow his formula without losing interest in midstream. So I use his formula after I've written something, to pare it down. It's in my head, a little bit, as I write, but I don't start working to get things on the right pages and places until I've pantsed it through.

    Works for me!

  5. I've written two books, both of them I wrote pantsing and after reading your article I'm going to try writing something else while plotting.

    Thank you. You've given me motivation to keep going.

  6. Nice post. I used to be a pantser back when I just started writing. It took six months before I got serious and started to realize that I could get published. Thats when I started reaserching and fell in love with plotting. While pantsing was fun for a bit, I loved applying different structures to my stories an watch them unfold in a more organized manner (I even did miny tests on different structures like hero's jurney and save the cat by creating sequals to movies like Frozen, and Big Hero Six)

    However, I think it is good to pants a scene or two in your WIP. It helps make the charecter's and the scene a bit more realistic when their exact actions aren't planned out the whole way.