Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Organizing the Chaos: 5 Revision Tips for Pantsers

By Orly Konig, @OrlyKonig

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Revising a novel takes many forms, and pantsers have a different approach. Orly Konig shares tips on revising as a pantser.

Orly Konig is an escapee from the corporate world. Now she spends her days chatting up imaginary friends, drinking too much coffee, and negotiating writing space around her cats. She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and a member of the Tall Poppy Writers. She’s a book coach and author of The Distance Home and Carousel Beach.

Website Facebook | Pinterest | Instagram | BookBub | Goodreads

Take it away Orly…

Long ago I embraced the idea of being a pantser. I sit down to write a story with a vague idea of where I think it maybe, possibly, could go. There are some details that are clear in my head, others I discover along the way. But for me, that first draft is always a blend of mystery and frustration, desperation and hope.

My first drafts are always low word count and light on those fun details that make the characters and story unique. I don’t worry about whether the story holds tight or if I’ve veered off character or dropped a plot thread. I don’t edit as I write, although I do keep a notebook handy to jot notes of detours taken later in the book or details to verify or research that needs expanding on.

I think of first drafts like a ball pit … pure chaos.

Now for a confession: As much as I enjoy falling in love with a new story, I can barely contain myself to get through the first draft and to the revision stage. Despite being a pantser, in the most neurotic little niches of my being, I’m an organizer at heart. The revision stage is my happy place because that’s where we take the chaos of ideas and turn it into the magic of an awesome novel.

A few tips for what’s worked for me …

Tip 1: Become your own reader.

The first thing I do after each draft is read my manuscript – twice: once as an “ebook” and once as a “tree book.” I send the manuscript to my iPad so I can read it the way I’d read any other ebook – no reading it on your computer! This format tricks me into reading it like I would any other ebook. If you’re reading on your computer, you’re too likely to slip into writer/editor mode. I’ll jot notes as I’m reading, but there isn’t that urge to edit. The print copy is when I start making more detailed notes. Not actual edits, mind you, only ideas about what needs changing. That copy ends up with an insane number of sticky notes on every page.

I hear your arguments … I don’t want to waste paper. Not every process works for everyone and you have to play around with different ideas. I prefer editing on hard copy. It gives me a different connection with the story and typing in the changes allows one more layer for editing.

(Here's more on How to Be Your Own Book Doctor)

Tip 2: Stock up on sticky notes.

I like to assign a color for each key thread or aspect of the story. In Carousel Beach, for example, I had different colors for the following: the carousel restoration, the main character’s conflict with her husband, her conflict with her mother, her internal arc, and her visits with the old carousel builder. Seeing the colored “flags” helped me pinpoint where I had gaps in a particular thread.

For The Distance Home, I used a slightly different method and broke down the scenes on color coded index cards then taped them to my wall. It became obvious very quickly what threads needed fattening up. 

(Here's more on Outline Your Novel the Incredibly Easy Way)

Tip 3: Map out your story.

Whether you prefer the free flow of mind mapping or a more structured approach like outlining or a something in between, working through the flow of your story is crucial to an efficient revision. Personally, I like storyboarding, probably because it reminds me of my early days in magazine publishing. The storyboards help with seeing and adjusting the flow of the overall story.

Things to note when you’re mapping out the story:
  • The action in each scene and why it’s important.
  • How a scene was impacted by the previous one – there has to be a reason for it to exist and it has to move the story forward.
  • When the scene is taking place (day of the week, date if it’s relevant) to help sanity check timeline.
  • What characters are involved as well as location if it’s not part of the “action” box.
  • Which chapter from the working draft coincides with each block or if it’s a new scene to write.
(Here's more on Mind Mapping: A Pantser’s Path to Planning)

Tip 4: Embrace procrastination.

Sometimes the best thing you can do for your story is walk away from the chaos, especially when you’ve dug so deep into the structure that you’re losing sight of daylight. Exercise, read, clean your bathroom, switch out the laundry, knit, bake bread, whatever distracts you from agonizing and allows your brain to run amok with ideas.

I often find that the moment I stop trying to force a scene to work, the solution presents itself. 

(Here's more on The Guilty Pleasures of Procrastination)

Tip 5: Be ruthless.

writing women's fiction, genre, chick lit, character-driven novels
Orly Konig
In my WIP, there’s a scene that was ridiculously fun to write. It’s such a perfect scene that I want to hug it. But once I went through the mapping exercise, I realized it didn’t move the story forward. Good-bye, my darling scene.

There will be times you’ll have to discard more of the original chaos than you actually keep (that happened with Carousel Beach). Think about it like a spring purge. It’s hard to let go of certain items, but doesn’t it feel better when you’re done? 

(Here's more on No Pain, No Gain: Killing Your Darlings)

I keep a meme by my computer that says “Keep Calm. It’s only a first draft.” Allow that first draft to play in the ball pit all it wants. With the right tools, you’ll be able to make it perfect.

Play around with the ideas and see what, if anything works for you. Then let me know.

About Carousel Beach

A cryptic letter on her grandmother’s grave and a mysterious inscription on a carousel horse leads artist Maya Brice to Hank Hauser, the ninety-year-old carver of the beloved carousel she has been hired to restore in time for its Fourth of July reopening in her Delaware beach town. Hank suffers from Alzheimer’s, but on his “better” days, Maya is enthralled by the stories of his career. On his “off” days, he mistakes her for her grandmother—his secret first love.

While stripping chipped layers of paint from the old horse and peeling layers of fragmented memories from the old man, Maya untangles the intertwined secrets of love, heartbreak, and misunderstandings between three generations of strong willed women.

You can read the first chapter on the Forge/Tor blog.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Book-A-Million |


  1. Good thoughts. Colors, storyboard layouts, and other tools can do a lot to organize notes -- whatever works for an author.

    Best of all, misfit scenes don't have to disappear. Our websites and mailing lists are perfect places to share them with loyal readers.

    1. Posting for Orly...

      Absolutely about the misfit scenes … love that term. Newsletters, websites, private groups for our readers - all great places to share some cut scenes.

  2. Very helpful tips, thank you, Orly. I am currently working on revisions for my self-published debut novel, hopefully out later this summer, and in the beginning, it wasn't easy to throw out some of those beautiful scenes. But once the 'delete' button and I became best buddies, it wasn't as difficult to hit it anymore. And... I am saving them in a 'deleted scenes' file; who knows if they are useful in another book? I'm also finding myself reading the manuscript as a PDF file on my iPad in the evening, and it's amazing what pops out when it's in a different format than a word doc.

    1. Posting for Orly...

      Good for you! I've found that I rarely go back to deleted scenes for other books. I have, however, used a character that didn't fit in a book to build a new story around him. :-)

  3. Great ideas! I'm a third of the way through my WIP (totally pantstered) and am looking forward to the edits 😀

  4. When I started writing the Princleings, for some reason I decided to do those little subheadings to each chapter that you got in oldfashioned classics.. 'In which ....'
    I found they helped me move through the plot, but also, make sure something happens in the chapter.
    Which is a very good reminder to myself that in the latest I found it hard to write a decent 'In which...'
    Maybe they need work :)