Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Suspenders for Pantsers: A Little Support for the Pantsing Writer

By Orly Konig, @OrlyKonig

Part of The How They Do It Series

JH: If outlining is too strict, but pantsing is too loose, you might consider using some plotting suspenders. Orly Konig shares her in-between process that mixes plotting and pantsing.

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.

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Take it away Orly…

writing women's fiction, genre, chick lit, character-driven novels
Orly Konig
When I first started writing, I didn’t know there was such groupings as pantsers and plotters. I wrote my first novel with an outline because that’s what I was taught in school. It was a miserable exercise in trying to make the story fit within a rigid set of lines (note: that manuscript is safely tucked away in the back of my office closet).

By the time I started on my second book, I’d been schooled on the free-wheeling ways of pantsers. This was a path to creative happiness that I could embrace. I opened Word, typed “Chapter 1,” and off I went. I followed whatever crumbs the characters left for me and man was it fun. Until I reached the end and realized there were more loose threads in that book than after my cat gets into my yarn stash (another note: that manuscript is keeping the other one company).

These days, if you ask me whether I’m a plotter or a pantser, I’ll respond that I’m a pantser with suspenders. Sounds like a painful wedgie in the making, doesn’t it? It’s not, trust me. And what’s more, the various “suspenders” I’ve come to rely on, have kept me from losing my pants and falling on my face on multiple occasions.


The first thing I do whenever I start a new project is mind-map the overall concepts. Mind-mapping is a creative, visual brainstorming technique that allows you to empty your brain of the details of a story. I like being able to color code for themes or characters, toss out what ifs, and capture random details without attempting to force them into a tidy line.

The mind-maps become handy visual tools when I’m drafting. A who’s who and how they fit in the overall structure, as well as story themes and threads I want to make sure I keep an eye on.

(Here's more on Mind Mapping: A Pantser’s Path to Planning).

Back-Cover Copy

Even though I never know the details of how a story will end, I have an overall picture in my head of where it’s going. The exercise of writing back-cover marketing copy is one of my favorite exercises. It forces me to think about the story from a promotional point-of-view and write a “sales pitch” for a book that excites me.

When I’m in the fluffy, going-nowhere middle and questioning what possessed me to think this story idea was valid, I can look at my marketing copy and imagine what the end product will look like.

(Here's more on Query First? The Query as a Plotting Tool)

Story Planning

There are many, many ways of going about this and I’m only going to touch on the handful that I turn to for each new book.

I would be remiss not to start with a fabulous book written by Fiction University’s Janice Hardy. You can read more about Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure here. There’s also a handy workbook. (Fun aside, I have an early version of this book when it was called Planning Your Novel).

My newest addiction is Plottr. One of the things I love about this software is that it has some of the most widely used templates for story graphing with prompts for each stage. Mapping out the different steps of the story at the higher-level forces me to think about how the story can develop and how the characters can grow. I’m not delving into the chapter by chapter details at this stage and I’m not dictating to my characters what they have to do. I’m simply creating the foundation that will help guide the story and keep it from veering too far off course when I hit that inevitable, “now what” stage.

From here, though, I can create threads for different themes, add chapter details (color coded and tagged for themes and characters), include notes, whatever I need to help the story details from scattering as I get deeper into drafting.


With the overall framework mapped out in Plottr, I start storyboarding the chapters. Book coach Jennie Nash teaches a technique called the Inside Outline that helps develop a roadmap for the overall book by breaking down the plot and the point for each scene and tying them together with a cause and effect trajectory statement.

I use a variation of that method that works better for me. Before each writing session, I sit with storyboard graphs and the umbrella of the story as I’ve mapped it out in Plottr, and visualize the chapter I’m about to write. In the box part of the storyboard, I write down a few key details for that chapter—setting, characters, date, what’s going to happen, what the characters are doing/thinking, etc. To the right, I then use Jennie’s “Because of that” starter line to write out what the scene is about, building off of the chapter before it.

Storyboard sheets for easy brainstorming

Each of these tools builds on the other and allows me to put enough structure on the story to make it more manageable to write without stifling the freedom of the story’s potential. Every book seems to require a slight variation and, as a process junkie, I love adding new tools to my magic writing drawer.

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.

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  1. I'm a plotter, but read this article and glad I did. My excel sheet just isn't as accommodating as I'd like. This is a deeper organized program and will aid this plotter! Thanks.

  2. I wonder if doing a rough draft then going back and storyboarding to find the gaps would work? I think I was frightened by templates as a child, I can't seem to sit down and do them without cringing. I want to like storyboarding and templating, but the rigidness of the form (boxes) doesn't make me comfortable with the process. On the other hand, I write outlines in paragraphs, this happens, then this happens and so on. Linear and I'm not really a linear person. I could stifling myself unintentionally. So maybe it's just a matter of overcoming my reluctance and doing it instead of pre-disliking it. Taking those paragraphs and putting them in storyboards. I can see where having a neat layout would help visualization. Frontload instead of backfill?

    1. Hi Constance. I do both actually. After I finish drafting, I read the entire ms to get a feel for it, then I storyboard again and I note at the top if it’s a brand new chapter that I need to write, a chapter or scene from another place in the name that I’m moving. That shows me the flow of what I need to do during revisions.

  3. Sasha Anderson9/02/2020 10:09 AM

    As a Brit, "pantser with suspenders" conjures quite a different picture!

  4. I always feel the need to inject into a 'Pantser' discussion.
    Everyone has their best method and it is always a wonder how others do it. I like to say my first draft is a really big outline. Then I story board, I color code like a mad rainbow and mind map right on the office window. Nice to have real weather as a back drop.
    I have learned my world building and character development is fodder for these pesky characters who are bent to go another way. Any other way than the one on the outline.
    Easier to wrangle them in place once they like where they are.
    Suspenders are a clever take on the in-between, my grandfather called them braces. Fits. thank you for the Pantser support.

    1. Sasha Anderson9/03/2020 6:37 AM

      In the UK we also call them braces - suspenders are the things that hold our stockings up!

  5. I'm a pantster, but I do know where my plot is going. I just have it in my head, not in boxes, colour coded or otherwise. I agree with Constance about boxes.
    Once my first draft is finished, I read the whole manuscript through. This is where I find the plot holes. In my current wip I have an inconsistency in a child's age. He seems to grow backwards! That must be fixed.
    At this stage it's been to a critique group and hopefully at least one beta reader. (Finding them is proving difficult.)
    I will take a look at Plottr, though. I've not come across it before.

    One of the things I do as a pantser is a reverse outline. I have an end in mind but how the characters get there is fluid but with every completed scene I write a brief precis. So while I let the characters find their own way I always know where they have been :)