Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Going from Pantser to Plotter

By Gerald Brandt, @GeraldBrandt 

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Changing our process can be tough, but sometimes we need to do things differently to meet our writing goals. Gerald Brandt shares his recent switch from pantser to plotter.

Gerald Brandt is an International Bestselling Author of Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. His current novel is The Rebel – A San Angeles Novel, published by DAW Books. His first novel, The Courier, also in the San Angeles series was listed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as one of the 10 Canadian science fiction books you need to read and was a finalist for the prestigious Aurora Award. Both The Courier and its sequel, The Operative, appeared on the Locus Bestsellers List. By day, Gerald is an IT professional specializing in virtualization. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife Marnie, and their two sons Jared and Ryan.

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Take it away Gerald…

I work at a day job, as well as write science fiction novels. As you can imagine, this doesn't always leave me with time to write, and when I do have time, I don't necessarily have the energy.

What I do have is deadlines, so despite the lack of time, I still need to either get the words out of my head and onto paper, or revise the words that I already have down.

Pantsing Failures

Gerald Brandt
When I first started writing, I was what is commonly known as a pantser. I (maybe) had a vague idea of what I wanted to write, and I put my butt in the chair and did the best I could. It wasn't always productive, but I did get some writing done.

Progress, however, was slow.

I found I was spending a lot of valuable writing time staring at a blank page and trying to figure out where the story went next, or deleting pages of work because it no longer fit. I ended up wasting time instead of writing.

It worked... until I had a deadline so tight that I started waking up at night panicking about how I was going to get the novel done in time. I was a quarter of the way into the new book, and I'd used more than half my allotted time.

I knew I couldn't keep on going the way I was. I stopped everything I was doing, and developed a (still moving) process that worked for me. I went from being a pantser to being a plotter in less than a week, and I handed in that book on time. 

(Here's more on How I Trick My Pantser Brain into Plotting)

Plotting the Way Forward

This is my process. Take it, use it, change it to fit into the way you work, and maybe you'll become a plotter as well... if that's what you want.

When I start a novel, I have two things firmly embedded in my mind: the main character, and the ending. Still working almost entirely in my head, backed with research and a handful of notes, I slowly figure out the world that will let me grow my main character while putting them through the most damage I can.

Without outright killing them. Maybe.

For me, the world building can be one of the hardest parts, and that may be because I haven't found the process that fits me yet, but I muddle my way through. Finally, with those three items, I'm ready to start plotting.

The world still isn't necessarily fully developed, but I have the base rules I want to follow. The world will grow with the book and the lead character's needs, and will be edited for full coherency later. 

(Here's more on Suspenders for Pantsers: A Little Support for the Pantsing Writer)

My Love for Post-It Notes

I have a four foot by eight foot white board in my office, plain white and made of metal. At this point it is either completely empty, or it may have a few key points I wanted to hit in the novel tacked to it with magnets.

Under the white board I have a stack of Post-It notes. For a novel with multiple viewpoint characters, I have different colored Post-Its. If there is a single point of view throughout the novel, as it was in my latest one THREADER ORIGINS, I have only a single color.

This is where I start brainstorming. I take a single sentence, sometimes a single word and write it in felt marker on the Post-It. That sentence or word is a placeholder for a scene and could contain something as simple as Darwin meets Teresa or Drive to Quantum Labs, or in the case of a single word, it could describe a feeling I want to evoke in the reader: Loss, Love, Death (yes, death is an emotion). I'll create eighty to ninety of these, placed in a rough order of where the scene should be in the book.

Once I'm done that, I'll merge Post-Its, taking the emotion-based ones and merging them with straight plot-based ones, throwing away or merging plot-based ones to be more coherent. When all is said and done, I want to end up with seventy to seventy-five Post-Its, in the proper order for a decent plot.

Why that number?

Because I did a bit of analysis on my own work. On average, I have 1,400 words to a scene (some are far shorter and others much longer). At seventy to seventy-five scenes, I have a 100,000-word novel.

If I'm writing a book with multiple viewpoints, I do another pass at the white board. It's something I do instinctively now, but when I started, I needed this extra pass. Remember, the whiteboard is all about plot, and that's all I've been working on.

If I take a step back and unfocus my eyes a bit, I can see each viewpoint character and how much time they get by colored Post-Its. I also see if they get too much back-to-back time. Do I have a huge clump of pink here, or a grouping of blue over there? If the answer is yes, I need to rearrange the scenes. No single character should get multiple POV scenes in a row. If it happens, there's a chance the reader could lose details I'd really rather they remembered.

So, we're done. We have a whiteboard filled with Post-Its, spread the POV evenly—making sure our main characters have the most scenes.

Let's sit down and start writing! Well, not quite yet.

Those single short sentences aren't enough to keep me going when things get tough... and they always do. I sit behind the computer, for sure, but I open up a spreadsheet, not my word processor. I take each post it, and enter into the spreadsheet. One scene per row. Each row gets its background changed to match to Post-It color. Now I start adding columns. The columns change based on the novel, but there are some basic ones that are in every version:
  • The chapter number (which I still don't know)
  • Scene number
  • Setting
  • POV character
  • Additional characters
  • Summary
  • Outcome
  • Word count

I'll also have extra columns based on the specific book. For the San Angeles series, a timestamp per scene became very important. For the Quantum Empirica series, other details needed tracking (sorry, not listed due to spoilers). 

(Here's more on A Quick Way to Outline Without Outlining)

Outline Columns

Setting is usually straight forward. It's short and sweet like Hall closet, or Rebecca's Office

Additional Characters lists all other main characters in this scene. If there's a waiter who serves lunch and is never seen again, they're not listed. If Paul—who just happens to be a POV character—is there, his name goes in the column. Does he actually say anything in this scene? Maybe, maybe not, but he's important so he's listed.

The Summary column takes what's on the Post-It note verbatim.

Outcome is what I want to accomplish in the scene, and it takes a bit more thought than when we did the Post-Its. Let's say the Summary is Test QPS to full Power. What do I want the end result of this to test to be? Does a character die, is there a revelation of some sort, does something happen that helps direct the story? The Outcome can be a plot point, but I find I get more out of it during the writing phase if I also include the emotional outcome of the scene.

The other columns are pretty self-explanatory, so I'll skip the details on those.

(Don’t look too close at the image if you haven’t read THE REBEL... it contains spoilers.)

Perfect! Now we have a fairly detailed map of the novel from start to finish. In fact, it's far enough along that when I sit down to write for the day, I have enough to just start, with no (real) delays in wondering what the heck to write next.

Well, almost.

I do take this a step farther. Remember that Summary column? All it has is a copy of the Post-It. For me, that's not enough meat to kick start my writing. So what do I do? You guessed it, one more pass at the spreadsheet.

(Here’s more on A 5-Minute Fix to Jump-start Your Scene)

Adding Detail

I need to add more detail into the Summary column. We're not looking at much, usually just a single paragraph of what actually happens. Details that flesh out the scene.

Here's an example from THE REBEL, book three of my San Angeles series. I think it's been out long enough that spoilers shouldn't hurt.

The original summary on the Post-It was Kris comes to. Not a ton of detail. The Outcome column contains Kris finds Pat. Again, pretty thin. The final summary for this one is actually fairly short, but gives me enough to know what the scene needs to hold: Kris comes to after the accident with a head wound. She starts searching for Miller and finds him stuck under the debris. He convinces her to leave. The gunship arrives and starts killing survivors. Now, that's a bit meatier.

How did I get from the one liner to the paragraph? I've been working on the whiteboard and the spreadsheet for quite a while by now... more than a month or two. These details have become part of everything else in my head. Some of the details were written down in a notebook, but most have just been brewing in the background, and have influenced some of the Post-Its I started out with.

Don't get the wrong impression here. This isn't necessarily an easy step. Some of the details have fallen out of my brain and are not in the notebook. Sometimes I can sit for an hour or more trying to figure out where the hell I was going with this scene.

And you know what, that's a good thing.

Why? Because nothing we've done to this point is written in stone. This spreadsheet, and even the whiteboard, is a living, breathing thing. I expect it to change. I will delete scenes, add scenes, and do whatever I need to do to make the story coherent. 

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

Time to Write

So, we're done. We have a plot that should hold together, hopefully an emotional arc for the main characters, and list of what to write. Open the word processor and go. I'm serious. Write.

I write sequentially, always. I never skip a scene. If I hit a scene that is difficult to write, I muscle through it. If a scene doesn't seem to make sense based on what I've already written, I change it. I go back to the spreadsheet and see how it changes what comes next.

Usually, when I reach the halfway point I definitely need to go back to the spreadsheet. Yes, I've followed the outline, but there are always nuances to what is written and what needs to be written. Maybe it's still the pantser in me, but things always change. Maybe the character isn't quite what I thought she was, or a setting has changed enough that anything else that takes place there doesn't quite fit anymore.

I don't let a character take over the story. That never happens. I have a plot, and I follow it. What does change is the details, and those details can help shape what comes after.

And now we're done. The damn thing is written, and for me, usually around 25,000 words less than what I want, but that's okay. When I'm writing, I tend to skip descriptions. I put in the big ones, but it's the small ones that help add authenticity and pulls the reader in. That happens in revisions, multiple passes, each pass covering a specific weakness that I have or detail that I know I need to add.

But that's a different story.

About Threader Origins

This first book of a new sci-fi series introduces an alternate earth where powerful Threads have the power to alter reality as we know it.

Pulled from his world by an experiment gone wrong, Darwin Lloyd is one of the few that can see the Threads—quantum strings that can be manipulated to change or control reality. On an alternate Earth ravaged by war, Darwin is torn between the Qabal and SafeHaven, his only goal to find a way back home and stop the same fate from happening in his time line.

Threads—thought of as a gift from the machine he helped his father create—and Threaders are both loved and hated, treated as gods by some and as criminals by others. Out of his element, Darwin must learn how to control the Threads and possibly join the hated Qabal to find the path back to his dad.

But Thread use comes at a price. Follow the possibilities and probabilities too far and the human mind shatters, leaving the Threader a mindless, drooling husk. Yet the Thread’s pull is almost irresistible, and a constant battle for those that can see them.

In this strange new world, Darwin discovers what he could never find on his own: friends, family, love, a mother he lost years before, and a younger sister he never had.

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  1. Great article, Gerald. Your process is straight forward, simple, and inexpensive. I can see myself using a clone of it. Thanks!

  2. I have to chuckle, we writers are all so similar and yet do different. This is exactly-ish how I worked before I saw the light and became a unrepentant Pantser. My philosophy is if you're trying to figure out the story while you write your not a Pantser. Pantsing is the art of the subconscious, revision is the art of the writer.
    I do enjoy that private sharing of writers who share their process. Thank you. Keep up the good work.

    1. We all work differently. It's the end product that counts.

  3. Thanks for the insight into your method. I can see how it works. But like Sam, I'm an unrepentant pantser. Having said that. I think I do a lot of what you mention in my head. Your method has the advantage of not letting you forget.
    What I do plan in detail, is my world. A lot of research goes into that.