Tuesday, July 16, 2013

25 Plotting, Pantsing, and Knowing When To Let Go by Katherine Longshore

Hello, my name is Katherine Longshore, and I am a pantser.

It’s not that I don’t understand plot. I totally “get” character arc. In my mind’s eye, I see turning points and crescendo. I’ve plotted a hero’s journey before starting a book. I’ve mapped out a “beat sheet” based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. I have made detailed time lines based exclusively on the historical facts of a story.

And then it all falls apart when I sit down to write.

I am ashamed to admit it, but back in November of 2012, I sent something to my editor that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike a book. It was supposed to be the third and final installment of my Tudor court series. I couldn’t call it a first draft. More like a zero. I could barely call it a draft. The characters were amorphous, the plot nonexistent. There was no character arc. No story arc. There were scenes and thoughts and half-finished ideas. A bunch of history. And not much else. Eighty thousand words and no story to show for it.

As I said, this was not my first book. I’ve been in the trenches for a while. I’ve read Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Robert McKee’s Story and Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and Stephen King’s On Writing. I’ve taken classes and been to workshops. I even did a six-week plotting course two years ago. This mess of a draft wasn’t because I didn’t understand what I was doing.

In my defense, a huge part of my problem was that I was going through a difficult time emotionally and personally at the same time I was going through a massive crisis of confidence. So I just wrote whatever, hoping something would come of it. Just to go through the motions.

I am here today to tell you that going through the motions does not write a book. At least not one anyone would want to read.

So in January, when my editor handed it back to me, I had to face the fact that I needed to write a book. One with a plot and character arcs. One that had distinctive settings and a sympathetic yet flawed protagonist. One that told a story. One that made sense.

That crisis of confidence came back and hit me upside the head. It told me, you don’t know how. It told me, Gilt and Tarnish were just flukes. It told me, you have no idea what you’re doing.

I went back to the drawing board. I went farther back than that. I reread my craft books and my notes from the plotting course. I figured out what my issues were:

1. My protagonist had no motivation. What does she want?
2. I had no antagonist. Who or what is working against her?
3. I had no crisis. What is the midpoint of the novel?
4. I had no climax. What is the worst that can happen and how does she get out of it?
5. I had no resolution. What can bring this story to a close?
6. History was getting in my way. My story world presented obstacles that seemed insurmountable, yet couldn’t be changed.

All basic stuff, right? I learned this a long time ago. So I sat down with pen and paper, with notes and books and Post-Its. Determined to get it right this time. The biggest issue was my main character.

What does she want?

I had no clue. I agonized over this for three days. I wrote character studies and memories from her childhood. I made a timeline of the history. I looked at where she went after the story ends and puzzled out how she got there.

I still couldn’t open a new document. I couldn’t answer that one, basic question.

So I sent an e-mail to my editor, saying maybe I should just dump the whole thing. Start over. Choose a different character, perhaps a different time period altogether.

Less than a minute later, I got a phone call—the kind that goes out to someone standing at the edge of a cliff. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?” were her first words. Together, my editor and I batted ideas back and forth. We puzzled over the important events in the story. And she asked me, “What is your biggest concern?” I told her about rereading craft books, about agonizing over plot exercises, about how I couldn’t answer basic questions.

She said, “Those exercises are great. Answering those questions can really focus your plot. But maybe that’s what’s holding you back.”

I remembered a workshop I’d been to in 2011. The Story Masters, hosted by Free Expressions. James Scott Bell, author of Plot and Structure, had told us that crafting a novel is like playing golf. You learn, you practice, you get advice from the pros.

“But when you swing,” he said, “you have to let all of that go. You can’t think too much, or you’ll get in your own way. You have to believe that the knowledge is there.”

The thing is, that’s what got me into trouble in the first place. I figured the knowledge couldn’t be there, because it would have shown up in what I’d written before. Wouldn’t it? I looked back over my mess of a manuscript. It still had no plot, no arc, little setting and hardly any character development. But it had seeds. Hidden deep within those pages was my character’s motivation. Hidden between the lines were her strengths and flaws. There were glimmers of subplots and secondary characters. All I had to do was apply it. I had a whole “draft” full of clay to work with. It just needed shape.

So I opened a new document and started over, taking these treasures with me. The story and characters took shape, the setting became more vivid. It came to life, molded by the structure and breathed into by the laissez faire of creativity.

I certainly don’t advocate this process as the way to go about writing a book. It’s long and arduous and painful. It’s time-consuming. It expends a lot of energy and uses a lot of words. (I ended up cutting about 45k of that original manuscript and went on to add another 60k, so really, I wrote two books).

But I learned from it. And these are the things I pass on to you.

1. Know your craft. And know when to let it go.
2. Apply your craft. And believe you are, even when it doesn’t feel like it.
3. Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.
4. Write. Don’t let your doubt stop you.
5. Let go. If you’ve been working on something, agonizing over it, belaboring it, give it a chance to breathe. You may need to go for a walk or a run. You may need to talk it through with another writer. Or you may need to give it away for a month or two. When you come back, that spark will be there.

I’m approaching my next project in a completely different way. The characters are already in my head—living, breathing, flawed, voracious. Scenes are coming to light like movie teasers. So I’m going with it. Each scene goes up on my story board in the approximate place I think it will end up—I’m writing completely, randomly out of order. I’m still pantsing, but not in the sprawling, explosive, frantic way I wrote Book 3. I’m trusting myself. Trusting my characters. And trusting my craft.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

About the Author

Katherine Longshore is the author of GILT, a story of friendship and betrayal set in the court of Henry VIII and TARNISH, the story of a young Anne Boleyn. They are part of a series of novels about three different girls as they navigate the halls and pitfalls of Henry's palaces, facing love, popularity, lies and execution. Because in the Tudor Court, a single step can lead to celebrity or death.

She has also written the forthcoming MANOR OF SECRETS, the "Downtonesque" story of two girls leading very different lives within the same Edwardian country house—and what happens when those worlds collide.

Katherine grew up on the northern California coast. At university, she created her own major in Cross-Cultural Studies and Communications, planning to travel and write. Forever. Four years, six continents and countless pairs of shoes later, she went to England for two weeks, stayed five years and discovered history. She now lives in California with her husband, two children and a sun-worshiping dog.

Check out Katherine's website
Follow Katherine on Twitter
Read Katherine's blog

About the Book

Anne Boleyn is the odd girl out. Newly arrived to the court of King Henry VIII, everything about her seems wrong, from her clothes to her manners to her witty but sharp tongue. So when the dashing poet Thomas Wyatt offers to coach her on how to shine at court—and to convince the whole court they're lovers—she accepts. Before long, Anne's popularity has soared, and even the charismatic and irresistible king takes notice. More than popularity, Anne wants a voice—but she also wants love. What began as a game becomes high stakes as Anne finds herself forced to make an impossible choice between her heart's desire and the chance to make history.

Purchase Tarnish on Amazon
Buy Tarnish on Indiebound
View Tarnish on Goodreads


  1. LOVED THIS! I needed this today. Thank you.

  2. Such an inspiring post! I've already cut and paste some of this into a Word document to keep on my computer's desktop. And I'll be sharing the golf bit with my husband, who has been stressing about his swing lately :) Thank you, Katherine!

    1. You're welcome, Jess! And I hope it's helpful to him, too!

  3. I am mostly a pantster, too (although I did actually plot one book out) and it can make writing difficult but at the end of the day I think I'm better at pantsting than plotting. Great post :)

  4. Thank you so much for stopping by, Katy! This is a fabulous post. I love, love, love the five things that you are passing on. They're a gift this morning. I'm definitely having a thing about letting go. And that applies in more ways than one! :)

    1. Thank you for having me, Martina! Just writing the post gave me a lot to think about--especially as I begin the next book. Glad it helped you, too!

  5. That was an interesting read and I have no doubt that everything you advise is true - for some folks, some of the time. And I guess that those who know this is true for them will feel it instinctively and hear this post like a clarion call. I hope so.

    For my own part, I struggled to complete a number of novels in the belief that I should just 'trust my genius' (in the ancient Greek sense of the term - I don't have an overblown ego) but it took the realization that I seriously needed to bash out an outline based on a framework culled from an analysis of every book I'd ever loved before I properly understood how not to write just a mess of words but a readable novel.

    I started out with a pattern drawn huge on the back of old wallpaper spread out on the kitchen floor. I then worked in more detail on sheets of paper that I stuck and pinned onto this basic pattern and so on for about a week (my family were away at the time).

    At the end of that week I had everything planned in detail. I transferred it all to a series of more manageable computer files and I took off to a caravan retreat for two weeks and just sat down and wrote the whole thing start to finish.

    That was a week ago or so and I'm now working more slowly on the edit - the first rewrite. But I find that, for the most part, it has shaped up pretty well.

    For me, once I knew who my people were and what the story was about and where it was headed - I wrote the last chapter first and it kept me on course like a shining beacon through the darkness of the next scene - I felt I could then trust my 'genius' and my knowledge and creativity to bring it all to life.

    So, I think in the end everyone has to find their own way through this crazy process that is innocuously named, simply 'writing.' As if that is all it is!

    Perhaps a bit of both approaches is the best way? The unleashing of the creative genius within the confines of a space of known dimensions and purpose.

    Just a few thoughts. Thanks for stimulating them!

    1. I think you are absolutely right, Austin! Everyone has his or her own process. And in my experience, it's different for every book. Congratulations on finding one for you, and for finishing! Part of the process definitely has to be celebrating.

  6. Katherine, that whole process must've been stressful and scary.

    I've read the plot books. I try to keep those questions in my mind as I write. But I can't plot. I just have to go.

  7. Katherine...thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. I would repeat that statement, but it would take a lot of scrolling down before you got to anything else, haha.

    Though I'm not published, I have a few novels under my belt. My most recent one was good; I'm not afraid to admit that. I've been revising it, editing it, and am about self-publish it, but that's not relevant here.

    What is relevant is that I've tried and failed horribly at writing another book. I tried storyboarding, a la Save the Cat. Tried outlining. Tried character interviews. Nothing worked. I was desperate to save myself some editing time on this next go round, and I thought the only way was to make use of what I'd learned from the experts, and from my own editing.

    But I couldn't write anything. I'd try to put some words on paper, and they wouldn't feel write. I'd spend minutes trying to craft it perfectly into the perfect story that I envisioned. It didn't work.

    I'm mostly editing these days, and every once in a while, I return to a new story and tremble my way through a few paragraphs.

    All that to say...thank you for writing this and telling me that it's okay to trust myself and the knowledge I've attained. Thank you.

    1. It's absolutely OK to trust yourself, Melody! And absolutely OK to apply structure and storyboarding in revision. It's a long process, and a messy one, but as Austin says above, we all have to find our own way to the end.

  8. This is a terrific post and one to which many writers will relate. I sure did. Thanks for writing it and sharing it with us. I appreciate it.

  9. I love this, Katy; it's the kind of advice that we can ALL use! And I cannot wait to read Book 3!

  10. Katy, it fascinates me to read this. We've been on exactly the same journey, apparently. But you got the job done, and now I'm inspired by your example to do likewise. Thank you for making me feel less of a weirdo and more of a "you just haven't given it your all, yet" opportunity to do better.

    1. You are far from being a "weirdo" Lia! Libba Bray wrote a fabulous blog post on the despair of not being able to "plot" that definitely gave me courage: http://libbabray.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/on-writing-despair-juicebox-mix/ We really do all get there in the end.

  11. This comes at a really good time for me. I have a draft I know needs help - better conflict is the biggest issue. I've been letting it float around in my head for a bit but I'm struggling with trying to figure it all out. Maybe I just need to write and see what pops up!

  12. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful! And I SO needed this right now, as I delve into the third book of a series.

    Worksheets and outlining structures do not work for me! Writing is dynamic and must develop on the page when I write.

    I am a pantster, and I do not apologize. I know the first draft will be a mess, but that's how I roll. And I am willing to do the hard labor after creating each disaster -- to focus and polish and hone and shine each pantstered mess into a beauty.

    You don't know how much I needed to read this tonight!

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful, Dianne! I knew I needed to write a post that I wished I could have read six months ago. Thanks for reading!

  13. Hi Katherine:

    I think your post confirms my belief that accomplished writers do by habit what beginning writes have to remind themselves to to. The purpose of craft is to help us develop those ingrained habits.

    BTW: I have what may be one of the most in-depth analysis of the pantser/plotter dichotomy written for a blog coming up in a two part post at Seekerville, 31 July and 1 August. Lots of thoughts, many examples from almost a dozen authors, and a little bit of humor.


  14. Ooooh, a Vince Mooney post on plotting/pantsing? Seekerville may never recover! :D *marks the calendar*

    I loved this post, btw. very encouraging to my little pantser self.

  15. Really enjoyed this story of building a novel despite blocks and doubts. Sometimes I find "how-to" books really restricting when I'm drafting, and have to step back a little, myself. Otherwise I get too nervous to write anything, for fear it'll be "wrong."

  16. This is so inspiring! I don't know why it makes me feel better to know that even a published author struggles, but it does. I'm glad it all worked out. Thank you for sharing this!

  17. Great post! Understanding and doing are very different. Also, each new WIP seems to demand its own approach; I don't know if I'll ever arrive at a definitive method that works for everything. Thanks for sharing these encouraging thoughts.

  18. found this blog because I was looking for one on plotter vs panster for my writing class. This is great!


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