Is planning a novel worth it? Comparing a planned & pantsed project. #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Happy New Year, and welcome to my first Author Toolbox Blog Hop post of the year! The hop is hosted by Raimey Gallant. Each month authors come together to share useful tips and advice.

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Click here to browse other hop participants and their posts!

This month I’m posting the results of an experiment I started last October: The Pantser Plots series. How does a self confessed pantser fare when they try to plan instead? 

For NaNoWriMo 2017 I planned out a project based on Merlin and Arthurian legend. I’ll compare this project to my NaNoWriMo 2016 project, Dragonspire, which was unplanned.

Planning. The good stuff:

I didn’t lose enthusiasm:

My biggest fear was that knowing where a story was going would decrease my enthusiasm for my project before I’d begun writing it. My fears were unfounded. If anything having a plan made me even more excited to start writing. Don’t let this fear put you off trying planning!

Chapter word counts were better:

The first chapter of my Merlin story is 4309 words long, a reasonable length for a first chapter. The first chapter of Dragonspire was 8793 words, far too long. Dragonspire’s chapters are all 7000+ words, with a couple of monsters over 10000. The longest chapter in Merlin is 7025 words, but most are around 5000. Planning made my chapters focused and concise.

Dragonspire word count chapter 2
Yup. 17450 words in chapter 2 of Dragonspire. I’ve already started sorting through this mess, and the new chapter 2 is 5206 words.

I’ve since rewritten Dragonspire chapter one. It’s completely different, and over half the length at 4078 words. Merlin won’t need a complete rewrite, so planning makes for less work. If I’d planned Dragonspire in the first place it might not need a rewrite now!

Dialogue was more concise:

Planning improved my dialogue. Each conversation in my NaNo 2017 project was well thought out and advanced the plot. In Dragonspire’s first draft my characters talked too much, and half of those conversations added nothing to the story. Without a plan I wrote whatever came to mind whilst I figured out what happened next. With a plan I didn’t have this issue.

Characters were better developed:

When I started Dragonspire I only planned my main character, Arckia. I added other characters as I wrote, but these characters weren’t well developed. I didn’t even have a good idea of the villains, who were non existent until they appeared in chapter 7!

fbi-3026206_640
My villains came out of nowhere, and they were pretty generic!

When I planned for NaNo 2017 I listed good characters, villains, and their roles. I haven’t added any new characters, and I feel secure in their motivations. Knowing my characters beforehand made it much easier to write about them and helped the story fall into place.

My writing was higher quality:

Without a plan Dragonspire was a mess without direction. It was hard to relate to my main character in the first chapter. The first draft is over 200000 words, and still unfinished. I need to plan it out and rewrite most of it, but that’s okay. I learned a lot writing it.

As for Merlin? My first chapter is focused. It sets up something greater. Alone, without Arthur, Merlin’s life is dull and predictable: A far cry from the chaos of their past. But something is coming. Merlin senses it and, unable to resist, he investigates. Reading over what I’ve written, I like it a lot. It’s great to feel so passionate about a project, and I have planning to thank for it! If anyone is interested I’ve written a few stories about Merlin already: Arthurian reboot stories.

Merlin quote C1 copy.jpg
My favourite quote from chapter one of my Merlin story: ‘Outside summer had given way to fall, and the falling leaves left a cold ache in his chest which his coffee did nothing to soothe.’

Planning: The not so good.

A plan doesn’t stop you getting stuck:

In 2016, when I started Dragonspire without a plan, I got stuck in the middle of the story. I didn’t know how to get to the end. With a plan I also got stuck, but for different reasons. I began to question my plan at the 45000 word mark. Was my plot good enough? Were my character goals clear enough? Did they mean enough? I’m still a little stuck on this!

Planning made reaching 50k words harder:

In November 2016 I didn’t struggle to reach 50k. I easily wrote 66000 words. With a plan reaching 50k was much harder. I was constantly checking I was on track, stopping to refer to the plan, and thinking about every word I wrote.

Although it was harder to reach 50k, my plan improved the quality of my writing. A lot of the words in Dragonspire are filler words to meet the word count, written because I wasn’t sure where I was going. Merlin is a higher quality first draft.

To plan, or not to plan?:

I came to enjoy planning. I never thought I would. Here are a few tips and things I learned:

Planning helps:

Planning helps me. It makes my writing more structured. My dialogue has purpose, my scenes are relevant, and I have a better understanding of my characters motivations. Merlin won’t need a complete rewrite either, because I haven’t waffled whilst I figure out where to go next!

Find out what works for you:

Planning isn’t for everyone. Neither is pantsing. I found planning really useful, but I still need a bit of freedom. I broke chapters into two. I added scenes to flesh out my story. I was flexible with my plan, and if I wanted to add a new character I would!

Instagram photo working on Arthurian legend project dragonspireuk
In fact, I’m still changing my plan now and working out a few more details before I start writing again.

I’ve tried pantsing and plotting, and I think a combination of the two works best for me. It truly is about experimenting and finding what works best for you!

Planning makes setting goals easier:

With Dragonspire, because I had no plan, I had no idea how long the project would take to finish. I still don’t. With my planned project I can estimate how long it will take to finish my first draft. I aim to be done by the end of March with 125000 words. I hope to start editing in April during Camp NaNoWriMo. I can set goals. I can visualise progress. I like that.

There are some great benefits to planning. What do you think? If you’re a pantser, do you find yourself rewriting great chunks of your first drafts? Planners, do you find your writing is more structured with a plan? Have I convinced anyone to try planning?

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52 comments

  1. Planning has definitely been very helpful for me when it came to getting back into writing and finishing a first draft of an MS for the first time. I definitely wrote a lot because of the outline. The 2nd draft, on the other hand, is a whole different monster filled with many cuts, new chapters, and lots of twists and turns that weren’t included in the first draft, almost making the outline obsolete. BUT, it’s because I planned in the beginning that I was able to brainstorm to begin with. Planning gets the ideas rolling and that’s what I love about it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wish I could plan, but it’s hopeless for me – I love letting my characters find their own story. I always have the ending in mind though, so I always get them back on track. I loved your pros and cons – something for me to consider!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. My current book is the reverse. I planned the crap out of the last one, wrote out chapter summaries that I did deviate from, but not a whole lot. With this one, I can’t do chapter summaries, I think because I’m dealing with multiple timelines, and I don’t know how they’ll organically fit together until I’m writing it. I still know all the pieces of the story; I just don’t know how they all fit together yet. I agree that planning makes you hypersensitive to word count. I’m always checking my chapter counts. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good point: Sometimes a plan may not work depending on the type of story you’re writing. Multiple timelines sound really interesting 🙂 I can see how that would be difficult to plan. What type of story are you writing?

      Like

  4. Great post! The way I plan a novel will depend on the WIP. Sometimes I can outline the whole novel before I start, other times I plan bit by bit, and other times I just wing it. I love that you separated it into a pros and cons list 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! I can’t help but edit as I write, so I usually have clean first drafts. But when I get stuck if I focus on the outline too much, so I have to force myself to just get the words on the page – and in those cases I definitely need more editing/bigger revisions when I’m done.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m a planner. I like to have the end in mind so I can work my way toward it. I have touch points along the way, things that have to happen. I don’t plan so much that I know how many words or chapters I’ll have, and there’s always room for surprises. I like not knowing some stuff – I take that back. The back of my mind always knows what’s going to happen. The problem is relaying it to my fingers!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. You’ve convinced me to proceed with planning, Louise. I used to be a panster in the early stages of my writing, but now I can’t risk the time it takes when I go off track and then try to get back on track. Excellent tips! Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m glad planning has worked out for you 🙂 Some projects — especially longer ones — definitely benefit from proper planning. I’ve found, though, that sometimes the words just flow out of me and then I have to tie up the loose ends — but usually those stories are less than 5k 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  8. A good comparative analysis between planning and pantsing! Thank you for sharing!

    I began writing my first [completed] novel without anything more than my heroine, her hero, and the foil. I added all the characters as I went along. The conflict began as one thing and ended up being another. At the end, I discovered I had split the seat of my pants and am currently working on a re-write. I have since learned my lessons and try to at least have a modicum of outline before starting to flesh out my stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh, I wish I had the discipline for plotting. The last novel I wrote had a detailed outline. When I started writing the main character switched gender in the third paragraph and wouldn’t switch back. It changed the entire story. Pantser forever, I guess.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve always been a panster, and very rarely planned things out. Now…I’ve starting planning things out. You CAN teach an old writer new tricks, it turns out. I’ve found having a plan helps keep me on the rails. You’re right, it doesn’t keep you from getting stuck, but I find I’m getting LESS stuck. Maybe I should have done this a long time ago.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is interesting! I am a pantser, but I think I might need to give planning a try. I have similar issues with my manuscript – I’ve had to cut a lot of stuff that isn’t relevant to the plot, and add other stuff that is needed. As I am in the revision stage right now, I am realizing that some planning would have cut down on the work in making my manuscript ready for publication.I imagine a combination of the two make work well for me. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome 🙂
      It’s a nightmare, isn’t it? I admire that you’ve persisted and gotten as far as the revision stage 🙂 I rewrote three chapters, added a new character, then put my unplanned project to one side to work on something new instead! I’ll go back to it some day, but the amount of work it needed was overwhelming.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Usually, I plan out my stories from beginning to end. I used to even plot out conversations! But I’ve been noticing lately that what I do with each project is different. There are some that I plan out totally and others that I have rough plans for that allow me to be a pantser a little bit. It’s odd how your writing style can change, because I’m finding that I enjoy balancing the two much more than sticking with one technique.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. My first project was plotted, and that was excellent even if I do say so myself (I won an award from American Christian Fiction Writers for the manuscript, so I’m not entirely biased or naive when I say that).

    My second project was pantsed, and I’ve been bogged down in the editing for over a year. My biggest issues are that I’m still not convinced who the girl ends up with (it’s a romance, so that’s a problem!), and the guy she currently ends up with is a Gary Stu with no GMC.

    As I’m sure you can guess, my next project will be plotted.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Congratulations on the award, that’s awesome 🙂
      Best of luck sorting out the second project, sounds like it’s been a nightmare! At least you know now plotting works best for you, although I bet, like me with my monster project, you wish you’d planned from the start!

      Like

  14. Great experiment and kudos for you giving planning an honest shot.
    I am a planner and would love to be able to pants something. I tried and it was just a messy failure. This NaNo I actually tried plantsing. I had a little planned but not nearly the level of depth I normally do. It will need a lot of loving, but it was fun to have more freedom in my writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. How wonderful that you were so deliberate and analytical about what worked for you — I’m learning that there is never pure planning nor pantsing, that one contributes to the other. While I tend to plan out, there are always surprises and I love what they contribute. Cannot do outright pantsing, cannot do strict plotting…discovered that there are word droughts that way…and it’s boring.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Excellent post for comparing the two! I’ve done both as well, and I came to the same conclusion. However, I found it harder to reach 50K without planning…

    When I wrote my unplanned draft during Nano in 2016, I struggled to figure out the next part of the story. It was a constant battle for me to write words when I had no idea where the story was going.

    That being said, I am an avid planner now, which means my MG story that I really want to start writing is waiting in Limbo until the bare bones of it is plotted out.

    Thank you for posting this!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m a planner/outliner and find it so much better than pantsering, which is how I wrote my first book. I agree with your observations. For me, it kept my story focused and tighter, fewer loose ends and plot holes, better forecasting, more consistent characters, and stronger goals. I find that there is still tons of flexibility too. It a change makes sense, I just adjust the plan. Excellent post.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Great post Louise! I’m definitely a planner, but you’re right that it’s not exactly conducive to writing large word counts in a short time, I’ve never quite hit my Nano goal but I’ve definitely ended up with pretty clean first drafts in comparison to if I’d pantsed the entire thing. It doesn’t completely prevent writer’s block, but having a plan does mean you can skip ahead to a scene you feel like writing when the bit you’re stuck on isn’t coming together easily. I’m glad you’ve found a level of planning that works for you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂
      I think the main thing I’ve learned is that I prefer to write slower and end up with a cleaner first draft.
      I love the idea of skipping ahead to scenes later in the plan when I get stuck! I’m going to try that next time I write, as I’ve been stuck a while now!

      Like

  19. Hi Louise,

    I found this rather interesting to read about your experience planning vs pantsing (I always stumble over that word), as I’m going through something similar at the moment myself. I’m usually a planner in most of what I do, especially my day job where I have to be very detail-oriented. When it comes to writing, I typically try to approach it the same way, drafting characters, creating the arcs of Acts I, IIa, IIb, and III, etc. But, I find I can really get bogged down in the details, lots of second-guessing, and generally losing steam on the idea when it starts to not make sense to me all laid out like that.

    So, at the moment, as a means of trying to get past that block, I put aside my heavily-planned outline and I’m writing something in serial fashion, making up the scenes as I go, starting with just a basic idea — not much more than an image, really, and a bit of a “what-if.” And, like you, I’m definitely seeing pros and cons! On the pro side, I don’t seem to be stuck: ideas and words keep flowing, and I’m happy with my progress. On the con side, roughly 8000 words in (and at a natural chapter ending — I think), I can already tell how my earlier scenes should have been different to better support what I’m writing later. I worry about whether I’m doing a good job of dramatic pacing. I can’t quite tell if there will ultimately be enough material to be novel-length, or it’s going to turn out to be more of a novella, or even just a longish short story.

    But, the writing is fun, and if I treat it as an exercise in story and character development, I hope to have a decent enough first draft out of it that I can use to… create a planned outline! No doubt it will need a serious rewrite for a second draft after that, however.

    I’m glad I discovered your blog (via your #SunScribbles Twitter prompt), and I look forward to reading more about your ongoing planning vs pantsing experiment.

    Cheers,
    Matt

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks 🙂 Hope you’re enjoying Sunday Scribbles! I write a short story a week around the prompts on my blog, which is fun to try and keep up with! You’re welcome to share blog links to short stories based on the prompts in my comments too.

      It’s always interesting to try different ways to write. I love the idea of planning by Act. That sounds like it would work really well. (Although I agree it’s easy to get bogged down in the details – In my case whether or not half of the plot is detailed enough or needs changing!)

      It sounds like pantsing is helping you get past your block. I think I might go back to it for a bit too: I’ve gotten a bit stuck myself lately! I agree completely with your cons for pantsing. It makes things harder, but it definitely is fun!

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂
      Louise

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I plan to tackle NaNoWriMo for the first time this year, and I’m trying to take advantage of all the time I have until the start date to plan what I want to do. I’ve always been a planner (as you can see from my blog), but I wasn’t really sure what to do. Your post helped me decide how to plan, and even sparked my creativity into what kind of novel I want to write! Thank you for a great post! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, glad to have helped 😀
      What kind of novel are you planning to write?
      Good idea to start planning early. I started in October, and a month wasn’t really enough time to plan as much as I needed to! (In fact I’m still fleshing out my plan now, halfway through the novel!)
      Good luck with NaNoWriMo 🙂

      Like

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