Heading east:  a “pantser’s” process

A plotter decides what will happen before he/she  begins to write.

A plotter decides what will happen before he/she begins to write.

A plotter plans out a novel before he or she begins to write, while pantser writes by the seat of one’s pants and makes it up as he/she goes along.

Author Natasha Knight has called me a “plantser” –a cross between a plotter and a pantser and requested that I share how I do it.

Story ideas come to me as concepts or scenarios (as opposed to a character, or a plot, or a setting which also can inspire stories). For Unexpected Consequences the concept was to take a secret practice (spanking) and make it not so secret. For Breeder, it was the enslavement of women.

Once I get an idea, I daydream about it. More accurately, the story begins to insinuate itself into my thoughts.

A "pantser" flies by the seat of one's pants -- making up the story as one writes

A “pantser” flies by the seat of one’s pants — making up the story as one writes

Character, tone, and setting start to take shape. In the back of my mind I know there has to be conflict and goals that are opposed.  My process goes something like this:

  1. A story scenario arrives out of the ether.
  2. I daydream.
  3. When I know how the story starts (can “see” the scenes of the first few chapters) and how it ends I start writing.
  4. Out of character, the plot begins to form.

As possible plot points come to me, I jot them down in a notebook. Depending on the length of the piece, I will “hard plot”* a sketchy outline from beginning to end. If it’s a short novella, I may not bother with this step. How sketchy are my outlines? Here are the word-for-word first two chapter outlines/plot points of Rod and Cane 5. In the brackets are my thoughts to you of why the info is important, the motivation, how the details move the story, but that information is not written on my outline. As you can see, I don’t write down everything that is in my head.

 Chap. 1

  • They meet at a coffee shop. Attraction.  [The H/h meet. Starting to develop character]
  • Girls get together. [Bring in characters from previous Rod and Canes to show…] Heroine’s feelings for the guy. Time to move on [Letting the past go.]
  • He tells her where he works. She tells him she used to work there. [This is not idle chit-chat. There are hard feelings between the heroine and her former employer. This is part of the story conflict]

Chap. 2rc 5

  • First date. [Where? Hell, I don’t know. But they need to spend time alone together]
  • Sex? [Maybe, maybe not]
  • He had cancer. Almost died. Received medical discharge from Navy. Felt need to reprioritize, meet his father. Mother had never told him who his father was. [Hero’s past & motivation. Begin to introduce the question, who is his father? Also plays to the conflict.]

[By the way, attorney Liz Davenport is the heroine of Rod and Cane 5. However, Otis is not the hero. And that’s all I’ll say about that….]

Sometimes I outline and never look at it again!  Sometimes I follow it halfway through, then veer off. When I get an “inspired” idea—I run with it.

With the first few chapters my goal is to create the characters and define the setting. In the process of doing that, I create stuff, which through inspiration or conscious choice, I later use to further the story.

If I put the right two characters together the conflict occurs organically, and the story naturally evolves as the characters interact:

    • A feminist and a Dom who spanks are set up on a blind date – Body Politics
    • A spunky Terran with an alien who hates Terrans – Terran, Breeder 2
    • A reporter planning to expose the Rod and Cane Society and a man bound by confidentiality  not to disclose he’s a member of the Society – False Pretenses
    • A woman bitter over being dumped by her  husband for a younger woman is pursued by a younger man – Reckless in Moonlight.

In the first few chapters, I create secondary characters, settings, scenarios to illustrate tone and mood which I use later as plot points. I show society through the effects on the characters.

In Breeder, I wanted to show the bleakness, the degradation, the violence of Parseon society so I opened with Omra hiding in a dank cell. She is beaten and nearly raped by the man in charge (Sival). How do you think that translates to how women are treated on the planet? Not so good, huh?

Natasha Knight calls me a  "plantser" -- part plotter, part pantser.

Natasha Knight calls me a “plantser” — part plotter, part pantser.

I rely heavily on my daydreams.  When I am in first draft mode, I brainstorm with myself about my story a lot–often during my 45-60 minute daily walk, in the shower, while driving, when I wake up to pee at 3 a.m. (TMI?) I get far more creative, interesting ideas that way rather than through hard plotting.

I try to circle back and use things I’ve created so that everything appears to be tied together. For instance, In Warrior, I wanted to show the devastation that war has had on the people, so I have Urazi stumble into a refugee camp and meet a hideous man named Icor. At the time I wrote that scene, I had no other plans for Icor other than what I just described. But I decided to use him alter as a threat.

I create things and don’t use them. In Warrior, I had envisioned that Qalin would place a double agent in Marlix’s inner circle. I wanted to keep readers guessing, so I created two possible suspects: Zoulin, a guard (new, “highly recommended” by a subcommander) and Nibor, a cook and household aide. I ended up not using the spy angle, but the two characters play small roles.

One reason Marlix appears to be a bad guy in Breeder is because originally I had intended him to be. When I wrote the dinner scene with Dak, Marlix and Tarbek, my intent was to show the threat to Dak’s authority and force Dak to take a public stand in support of Omra. I planned for Marlix to betray him. But when I realized that Marlix was such a bad guy, I decided it would be too obvious. While walking I had an epiphany that Tarkek was Dak’s twin. Who better to betray him than his own brother? I went back and changed some scenes—and hinted at Tarbek’s identity by giving him ice blue eyes like Dak.

When the High Council tries to depose Dak, I had to save him, so I used a reluctant Marlix to do it. However, that gave me an excuse to later turn bad guy Marlix into a good guy and the hero of Terran.

Sometimes my lack of plotting/forethought creates challenges. When I developed Tara, I did not intend for her to be more than a colorful secondary character to astound Omra and show the contrast between the bleakness of Parseon and the freedom of Terra. So I had fun with her and gave her pink hair and a full sleeve tattoo.

I’d designed Parseon uniforms to cut across the chest leaving the right breast bare to show how women are dominated. (That the clothing is referred to as uniforms and only comes in gray, brown and beige speaks to the militarism and drabness of the society).

But when Marlix kidnaps Tara and hides her, there came the challenge: how the hell do you hide a woman with pink hair and full sleeve tattoo that is revealed by a sleeveless dress?

As I create challenges for myself as the author—I create more interesting stories. When I have to get out of jam—so do my characters. If hard plotted my stories, I don’t think they would be as creative. I would play it safer. I wouldn’t create pink-haired tattooed Terrans, nipple insignia, breeder rings.

Had I hard-plotted the Breeder series, I probably would have used Dak and Omra as the H/h throughout all three books. But then I would not have created the relationship between Tara and Marlix—and they turned out to be such colorful characters. I love Marlix’s humor and Tara’s spunkiness. I don’t see Omra as a “warrior” like Anika. I pretty much tormented Anika during the first two books just to show how violent Parseon is and what the threat to the other characters could be—but the experiences honed her strength and motivation and enabled her to emerge as the heroine of Warrior.

I don’t always use the things I  envision/create. When I first conceived Breeder, it was going to be a kinky ménage rather than a sweet love story set in a dark and dystopian world. I had envisioned that Dak would share his female slave with his beta—and the visiting Alphas. But as their characters developed, Dak and Omra fell in love (in “regard”!), and Dak didn’t want to share her. But by falling in love with her, he cheats on Corren, his beta. Cheating does not go over well with readers. So I made Corren a bad guy with ulterior motives.

In plotting Warrior, I decided that Qalin would plant a spy in Marlix’s household who would later turn Anika over to Qalin. I wanted to keep readers guessing so I created two possible characters I could use. One, Zoulin, was a guard new to Marlix’s service. The other was Nibor, a beta cook Marlix hired after Urazi was injured in Terran. I didn’t know exactly what would happen or when, but I had those two characters on standby.

Pantsing through Warrior, I got about 2/3 done with the first draft, and I realized I’d done nothing with the spy angle! Since the story was trucking along quite nicely without it, I decided not to use it at all. Nibor and Zoulin do play small roles in the story, however.

I would define plot as the sequence of events that moves the story. Hard-plotting* is when I plant my butt in the chair at my desk with a blank notebook or sticky notes and define what those events are. Soft plotting is when I’m walking and daydreaming about all sorts of things and bits and pieces of story drift through my head. Hard-plotting feels forced, stilted. Soft-plotting feels more organic.

Have you noticed how often I’ve used the word “show”? I think that’s significant. In showing (rather than telling) setting and character, the plot develops.

I like to have some idea of what is going to happen when I start to write each day, but sometimes during the middle of the books, I don’t.  That makes for sloooow writing.

I think of writing as a road trip. I start in Los Angeles and know I want to end up in New York. I have a few a few cities and attractions along the way that I want to visit, but I don’t have a route mapped out. However, I know NY is east of LA so I head east.

And that’s how I do it. Questions?

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17 Responses to Heading east:  a “pantser’s” process

  1. Lisa Medley says:

    I love being inside your head. My soft plotting happens mostly in the car. Car plotting is fantastic! That rush of plotting the beginning of a new story is addictive. I came home yesterday with a dozen sticky notes full of scibbles I can barely read, ha! But hey, that’s how you get to NYC 🙂 Nice post.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      You’re on the road a lot so you have lots of plotting opportunities. But I’ll try to stay out of your way when I’m on the road. 🙂

  2. Thanks for showing us what goes on inside your head. I think we have a very similar process (you just seem way more organized than I feel) and I’ve so often felt like I wanted to be a plotter – like it would somehow be easier – but every single time I try to plot something out, it just stops. I just can’t write it. I have a notebook I carry with me everywhere (and for our trip, I bought myself a new pen to go with it – I know, I’m a nerd). I keep all of them and I love going back to read what I had thought to do or what I was thinking and there’s always a theme that seems important at the start, something I really think I want to do, and most times, that particular theme is left off or forgotten. Given the state of my memory, I have to remind myself ‘ok, don’t forget why X had a tattoo…’ or little details I’d forget to complete otherwise.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Really, you’re just brainstorming, Natasha. You have to work thru a lot of ideas to get to the one that works. I have a lot of stuff I never use too. I am quasi organized. Sitting down and trying to plot feels so forced, so artificial to me. It’s not fun at all.

  3. Leigh Smith says:

    Thanks for the peek into your writing process. Gleaning little tidbits from others is very helpful.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      I think everybody has their own process. The way hardcore plotters plan everything would not work for me. I feel it would kill the creative process–for me. But it works for them.

  4. I am a plantster, too! I drive for a living, but instead of sticky notes I use the text message recording feature on my phone. I’ll be driving down the highway (missing my exits, BTW) making notes that my phone turns into texts with hilarious results. God forbid a police officer should ever read them – I’d be arrested for suspicion of assault and even murder. Occasionally I will look at the notes later after the autocorrect has had its way and have no idea what I was going for.

    Thanks for sharing your method – and making many of us not feel so weird about our methods!

  5. Great post! I think there is a bit of comfort for me in thinking that I know where the story is going, though it never goes exactly as planned. I’m a panster too. It’s fun to go back to my scribbled notes and scraps of paper and realize that I barely used any of them but somehow jotting them down helped my process.

    I think I’m actually a panster in most of my life. LOL

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Having those notes is security blanket — I may not use them, but they are there if I need them. It does help the process. My career as a whole has been pantsed. All three careers — journalism, public relations, and erotic romance writing.

  6. Melody Parks says:

    I loved reading about your writing process, Cara. I’m a panster and also find it hard to use an outline. I normally come up with a beginning and an end and then sit down to write. I love getting to the middle of a story because it’s where the grit of the characters really come out to play in my head.
    During that stage I wonder what people around me think sometimes, because at the point I can’t get the story out of my head until it’s been written. People will ask if I’m okay, why I seem so distant or off in my own little world. I smile and tell them ‘I am and it’s okay because it comes with the job description.’

    I like how you mention your stories start out as concepts, I do that too. The Immortal’s Bite came to me by me asking myself.. what if vampires were real? Can I make someone else believe they just might be? I had to think about… daydream as you mentioned and decided to give it a try.
    I take notes when I need to keep facts straight and I write them down on the strangest things. The envelope for the phone bill, or on a receipt, the edge of the newpaper and sometimes on my hand if I’m in a hurry.

    I can relate when you say using an outline and hard plotting seem to distract from the creativity. I love when my imagination just takes me into the story and I’m not sure what’s coming next.

    I love the Breeder series, and it was fun seeing how you made it happen.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Your process sounds exactly like mine! From the scattered notes (mine are in at least 5 different notebooks) to not noticing what goes on around me. I’ve had to tell neighbors, if you wave to me when I’m walking and I don’t wave back, I’m not being rude, I just didn’t see you! They think I’m on the street, but really I’m inside my head.

      Middles are not my favorite part though–because that’s where I’m not sure what happens. I think I like beginnings the most. I did have fun with the middle of Warrior–I kept thinking, how much worse can I make it for my characters? Muwahaha…

  7. Tara Finnegan says:

    I love the expression plantser! So very apt.
    And yet again, I think I have learned a lot from this post, as I always do with your writing posts, whether I put it into practice or not is yet to be seen. My lesson for today is to get more organised. Even having a single notebook is organised. I seem to do my notes on scraps of paper, or old copy books, disorganised chaos to some but I usually know where it all is, until I lose it!!
    I was reading this and all the while thinking what’s my process in comparison. I’ve never really thought about it, just done it. Usually, I start off with rough plan but never seem to end up where I thought I would. Or I end up at the same spot, after taking a very scenic route.

    Thanks for sharing and making me think, and hopefully get more organised.

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Interesting how many spanking fiction authors are pantsers. I wonder if it’s indicative of the genre. Any plotters out there?

  8. I think I am a plantser too, Cara!
    So many thoughts constantly running amok through my poor brain.
    But I also find myself constrained to the need to be in control (type A personality).
    It gets so chaotic between the need to fly and also ground myself, that I often get overwhelmed and just shut down.

    Thanks for the insight!!

    • Cara Bristol says:

      Maybe you need a coach, like in The Coach’s Discipline? 🙂 I think having thoughts running amok is par for the course for authors!

  9. Winter says:

    Love it! Thanks for sharing.

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