I’ve been writing novels professionally for four-and-a-half years now, and I’m constantly trying new things to improve my craft. Sometimes this means a new sort of project, like the audio drama adaptations I produce through Burning Brigid Media. Sometimes it’s a new process. Sometimes these experiments result in a smoother workflow, and sometimes… not so much.
Generally speaking I do a lot of planning before I start writing, drilling down to the scene-by-scene level, plotting out the story in minutia. I’ve never been able to write a novel by the seat of my pants. I get lost and confused, huddling into the corner until a friendly adult comes to find me.
Still, I’ve often wondered if the degree of planning I had to do was a genuine part of my creative process, or a crutch that was keeping me back.
When embarking on Network Protocol, sequel to the cyberpunk thriller Cold Reboot, I decided to take a slightly looser structure, planning chapter-by-chapter instead of scene-by-scene.
Now, I usually don’t even think about chapters until the last round of revisions. To me they’re less a unit of storytelling than a tool to control a reader’s pacing. Something to make it difficult for someone to put the book down. Readers don’t like to stop reading mid-chapter, so if your chapters end on a crisis point with high tension, they might talk themselves into reading just a little bit more.
However, in the interest of science, I decided to use the chapters as the smallest unit of planning, writing 2-3 chapters in my outline to describe what happened in each.
No matter how I chose to envision the story while plotting, scenes still exist. I still had to write them, only I approached them without a clear idea of what I was going to write. This is, I believe, what they call “pantsing.”
It… did not go well.
While there were a few moments that provided me with delightful “in the moment” sort of surprises, in general I found that I entered each scene without any tactical sense of what the characters were going to do. I had to make it up as I went along, and ended up with some irrational plans and illogical outcomes.
Or, in other words, scenes that I will have to completely re-write when I do my revisions. Easy to fix, but time consuming, extending the time it’ll take me to finish Network Protocol by 200-300%.
So. What have we learned?
I can’t pants. Scene-by-scene plotting is just part of the way I work, and I don’t need to worry too much about trying to evolve past this. If it happens, it happens, but what I do is effective, and I should stick to that.
How about you? What have you tried and failed, and what has it taught you? Answer in the comments below.