Pantsers – Done with your first draft and not sure what to do with the god-awful mess?

imageYou’ve finally finished your first draft and you’re ecstatic. You should be! Many aspiring writers never get that far!

Go out and celebrate!

As many writers will tell you, take a break. Long enough to forget the little details. Week, two weeks. A month.

Then do a reread (without editing!)

Did you flip out at how much work you have to do? Are you staring at it, wanting to shove it under your bed and just forget about it permanently because it would be just too much work to fix?

You are not alone. Pantsers have this trouble more than plotters, but as Stephen King said ‘all first drafts are piles of %&^%^’ (or something like that).

Knowing that, though, and then wondering how the heck you’re going to tackle it is daunting. How you need to approach it is like a trauma surgeon in ER– tackle the crucial, bleeding parts and amputate/bandage as needed. No use polishing prose on stuff that will need to be cut. So how to analyze? Focus gobbling up any and all craft books on plotting and do the work that plotters actually do before they start to write. Basically, you’ve created a novel length outline/synopsis and now you need to create a structure. (Plotters, you can keep snickering. We know we’ve created more work for ourselves)

There are many things to do, but I will focus on one craft book today to illustrate. The book most people recommend is Blake Snyder‘s Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, but I would like to focus on a successful fiction writer who applies the screenwriting tips to novels, Alexandra Sokoloff. She takes a lot of Snyder’s tips, but expands on them. One of her screenwriting tips is the use of 8 sequences, spread through the 3 Act structure. In the picture above, you’ll see my storyboard with colored stickies for each scene that I created after reading her book. The board itself is not only divided up into the 3 Act structure (with Act 2 divided in half) but also divided by sequences. Each sequence should have a climax too.

She has written two e-books on story structure: Screenwriting Tricks For Authors (and Screenwriters!) and Writing Love: Screenwriting Tricks for Authors II. I hate reading craft books on my Kindle, it’s just so cumbersome to me, but it’s the only version she currently has. I did ask her about print versions, and she’s hoping to have those available maybe by the end of the year. Anyway, if you’re a romance writer, you might want to skip the first book and just get Writing Love, as it’s the same as the first one, but expanded to include elements for love stories.

What I loved about the books, besides breaking up the traditional three-act structure into eight parts, is that she goes into more detail than Snyder on what elements need to be in place in each act. There’s also fun homework, like watching movies and seeing how, on cue, the sequence climax falls exactly where it should almost to the minute. In a 2-hour movie, the first sequence climax will be at the 15 minute mark, and then the Act One climax will be at 30 minutes, etc.


So, I made stickies on my board (blue for hero’s POV and pink for heroine’s) and then wrote down what happened and stuck them up on my new board (which I can now re-use for new WIPs). I then went over all of her elements to see if I was missing anything. Boy, was I! It really helped me pull it into shape big-picture wise, but it also helped me add subtle layers of subtext. Pictured here is a closeup of some stickies where I wrote the elements in all caps on the appropriate sticky.

I can’t say enough about how helpful this book was. There’s more to it than just this. She also delves into theme, and insuring you have a consistent thematic image system and how to engage readers with visual storytelling.

Her blog has all of it on there for free, if you’re short on cash, but I found it handier (Kindle still easier to absorb this stuff than clicking through web page links) to get the e-books.

How about you? Are you a pantser and do these things that plotters do when facing revisions? What’s your favorite craft book? Have you used Sokoloff’s tips?

7 Replies to “Pantsers – Done with your first draft and not sure what to do with the god-awful mess?”

  1. Oh, wow! Good for you! It’s great when you find a system that works for you, and it’ll probably evolve, too.

    I was a panster for the first book and it was a hot mess when I finished. I turned to “Stein on Writing” by Sol Stein. His books come highly recommended, and he mentiones the triage method, as well.

    This time I had a basic outline (only because parts of the book were based on real events) and it definitely kept me more in track without limiting my creativity. I used Chuck Wendig’s list of 25 Ways to F$&# With Your Characters and listed all the ways I could mess with them. Then I hand-wrote a list of each character’s secrets; hates; wants; fears; and because this MS has paranormal elements, I listed their special abilities.

    As I worked through the draft, I made sure I addressed most (if not all) of these things.

    My first draft is MUCH more manageable this time around.

    Thanks for your post!

  2. Ah, I’m a pantser by nature but am trying to change my ways since the book I wrote has series potential and if I don’t get somewhat organized, I won’t remember anything if I write that 2nd book, lol.

    BTW, check out my blog today b/c you’ve been tagged:)

  3. I am definitely a pantser. The one story I plotted out all nicely before I wrote didn’t even make the 30,000 word mark, more like 10K. I was so bored, since I knew everything that happened! LOL That said, I do think we make more work for ourselves on the editing floor this way. Thanks for the great book suggestion. Thus far, I’ve used Holly Lisle’s methods for editing, but it’s always nice to find new ways to streamline the process!

  4. I’m a pantster, but I’m trying not to be. I usually like to know where I’m going before I get there, but with writing, I can’t do that. This is why my first drafts are sooo messy.

  5. I’m half-plotter and half-pantser. I’ve got a timeline of major plot points for each story, under most circumstances, and I fill in the rest as I go.

  6. I’m a linear pantser with plotter tendencies… Got that out of a class on “what kind of writer are you.” LOL

    Basically I get an idea, I mull on it for a long time, then even though I have it mostly figured out in my head (major turning points and ending), I start from page one and continue writing to “the end”… Which I may have pre-written in my head months maybe even years before. I never write down outlines or use stickys or any thing like that. I probably could, but I have it all in my head. I usually have at least 2 and sometimes more projects that I’m working on at once…One that I’m writing and one that I’m editing and one or two that I’m pre-plotting in my head.

    I also edit as I write, so I usually don’t have a terrible mess, unless I’m told to rewrite it–which as been the case with my current WIP. The editor hated my heroine but wanted a R&R.

    Great post!

  7. I have Alexandra’s book, but like you, I found it awkward on my ereader. I prefer my writing craft books in hard copy. I still like Blake’s book more, but maybe that’s because I have the hard copy. Both are great. It does, though, make life easier when you’ve figured out the beats before writing the first draft.

    I think the instructor you were talking about on my post and my instructor went to the same ‘how to screw about with your students’ workshop. 😛

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