Plotters warn writers the danger in taking a “pantser” (seat of the pants) approach to writing a novel is they will discover at the end of the first draft that their story didn’t work. Or, that they need to “reboot” by throwing away a major chunk of their original story to make the novel work. I learned that lesson the hard way. And I didn’t learn it after the first draft. I learned it after sending off my polished (or so I thought) manuscript to my editor.
Not that I didn’t harbor earlier doubts about that manuscript. Members of my writer’s group had told me the major decisions made by the main character in the original manuscript made her unsympathetic to the reader–the opposite of what I was trying to achieve. My critique partners told me the main character would never turn her back on her family the way she did. I brushed aside these criticisms because having the main character return to her family didn’t support the story events. Maybe I just didn’t want to do the hard work upfront of completely scrapping the second half of my story. Well, that’s what I ended up doing after I received my edits from my editor.
Many of the shortcomings my editor pointed out centered on the main character’s “unlikeability.” There was a fix to that; make her more likeable. To achieve that, I made the difficult decision to scrap the entire second half of the story–about 35,000 words in a 70,000 word manuscript.
Once I made that decision, I faced a daunting challenge: how to reconstruct a new story from the ash heap of the former story? To do that, I engaged in a series of “what if’s”.
What if Maura returned home and attempted to reconcile with her family? That would certainly make her more sympathetic. After all, family meant everything to her.
What if, when Maura returned home, she discovered that her mother was suffering from dementia? And her father had started drinking? And she had to be the caregiver for her mother, her father, and also her young baby. Sympathy in spades.
And, what if, Maura’s mom wandered off one day when Maura was supposed to be watching her, and got hit by a car?
One “what if” led to another and pretty soon I had a better story than the original. And the new story was more true to the traits I hoped to imbue in the main character?
My first challenge was to figure out what the story was. I am still adding “what if’s” to the list. My next challenge will be to add meat to the bones of the new structure. Then I need to put it all together.
There is a better way–becoming a plotter. I vow to become a plotter, starting with my next book.
What about you–are you a pantser or a plotter? What are the pitfalls of each approach?