Danger: Reconstruction Under Way

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?




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3 responses to “Danger: Reconstruction Under Way

  1. I find pantsers to be fascinating. I think Stephen King is a pantser. How do they do it? For me, the plot is a big part of what I enjoy in a story. There’s a real cleverness to putting everything together. I used to feel a little 2nd class as pantsers put together their books on the fly and I had to work the plot out ahead of time.

    Now, I feel good about doing what works for me. I discovered the beauty of plotting a few years back and have found it very liberating. I still get the thrill of working out the plot in the beginning stages. Then, I feel more confident as I do the actual writing of the book. In the second draft, I find myself thinking of ideas in the middle of the night to make the characters more likable of unlikable (whichever I desire).

    I’m sorry you had to go through such a drastic cut. One thing I’ve done with big cuts, and even small scene cuts, is that I save them for potential use in a future project. Then it isn’t quite as painful.

    • Thanks for your comments, Heather. Though I am a pantser, I do try to work out as much of the plot in my head before I ever put a word on the page. I develop about a dozen milestone events that make up the basic structure of the story. In this case, I was taken by the story and didn’t consider how it made the main character look. I do acknowledge the need to be more of a plotter. I also understand that what works for one writer might not work for another writer. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I’m a panster – and believe me, I tried to be a plotter – I really did. I envy plotters. My black-holed-brain just won’t work that way. It’s not an affectation or me being stubborn, it really is how my brain works (or doesn’t work) – frustrating – I have a frustrating brain. It thinks and processes in weird ways. When I realized it, it made a lot of sense how I learn things, too.
    That I wrote novels at all is sort of an amazing “miracle” – so, I have to have a character that interests me, or characters, and then I follow him/her/them around and see where they go and what they will do. I have to trust this process – I went over 2 years without writing because I began to doubt my process.

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