Plan or pants?

Before I start the main post, I’m re-posting part of a question capng asked in comments on the last post: I’m worried that if one of the minority characters dies, readers will read too much into it – I’ve seen enough criticism on the internet because of things like that.

Yesterday I wrote this and I don’t want it to get lost, because people have stopped checking and it’s important: I don’t think we should pay much attention to what we read online about what’s good or bad in writing. We don’t know the person who said whatever it was or what his motive was–or how good a writer he is! I don’t know any rule about killing off or not killing off minor characters. It depends, as it always does, on how it’s done and how the death fits into the plot. One of the things I adore about this blog is how positive and encouraging we all are.

On to the post.

On April 17, 2015, Hypergraphia wrote, I know, Ms. Levine, you said you didn’t outline. However, I know of many famous authors who swear by it. What about you guys (other readers of this fabulous blog)? Do you find it easier to finish a story with or without an outline? Does it make your story better? I hadn’t outlined until I read all these things saying it was much better if you did outline, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work for me, so I was just wondering what you guys thought.

Kaye M. repeated the question: I’m reading WRITER TO WRITER now, and I’m curious to hear what Mrs. Levine thinks about the benefits of pantsing over plotting. I’ve always outlined because I have friends that outline religiously, but sometimes, especially if it’s raw in my head and not a revision, I feel like I’m bleeding out my enthusiasm for the story and trying to commit the colorless remains to paper. Other times, I try to get by without it and I realize that there are parts missing or I worry about my stakes being high enough. Does this mean I should try pantsing?

People kindly weighed in.

Tracey Dyck: It all depends on the writer. I know of excellent writers who outline (extensively or sparsely), and also excellent writers who “pants” everything (meaning they make the story up as they go along). Both kinds of writers are equally capable of pulling off AMAZING books.

I myself tend to fall into the outliner’s camp, but I don’t plan so thoroughly that I know everything that will happen. I like to leave some room for creativity. My outlines are never set in stone. For shorter projects, I plan much less and end up halfway pantsing it, but for the 4-book series I’m working on… let’s just say I would be entirely lost without my outlines! So I guess it depends on the project as well as the writer.

Song4myKing: I agree with Tracey that it’s different for different writers. That seems to be the way with any art.

I outline. I find I have to know that there is a possible way to reach a good ending before I can actually begin writing. Basically, I figure out and write down what the main plot points will be, and I have in my head at least some idea how I’ll get from one to the next. Sometimes this takes the form of possible chapter titles or a rough timeline.

I do go through a bit of a (very unorganized) process in my head before I can figure out an outline. I compose scenes and try out various directions that I then keep or kick out. I wonder if those of you who don’t use an outline do a bit of that same processing while actually writing?

carpelibris: I’m a pantser. I’ve tried to outline, but it quickly goes astray.

From what I’ve heard and read, a lot of my favorite writers are pantsers too. I wonder if that’s common?

This subject fascinates me! I’m always interested in better ways to write, and I love to hear what other writers’ processes are. I want to know what people do to get past the bumps that trip me up.

We may not have free will when it comes to outlining versus pantsing versus falling somewhere in the middle. Our method may choose us. I’m like carpelibris. I’ve tried to outline. I’ve asked writer friends to explain their outlining procedure. I’ve listened, nodded, even taken notes. But when I try to follow their example, I get confused and bored. I itch to try my ideas out in scenes. On the rare occasions when I have managed to work up an outline, I inevitably and quickly discover that I forgot some major factor that unhinges it, and I veer off into uncharted, pantsy territory.

However, I’m not a total pantser. Even without outlining, I’m happiest if I’ve got a notion of my story before I start writing, and I like having an end in mind, although it may change when I get there. It’s possible that I retell fairy tales because they give me a sketchy outline, and they’re generally pretty simple, so I can embroider and go in fresh directions while still sticking to the original story shape.

I’m delighted to announce that I finished the first draft of the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which took me only about nine months. Contrast that with four-and-a-half years for Stolen Magic. The difference is that I imagined the prequel as Rapunzel meets Moses (just part of the story of Moses) while I made Stolen Magic up from scratch–and got lost and made a few very foolish story choices.

It’s possible that some genres lend themselves more to outlining than pantsing, and the mystery, which Stolen Magic is, might be one of them. I’m speculating here, but a mystery, or a complicated one anyway, calls for more moving parts than, say, one of my adventure fairy tales. In a mystery we have to figure out the movements of not only the villain but also the suspects and the victim. Everyone has secrets, and we have to get interested in them all. It’s complicated. Maybe an outline, like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs, can more easily be followed to reach an ending.

And conceivably a simpler plot works better for a pantser. Take “Sleeping Beauty,” for example. Nothing to it. The pantser has only a few plot points she has to hit, which gives her a sense of security. She has to get the fairies to the christening, but she can have a grand time bringing them there and delving into what’s going on with any and all of them beforehand. At the ceremony, she can have a field day with the dialogue. When Sleeping Beauty sleeps, what dreams does she have? Who is the prince and why does he take on this quixotic quest? And on and on.

I’m with Tracey Dyck in that I, too, doubt that whether one outlines or pantses influences the quality of a book. Quality comes from word choice, plot, characters–all the elements we go into here.

Kaye M. asks if it’s better to pants or to plot, but everybody has to plot. The difference is plotting ahead of time versus plotting as you go.

I agree with Song4myKing that outlining for outliners is a lot like writing for pantsers: exploration, uncertainty, experimentation.

Each method has difficulties. Years ago, I listened to some classes taught by Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University that had been taped and made available for free online, which some of you may find interesting. I did! Here’s the link: He discussed differences between pantsers and outliners, and I think he said he falls mostly into the outliners’ camp. The difference that I remember is that he said that pantsers love to revise and outliners do not. Wow! Revising is my favorite part of writing. What outliners love, if I remember right, is plotting, and plotting makes my head want to explode, though I do it, and I happen to be a plot-driven writer (rather than character-driven).

A while back, I had a conversation with the young-adult writer Walter Dean Myers on the subject. I’ve mentioned this before, because it astonished me so much. He was (he died last year) an outliner and as far out on the spectrum as possible. He told me that by the time he finished an outline, he knew how many sheets of paper to put in his printer for his draft, and he knew exactly how many pages would be in each chapter. I concluded that he and I had grown up on different planets. He wrote a book about his method, Just Write: Here’s How! I read it, and was glad to have someone else’s method mapped out for me, although I continue to stumble along. You may find it useful.

Whether outlining or pantsing are better for finishing stories, I’m not sure. Pantsers have written here that their stories peter out into tangles and loose ends. Outliners have commented about getting bored. Outliners may need to blow up their plans a little to get excited again, and we pantsers may benefit from imposing order on the chaos we make.

I can’t recommend this from personal experience, because I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard from other writers that it’s helpful. I’m talking about Scrivener, described by Wikipedia as a word processing and outlining program for writers. Scrivener isn’t free, but if you’re comfortable with technology, you can download a similar public (free) program. Does anyone on the blog use Scrivener or anything similar? What do you think?

In these two prompts I may be setting you up for failure by asking you to go against your usual method and maybe against your nature. If you’re enjoying your story but the process keeps getting in your way, abandon it. But first give it your best shot. Here are the prompts:

∙ This can be realism or fantasy: A young man is walking along a cliff with a friend when he falls off. His death is the basis for your mystery story. If you’re a pantser, write an outline for the whole tale and then write the first scene. See if you can stick to your outline. If you’re an outliner, don’t outline, just pants the first scene, although you are allowed to think ahead about how the story might end, but you may not write anything down. If you’re inspired, keep going.

∙ Write a prequel to “Snow White,” that ends with her stepmother ascending to the throne. If you’re an outliner, don’t. If you’re a pantser, do.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This was a great post. Congratulations on the first draft of the prequel!

    I have a problem. It’s kind of sort of related to this, but mostly not really. 🙂 I like to write a lot, but I also tend to totally plan things out in my head–like a scene, not an entire story. It’s fun for me, and it’s hard to stop myself from doing it, because it’s a scene I really love. Anyway, by the time I actually write about it, I’ve gone over it so many times in my head that I just can’t bring myself to write it down…it’s boring. Which is sad, because I still really love the scene, but I just can’t go through it all over again for the umpteenth time in two days. Does anyone else have this problem and/or ways to fix it?

    • A lot of the time if a scene suddenly comes to me, I don’t want to bother figuring out all the side details and description and stuff, so I just write what’s important for me to remember: mainly for me that’s just the dialogue and some notes on where the characters are moving and what they’re doing, which I tend to call “blocking” (in the theatrical sense). For instance: “There’s nothing in there.” *laughs “You think?” “Stop that.” etc, etc.
      I think if you’re sick of thinking about this scene, I’d just write it out in a sort of shorthand, everything that happens that it’s important you don’t forget, and then after that you can move on and come back to it a couple weeks later (or even longer) to fill in the rest. That way you don’t have to actually sit all the way through writing the scene, at least not today while you’re tired of it, but you can still use it and when you come back you’ll remember everything you thought of while it was all fresh in your mind.

  2. I wish I could say which of these I am. The whiteboard covered in Post-Its across the room suggests that I’m an outliner, and I think I do definitely lean more that way (hands down I like outlining better than actually writing prose) but when I am actually in a scene, I can go off track really easily, and nothing goes as I think it will. It’s a bit of a battle: all my beautiful ideas and connections and tie-ins get made in the outline and the notes, but when I get to writing an actual scene, they all seem to vanish.
    All my outliners out there, how do you transition from writing an outline of something to writing the thing itself? And what format do you use for your outline–pen and paper, Word Document, index cards, sticky notes? I like my Post-Its for now because they’re easy to move around, so if I know that This Event has to happen at some point then I can write it on a note and think over various places to put it, but all too quickly my board gets crowded with papers, and all too easily it just feels like a giant mess.
    Thoughts? Does anyone actually start with a rough outline and then get more and more detailed with it until it actually becomes the draft? I’ve heard that’s the very very far end of the pantsing/outlining spectrum, but have never seen it done. Don’t know whether it’s for me.
    (Probably I should read that Walter Dean Meyers book. 🙂 )

    • Hi, Charlotte,
      I use Post-Its too. I like to tape a big piece of paper to the back of my bedroom door and cover it with Post-It notes.
      If that gets cluttered, I try writing things out on one sheet of notebook paper. One line represents one chapter/scene. Write out where you’d like to put the scenes, and if it doesn’t work, you can always move it around.
      Hope this is helpful, and good luck!

  3. Finished prequel draft! Hooray!

    I’d never heard that bit about pantsers loving to revise, but it’s SO true for me. And I find it much easier to cut words than to write them in the first place. (I call it “distilling” the story.)

  4. Hey, thanks Gail for writing this!
    Congrats on the first draft! That’s really a hard thing to write and I’m glad to hear it’s going well for you.
    I’m a bit of a pantser. I try to outline, but usually I just block out a few scenes like this:
    MC escapes war camp and catches a train out of town.
    MC goes to Madame LeBlanc’s and gets a room.
    MC beats Bette in the singing contest.
    Then I fill in the little scenes. If I get stuck, I just leapfrog to the next scene.

  5. I have a really awkward question. I’m writing a book for readers around 10+ and I’ve hit a bump in keeping it G-rated. One of the characters, an old woman, is telling a story about when she was 20. She had to hide a fugitive in her workplace and she fell in love with him. They got intimate and eventually the woman had a baby.
    So the problem is, it feels unnatural for her to say, “I fell in love with him and ended up with a baby.” But I don’t want to have anything PG-13 in it, either. Can you help me?

    • Martina Preston says:

      Sorry in advance if my answer doesn’t make any sense, but if the old woman is telling a story to, say a 10-14 year old, she could say (for the sake of the reader too) something like this: “blahblahblah (insert whatever) we fell in love and–” she turns to the MC “I’m going to shorten this for you, but we…”

      Sort of?

    • I really am stuck.

      I’ve been writing my whole life. its all I ever wanted to do.

      I am satisfied to where my plots usually go, and I bend words to make them fit, but no matter what I write, it always feels too FLAT( yes, I am sure you get it ), too scattered. the story doesn’t seem clear and outright, but sound and muffled, as if I was hearing it while wearing headphones.

      Any help ms. Levine???? any of you guys????? slowly, I think I am improving, but I am becoming less sure of myself as a writer, than I was 5 years ago.

      in the middle of my (hopefully) NOVEL, and having the same problem……. please please please someone reply and give me some pointers, I am thoroughly clueless at this point.


      • Do your stories tend to end up wordier than you meant them to be? Is it the characters that are flat, or something else?

        This may sound odd, but I know several writers who felt less sure of themselves as they got better at writing, because they learned to spot their weak spots before they learned how to fix them. With practice, their skill level caught up.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          I’m with Melissa in not being sure where the flatness comes in. If you can say more, I might like to write a post in response. Is it the characters? The plot? Tone? Words? What do you think?

          • So sorry for the late reply (hopefully you can find it after all these days) and thank you all so much for your help!
            The plot is what seems scattered to me, like its a mishmash of vocabulary, that ,while well worded, is anything but intruiging. When Im editing or reading my work, I can never get thoroughly into the ideas and plot. In always thinking Im writing brilliantly, and as you said in your book “writer to writer” I never judge it until its done. But even when it is, the questions and (not so nice) comments that Ive been harboring in the back of my mind all come flooding into my conscious self. Im stuck after that, it feels as if no amount of revision would help my work.
            In case this matters, I never outline my stories. It seems to ruin the fun of it all, and spoil what could be soul sucking surprises in where my characters go.
            I hope that this was enough information about the troubles i am having, and though all of everyones comments helped, I still think I need a little more help.

        • It sure is good to know that Im not alone when it cones to tiring stories ( reading them does seem like a chore) and not being as confident as you once were. I guess the words do contribute to part of the feel of the story, and I can see how I could fix that, but maybe I still need that kickstart of energy to bring more life into the plot, and Im not so sure where I should start looking for it.

      • Hi, Sapphire! Welcome to the blog!
        There are a couple of definitions of flat, so I’ll give you a few examples and you tell me which one is your problem.
        1. Is the plot too simple? Sometimes a plot can be so straightforward that it gets bland. Take Cinderella, for instance. A poor girl with nasty stepsisters goes to a ball with help of a fairy godmother, meets true love, happily-ever-after, the end. Cute, but it needs more meat, if that makes sense.
        Subplots are great for this. Say one of Cinderella’s stepsisters has a crush on the village baker (Disney did this in the sequel to the Cinderella movie). We can show why she’s such a snob to Cinderella, and that adds interest.
        2. Are the characters bland? Does the MC have no personality/quirks? In that case, I try working parts of real people into a story. For example, my friend showed up at an ice-skating party in really short workout shorts and fishnet stockings. She looked crazy. That could bring a MC to life.
        3. Is the language dull? It can get tiring to hear a story full of “got” and “went” when there are stories using words like “leaped” and “dashed”.

        Hope something helps, and good luck with your story!

        • Thanks Yulia! This really helped, and now that I thibk about it, I do sense a tastless spirit in my characters. And as I think about it more, one of those characters may even be my MC! Haha I’ll try to do what you suggested and maybe it’l add more depth to the plot, too.

  6. Oh, and another quick question (this one is a lot less awkward). I’m writing a story where they present a lot of Italian and French plays and operas. The French title of one is La Rondine, and in English it’s called The Swallow. Should I call it La Rondine or The Swallow? Just curious!

  7. Third question! I have a lot of Frenchmen in my story, so nearly everyone is called Monsieur. Monsieur LeBlanc, Monsieur Andre, Monsieur Dubois, Monsieur Firmin, Monsieur Cloutier, etc. Would that be confusing if I have, like, 6 Monsieurs in a story?

    • Martina Preston says:

      I don’t think it would be too confusing with 6 Monsieurs, but if you want you could occasionally refer to them by only their last/first name (i.e. Andre vs Monsieur Andre). Also, if some of your characters are poorer than others, you could stress that and not even give them the “title” Monsieur.
      Hope this helps!

    • You could play up their differences or keep them separated, so you wouldn’t have all six of them in the same scene, to make it less confusing if you’re worried. It isn’t too confusing for me!

      • They all work together, but they have different personalities. For example Dubois is very grumpy, while Andre is mellow and Cloutier is a flirt.

      • Oh, yeah, that’s how they do it in The Phantom of the Opera. Do you think the young American readers would get it, or should I give a little explanation like “Christine saw the name M. Dubois on the envelope and figured M. stood for Monsieur”?

        • I think they will figure it out; especially if you say Monsieur Dubois in one sentence/paragraph and then do the abbreviations M.. I read Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera without any foreknowledge of the French abbreviations and I figured it out just fine.

    • I don’t know much about the French language and culture, but would there be any way of adding a variety of titles? I’m thinking of the Scarlet Pimpernel, where there is a Lord Antony and a Sir Andrew, as well as the Marquis escaping the the French Revolution. In modern American culture, there would be a few like Dr. or Pastor that would relate to a profession.

      • There aren’t any noble titles in the story, and all the men are actors and theater owners. The stagehands just go by their last names without titles, like “Cloutier”.
        I think I’ll try some abbreviations so “Monsieur” doesn’t keep popping off the page at me.

  8. Martina Preston says:

    I have a lot of problems with making time to write. I’ve tried the last-thing-before-you-go-to-bed and the first-thing-in-the-morning trick, but I end up doing this about once a week; then I just forget or I am doing something else and I don’t write that day. Can anybody help me with this??

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I write down the time when I start writing and when I stop, which sometimes is three minutes because I’m very interruptible, and I keep the list in a document on my computer. Something interrupts me; I note the time and note when I get back to it. At the end of a day I calculate the total. Those short bursts sometimes add up, and even when they don’t, I’ve gotten something done. I don’t look back, though, to see how long I’ve in a week or month, because the result may depress me. I just know that I’ve been working.

    • This may not help you since it seems like you’ve already tried to put time aside, but I’ve got this bad habit too, and what usually works for me is setting an alarm for a time where I don’t have a ton to do and then writing for a minimum of half an hour. Most of the time it lasts longer, but sometimes I can’t get into it, so I just sit at the desk for 30 minutes. I’ve been trying it for a month or so, and now its kind of habit, so I guess the trick with making time is you just have to drop everything and go write, no matter what it is. If I’m really busy, sometimes I give myself one day where I can skip, but then I go back to it. Rigidity really works for me because I’m a chronic procrastinator, excuse maker, and general putter offer. Of course its not everyone’s cup of tea but what I needed was to get serious.

    • I try writing a little each day. I have some free time after 7:00 P.M., when dinner and dishwashing is over and I can log on. Sometimes I’m on until pretty late (I’m a night owl) and in that time I try to produce at least two pages (some do more, some do less; it’s whatever works for you).
      I keep track of my writing time in a notebook, like this:

      Saturday, September 5, 2015
      (story title)
      Wrote 2 1/2 pages
      Developed ———’s character

      That’s just what works for me, but you can try it if you want. If I see myself slipping beneath 2 pages, I start spending less time on social media and watching movies on Youtube (very addictive, let me say).
      Hope it helps!

  9. Martina Preston says:

    Also, another question. In a novella I am writing (called The Fur Coat; it is a combination of the fairy tales Manyfurs and Snow White), my MC blacks out in the first 5 pages. I don’t know really how to stretch out the time before then, and what happens to make her pass out is a crucial point in the story. The plot seems bland when I add 5 extra pages before she blacks out.

    • Martina Preston says:

      It just seems too early, I guess. I wrote it like that first but when I reread the original pages it felt like when she blacks out is way too abrupt and sudden.

      • Well, I don’t know much about your story, but I can try to give a few suggestions:
        1. If she faints because of shocking news, you can introduce the character who gives the shocking news and have a little chitchat before it happens.
        2. If she blacks out when somebody hits her, you can have her stroll along, revealing her personality, before she gets thunked.
        I really don’t know what all goes on there, but it’s my best guess. Hope it helps, and good luck with your story!

  10. Chrissa Pedersen says:

    Thanks for the reminder not to make too much of online reviews/gripes/criticisms. We can all get caught up in a single post that spins a life of its own, but doesn’t in fact represent reality.

    And congratulations on finishing a first draft and in such record time! I appreciated your comment that retold fairy tales are in a way an outline. Susan Campbell Bartoletti said something similar at an SCBWI conference in reference to historical fiction; she already knows the ending. I remember thinking “Wow what a bonus!” I’m intrigued by this concept of a ready-made outline. Being more of a panster, I’m experimenting with using an outline for a CB. Shorter makes it less scary to experiment with. And I’m another panster who loves the revision process; less when it involves plot failings and more when it comes to finding the perfect word. When I’m on a roll, and can’t find the right word, I’ll leave in a mediocre word and relish the thought of going back to revise. And when I do find that perfect word what a thrill it is!

    Scrivener is well worth downloading. The tutorial is great and easy to follow. Depending on your comfort level playing with a new platform, you may either think Scrivener is a wonderful tool or feel it gets in the way of your creativity. Some of the features can really be useful if you’re working on a very complicated, many character, plot-twisty novel. It makes cross referencing events/dialog/scenes much easier than physical post-its, or index cards taped to your wall. I made playing with Scrivener part of my writing routine for a week. But I haven’t gone back to it yet since my current projects are all short and a standard word processing program is sufficient.

    As always I love reading everyone’s thoughts and comments.

    • I love how historical fiction always ends the same way. Like, it’s easy to write that Pearl Harbor’s going to get bombed because there’s no hemming and hawing over whether I should squash the city in the story. It’s going to blow up, end of story.
      I don’t have Scrivener, but I do use Dragon Dictate, which is a software that types for you. I’m really good with pen and paper, so at the end of the month I open up my notebook and read everything out of it. The software types it all up for me, so I don’t have to do the work 😀

    • “We can all get caught up in a single post that spins a life of its own, but doesn’t in fact represent reality.”
      I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever read on here. Do you mind if I use that as a slogan for a Twitter campaign against cyberbullying?
      Sometimes the bloggers out there are just people trying to find something to bash, so they pick a target like a perfectly good book. So, to quote some Taylor Swift lyrics, “The haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, shake, I shake it off.”
      So basically, don’t listen to the nasty people out there! Write what you want however you like to do it.

      • One time I remember I was mad at something one of my siblings had said, I don’t remember what. My dad gently told me I needed to take a lesson from my ducks. I should let comments roll off the way water rolls right off a duck’s back. Good advice for a lot of situations.

  11. Jenalyn Barton says:

    In definitely a pantser, but with my current project I decided to do some pre-writing and world building. I “outlined” the first portion of the story (as in I wrote a summary of the events), but decided to leave the rest up in the air so as to keep some of the excitement of pantsing in it. I’m using the world building to keep my excitement up while I wait until November for NaNoWriMo. I’m hoping that this method will help keep me from getting bored once the time comes to actually write, using what I think may be the best of both worlds.

  12. Jenalyn Barton says:

    My thoughts on Scrivner:

    It’s not for everybody. It takes some getting used to, and not everybody can get used to using a different platform. It’s pretty complicated, too. But I think that if you take the time to learn it, it can become a great tool.

    Scrivner actually has a free trial for 30 days of use, meaning that if you don’t use it for a few days, you will still have as many days left on the trial as you did when you last used it. So if somebody is interested in Scrivner, I would suggest downloading the free trial and spend some time trying to learn it and playing around in it. Even if you end up not getting it, it would be worth it to try out a different platform.

  13. Rapunzel meets Moses?
    If she does not float down a river that turns into an upside down waterfall that leads her to a tower I will be greatly disappointed.
    Just kidding. I like everything you write.

  14. I’m honestly not sure what I am. The only novel I’ve ever plotted (and I use that term very loosely) was a project for English class(too bad I can’t publish it, sigh). Even then, I never wrote anything down (at least, until my teacher made me), but had a complete 5 paragraph synopsis in my head hitting all the major plot points. I think the reason for that was because I had been brewing on the idea for some time, and didn’t want to start writing before the teacher gave the official parameters for the assignment, so I just had to plan out everything in my head. I found that it really helped me just keep on writing, considering I had a due date. It saved me a lot of time from the “sitting at my laptop for 30 minutes contemplating what to write” stage. Aside from that though, most of the stuff I’ve written is mostly pantsing, with a premise, a character bio, and a few scenes that I really want to include, but really very little idea of how I want the story to go or end. It’s fun being able to make up stuff as ideas come to you (which you can still do even if you’re a planner), but the idealess stage can be hard.

    I’m not that much of a plotter, but I’m trying to become more like one, so here’s some of the things I’m trying:
    1. for a virtual corkbord/planner/index cards I use a website called Gingko. ( I’ve seen it compared to scrivener, which I can’t attest to because I’ve never used scrivener, but it works pretty well for me. It’s organized like a tree, with one main “trunk” of virtual index cards, and more detailed “branches” branching off from it. An added bonus is that it comes with several pre-loaded templates. The screenplay one offers a very detailed explanation about the basic parts and turning points of a story, and although it’s for a movie ot a book, if you aren’t familiar with it it really helps. It’s free for a basic membership with 150 cards a month(which should be more than enough), with an option to upgrade to premium. Oh, and it lets you drag slides around like scrivener too.

    2. Another similar option is google slides. It’s a lot more basic, but I’ve tried writing scene titles in the title box and summaries in the body box. The reason I like this is that it lets you drag stuff around, in case you want to move around scenes. Also, it’s backed up on all of your devices through google drive.

    3. Not so much about planning, but google docs (which I do all of my writing in) has an option that lets you insert a table of contents. (insert->table of content) I just use it to organize scenes, and it’s really helpful if you don’t want to have to scroll through 67 pages of text to get to the scene you want.

    4. I know that some people like plot diagrams and index cards, but what I prefer to do is a wikipedia style plot sypnosis. I ask myself: If I were writting a sypnosis on wikipedia, what would I write? Same thing with character development. If this was an artical on a wiki, what would it look like? I find it really helpful to have a complete, continuous summary of the plot from start to finish instead of a bunch of disjointed ideas.

    Hope this helps!

    • Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, if you join NaNoWriMo in November, you get a free extended trial of scrivener, as well as a discount if you win. There’s also a free beta version of scrivener for linux.

  15. Yay! A BYU shout out! I live there!
    Speaking of Brandon Sanderson, he has this weekly podcast called Writing Excuses with three other writers. I love it. Like, binge listen to five episodes love it. It’s really useful. I met him and he joked that I shouldn’t bother taking his class because I’ve already heard everything.
    I’m reading a Walter Dean Meyers book (whenever I can make it to the library, because I’m a clueless freshman who can’t find the fourth floor checkout desk) and I wish he were still alive so I could talk to the guy!
    I use and love scrivener. It has all sorts of built in gadgets like name generators and a keyboard shortcuts for word count. My favorite thing is that you can create each chapter or scene as its own mini document and click the one you want from the sidebar. So if I change something in Chapter 23 I can just click Chapter 16 and fix the scene where the characters discuss that thing. Beats scrolling up forever to find the chapter.
    There’s a 30 day free trial that I used for about seven months. Day=opening and closing scrivener. I think I only used up 14 days but I was nearing the end of a novel and wanted to back it up. My WIP tab is usually open so I didn’t have a problem.

  16. I began my story by plotting it out completely, but then my plot changed entirely, so i plotted part of that. After my plot changed again, I’ve mapped out almost nothing except in my head. I can keep my story straight, except when i get drawn into my miner chararacters’ stories. This annoys me because I WANT to tell my MC’s story, but the other characters all have stories too! For example, I put a guard in my story, only for half of a scene, but afterwards I just had to know who she was. Then I went and wrote out her backstory, and I want her to get a happy ending too. What is the best way to deal with this?

    I began my story as a way to waste my gym frees, so i had time to write at least every other day. Now, with school starting, I don’t have any time to write at all. I understand that i need to make time to write, but I dont see how, with sports and homework. I’ve also found that I dont have time to read or draw anymore. Is this just a shortage of time?

    • I also have this problem, so I just spend my time thinking up scenes for my book and jotting down notes if I have time. I’m very character driven, so what I do is if I get an assignment in class to write a short story, I base it on a minor character that I can’t fit in my book and write them a happy ending in that. It means I get to explore the world of my book more and it satisfies my curiosity about the character. I may never add these short stories to my actual book but I find it helps me stay with my MC and create a better world in my book. Hope this helps!

  17. Little question here: How much detail should I use when describing walk-on characters? You know the kind who have about two lines and leave? Currently I have a character who is “super skinny with red hair sticking out of his cap”.
    The scene goes like this:
    Madame LeBlanc nodded to a young man, super skinny with red hair sticking out of his cap. “Morning, Monsieur Mercier.” She turned back to Christine. “Mademoiselle Dubois is coming soon. We’d better leave.”
    Monsieur Mercier of the scrawny build, red hair, and cap never appears again in the whole story. So should I just call him “a young man”?

    • Don’t describe him too much, because then the reader is worried that they will need to remember this character. Only give characteristics to characters that have an impact on the story and appear in more than one scene. If you can, you could even cut out his name and just have the greeting be “Morning, Monsieur.”

  18. Hi, what do you do if your characters keep changing their names? I have a guy who’s known as Captain Leroux for half the book, and then we find out that his real name is Henry Cloutier. Should I keep calling him Leroux, or switch to Cloutier?

    • I agree with Erica Eliza; the name the narrator wants is the name you should use. The Ranger’s Apprentice series has a character who is in disguise when the MC first meets her, and she uses a fake name. Later on her real name is introduced, and the MC still calls her by the original name she used when they first met. You can have other characters greet Cloutier with his real name, and your narrator will mentally remind themselves that Leroux’s real name is Cloutier, to keep the readers from being confused.

    • In C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, the MC discovers his own true identity near the end of the book. It’s written with an omniscient POV, and the narrator says something like “Shasta – or rather Core as we must now call him …” and then uses “Core” from then on. Sometimes the other characters who knew him as Shasta all along say things like “Shasta – I mean Core -” and both he and the others have a hard time adjusting to his new identity, which helps the reader out.

      I think the others are right, that it depends on your narrator. In my “finished” story (which is omniscient POV with the narrator staying in the background – if I understand the term correctly), I go with the POV character in each scene – my MC’s scenes always use her real name, but other characters’s scenes use her alias if that’s how the character thinks of her. My MC’s brother goes by two nicknames depending who he’s with. I was a little worried about how that would come across, but I just did what felt natural in each scene, and used his real name freely when in doubt. I asked my first reader how it felt and she said it worked well. So I guess that’s my best advice – do what feels natural, if you can.

  19. Thanks for this post! Trying both sides of the plotting scale has definitely helped. I’ve realised if I outline too much, I get bored and don’t want to write the story. But it does help me to have a specific ending in mind and know character arcs-I try to write very character driven plots-so that I have a direction to work towards and I know in a vague way what needs to happen to each of my MCs.

  20. I also cannot wait for the prequel! The Two Princesses of Bamarre was the first book of yours I read, and it made me fall in love with all of your work.

  21. (formerly capng)
    So I’ve written the first drafts of three novels, but I haven’t revised any of them. I’m willing to let the first two lie unfinished, but the third is very close to my heart and I really want to make it as perfect as I can – however, I’m stuck. I’ve read through the manuscript and marked it up. I have every scene split up and categorized in Scrivener. I have a list of things that I want to cut or change. Somehow, though, I just can’t seem to figure out how to start actually rewriting. I don’t know where to start or how to proceed with the physical writing part of revising. Does anyone have any tips?
    (Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I have a huge case of writer’s block right now, which probably has something to do with the sudden, huge influx of math assignments…)

    Also, what do you do when you fall out of love with an idea? There are two ideas that I’ve been mulling over for a while – the sequel to my current WIP and an urban fantasy YA. I’ve basically plotted out both of them in my head, and they are both very near and dear to me. I used to be completely in love with the characters in plot, but now, I’m just… not, and I can’t seem to translate any of my characters or scenes onto paper. How do I recapture the love I used to have for them so I can write them?

    • As for editing the manuscript you actually want polished, have you considered sharing it with a friend/teacher/parent and seeing what they think? Sometimes it helps to have a fresh eye and see how others read it and if it makes sense to them.

      I have a similar problem with some of my WIPs, so I’m afraid I don’t really have any advice to offer. I have an idea which I absolutely love, but it seems like every time I sit down to write it, I stare at what I have written, bored and unable to think of how to move on. I know how it ends and what points I need to work towards, I just don’t ever want to finish it and actually continue with the plot.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I just start at page 1. I don’t plan my revision out, so maybe the planning is getting in the way of diving into the words.

  22. Hey there,
    I have a story written in diary format (like Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days). The narrator is very quirky, and she sounds quirky, too. The problem is, she’s very wordy. Here’s a random snippet of it:

    So he grabbed me by my collar and rammed me into the wall. Did his mama teach him nothing? Every good boy knows not to hit a girl, right? Seriously, was the guy raised by wolves? He kinda looks like a wolf, scruffy beard and upright hair and big teeth he tends to gnash when he’s mad, which is often. Pricilla calls him “the wolverine of Washington D.C.”.
    Anyway, I screamed. He leered at me… (blah blah blah)

    Now the issue is, my MC gets off wandering with her thoughts and can’t stay on the topic of the bad guy ramming her into the wall. Do you have any tips?

    • Well, just based on the little snippet, I like your character’s wordiness. I can already kind of tell what the character is like just from a few sentences. However, if you feel she’s too verbose and your story’s not moving along as fast as it should, then consider limiting her full observations to only one event per diary entry. When I wrote a diary I usually ended up focusing on only one or two main events per day and then just barely describing the rest. So maybe just pick the biggest plot point or the spot where it’s really entertaining and then just cut some of the remaining down.

  23. I am here to fight for Scrivener!!!! I LOVE it. It’s sooooo helpful for my stories, as well as having a very pleasing interface. I love going full screen with my own personalized background to give me inspiration and no interruptions. The footnotes and index cards are very useful, and it’s all intuitive. I’m no master on its ins and outs, but my writerly necessities are easy to get to. What I love is how it keeps a running word count as you write, and you can set your own word count goals, too.
    Bottom line: It’s impossible to tell you all its perks. Try it!

  24. Hi guys,
    I also am planning a story written in diary format, with pictures/drawings, but I’m afraid the idea’s been too overdone. From what I’ve seen on Goodreads reviews, it seems that once a really popular book comes out, it seems that anything similar is automatically labeled a “knockoff” (as with the case of Dork Diaries by Rachel Renee Russell, which a lot of people are calling a “girly knockoff of DoaWK). My story nothing like DoaWK (it’s a satire about government surveillance involving an evil Santa Clause), and the drawing style is going to look different, but do you think people are still going to think I copied off of the idea?

    • Go for it! These people who label everything as a Wimpy Kid knock off obviously don’t read enough. There are plenty of books like that but none of them are evil Santa stories, so the universe still needs one.

    • If you haven’t read Shannon Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days (believe me you should), there are little sketches here and there. The MC writing the diary is very simple, so her drawings are delicate little pictures reminiscent of ancient Chinese painting (the story is set in Mongolia). I liked how it gave an exotic touch to the book.
      On the other end of things, Meg Cabot’s diarist in From the Notebooks of a Middle-School Princess does detailed, kind of cartoon-like illustrations. She’s a modern 12-year-old, so her drawings are very different from the historical Mongolian girl’s.
      Anyway, I love illustrations. I say go for it, and good luck writing/illustrating it!

  25. Lately I’ve been trying to create the next Newbery Medalist (crazy idea, I know). The problem is, I think my story’s too action-packed for the committee to like it. Newbery books tend to be more about character than plot (besides Gail’s, which combines both). For example, Shannon Hale has made a dozen amazing books, and only the tamest one (Princess Academy) ever became a Newbery Honoree. Should I take some of the action out, or leave it in and write another story for the Newbery?
    P.S. I just reread Ella Enchanted and it’s the best of the Newberys!

    • Oh, and I’m also trying to make sure I don’t sacrifice my solid plot for literary greatness. After reading Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars (truly a sweet story, by the way), I’ve realized that my idea of a Holocaust novel and hers are very different things: in my book thirty people die in as many chapters! I’ll bet the Newbery committee will throw my books out of the library because it’s so far-fetched!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I don’t think this is a crazy idea. It’s great to have the confidence to aim high and hope high. What isn’t useful, however, is to write for the Newbery. The committee is different every year, with different likes and dislikes. It’s impossible to second-guess what will be chosen. Successful, original, heartfelt writing emerges only when the writer writes what she cares about in the way she sees best. That’s the kind of writing most likely to be rewarded with readers.

  26. Great post! I admit that I don’t really know what I am yet. I’ve tried both outlining and pantsing, though I do find that, even with my current outline, for example, I only outlined a rough 70% or so, with a vague ending in mind, and don’t know how I’m going to get there yet. I think, personality-wise, outlining suits me better, but for some reason, when I write, I tend not to. We’ll see once I actually write something that has a strong plot. I try my best, and I’m working on it, but I’m definitely more of a character-driven writer, sometimes to the point of being totally lost with plot…

  27. Hey Mrs. Levine!
    I guess this is a little off topic, but I had a question about posting excerpts of a book online. I’m in the process of editing my novel, and I started a blog and posted several excerpts from the book. A friend told me you shouldn’t publish any portion of your book online because then a publishing company may not be able to buy the entire rights, and they often won’t publish you. She thought I should take the excerpts down or check the companies’ standards…
    Is there any truth to what she’s telling me? Should I worry about posting (short) excerpts of my book online?
    Thanks for your time!
    Hannah K

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Short excerpts of a long work are probably okay, but to be on the safe side, I’d recommend not posting more than one or two. Publishers generally want to buy first publication rights, and if a good deal of your novel is available for free online, that right has already been used up.

  28. Hey, I’m not sure what’s correct grammar with these chapter headings. I’m not sure which words should be capitalized. Can you help, please?
    They are:
    This Power That You Know You Cannot Fight
    He Slaughters Without Thought, He Murders All That’s Good
    Then My Paradise Was Destroyed
    Hide Your Face So the World Will Never Find You
    Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again
    Must You Cast Her?
    Let My Show Begin
    For Now I Find The Ghost
    Perform Her Work
    First Lady of the Stage
    Can It Be Erica?
    Run and Hide, But a Face Will Still Pursue You.
    Our Fears Are In The Past
    The Ghost is There Inside My Mind
    I Fought So Hard To Free You
    Leading Ladies Are Always A Trial
    Entwined in Love’s Duet
    That Falls Upon a Famous Tenor
    Find Too Late that Prudent Silence is Wise
    No Point in Trying
    Returned to Bring Salvation
    Bad News on Soprano’s Scene
    I Have Been Visited
    Half Your Cast Disappears
    War Between Us
    The Sort of Story Audiences Adore
    To Find the Land We Love

    (I know, it’s silly; I’m just bad at capitalization).

  29. Quickie question, okay?
    In my story with 5 MCs, the quintet of them are always in the same scenes. I’m having trouble narrating what’s going on with them. I mean, first we’re in Liz’s head, but then we don’t know what’s going on with Mel, Tiffany, Julie, and Samantha. They’re all going through something crazy, and I want to see all their reactions. Should I go omniscient with it, or is there another way of making the reader see it all without jumping from head to head?

    • As I thought about your question, I thought of one of my secondary characters. She has only two or three short scenes from her view point, but it’s always obvious what she’s thinking or how she’s reacting in any scene she’s in. She’s the sort who’s quick to speak as well as to unintentionally show her feelings in non-verbal ways. If she’s happy, she’s very happy, and she’ll probably throw her arms out wide and laugh or give someone a totally spontaneous hug. If she’s angry or upset, she’ll march on ahead of who she’s with, with her arms folded and her back straight.

      Your five probably shouldn’t all be like that. Thinking of my four closest friends, two are a lot like that. A third friend leans that way, but is more subtle and often tries to mask what she’s thinking. Those who know her best aren’t fooled at all. The fourth friend will say what she’s thinking if she chooses to, but if she’s not comfortable with revealing her reactions in the situation she’s in, she just doesn’t. I may have a good idea what she’s thinking, but only because I can make an educated guess. On the outside she appears sweet, agreeable, and unruffled.

      If I were writing the four of them into a story, and wanted to show them equally, I would probably give more POV scenes to the third and fourth friends than to the first and second. The first and second simply wouldn’t need very many of their own scenes – their reactions and opinions are obvious. And they are unforgettable.

  30. I’ve very much enjoyed reading all the ideas of planning and pantsing, and how everyone does it. I’m still figuring myself out, I guess. A little while ago, someone on here posted a link for the snowflake method. I checked it out and it really clicks with me. I’ve been using it as a framework for editing as well as plotting one of my WIPs. For my WIP, I got through step 3 out of 10, and then got a mighty itch to get back to writing. In my other WIP, I got bored, so now I’m doing some world-building, drawing, and planning, and I’m getting all into it again. So maybe I’m a “back-and-forth-er!” Plan awhile, write awhile, repeat.

    Here’s the link for the snowflake method –
    He’s also got software, but I haven’t looked into it much, and I can’t tell you how it compares to others.

  31. By the way, do any of you know of some good, clean fantasies with strong female characters? There seems to be a void of stories like that; either we get weak little girls or we get the ruthless witch type who’s cussing every two pages and getting intimate with 7 guys in the same book.
    So if you’ve read a good book that has no steamy romance or swearing, please let me know, because I really want to read something that’s both Mom-approved and enjoyable.
    Is The Selection series by Kiera Cass okay? I’ve heard they’re very good, but I’m not sure if my mom would be thrilled about it.
    Sorry for a non-writing-related question; I just figured you read a lot and probably know what’s good.

    • The Spectra Unearthed is pretty good and fits what you are looking for 😉
      I (er… the anonymous author) am a Mom and an older sister and I wanted the book to be something I’d feel comfortable with my sisters, and someday my kids, to read. Keita Sage, the main character, is I hope a strong character. She’s got doubts sometimes, but she’s willing to take them on.

  32. Just finished re-reading EE, TPoB and first volume princess tales (in reverse order)… Thank you so much. I pulled these books out of a box of my childhood things and after two nights of hardly sleeping, much laughing and tears (I still cry at the end!) I was overwhelmed by my desire to reach out. At least to see what I’ve missed from middle school to my tender age of 27. I am thrilled about your prequel. I am jazzed you are still writing. But even if there wasn’t anything more to read and no way to contact you, I would still be here on my couch with that happy-ever-after buzz. Thank you for my friends, these adventures, these feelings. That’s real magic you have there. Big magic. – a big and longtime fan

  33. I really enjoyed this post. I guess I’m a little different, because I use outlines a lot, but I also enjoy revision–more than drafting, usually. I have a broad outline of where the story is going to go, and then make it more detailed as I get closer to that part. And of course be willing to change it as I go along if I find I need to go in another direction.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.