How many of you have heard the terms “plotter” and “pantser” and have some idea of what they mean? For those of you who don’t here’s a quick summary. “Plotter and pantser” describe two different writing methods. Plotters plot everything out beforehand. They write detailed outlines and sometimes even outline each scene. Pantsers on the other hand, write “by the seat of their pants”—they make everything up as they go along, with no clear idea of where the story will take them.
Both types of writers can be successful. And many writers, myself included, use a kind of “hybrid” method, pantsing up to a certain point in a book then stopping to think through the rest of the story—plot it, as it were. That technique, of taking a short break at some point to consider the big picture can work for plotters too. Often as plotters write, even from very detailed outlines, they discover things they hadn’t expected that take the story in a new direction. For both plotters and pantsers an hour or two of big picture thinking can be really helpful in maintaining momentum.
Remember, there’s no need to enact any changes on the writing you’ve already done—that can be fixed in your next draft, but a better picture of your overall plot might get you back on the fast track for the remaining pages.
So how do you get your mind back on big picture when you’ve been working on fine details? There are a few cute little tricks you can try. Here are some ideas:
- Work on your pitch. We used to call these “elevator pitches”, ie. the way you would pitch your book if you found yourself in an elevator with, say, Steven Spielberg. Now these are more simply described as “Twitter pitches”—140 (or 280) character blurbs summarizing what your book is about. Perfecting these in the middle of your writing process helps you to crystalize your premise, your themes and your characters and may give you a clearer idea of the path ahead.
- As a fun side-quest to the above, try writing a Haiku book review or summary to your book. You get seventeen syllables only, in lines of five, seven and five syllables each. You’d be surprised how well this exercise gets your to the core of your story.
- Write (or rewrite) the summary you would use in your query*. It is often said that if you can’t clearly summarize your book in 250 words then your plot has serious problems. I don’t think that’s true for all books, but writing your query halfway through the writing process will help you to check the overall health of your book. It may also help you see the path to your conclusion if that has been evading you.
- Go old school and write out the beats of your existing and remaining plot on index cards. Use colored pens or tags keep track of multiple protagonists or subplots. Lay them out on the floor or a pin board. Once this is done you can literally step back and see the shape of your story. Is it weighted correctly? Is it balanced? Do subplots or characters disappear for long periods or dominate certain sections? Are there characters or subplots that aren’t pulling their weight and can be deleted? Where is it going?
- Write discussion questions for your book. That’s right, discussion questions, the kind you can find on study guide websites or in the back of some “book club editions” of books. Dreaming up discussion questions will help you to think about what you are trying to say and how you might succeed in saying that in the remaining pages of your book.
One of the confounding things about novel writing is that doing it well ultimately involves more thinking than writing. If you feel like your writing is stalling or stumbling or meandering aimlessly in a forest of bad metaphors, taking a little time to think about the big picture might help. The above are just a few thinking exercises you can try.
*Out of interest the query summaries I wrote for most of my books ended up as the basis of the flap copy/marketing copy for those books!
About the Author
G.S. (Gabrielle) Prendergast is the bestselling author of numerous books for children and teens. She studied writing at the University of New South Wales in Australia, at San Francisco State University and the University of British Columbia. After years of working in the music industry, in social welfare, and the film industry, Gabrielle began writing books when she became a mother, so she could work from home. Her books have received nominations for the White Pine Award, the Canadian Library Association Award, the Vancouver Book Prize and several other honors. She won the BC Book Prize for her YA sci-fi Zero Repeat Forever and the Westchester Award for her YA novel in verse Audacious. Born in the UK and both an Australian and New Zealand citizen, Gabrielle now lives in East Vancouver in a permanent state of “under-construction”.