Pantsing didn’t work for me, but here’s what did

Writing the breakout novel workbook

Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

I get tired of the pantsing versus plotting discussions. This isn’t meant to debate either of those, but to share with you what worked for me.

Last year, I got an inkling of a story idea. I don’t remember where it came from. All I remember is that there wasn’t a lot to it, maybe a beginning scene. I knew that it was a young adult novel. That it was a fantasy and that the protagonist’s parents were off at war and that there was a boy with blue hair. That’s about it. Not much to go on.

I’d been writing short stories as a way to have success finishing projects. I hoped to get smaller pieces published and then move back to novels. At the same time, I thought I could make better use of my lunch break and decided to use that time to work on this new idea.

Pantsing sounds exciting, but didn’t work for me in this instance.

I worried that plotting would take away my desire to write this tiny spark of a story. I wanted to capitalize on that momentum and to get right to writing. So began my trial at pantsing. In a year’s time, I wrote a page.

After going nowhere, it became one of my to write stories. I have a notebook full. It’s kind of like a to read list, but I hope to actually get to these one day.

As I discussed in a previous post, I have to take low census PTO over the next ten weeks. In order to make the most of this time, I’m going to treat it like a regular working day. I’m going to get up at my usual time and instead of doing work work, I’m going to write a novel.

After deciding how to use my PTO, I had to decide what idea to work on. I looked through my notebook, and I kept going back to this one story, which is tentatively titled 12 Blue Stones. But the pantsing hadn’t gone anywhere. I was totally stuck where to go with it.

I had to find a different way.

Plotting sounds so tedious. It’s a compelling image to open a computer and sit down to write and have the story flow from you like it has a life of its own. But for me, when I tried to do this, something was missing. It didn’t flow or even trickle. All I did was edit the same few paragraphs over and over.

So, I thought about what I did when I wrote my last novel, Firebird. I didn’t plot, at least not in a traditional way. There were a handful of events I knew would happen and I had a basic direction with a beginning, middle, and end. I needed that for this new story.

Most of my stories in the past have started with special scenes, ones that I’m emotionally connected to. A lot come from dreams and are easily expanded. But not with this one. So, how could I expand the little I had?

It was time to give plotting a try.

I pulled out Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass for guidance. And let me tell you, I love this workbook. In the introduction, it says you should read the accompanying book first, but I went straight to the workbook. If you’re new to writing, I suggest you start with the book. I’ve read so many writing books, that for me, I needed the activity more than the deeper lessons.

And it worked. Going through the exercises, answering all the questions, helped me understand my characters and as a result, helped me create a plotline.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I didn’t plot everything. One of the fun parts of writing is when I end one scene and a new one flows naturally out of the first one without having been planned. It’s that aha, I didn’t know that would happen moment that makes the story feel alive.

While plotting, what I realized most, wasn’t that I needed a ‘perfectly outlined’ plot. You don’t need to know every detail to start a novel. It’s helpful to know the basic plot, but that’s not what was holding me back. What was holding me back was not knowing the ‘key’ scene.

You have to have a scene, that excites you, to write towards.

For Firebird there were a couple of these scenes. There’s the one where Wesley hands Grace the feather, the balcony scene, the bar scene, and the final dance scene.

All of these were exciting moments in the story. Scenes I looked forward to writing. I could have written them all at once, but if I had, the rest of the book wouldn’t have been written. Instead, I used these scenes as rewards for the hard work of writing the stuff leading up to them.

That’s what I needed for 12 Blue Stones. The scene that will be a reward for all the others. Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook and working on a plot helped me find that scene.

What makes a special scene?

This will be different for everyone. It’s a moment that excites you and should also excite the reader. A moment that other moments are leading to, like a point on a map, a destination, which is why writer’s like me need to know this scene in order to be productive.

As I said, there can be several of these along the way. For me, these special scenes are those unexpected moments that shift the story.

But the scene that I look forward to writing the most, is the one where my protagonist’s inner strength is realized. For Firebird, it was when Grace was able to be comfortable in her own skin. For 12 Blue Stones, it’s when Dyani realizes she’s part of something bigger than herself. This is what I’m writing towards.

Now that I have this scene, I’m extremely excited to get started.

How about you? What are your tips?

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