Starting the Year Off Right: Planning for Pantsers
That time of year, that often-dreaded time of year, has come again. New Year’s resolutions. Just the thought of setting any goals or structure to things like fiction writing can be downright horrifying to one group of authors. Really, you ask, it’s that bad? Trust me, it is. I understand this because I am a card-carrying member of that group—The Pantsers. We proud Pantsers approach our creative endeavors with little more than a vague notion of what we’re doing and a fire to get the project done. Personally, I am quite impressed with authors who can say they’ve got X many chapters left before the end of the story. Me? I have no idea where the chapter breaks are until I go back and edit. So how do we Pantsers handle this time of year, especially when we are struck with a sincere desire to get more organized? I’ve got a couple tools I want to show you, and a challenge at the end.
As I’ve said, I’m a Pantser as an author. It’s ironic in a way since I am hyper-organized as a counselor, but such is life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get organized, to use outlines, and to plan out novel manuscripts as chapters. And I’ve failed. Pretty much every single time. Then, as we all took on topics to write about this month, I figured I had enough background on both sides of the fence to tackle planning for Pantsers. In discussing this topic with our editors, Heidi and Stephanie, they cued me in to a planner designed for Pantsers, and a challenge was born.
The planner I’m introducing all of you Pantsers to today is one I will use throughout this year in yet another attempt at being more organized and purposeful to what I write and do. I’ll share bits of it here with you today, and then I’ll update you periodically on how I’m doing with my follow through in the planner the rest of this year. I’ve also got another great tool I ran across online that can help with planning and organization while writing a novel.
Here’s the link for the planner. Take a moment and flip through it. I know I had to page through the planner a couple times to wrap my head around how it would help me focus more this year. As I did, I realized the beautiful genius of this planner. It takes the most critical parts of goal-setting and organization and lays these things out in a way that keeps this from being constrained. There’s no detailed steps to take, no due dates, no check boxes showing a task is complete. The closest it gets is a monthly calendar you can fill in however you want. There are a few other key parts to the planner. I’ll warn you ahead of time I might wax a little psychological as we discuss them since they play into my academic background so well.
The first thing this planner does is walk you through what you created last year and the things you recognize as significant accomplishments. Keep in mind, significant means important regardless of size. So, even if all you did was submit something for publication one time, but you saw the submission an accomplishment, then it counts. This part is helping us understand where we’ve been in the last year. Without knowing this, setting future goals becomes virtually impossible. Here’s what my accomplishments page looks like (bad handwriting and all):
Dreams and Plans
I love the title of this page—it’s so loose and flowy it doesn’t lend an air of “planning” to it even though the word Plans is in the title. You’re simply listing what you’d like to accomplish over the next year and how you want to feel in the creative parts of your life. The feelings part is as important as the goals. Why? Because sometimes we need to change the actual goal itself as it may no longer fit for what we want. As long as we feel good about what we are doing throughout the year, we are accomplishing the most important goal of all—feeding our creativity. My page has a few acronyms, but here it is:
If you need help figuring out how to set good goals, here’s an article that does a wonderful job of explaining principles to good goal-setting. The next page of the planner has you do some rough outlining of smaller steps and ideas of things to do to accomplish the goals you set. Don’t worry, my dear fellow Pantsers, you only write out as much as you want to in this section. There are no specific rules you “have” to follow.
Most people would believe a planner would end there. Not so fast, though, and this is why I love this planner. The next section digs deeper into the underlying psychology of successfully achieving goals. There’s a page for you to list out what motivates you to write (or create whatever art you want) that can be used when you’re struggling. There is even a page dedicated to the underlying reason you’re creating art to begin with—your most basic motivator ever. Here’s part of my underlying “why”—my five-year-old son’s doodles on the cover he was so proud of:
You see, pursuing my creative side is helping me teach him to pursue his creative side. He told me those doodles were a snowflake and a lowercase heart. I’d never seen a lowercase heart before that, but I think it’s a wonderful idea.
A calendar divided out by the month and a notes page are found on the last couple pages. The best part about these two pages is that there are no rules about how to use them. I haven’t figured out what to do with my notes page yet. I’ll let you know when I do. Here’s what my calendar looks like:
Notice that much of my work so far is concentrated toward the beginning of the year. I planned my year this way for two reasons. First, if I don’t move fast through the work I laid out, I still have time to finish it before the year is over. Second, if I stay on track with my work as planned, I can add projects later in the year without ending up overwhelmed or losing some of my organization.
Now, here’s my challenge to all you Pantsers: print out or save your copy of the planner (here’s the link again) and do it with me. The worst that could happen is we end the year like we have in the past, a little disorganized and not as directed as we would have liked. Best case scenario? We’re well on our way to becoming a more organized Pantser and have more work done to prove it. Tell me what you think of the planner in the comments below. Or, better yet, share pictures of your planner with me and we can work together to keep each other on track.
On To Beat Sheets
Now we’ve got our year sketched out, it’s time to shift gears. Let’s look at a tool to help us Pantsers stay a little more organized as we write our novels. Don’t worry—I’m not taking all the spontaneity of pantsing our way through the novels away. I won’t do that because, in my experience, as soon as I’ve done that, I end up with a flat, boring piece of work that is better used as coloring sheets for my son than a manuscript worth editing.
The tool I’m talking about is a beat sheet. Perhaps you’ve heard of it before. I hadn’t until I was poking around looking for useful tools to help us Pantsers out. For those of you who have not seen one before, the premise of a beat sheet is it functions as an outline for the story, but not in a traditional way.
The basic version lays out four major points, or beats, in the story that should come at roughly even intervals. First, at about the 25% mark, is the event that gets the protagonist to commit to the goal. Then, at the midpoint is where something shifts the reader and/or protagonist’s understanding of the goal, stakes, choices, etc. The Black Moment comes next, at about 75%, and makes the protagonist lose all hope for the desired happy ending. The Ending Point is the final 25% of the story where the final battle occurs.
With me so far? Good. There are also four minor beats to a story as well since the major beats are each significant chunks of the novel. Minor beat one starts the protagonist on the path that leads to the conflict and the choice to commit to the goal. From there, minor beat two occurs just before the Midpoint that puts some added pressure on the protagonist. Next, minor beat three does the same thing, but after the Midpoint. This helps reinforce the shift in the goals, choices, outcomes, etc. Finally, minor beat four occurs after the final battle. This beat gives the reader a glimpse into the protagonist’s future, that “what happens next” moment after the story has resolved.
Finding Beat Sheets
Now, as Pantsers, we might not even need the four minor beats. Just the four major beats might be enough. If we make sure we know what they are, and that we have them, before we write can save a lot of time in the editing phase. You could take a piece of notebook paper and write out your four major beats to the story. Or, there are many pre-made beat sheets on the internet. Here’s one website that provides some great beat sheet templates that range from the basic one I described here to genre specific sheets. A couple even have accompanying Scrivener templates.
Key to Using Them
The key to using these beat sheets is they are not rigid structures we must follow. The four major beats should be close to the marks we discussed to help keep overall story pacing on track. They need not land on a specific page or anything like that, just close. We can even change the beats if we find our story is drifting from what we originally thought. As long as we have the four major beats, then we have a loose structure on which to hang everything else. This saves us a lot of headache and editing later on trying to put them in.
Here’s a peek at mine for my novel, Tattoos:
I wish I would have had this back when I first drafted this novel. I can see my major beats in the novel, but shifting the scenes and such around now trying to get the pacing right and connect everything well is more challenging than it should be. But, I pantsed this one to the point I had no idea what the ending was or where the story was going when I first wrote the draft.
There you have it. Two tools to help us Pantsers out in getting a leg up on the organization side of writing. I started using them in the last week myself and found them to be easy, non-restricting. The potential for benefits are huge without sacrificing the spontaneity of my innate pantsing style. Let me know what you think and I hope to see you taking my planner challenge!
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Stacy Overby is a child-chasing, teenager-wrangling, author and poet who hangs out in Minnesota with her family when she’s not writing. She, her work, and her social media links can be found at www.thisisnothhitchhikersguide.wordpress.com.