The Evolution of a Writer

I wrote my first novel using a technique known as pantsing — as in, flying by the seat of my pants. With nary an outline nor character sketch, I wrote chapter one of Until Thanksgiving — then known as Addicted — with no idea what chapter two would be about, and so on, until I’d finished the story. My beta readers will tell you the thriller/romance I ended up with looks nothing like the slice of life story I had in mind when I started.

Pantsing is a very free-wheeling, stream-of-conscious style of writing that many writers prefer. The problem, at least for me, was the need to revise a finished chapter to include something I thought about six chapters later — over, and over, and over again. I got confused about what had and hadn’t been changed and always worried about missing something.

The constant revisions pantsing requires were so painful, I vowed to find a better way. For my second novel, After Christmas Eve, I wrote a one-page synopsis, pages of backstory for all the main characters, and three-sentence descriptions for every chapter — about thirty in the original outline — before writing any of the story. Changing the description of what’s supposed to happen in a chapter is a helluva lot easier than revising a chapter I’ve already written.

The process helped a lot. Knowing where the story was going and what had to happen kept me focused on the plot and prevented a lot of needless wandering around. But — and this is a good thing — the characters filled me in on important things about them I didn’t know. My thirty chapter outline turned into a book with fifty-five chapters.

I worked on revisions to address concerns raised by my writers group, but in the end, got feedback suggesting I’d made things worse. Discouraged, I quit writing. I’ve been nervously awaiting what I expected to be a huge amount of work I didn’t have the stomach to tackle with first round edits.

Exactly a month ago, I returned to my writers group after a months long hiatus. While there, I received the first round of edits from my publisher for After Christmas Eve — a sign from The Universe that I needed to get back in the groove with my writing. I ignored the manuscript for about a week, working ahead on this here blog thingy and otherwise clearing my calendar to focus on the edits.

There were a couple of little things in Until Thanksgiving my writers group had recommended fixing. The opinions were mixed, so I decided to see what the editors thought. When I got first round edits, the idea of changing something the editor hadn’t flagged for attention never occurred to me. In fact, I really didn’t think changes other than those they suggested were allowed.

Painful though it sometimes is, I read reviews by readers. A bad review because the main character has facial hair, smokes pot, or isn’t sleeping with the other two guys on the cover — all evident either on the cover or in the blurb — says more about the reader than about my book. Besides, pleasing everyone would be nice, but I know it ain’t gonna happen. Mentioning the same issues raised by my writers group that, in the end, I chose to ignore, however, is another matter.

I’m proud of my first novel, and could write a book about everything I learned at each stage of the process. Writing After Christmas Eve and taking it through the process has been an opportunity to put into practice what I’ve learned. I shared the issues my writers group raised about After Christmas Eve that still bugged me with my editor. When I read through the manuscript, I wasn’t afraid to change whatever I thought needed to be changed. In the end, it’s my name on the cover.

The two biggest issues — that the identify of the killer was too obvious and a concern about the main character — have been resolved. I’m tickled pink with the revised manuscript and excited about the September/October release. I should see cover drafts any day now. And when I do, trust me, you’ll be the first to know.

5 responses to “The Evolution of a Writer”

  1. I know what you mean about pantsing; I wrote my first three novels that way and am struggling through my fourth because sometimes I get to a spot and wonder “okay, what next?” and have no clue! Urgh. I also think pantsing led to as much revision of my third novel (also due out Sept/Oct) during the first round of edits (I’m seriously waiting for my second round editor to show up on my doorstep with a bucket of tar and a feather pillow…Gin and Lynn might be with her!)

    Looking forward to After Christmas Eve 🙂


    • Writing chapter descriptions helps, but I ended up adding a Chapter 3 when I got to it that wasn’t in the original outline. This stuff happens. The challenge is finding the right mix of pantsing (where all the creativity comes from) and outlining enough to know where you’re going. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  2. Wow – I feel like I’ve been to a “How To Write A Book” seminar! This was great information, and very helpful to me. 🙂 You may remember, I haven’t touched my book in two years. Life keeps getting in the way. I am “writing” in my head, and I know the main story lines from each period (my book is historical fiction, hitting the high spots over 400+ years). I love the idea of outlining each chapter and writing down chapter descriptions. I seriously need to do that. At the rate my senility is progressing, by the time I get back to writing, I will have forgotten everything I wanted to write!! Looking forward to reading ACE!!!!!

    • Glad the info was useful and to have earned a mention in the dedication of your finished book 😉

      Believe it or not, as you were typing your comment, I was driving into work thinking about doing more “what you need to know” posts for aspiring writers. The key to making the outlining work is to avoid being a slave to it–stuff changes. I added a chapter 3 to my newest WIP that wasn’t in the outline because it was necessary for the story. Good luck!

      • That would be fabulous! And definitely mention-worthy… who knows – maybe I’ll even pattern a character after you. Every major (present-day) character in my book is representative of folks I know – friends and family. Those closest to me will likely be able to identify themselves 🙂 I didn’t necessarily intend for it to happen that way, it just kinda did. I’m not sure what “style” my writing would be – it is written in the present, but it is a story about my ancestors and a family heirloom passed down from generation to generation – so there are “flashbacks” to several periods in history, each a story in itself about my ancestors. (shamelessly fabricated, of course – except for one true story from the Civil War) Sadly, my grandma passed before I had this bright idea, or I’d have way more information than I have now. Anyway – I have it mapped out in my brain, and I have gone so far as to create a “storyboard” (?) kind of thing, but your idea sounds so much better. And since it is taking me so long to do it, I can always go to the outline and jot down my thoughts before they are POOF gone from my brain.

        I gave up Diet Cokes 2 1/2 months ago (and lost 12 lbs!!!), so I’m hoping eliminating the major source of aspartame from my body will help with the senility thing….