A Pantser’s Guide to Turning Rough to Ready in one Pass

November 27, 2017 | By | 7 Replies More

I have tried, Lord have I tried, to plan out a novel before tackling the actual writing, but after nine novels, I think it’s safe to say, I’m a die-hard pantser.  For those who don’t know, a pantser is an author who dives into drafting without a plan, flying by the seat of her pants. I’m not going to talk about my drafting process  because that’s essentially thirty days of coffee and intuition. I suspect most pantsers come at the blank page with some semblance of instinctive structural knowledge. We just feel our way through the dark and hope for the best.

It’s when the best turns out to be an unwieldy concoction of info dumps, dropped subplots, duplicated characters, and muddled internal motivations that I stare at my first draft and wonder how I’m going to salvage the good out of the rest of the sturm and drang. To approach this Herculean task, I’ve had to develop some tools to excavate the book I’ve written. They may not be for everyone, but as a Pitch Wars mentor for the past three years, I’ve used them successfully to guide others in their quest for organization.

The first thing I do is reverse engineer the book. While plotters have probably already done this before they started writing, I find that pantsers have a specific allergy to this exercise, and it took me three books to realize I needed to organize my revision. Basically this amounts to writing an outline. This can be done on a spreadsheet (my personal favorite) , on notecards, in Scrivener’s outliner, in Word, or with pen and paper. However you work best. The important thing is that you go through the entire manuscript scene by scene and capture the following:

  • Chapter #
  • Chapter word count
  • Scene # (assuming a chapter has more than one) I usually count scenes in the theatrical sense. Any time the location or major characters changes, it’s a new scene, even if the chapter transitions them into one big scene.
  • Scene word count
  • Characters in the scene
  • Synopsis of plot – This can be a one line explanation to remind you what happened. “Lizzie goes to Pemberley.”
  • Purpose of scene – This is the money, where you explain everything this chapter is accomplishing. Does it introduce new characters? Does it advance plot points? Hopefully it serves multiple purposes.

Once you have this completed, you have a bird’s eye view on what you wrote. From here, there are several things to take note of right away.

  1. Do you have uneven word counts?
  2. Do you have scenes that aren’t pulling their weight?
  3. Have characters disappeared?
  4. Can you identify the turns from Act 1 to Act 2 to Act 3?
  5. Can you identify the pinch points? The black moment?

For the last two questions, I like to consult a beat sheet and figure out how far my percentages are off from traditional structure.

There may be more issues that arise from this outline, and it can certainly be customized for specific needs. For example, on my current WIP, I have a feeling I’ve gone overboard with info dumps, so I plan to add a column that does nothing but track what back story I’m covering in each scene. I hope this will help me find out if there’s a better way to incorporate all that info.

After I’ve analyzed all this information, I might write myself a mini edit letter – essentially bullet points of issues to address.  For each bullet point, I add a new column and continue until I run out of issues.

As another example from my current WIP, I figured out I had too many characters, and I knew I needed to conflate one into another. On my spreadsheet, I made a column called “Jack.” From my spreadsheet, I could easily see every scene he appeared in, so I went row by row and left myself a comment on how to yank this character out.  Was it as simple as having another character pick up his dialogue? Or was I going to have to rethink the scene? I see this as leaving myself breadcrumbs.

Because I’m visual, I like to color code my spreadsheet to see the work ahead. I might use yellow to indicate the scene needs some attention or red if it needs to be deleted. If a brand new scene is needed, I’ll create a new row and highlight it blue. As I go through my MS and address the problems in each scene, I like to change the color of the row in my spreadsheet to green because it’s nice to see progress.

The final step is to devise a realistic plan. I have a day job, so I can’t write nonstop. When I sit down with a free hour, it’s good for me to know what I’m working on, so I take all of the above and create a schedule. Now I have a plan of attack.

Hopefully by the end of this process, I have a revised manuscript that is ready to send out to my critique partners. It will probably need another round or two of layering and refinement, but I can use the tools I’ve created over and over to help hone my novel until it’s ready for prime time.

Mary Ann lives in central Virginia where she works as a computer programmer/DBA. She spent ten years as a university-level French professor, and her resume includes stints as an au pair in Calais, a hotel intern in Paris, a German tutor, a college radio disc jockey, and a webmaster for several online musician fandoms. She has lived in twelve states and three countries and loves to travel.

Find out more about her on her website: http://www.maryannmarlowe.com/

Follow her on Twitter @maryannmarlowe

Like her on Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/marlowemaryann/


In this irresistible new novel by Mary Ann Marlowe, one woman’s up-close and sexy encounter with a tabloid sensation reveals the dizzying—and delicious—dilemma of dating in the spotlight . . .

Celebrities hold zero interest for photographer Jo Wilder. That’s a problem, since snapping pics of the stars is how the pretty paparazza pays the rent. So when Jo attempts to catch a money shot atop the broad shoulders of a helpful bystander, the only thing she notices about the stranger she straddles is that he’s seriously hot. Only later does Jo learn that he’s also Micah Sinclair—one of rock’s notorious bad boys…

Soon Jo is on the verge of getting fired for missing a Micah Sinclair exclusive. Until she’s suddenly being pursued by the heartthrob himself.  But how can she be sure the musician’s mind-blowing kisses are the real deal? Her colleagues claim he’s a media whore, gambling on some free PR. But something has Jo hoping Micah’s feeling the same powerful pull that she does. A pull so strong, she can’t resist becoming his latest love, even if it means she might become the media’s latest victim . . .

Praise for Mary Ann Marlowe’s Some Kind of Magic

“Marlowe makes a name for herself in this hilarious and sexy debut.” 

“Frisky, Flirty Fun!”
–Stephanie Evanovich, New York Times bestselling author of The Total Package

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

Comments (7)

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing your process. As I work on my first book, information like this is has been invaluable. Sounds like I might actually be on the right track.

  2. I am a 15% planner, 85% pantser. I scribble out 30 linesof framework which sets my brain going. But after each ‘pantsing’ writing session, I jot down brief notes about what happened in each scene in a Word table and so build up an index as I go along. An invaluable tool when it comes to that first self-edit.

  3. Pamela says:

    This is a helpful article. I’m amazed that I’m a pantser when writing because I’m ridiculously organised when it comes to everything else in life. I just find note cards and plot lines and any other device restricting when I write, and it gives me writer’s block. I can’t write a word if I have something planned on paper or screen. I plan, but only in my head. Your system sounds very good though, and I use Excel sheets with the traffic light system for practically everything else, so it should work with writing too.

    A Crazy Kind of Love also sounds like an excellent read as I’m fond of rock stars myself!

    • Pamela,
      You sound like me. I don’t know what it is about plotting that kills a book for me, but whatever I plan is precisely what I won’t write. After it’s done though, I need organization to figure out how to tackle a revision.

      Rock on!

      Mary Ann

  4. Great article! I do this but I’ve never seen it all laid out sensibly the way you have done. Thanks. Guess I’m a pantser too. I always said I was an English teacher’s worst nightmare. Never, ever had any luck with outlines or “brainstorm” approach. Got my sixth novel sold to St. Martin’s Press, however.

    • Nancy,
      You’re proof that we can get by without starting with the most detailed plans. Congrats on all your success at St. Martin’s! One of my friends described our way of writing as “outlining in long form.” We get to the same place, but with a lot more feeling around in the dark. Maybe one day, I’ll figure out how to bullet point a novel before I begin, but so far, all my plans mock me.

      Good luck with all your writing.

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