Note: This post is part of my seven-week series about the mistakes people make when writing a book. To read from the beginning, start here.
Allow me to start with a confession: I am an unapologetic pantser.
I hear what you're thinking... "What in the world is a 'pantser'??"
In the world of fiction, "pantsers" are those authors who write by the seat of their pants. A few famous pantsers include Stephen King, George R. R. Martin, and Margaret Atwood.
On the other side of the spectrum are "plotters"--authors who carefully plan and outline their works before they dive into the actual writing. J. K. Rowling and John Grisham are well-known plotters.
So yes, I am a pantser. I tend to not work from written outlines. I was that kid in high school who wrote the essay first and then wrote the outline and note cards so that I could turn them in when the teacher called for them (sorry, Mrs. Larkin). I always thought that outlining was a waste of time, because any time I wrote an outline first, I always ended up redoing it as I wrote my first draft. It seemed like my brain just couldn't really structure an outline before the narrative.
Fast forward to my return to fiction writing... My first draft of the novel I wrote in 2009 was a complete "by the seat of my pants" book. I just wrote. I had zero concern with structure, plot, narrative arc, plot points, or reversals.
My Mistake: Assuming Outlines Don't Matter At All
When I finished that book, I had a novel-length mess on my hands. There were characters who served no purpose, extraneous events, and uneven pacing throughout.
But... The story was basically there.
It just needed some structural development.
The problem with being a "panster" is that eventually, you have to go back and look at your structure carefully. For any book-length work, a pantser's first version usually needs entire sections moved or deleted, new material to shore up other sections, and possibly even entire sections added.
But it's not just pantsers who need structural development. So do plotters. The plotters just get a head start on it at the front end, and it's possible that they may not need as much time to revise the structure when the first draft is done.
This lesson came home to me when I worked with a recent client on her book project. Coming into the project, she already had a fairly complete outline with the first section sketched out and developed into a series of videos. She had even developed a workbook based on her outline. For her, the topic was so clearly defined and developed already that an outline helped her get everything out of her head and onto paper.
And yet... As we started working together, she realized that her outline wasn't quite right.
We were a few months into our interviews and writing process when she showed me a revised outline. The sections were smaller, but there were more of them, and she left room to add some material she'd been considering for some time. We ran with it, and I think the book came out stronger for the revision.
I've come to believe that there are very few 100% pantsers and 100% plotters. The truth is that it's more of a spectrum with pantsers and one end and plotters at the other. My client is more of a plotter, certainly, but she realized as we started writing that her outline needed revision.
And even though I tell people that I write to find out what happens (meaning that I rarely know exactly where a story is going to go when I start), I do tend to have a basic idea of the narrative arc before I start.
I'm even less of a pantser when it comes to writing non-fiction. Certain forms of writing--case studies, white papers, even some blog posts--have something of a basic formula that one can use as a rough outline. And even when they don't, often I will subconsciously form a rough outline in my head as I conduct interviews and do research for a topic.
However--whether I just spew words onto a page in a very rough draft or work from a basic formula in my head or use a client's outline, I always--always--go back and look at structural development when my first draft is complete.
What should you look for as you edit for structural development?
If you're writing fiction:
Check plot for holes, inconsistent events, rabbit trails, etc.: Your plot should not have holes or events that take the story nowhere. Read through carefully for plot elements and make sure you haven't left giant gaps or let some side plot trail off without resolution. (Exception: If you're writing a series and you let a side plot trail off on purpose, that's fine--just don't forget about it when you're ready to reintroduce it!)
Check narrative structure: Even if you're experimenting with different structure, there should still be something recognizable to the human psyche. As readers, we expect certain elements from our stories, even if we can't really define what those are.
Check pacing: Pacing is a bit tricky to describe and trickier to get right, partly because it's somewhat subjective. Pacing is essentially the way the story moves along--how fast, how slow, and how many pauses or breaks. While it's important to keep things moving, it's equally important to give your reader a chance to catch his/her breath once in a while. How often depends entirely on your genre--a thriller will have a different pace than a romance novel than literary fiction than a mystery. Become familiar with standard pacing in your genre, and try to give the reader a familiar sense of it in your book.
If you're writing non-fiction:
Group your chapters into logical sections: What those sections are can vary based on the type of book you're writing. One client I worked with had a natural outline with her eight-week plan--she simply had to build on the previous week's information. You might build one idea or technique on the previous one, or group your chapters by subject matter, or some other logical arrangement.
Be sure your thought leadership progresses along coherent lines: It doesn't matter too much what those lines are as long as they make sense to the reader. The exception to this might be in a collection of essays or vignettes--for example, Seth Godin writes short essays that are thought leadership nibbles. You don't need an overall structure to get something out of his work--you can skip around within his books and read whatever essay appeals at any given time. However, for most thought leaders, some kind of progression makes sense.
Make sure each section carries the same weight, as much as possible: In other words, don't write one top-heavy section with all of your research at the beginning of your book and then finish with a short section that doesn't include much evidence or research. While it's true that some sections may need more citation than others, you don't want one to carry the entire book. Space things out; make chapters and sections similar lengths, and include some research in all of your sections.
Success Strategy: Get a bird’s eye view of your book. You can do this before you write a single word or after your first draft is done or somewhere in the middle—however your brain works best. The simplest way is to write your main points and chapter headings on Post-It Notes or index cards and group them on a posterboard. You will be able to see where you need to reorganize your main thoughts. You can also use Scrivener or a similar program designed to help organize your book.
In two weeks, "Mistake #3: Foregoing Research."
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