Processing the Process

StudyRecently in the deepest layers of the lair, we had a conversation that touched on our writing processes.

I’m paraphrasing here (and apologies if I’ve misrepresented anyone!)

Suz said she had this great new technique to show us if we were interested. It was a pre-writing tool for our characters, designed for pantsers. (She said more but at this point my fingers were in my ears and I was saying lalalala so I didn’t hear it).

Then Tawny said, Blah… Venn Diagram… Blah … Colour-coded… blah. Then Nancy joined in the conversation raising the Plot Dr. Binder and Jo mentioned the T diagram and I think I might have passed out.

Until Jeanne spoke my own thoughts: “That would make my head explode. Just sayin’.” 

So you might have gathered by now that we all have very different processes when we write our books. Clearly, they all work. And yet I am deeply unhappy with mine.

I am what is called a pantser (write by the seat of my pants) but I tend to prefer the more seemly term “organic writer”. When I begin a story, I  do not plot it out beforehand. I usually know who the characters are (sort of) and how they meet (probably) but that’s about it. My editor likes to get a synopsis of the story and I manage to produce a big elaborate lie about how the story will go, but then I forget it as quickly as possible because I don’t want to ruin the magic of what Jenny Crusie and others call the “discovery draft”.

When I write a romance, things change as the story progresses and I get to know who the characters are. (They always walk onto the page precisely who they are and always were, but I find out things about their personalities as they react to any given situation). 

So I might expect a character to react a certain way in a scene, but when I write it, they surprise me. This is one reason I can’t write an outline beforehand. There are so many variables along the way that I can’t predict the outcome before I get there.

writing-toolsI am not saying other people  shouldn’t plan their novels. In fact, given the choice, I’d much prefer being a plotter. Some organic writers are quite proud of how free and creative using that process makes them sound. However, in my opinion, when you’re a professional writer, it’s so much better for your productivity (and your mental health) if you can plan your books before you start… and stick to the plan, dammit!

You might be able to tell from this that I have tried to be a plotter and failed. I have followed various techniques, from index cards to a book that promised to have me writing my first draft in 30 days. Once, when a publisher asked for the full manuscript on a book on which I’d only written a chapter, I planned out all 120 scenes on chart paper.

So I had a plan, but I couldn’t write the story–not *that* story anyway. I was bored before I even sat down at the computer.

Pantsing is where the magic is for me, that sense of not knowing exactly what comes next and being delighted and surprised by what does come to the surface. With that magic comes the down-side of times when I’m convinced the story has taken a wrong turn somewhere, or when I decide I need to throw out the 200 or 300 pages I’ve done and start again.

But, no matter how hard I’ve tried, my process has not changed in any material way. After writing 12 novels, maybe I need to accept that’s my painful process and I’m stuck with it. 🙂

How about you? If you’re a writer, what’s your process like? If you’re not a writer, have you ever tried very hard to change a habit or a process? How did you fare? Do you have any techniques to share for breaking ingrained habits?



  • J St George says:

    Great post, Christina.

    I’m a reformed pantser. I hated throwing out so many words when the book took a wrong turn. I loved that book you referred to (first draft in 30 days) and I use a lot of that process. But, within the mapped out story, there is still enough room for magic. I find the magic when my characters start interacting. They say the most surprising things to each other!!

  • Jane says:

    Hello Christina,
    I’m usually set in my ways in regards to how I go about my business at work, but sometimes you’re told to try a different approach and you can’t really just ignore it and revert to the old way. It’s not always smooth sailing, but you get through it and usually come to appreciate the change in your habit/process.

    • Hi Jane, yes I’m sure you do get used to things. After all, I know a lot of writers who found composing on a computer difficult at first! Now they wouldn’t work any other way. When I was a lawyer, we had to dictate everything. Boy, that was hard! But we got used to it.

  • flchen1 says:

    Wow, I’m not much of a writer, but it’s fascinating how differently the process works for each of you! I can imagine plotting being potentially more efficient, but there’s definitely such magic in flying by the seat of your pants 😉 Your books will be magical no matter which route you choose, Christina!

    • Fedora, that’s so kind of you to say! I don’t think many of us could pick the plotters and the pantsers out of a crowd if we only had their books to go by, so either way works.

  • Jennifer Tanner says:

    Outline. Synopsis. Detour.

    • LOL, Jen, I hear you on the detour! I know some writers map out what they will write and then redo their outlines each time they take a detour. That would drive me insane! But whatever works.

  • Christina, I had to laugh – that discussion made me cry and stick my head under a pillow and then grab a teddy bear and sit in the corner and rock and babble. Clearly I’m a pantser from way back and that’s the way I’m going to stay, much as I wished I did things differently. Do you remember one of the partipants in one of our Brisbane Writers Festival workshops said that we were our own first readers? I still love that description. Like you, if it’s too planned, I get completely bored. I’m currently finishing up a first draft for which I had to write a synopsis. Goodness me, my editor’s going to get a surprise when she sees the actual book! 😉

    • Haha, Anna, good luck with your editor. I’m sure the end result is even better than the synopsis. Yes, I know you are on Team Pants as well, and I like the way you write first drafts so quickly. I think that’s a great way to do it so you don’t get stuck half way through. Or hopefully not!

  • Amy Conley says:

    I would be a pantsee for sure. We discovered during my comp 101 class. I would follow the rules for each paper, and inveitably they wouls suck. One day we were given an in class writting assinment. I was the first one done, but bit hesitate about turning the paper in. I let a few of the people sitting around me read my paper and give me so feefback. They were shocked, to say the least, but loved the paper. Finally my professor asked if I was finished and when I told her I was she wanted it.
    The following week I skipped her class. She found me and cornered me in the hall a few days later. She then proceeded to tell me it was the best paper in the class and clearly no “rules” were going to work for me. From that moment on she wanted me to write every paper like that one.
    One small note, I wrote the paper about her and the professor wanted to use it in the school paper. Needless to say, I was shocked.

    • Amy, that’s wonderful about the paper you wrote without the ‘rules’! Some people can’t work without rules, and others feel boxed in by them (or they do follow rules, it’s just that they do it by instinct rather than consciously). Isn’t it amazing the way our brains work?

      • Amy Conley says:

        According to my husband my brain works “differently”, not the word he usrs, but means the same, is because I am Polish.

  • Carol Cork says:

    Christina, don’t change from being a ‘pantster’ because you write great stories!

  • Helen says:


    I love your stories so you can keep doing them the way you do now 🙂

    I am pretty stuck in my ways we have had a new accounting system put in at work and it is driving us all mad at the moment it is so different from what we are used to and although I am changing some o f the ways we do things I have some of the staff that are sticking their heads in the ground which is making it so much more difficult sad I need to retire LOL

    Have Fun

    • Thank you, Helen. You’ve been such a wonderful supporter over the years!

      Oh, blech on the new accounting system. I’m not surprised people are sticking their heads in the sand. It’s so difficult to learn new systems, particularly when you don’t think they’re as good as the old ones. Good luck with the transition!

  • Patty L. says:

    You have me laughing out loud because I am also a pantser. I just had to submit a synopsis to my editor and freaked out because my characters had not told me what was going to happen next. I also wrote a long drawn out lie in the synopsis and I swear I heard my hero laugh at me. When I sat down to finish working on a particularly hard scene, I realized it was only difficult because I was attempting to follow the synposis. Needless to say, I went a different direction and the words followed from my fingertips.

    • Haha, Patty, so you get where I’m coming from! Yes, the only way I can write the synopsis is to tell myself it’s a lie. Sometimes the story is quite close to the synopsis but that’s only by accident. Once I’ve handed it in, I never look at the synopsis again.

      • Patty L. says:

        I actually looked at the synposis because I was trying to figure out where some of the random thoughts were coming from. LOL My hero told me to forget about it and now things are smooth sailing.

  • Quantum says:

    Fascinating discussion!

    I’m an armchair enthusiast liking to theorise about everything ….. especially the mechanisms of creative thought. LOL

    As a theoretical physicist I spend a lot of time formulating theories and hypothesising to explain puzzling observations. I suspect that the processes of creative thought are universal and will be used by artists, composers, novelists and scientists alike.

    For the novelist it seems to me that an ideal process would be a mixture of plotting and pantsing …. that’s organic plotting. 🙂

    To start writing with no idea of plot would be very inefficient leading to much wasted effort; while plotting down to the last detail would destroy the all important spontaneity.

    I think it is vital to just think about a story first of all. Have a few whiskies and walk for a while on the hills will help to get the neurons fired up. After this preparatory work one should allow the alchemy of the subconscious to work its magic …. just sleep on it. Eventually clarity will begin to emerge and one should put pen to paper and do some rough plotting to crystallise the results.

    Again allow the subconscious to work on the ideas, assisted with liberal applications of scotch and exercise, until eventually the ‘Eureka’ moment strikes and characters start to become alive in your head. That’s the time to start writing in earnest.

    This process should be iterated as frequently as necessary.The book will then get written in no time at all and will be stunning …. in theory!

    When I’m working on my scientific theories at home I also tend to hang a notice outside the door stating ‘SILENCE GENIUS AT WORK’ it keeps the kids out for a while. 🙂

    • Quantum, I love the whiskies and walking remedy! That’s hilarious, and yet quite true. I don’t find alcohol helps with the creative process, but walking certainly does. And sleep. Sleep should be every creative person’s secret weapon. A brilliant psychologist and creativity coach, Eric Maisel, advocates writing as soon as you wake up in the morning, to capture all the great stuff your subconscious throws out while you sleep.

      Love the sign, by the way. I have one, too, but it doesn’t make mention of genius. Maybe that’s my problem! Thank you for your insights!

  • Shannon says:

    For the most part, my writing is for work. We do outlines, terms of reference, and the POP (it involves asking and answering 20 questions) process. These get restructured. Then I write the little piece. It gets restructured, usually looking like the outline I started with, but who am I to quibble over these details? A little more editing to satisfy the next reviewer. Oh, and of course, the title now has changed two or three times. With luck, it now goes before the publication editors, who revise some more, although they tend to change meaning, so we negotiate. If the title is more than eight words (who missed that?), then it gets trimmed down. Finally to the copy editors, who have looked at 8 word titles and made them 9 words so they read better, and this week change all the gerunds to verbs. (Two weeks ago they relooked at that and which.) Being a pantser sounds so much fun, now I just have to try it in my spare time of course!

    • Oh, Shannon! This sounds ghastly. I hope you are paid well for doing this. But everyone works differently, don’t they?

      I think pantsing is great fun… when it works. Not so much fun at the 75% mark for me!

      • Shannon says:

        I am extremely well paid. While the process is difficult at times, I also have the reward of knowing my words are read and appreciated when they appear in “print.” This current project is probably at the 75% point if I stop and think about it. I guess I wish there were more people who go through what I do and share my pain and my joy. It’s so great to see that lots of people are in your place, and are happy to affirm that you are “normal.”

  • Mozette says:

    Planning is all well and good for some writers… even colour-coding where each thing should take place.

    But its’s very restricting and I hate being told what to do.

    I write my stories like Stephen King does: he gets an idea for a story, figures out some cool characters who play well together in a ‘sandpit’ and then dumps them in the situation he’s formulated, looks in from overhead and says: ‘Well, show me how you’re going to get outa this one.’

    Yep, I do this too… it’s fun. 😀

  • Oh Christina – I share your pain!

    I’m an organic writer as well. I don’t do character interviews or detailed plot outlines. I love the magic of writing – but that magic tends to kick in about the sixth chapter which causes massive rewrites of the previous chapters which may or may not be revised again for the final product. It’s exciting and extremely time-consuming which becomes frustration when you’re trying to meet a deadline. And I’m afraid it doesn’t help when you have writing friends who insist you’d be much more efficient if you did the 30 day thing (yes, I have that book as well). I have a long-distance friend who preaches that philosophy. Let’s just say it’s a good thing she’s long distance 🙂

    For me – I tend to know my turning points and my major inner and outer conflicts. Then I plot with some friends and we hash out things that could occur in the middle of the book – the hardest part for me to write. We play devil’s advocate to see if the conflicts are strong enough and deep enough to drive a story. That discussion gets me charged and anxious to write the story – but I usually can’t get to it until the current book is done, which gives the concept time to age and mature a bit.

    The nice thing is we tape our discussions so when it’s time to start writing I can listen to the tape and get all fired up again. 🙂

    • Donna, a plotting group is so beneficial, isn’t it? I do that with Fo and my other writing buddy, Denise Rossetti, every few months. My editor wants there to be a plan which takes you through the middle. I *always* forget the plan! Every time.

      But yes, I feel your pain on the rewrites. Take comfort, as I do, with SEP’s process. She writes a chapter, goes back, revises, writes another chapter, goes back, revises the first two chapters, and so on. Her best books are pretty much the perfect romances, in my opinion, so she must be doing something right!

  • Christina,

    I’m so sorry I got you discomboblulated with my little writing tool.

    Like you, I’m a pantser and I embrace that fact with great joy! But I do know that it takes me about 3 chapters to really get the characters and story firmly into my head. My little tool actually did that. Not long. Not overly complicated… Didn’t pull too much of the magic away. 🙂

    Oh and Tawny’s Venn Diagram? Made my head wobble, too! **after I looked up what a Venn Diagram was!**

    • Suz, I might have used a leetle hyperbole in there, just to make it fun. I think my biggest problem with those methods is I *want* to use them because they make me feel safe. I can do those exercises until the cows come home but when my character walks onto the page and starts talking, he’ll be different. Those kinds of exercises are more valuable for me after I’ve written the book and I’m revising.

      But it’s all about what works, isn’t it? I’m glad it helped you. And yeah, I didn’t even look at the Venn diagram thing. *Shudder*

  • Dianna aka Hrdwrkdmom says:

    Not a writer myself but I have broken a few habits over the years. I think the bottom line on habit breaking is you have to want to do it for yourself and no one else.

    • Dianna, I think that’s so true. I know it with my dietary habits. Everyone around me can be telling me how to get healthy/lose weight but it is up to me and no one can provide that motivation for me. I understand that with addictions and depression, it’s the case, also.

  • Hi Christina!
    Hello, my name is Kathleen, and I’m an EXTREME Pantser…

    I’ve studied it. There is a distinct psychological difference between true Pantsers and true Plotters. It is based on your emotional make-up. It is vital to understand why and learn how to cope with the difference.

    I’ve survived and am even flourishing as a Pantser. I’m currently under contract with a major publisher and they handle with the fact that I’m an Organic Writer (Pantser) just fine.

    I know a surprising number of NYT Bestselling authors who are Pantsers. It CAN be done. But Pantser tools are different from Plotter tools.

    I’m teaching a workshop on Pantsing at National this year, called the Secret Life of Pantsers, Magic Tricks and Delightful Games.

    I hope you will come. Take the test to find out just how much of a Pantser you really are. I’ve got lots of tricks (some new ones this year) that help Pantsers. Plus it is important to understand the psychology behind why you’re a Pantser in the first place.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like a shameless plug for my workshop – it isn’t. It’s just that I REALLY don’t want people to suffer the way I did, trying to be a Plotter when what I needed to do was learn how to function as a Pantser.

    We aren’t the only ones who have suffered trying to adapt into Plotters. I’ve had people come up in tears after the workshop. I get letters and email from authors who’ve struggled for years.

    Celebrate your Pantser-ness!
    You’re BRAVE.
    It may not be easier to be a Pantser, but you’re not in this business because it’s easy.

    Besides, Pantsing IS easier than trying to be something you’re not. Like Jeanne said, trying to do it the other way would make her head explode.

    Vive la difference!
    Big hug!
    -Kat, fellow Pantser

    • Hi Kat, your workshop sounds great! I won’t be at National, sadly, but I will look out for it on the tapes.

    • Caren Crane says:

      Kat, it’s so great to hear a learned Pantser speak to our process! I refuse to call it an “issue” or a “problem” but it is definitely…challenging. I am now happy being a pantser, but I kept thinking for years that there MUST be a better way. I wish I was going to be in San Antonio this summer! 🙁

    • Hey Kat!!!

      You know I LOVE your workshop. I think everyone who is a pantser should attend. After I sat through it with the myriad of epiphenies that I had…I became very comfortable with my Pantser self!!

      I’ll be in the audience again this year!

  • catslady says:

    I think you should do whatever works for you but it does seem more stressful lol. The way you write really fascinates me. More than the plotters, it seems like your characters are truly talking to you or at least they aren’t telling you everything up front lol.

    • Catslady, you said it in a nutshell. Pantsing works for me and the way my brain is wired but it IS more stressful because there are delays while I work out what comes next. When you only have a short time to write a book that does become stressful. But I suppose I just have to learn to deal with it. That seems to be my lot in life!

  • Caren Crane says:

    Christina, I chimed in late with a ME TOO on Jeanne’s post. I have tried the W, the Plot Doctor, something that was supposed to be a snowflake or something. I even tried (very briefly) index cards. Ack!! All of them were too much like work.

    Like you, when I put all that work (and it is WORK) into plotting, I don’t want to tell that story anymore. I’m done with it! So much magic happens when I just sit down and think, “What would she do now?” I also end up with quite a bit of “cut stuff” at times, depending on the book. The last of my Cross Springs books, TIARA WARS, I got 2/3 done TWICE before I found the real heart of the story.

    Like you, I would happily – giddily! – adopt a more efficient process. There just doesn’t seem to be one that helps me at all. One nice thing to know is that my dear friend Sabrina Jeffries, who has written dozens of books, still uses the same inefficient process she always has. She tried to change it and couldn’t! And she’s a plotter! We are not so bad off, after all. 😀

    • Caren, a snowflake? I’m not familiar with that system.

    • Posh, I’m so sorry to have missed you out. Yes, I agree about the work involved in all that pre-planning. I don’t tend to throw out an awful lot of words–they’re too precious! But I do get stuck at 100 pages and probably at the 75% mark, too. I know a lot of pantsers get through that by just writing in a frenzy but I find if I do that, I take a wrong turn. I just need to build in that mulling time.

      That’s so comforting to know about Sabrina, Posh. I know she’s a plotter so it was a surprise to me that she finds her process inefficient!

    • See that’s the thing – if an extreme Pantser does too much work up front it can kill her interest in telling the story.
      Obviously, it’s varying degrees for everyone.

      I can play with my characters ahead. Cut out pictures. Make a collage. But the minute I start trying to plot using GMC or some other fill-in-the-grid method. POOF! I don’t care anymore. They lose their “real’ people-ness for me.

      We are all wired differently.

  • Christina, I used to be a pantser. I found that I have to do less revision if I have a loose outline. Not saying that would be true for everyone, of course, just for me. So I have “W” plot outline with major relationship and external plot turning points. However, if I get an idea I love along the way, I revise the roadmap accordingly.

    When I revise, I often use one of those boards divided into chapter slots–can’t think of the term for it–and track the romance, the external plot, and the h/h perspectives using different colors of Post-It notes. If I have trouble coming up with something in a chapter that goes on a particular color, that means I need to do more work on that chapter.

    I also use another color, in the narrow, bookmarky width, to track turning points.

    I can almost see your eyes crossing. Thinking about this kind of makes my head hurt, but I was surprised how much it helped when I tried it.

    I can’t see myself plotting out every scene, not under any method. I think then I’d feel as though I’d already written the book. As you say, the joy of discovery would be gone.

    • Nancy, that’s so interesting to see how you work. I tend to do a lot of this kind of thing after the first draft is written. I write a list of scenes and highlight according to which plotline it’s focusing on and that way I get more of a map of the story so I can see where the holes are. Usually I don’t cut an awful lot. I’m always adding stuff, layering in detail.

  • Becke says:

    Love all of the new ideas. I’m an efficiency nut and I’m always looking for something to make the process faster, smoother, easier, and different. I’ve probably tried one of each. I use a hybrid of everything that’s drifted my way.

    I tire of things easily, but I have a lot self-discipline. To me, the trick is flexibility. I take the components that work for me and incorporate them into my present process.

    Of course, nothing is sacred with me. I can cut without blinking an eye. It might be painful, but I my scissors are sharp. So I love the multiple comments.

    • Becke, I think that’s what we all need to do as writers–take what works, forget the rest.

      I’m fairly ruthless when it comes to cutting, but I’m also a very spare writer so there’s usually not a lot to cut at the end of a book. In fact, I have never had an editor tell me to cut a scene. I’m more likely to add stuff in.

    • Becke, there are a lot of interesting comments, aren’t there?

  • Fascinating post and comments, Christina! I hate to tell you, sweetie, but your process works too damned well for you to try and change it now ! 🙂

    I am most definitely a pantser, who sometimes turns to plotting in the middle when I get stuck.

    All of my books have started with a scene that came to me out of nowhere. I saw it / heard it and wrote it down. And from there I waited for the characters to start talking. I know the beginning of the story and usually the end fairly early on. And I have scenes and conversations come to me at the oddest times – in the shower, in the car, at work. I have index cards with me at all times (except in the shower I have these new cool things called AquaNotes) When something comes to me I write it down as fast as I can because the first time it comes to me always seems the best. I keep all of these index cards in a box for each story and if I get stuck I read through them and it suddenly comes to me (or usually a character will shout: “THERE! That scene / conversation goes THERE, dummy!” Rude lot, my characters.)

    So I have a vague sort of road map or series of scenes and then I hang the story on it and when it takes off I run to keep up.

    • Louisa, I love the idea of you writing down scenes in the shower! I have a lot of scenes come to me like that, too, and of course everyone knows how great running water is for generating ideas but I’ve never thought about actually writing them down while I’m in there. Snork! For some reason, I either write them down and never look at them again or I don’t write them down at all. They float to the surface as I write the book or they get forgotten.

      And you’re most kind to say that about my books, hon! Thank you!