If you read my How I Got My Agent post, you’ll recall that the first draft of WOLF was, charitably, a mess. And that I pantsed the whole thing.
I pants all first drafts, because it’s mostly just me telling myself the story. Granted, I pay far too much attention to prose as I’m doing that, so what comes out is a very polished, pretty piece of hot garbage. It sounds nice, but does it make sense? Maybe. Kind of. A little.
However, pantsing doesn’t really cut it when you’re revising. You’re moving pieces around, divulging information in different places, cutting and adding scenes and characters. I can’t keep all that straight in my head without having a concrete plan to follow.
That said, my little pantsing heart also needs flexibility. Some of my best ideas come with no preamble when I’m in the thick of typing, and giving myself room to find and use those elements is crucial.
Before I go on—everyone has a different way they approach revising, and planning, and literally everything about writing. There is no right or wrong way, as long as it gets done. These are just the methods and tools I’ve found helpful, especially if you’re someone who balks at traditional outlines!
But WHY THO
This is the first question, right? Plot has to be moved forward by a mix of internal and external forces. The external is fairly easy to figure out, because that’s your premise. The internal is harder.
Doing character worksheets can be really helpful with this. Take the time to sit down and figure out what makes your character tic. Maybe even do some quick writing exercises where you present a problem and figure out how each individual character would solve it. In order to make emotional beats land, you’ve gotta get to a place with ALL your characters where they are fully fleshed-out people with their own way of seeing and reacting to the world. When I do these, I also make note of character’s physical tics, which I’ve found makes a big difference in keeping voice and action beats consistent.
I should probably get in the habit of doing these before I write the first draft…but you definitely should spend some time thinking about this before you revise. Improv actors use “yes, and” when creating a scene, and this is really not much different (though, you will sometimes have to tell yourself no. More on that later). Scene transitions should be “and so,” rather than “and then.” Emotional arcs have to go with plot arcs.
Sometimes it can be hard to plot these congruently. Which leads me to…
Chapter Summaries—Outlining When Outlining Feels Akin to Eating Your Own Beating Heart
Because I knew that I would be moving some tentpole moments to different places in this draft, and switching around the way mythology and necessary background information were revealed, I knew I was going to need at least a sort of outline. Something to tell me what info was needed where, how it was going to come about, and what plot elements needed to occur in each chapter. So before I ever touched my document, I wrote out chapter summaries.
These summaries are THE MESSIEST, and will never go beyond the Alpha Reader Circle of Trust whom I sent them to just to make sure everything made sense. There are many caps lock wailings and question marks and instances of “figure it out, Whitten.” I wrote these fairly narratively, all the “showing” left out with only “telling” left. If I thought of a good line or bit of dialogue that would fit the scene, I wrote it. Some chapters have bullet points of information needed, some are giant blocks of text, some are little more than typeset screeching.
Really, this is just an outline in a different format. But writing narrative summaries instead of doing a traditional outline with A, B, C points helped me brainstorm and keep the flow of the story going. It helped me identify emotional as well as plot beats and how one would inform the other. It also made me confront and fix plot and consistency problems before I ever started truly writing, which has been a huge help as I implement changes in the actual draft. And if I ran into an issue with a fix that needed to be seeded into the earlier story, I could go back and find the places where the setup would make the most sense.
This was also super helpful with figuring out emotional arcs. I made sure to include in the summary why everyone was reacting/making the choices they were making, and what happened previously that led to this decision. Having that to refer back to has been invaluable.
All Your Darlings Are Dead
If you write, you’ve heard you have to kill your darlings. Don’t get too attached to anything, because there is always the possibility it will get pitched. In some ways, this is good advice. But you have to have things you love for about your story, things you will fight for, the bedrock it’s built on. Those darlings are not only good, they’re necessary. Some of your darlings you don’t kill, you just adapt.
Most often, I get sad about sacrificing certain lines of prose. I’ve been known to agonize over a scene for hours longer than it really needs, trying to find a way to keep a certain line, when really I just need to toss it. You will write other good lines. If it doesn’t fit the tone or doesn’t make sense for the scene or you’re having to twist your dialogue in knots to keep it, delete that sucker.
As far as the darlings you need to adapt: themes. Tone. The atmosphere you’re going for. As you revise, especially if you’re making sweeping changes, these things will inevitably change, but the heart of your story shouldn’t. Finding the heart can be hard—it takes me a couple drafts to wade through the trappings and figure out exactly what I’m trying to say, why this felt so important for me to write. But once you find it, revising is so much easier. And also more fun and rewarding. Because you aren’t just tearing something apart, you’re building it better.
That’s what revising is, really. Telling your story, but better. Picking through the word pile to figure out what can go and what can stay and what can change. You have to love the heart of the story so that you can do away with everything else, and mold all the disparate pieces around it.
All that said, sometimes you will have to axe things you love in service to the larger picture. Scenes that don’t further the plot, too much description, elements without a bearing on the larger narrative…
All I’m saying is I really want that crown made out of a jawbone, but it remains to be seen if I am going to be able to make it fit or not.
More Things That Aren’t Really Writing Things (also that you have almost certainly heard before, but I am talking about them anyway)
P L A Y L I S T S. If you follow me on Twitter, I have almost certainly annoyed you with music posts, but honestly music is a big part of my process. Building a playlist helps me build the tone, and having songs that remind me of certain characters helps me get in their headspace. I’ve had so many breakthroughs by taking a walk while listening to my book playlists really loudly.
Pinterest is another great tool. My boards are all over the place and probably alarming from an outsider perspective, but they all help build the mood and tone of what I’m writing. Pinterest is also really helpful when you’re trying to describe something—I’m always looking up photos for reference.
Revising is hard. Even when you love it and it’s going well, it’s hard. But everything above has helped me make it a bit less excruciating, and even fun.