Friday, October 21, 2011

Pantzer to Plotter: Crossing the Barrier by Dianna Shuford

Christy here, welcoming my critique partner and dear friend, Dianna Shuford. I like to say Dianna and I have grown up together, writing wise. We learn a lot from each other and have a great time working on our novels together. Dianna has a knack for writing contest savvy manuscripts. The contests love her! But part of our journey is figuring out our best methods for writing. Without further ado, please welcome, Dianna Shuford...

Dianna Shuford is a multi-finalist in the prestigious Maggie Award for her manuscripts Fear Not (receiving 3rd place in 2008) and Charmed Deception (receiving Honorable Mention in 2009 and 3rd place in 2011). She was also a 2010 finalist in the Genesis Award: Romantic Suspense Category for her manuscript Charmed Deception. Dianna is an active member in her local RWA Chapter, Georgia Romance Writers, serving as a current Board Member and a category coordinator for the Maggie Award. She is also a member of American Christian Fiction Writers, and visits the local ACFW chapter whenever possible. She mentors new writers whenever possible in an effort to give back to the organizations in which she’s involved.
Pantzer to Plotter: Crossing the Barrier

When I made the decision to get serious about publication, I started like every other writer. I sat down and started writing. I wrote and I revised and I re-wrote and I revised.  

I found myself getting frustrated more and more because the further I got into my story, the less I knew where it was going. I worked on the same story for 4 years, feeling like the Israelites wandering in the desert. There had to be a better way to get the story from my imagination onto the page that left me a little bit of sanity.  

I had never heard the terms SOTP (Seat of the Pants) Writers, a.k.a. Pantzers, or Plotters. For those who haven’t heard of those terms either, allow me to introduce you. 

Pantzers is an affectionate term used to describe those writers who love nothing more than to sit in front of their blank computer screen and let their imagination take over.  Pantzers love finding the gem of their story in their characters’ ramblings. Pantzers almost always require major revisions to organize their stories and to make the scenes and structures of the story flow (at least when I tried to Pantz around this is where I found myself.) 

On the other hand, Plotters sit down in front of their blank screen, and instead of starting the story right away, they outline, chart, and diagram their story’s structure, their disasters, their characters flaws and noble characteristics. Once that’s done, Plotters begin the race to write the story.

As I learned more about these two terms, I was able to pinpoint the origins of my frustration. For me, facing that blank page without having a general idea of where to take my story left me blank, especially since I often write plot driven stories such as romantic-suspense and speculative/paranormal fiction. How do you instill foreshadowing and red herrings into a story if you don’t know where it leads from the beginning? When I asked myself this question, my response was, “I don’t.”

So, I had to figure out what would work best for me. I tried several different ways to plan and plot. Nothing seemed to help. Fully depressed and worried my writing was going nowhere, a friend challenged me to get an entry ready for the Unpublished Maggie Award sponsored by Georgia Romance Writers. 

Did I mention that the contest deadline was only two and a half weeks away? Did I mention that I had been working on the same story for four years, had laid it down out of desperation, and no other stories were even percolating in my overwrought brain? Did I mention the quickest way to get me to do something is to challenge me or tell me I can’t do it? 

Determined and desperate, I came up with the following plan. 
1.      I came up with a title. (For some reason, I always have to start with a title.)
2.      I dreamed up my primary characters (including the perfect name and job for each.)
3.      I took the jobs of the characters and worked out the most logical course of conflict between the two, how they’d meet, what their inner conflict would be, and typed out in a bulleted list their backstory and physical details. I even found a piece of clip art on the internet that would give me a visual for my character (I’m a very visual person.) I’ve found the program OneNote to be perfect for this type of prewriting activity because the program automatically saves everything typed and will download into Word if a standard document needs to be created.
4.      I outlined each chapter with the following information: Day of the week (suspense element), POV character the scene was in, and a bullet list of the action or thoughts that took place in that scene, and the opening and ending hook for each scene. At each scene break I would start listing the information over once more until I came to the end of the chapter. This allowed me to keep up with the action and helped propel the story into the next scene.
5.      I broke the outline down into the 3 Act structure so I could “see” how each major disaster would move the story forward. I also made sure that in each act my primary characters had clear, definable goals so that every action would be clearly motivated.
6.      Using the outline, I wrote a synopsis. A good one that gave me an overall picture of where my story was going. Having the outline first was key for me. Until I learned to write the outline first, I couldn’t seem to write a good synopsis.
7.      Finally, I wrote the rough draft of the story.

For me, an outline became the road map that gave me direction as I wrote while the synopsis became the compass that shed light on the correct course to the end of the story. Both of these tools, the outline and the synopsis, also highlighted where my story lagged and if the story or characters needed to be adjusted. 

Outlining has not meant I don’t have to revise. It has simply allowed me to write a more coherent story, which prevents that overwhelmed feeling I’d experienced when working on my first story.
Does this mean adopting a Pantzer writing style is bad for you? No! Some of my best writing buds are Pantzers. It simply means Pantzing around didn’t work for me. (Although, I do admit to occasionally writing a scene or chapter without the outline if my story idea is clear enough, then I outline it afterwards.)

Well, I made that deadline, and I found out two months later that the draft I had written in two and a half weeks finaled in the Maggie Award for Excellence that year taking honorable mention. It seemed I had found the formula that worked for me. 

My advice to everyone reading this: if you can’t seem to find the magic formula that works for you, keep trying, keep pushing, keep writing. Sometimes the best discoveries arrive with stumbling blocks that cause us to stop and reassess. 

Now, it’s time for you to share. Which strategy works best for you? Do you flourish as a Pantzer or would you rather plot your way to The End? Or, do you incorporate a little bit of both into your writing style?

Christy here... We are also giving away one $25 Office Depot gift card to supplement your writing journey, no matter what stage you are in! 


  1. Hi Dianna, Thank you for being my guest today!!

    Like you, I have to have a title. Even if its the name of the town, if I haven't come up with something more creative, I have to name my child ;)

    I'm finding i have to write dull, backstory filled scenes for a few chapters before I find the place I'm supposed to start. That launch pad is usually succesful. Also, I'm finding I enjoy planning the story out before I get started. My time is too limited to sit down and write and hope it goes somewhere.

  2. Dianna--what a wonderful post! And you know they way I write---Panster all the way. And yes, I do revise--but it's a good thing I found I like revising.
    Thanks for always being helpful and willing to critique. You're awesome, girl!!

  3. Hi, Dianna! My muse likes surprises, and she puts up a lot of resistance if I do too much planning ahead. But writing without planning is awfully inefficient when a deadline is looming, so I've gradually learned to do some things ahead of time, such as figuring out my characters' motivations so their actions will be consistent, and thinking about ways these motivations will cause conflict. Apart from that, I'm pretty much a pantzer. Fortunately, my muse helps out by putting in the foreshadowing and red herrings without me realizing what's going on--until chapters later, when I find myself astonished once again, because, "Hey! This all fits together!"

    Thanks for being my PAL, and good luck with your stories. :)

  4. Good morning,

    Those who know me know that I'm a panster....however, I know the beginning, something that needs to happen in the middle and the ending when I sit down to write.
    In other words, I do the Goals, Motivation & Conflict for the two main characters & that gives me the B-M-E. Then I turn my muse & my characters loose and when I'm about half finished, I jot down, briefly, how each of the three elements are dealt with in each chapter (just to be sure I stay in POV & on track).

    Great article and great website!

  5. I'm somewhere in the middle. I have a very, very high level plot idea but then I just hit the ground typing to see what fills in all of the area between. I guess it's more of a concept than a plot, which would make me pretty much a pantzer.

  6. Dianna and Christy, great post! Dianna, my approach is sort if like yours. I've come to find an outline gives me a focus, a roadmap, but doesn't lock me into anything. If I get an idea I like, I go with it.

    I've also found storyboarding useful, but I do only 3 chapters ahead at one time. I used to be a total pantser, but I write faster if I know which what scenes come next and what the general point of each scene is.

    Congrats again on your Maggie final!

  7. What an inspiring story, Dianna, and I cheered for you at the Maggies! I love "wandering in the wilderness," but I have so little time to write that I need to know exactly what to do and how much I have to accomplish when my posterior hits that chair. I agree with Sandy that when you have the GMC for your characters, the story just flows.

  8. Great ideas here. Maybe they'll give me the kick in the pants that I need.

  9. Barbara- I've enjoyed being your PAL. You write terrific stories. Like you, sometimes I will write ahead of my planning if I can see the story clearly enough. However, my muse deserts me when I'm staring at that blank page wondering what should happen next. I'm glad your muse is much more cooperative.

    Sandy- thanks for joining me today. You sound like you've found the perfect formula for your writing. Your muse must be a mover and a shaker. :)

    Kristi Ann- Loved meeting you at M&M earlier this month. You sound like you follow the plan I was using in the beginning. I'm glad to hear it works for you so much better than me. I just remember becoming so frustrated I wanted to quit, but the drive to write just wouldn't let me.

  10. Christy- thanks for inviting me to share on FAITH girls today. As my first attempt at blogging, this is kind of fun.

    Lindi- the way you write is perfect for you. Actually, your writing style fits your personality, and reading through your pages has always been enjoyable because your stories are wonderful.

  11. Nancy- we must be twins in spirit. It's hard being a working girl and finding the time to write to begin with, but when time is not efficiently used (like me when I pantz around) then my writing drastically suffers. I've discovered also that I don't mind editing and light revising, but extensive revisions are not fun for me.

    I do complete a mini-storyboard occassionally, which contains usually my three disasters, the H/H goals for each section, and my resolution. Your right about it really helping give you that framework.

  12. Berta- it's always inspiring to know you're in my corner, and finaling in the Maggie is a prestigious milestone to achieve, even when you don't win.

    I agree with you about having to worry about wasting time when your writing time is limited to begin with. For me, though, having only the GMC isn't quite enough. I'm glad the story flows for you with only that tool.

  13. Merry- my new friend! I'm so glad you joined us today. We all need a "kick in the pants" sometimes. Just let me know anytime, and I'll send a kick your way. I'll even let you get in a few kicks in return. LOL

  14. Excellent post, Dianna! I believe in you and in your writing and love that you're finding your groove in the creative process, what works best for you.

    So thrilled for your accomplishments. Wahoo!


  15. Thanks, Cheryl. Your support means a lot.

  16. Dianna, what a great post!! I'm the same way. Used to just sit down and write. But I found the revising was taking forever. So now I plot.

    Thanks for being with us on the blog today!

  17. Hey, Diana. Great first blog and very informative.

    I am a pantser, no doubt about it. Many a short story I wrote in the beginning came from a catchy title and then just writing away.

    I have tried plotting, but my characters keep going off on their own tangent when I start typing the story.

    Enjoyed reading your journey to writing easier.


  18. Missy- thank you to the FAITH girls for allowing me to be here. Chatting with everyone is a lot of fun. And, I'm glad I'm in good company with other plotters too.

    CiCi- I've missed you. Glad to see you here! Yes, I remember your writing process well. You always have turned out stories so much faster than I could, but I think part of that was because I was lost. My characters take over too, and my outline will change because of that, but the outline is really my building blocks. I wouldn't say that my journey has been easier, jsut different. By the way, do you remember that it was you who challenged me to enter the Maggies in 2009?

  19. Dianna,
    Wonderful post. Congrats on all your great contest showings.

    I'm a Pantser but I'd love to be a Plotter. I have to start out with a great title before I can begin it's all in my head so I can start writing, but I agree about the need for more discipline.

    If Sandy is a Pantser, then I want to grow up to be just like her. She is super prolific.

    Thanks for the advice.

    Marilyn Baron

  20. I'm a...plotster, for lack of a better term. If I plot out a lot of my book, I'll never write it. If I plot too little, I flounder and can't seem to get it right.

    Like Goldilocks, something in-between is just right. :)

  21. Marilyn- I understand having to have a great title. I'm the same way even if the title changes before I'm finished. As far as discipline, I struggle with that too so I don't think those that plot have that down pat necessarily.

    Carol- How are you doing? I hope well. I like that term. "Plotster." Has a nice ring to it. Sounds like you get the best of both worlds. I can just picture you sitting in front of your computer with a curly blonde wig on plotstering around your characters. Thanks for the visual, and the best of both worlds does sound just right. I'll have to keep that in mind, Goldilocks. LOL

  22. Hi Dianna,
    What a fantastic post! I'm a "little bit of both." I may have a very general outline and from there be a panster on the actual writing. After reading your post, I'm convinced writing a novel using your method might be just a wee bit easier than being a panster!

  23. Hi Dianna! I agree, great post. Thanks for sharing your journey. I'm more of a plotter than panster, but I don't exactly write the synopsis first, more of a detailed outline. I get an idea, usually a character in an opening scene, then the ending comes to me and I give the book a name. I focus on writing down my turning points first, then usually do scene cards. I'm glad you hit on a method that works for you! And congratulations on finaling - it was a tough crowd this year. :)

  24. Sorry, Dianna. It's Darcy here, forgot to sign my comment above. :)

  25. I'm waving to all our GRW friends! So nice to have y'all here. I hope you'll come back!

  26. CiCi!!!!!!!!!!! So glad you stopped by today. We have missed you soooo much! Dianna's right, you were very prolific and I remember us all sitting around your table writing and you'd giggle at your characters! Love it! Love you!

  27. I'm so tickled that all of you stopped by today! I think Dianna's a natural blogger! Don't you?

    Barbara & Sandi - my muse deserted me back in 2003. I don't know what I did to make her angry, but I've floundered ever since and had to become a plotter! Now, I've found my way!

    Kristi - I will sometimes come up with a character first. I know where I want to go but my time writing is so dicey I have to have a plan.

    Hi Nancy - I like the idea of storyboarding 3 chapters at a time. Sounds like advice I need to try.

  28. Edwina- I'm so glad you were able to stop by. I came to the same conclusion that plotting actually did turn out to be easier than pantzing for me. Keep experimenting and you'll find your method.

    Darcy- I was relieved when you came back to leave your name. I definitely wanted to acknowledge you my friend. Our methods sound very similar. I almost always have a good idea of my opening and ending scenes too, only I outline first then go back for the scene cards. You know, I think I probably got into the habit of writing the synopsis first because all of the writing contests require one, and now, I actually like getting the synopsis out of the way before I write the book. (Though I must admit, sometimes I'll write the first few chapters, then I'll pause and write the synopsis.)

  29. Missy, I agree! It's like a GRW reunion here!! Love it!

    Berta - I didn't realize until M&M that you have a full time job. I do too and that gives me hope that being published is possible, even when we have a "day" job.

    Meredith - Dianna & I seem to need kicks weekly. Sometimes daily. Whatever it takes to get you motivated! I blog about my progress, or lack thereof, and that usually helps me keep up some type of writing ;)

  30. Hi Cheryl - Thanks for stopping by!

    Hi Marilyn - I'd say a mix of both is a perfect concoction. Some of it has to be organic. I think you can plot but still let the ideas flow. You just choose to put them in order to see where you are going!

    LOL Carol - I think I'm a red headed Goldilocks then!

    Hi Edwina!! Thanks for dropping in!

    Hi Darcy - Thanks for stopping by! A friend of mine uses scene cards too. She's ready to go with NANOWRIMO about to start. She does all her scene cards and then lets the writing flow!

  31. Dianna, CONGRATULATIONS!!! I'm so happy you found what works for you :) I think I may be your opposite on this though. I can't plot scenes. I have some general ideas and like to visualize a scene before I write it, although that doesn't always happen either :) I seem to just make that blank page work somehow. Maybe it's the praying :) lol But, you go girl! I love reading how other writers write!

  32. Thanks, Eva. Together, our differences make us unique, but our mission as writers make us sisters. You keep pushing on that word count!

  33. Hi Dianna (great name *grin*) - Sorry I didn't make it out here yesterday. I was traveling home from out of town. I'm what I call a hybrid. I like to brainstorm, then I'll write a chapter or two to get a feel for the characters and the setting, then I like to flush out all the complex threads to know for sure that they will intersect at a big finish.

    And I think you know my philosophy for writers - we should all find the way that works best for creating, whether it is plotting, pantzing or a mixed version.

    Great blog!

  34. Hey, Dianna L! As you know, my plotting involves your book! :)

    For those who may not have seen it, Dianna Love and Mary Buckham wrote a fantastic how-to book, Break Into Fiction!

  35. Hi Missy -

    I'm so glad our book has been helpful. Thanks for sharing that and congrats on your latest Inspy release!

  36. That's a lovely sentiment Dianna! No wonder you draw such a big crowd :)

  37. Dianna- I agree. *Dianna* is an awesome name. Thanks for sharing your process with us. Everyone who has visited has had their own unique way of approaching their writing, which is absolutely perfect. Just as each reader connects to certain writing styles, each writer connects in his or her own way to the words they put on the page.

    I'm glad your travels were successful and that you're home safe. Thanks for taking the time to visit me here.

  38. Dianna, I enjoyed your blog post immensely. I am definitely a Pantzer, though I often find myself wishing I could plot at least a little. I do seem to do a LOT of rewriting. Thanks for the great tips--I may try some of them going forward.

  39. Laura- Great of you to drop by. You're an awesome writer and congrats on being a fellow Maggie finalist this year.

    The beauty of writing is we each get to explore and find our own process for writing. If any of my methods help you, then I'm very happy. My door (email) is always open.

  40. I THINK I'm a plotter; then, I start writing, and...
    My plot runs away from me & I'm back to pants-ing again!
    Maybe I'm an inbetween type of writer, like Carol Burnside - a pantser.
    Whichever one that I am, I do believe your advice is perfect : keep trying, keep pushing, keep writing.
    I plan to.
    Thanks for this great post!

  41. You're welcome, Pam. So glad you could stop by. My goal in life is to always be encouraging. I'm glad you could take that away from this post.

  42. Dianna, all your achievements are inspiring! I'm not a writer, but I love reading. Therefore, please continue to be a pantser! You are an inspiration!