FLEXIBILITY: Learning to Plot When You're a Pantser

Today we welcome guest Buccaneer and YA author Tanaz Bhathena, whose debut novel, QALA ACADEMY, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers/Macmillan in the fall of 2017.

Flexibility: Learning to Plot When You’re a Pantser

I hate plotting novels. I began my writing journey with short stories, many of which don’t require much plotting at all — for which a single sentence or even a title was enough to write out 3,000-5,000 words.

Three years ago, I managed to write my first book without an outline. It was enough for me to go about telling people: “I’m a pantser,” or "I don’t do outlines.”

Then came the time to write Novel # 2.

And the Writing Gods said: “Haha.”

I made three attempts to begin a book. Three times, I failed after about 5,000-10,000 words. At one point, I thought I managed to beat the curse of the unfinished manuscript and scribbled out 30,000 words of a YA novel… and couldn’t go further.

I cribbed about this to my family. To my critique partner. I even Googled to see if there was a solution to this problem. (There wasn’t.)

So I decided to start a fourth novel.

This time, I decided I would do things differently and come up with a plan. I knew that characterization was my strong point, plotting my weakness. But my previous failures taught me that I always got stuck in the middle of a story, not knowing where to take my characters. Yet, knowing my own writing style, I knew I would never be able to work with a detailed outline. Part of the writing process for me involves discovery and this also means not sticking to a fixed storyline.

I decided to come up with a compromise. I opened a Word document (the outline) and wrote out my idea for the novel in a sentence. I also wrote a tentative ending: another sentence. I now had a vague idea of where this novel was going.

I opened another document (my novel draft) and wrote the first scene in the voice of my narrator. Ideas began to emerge. I went back to my outline and made rough bullet points to note them down (three to four points for each chapter and no more).

To my surprise, I found that I could write more scenes and, for the most part, stick to the basic points of the outline. A couple of chapters in, I went back to the outline and scribbled more chapter ideas. I even drew a map of the world I was creating (which was fun and something I plan to do again for other books).

Writing and outlining simultaneously had two advantages:

1.     I did not feel that I had to stick to a plan. My writing and my characters had room to breathe.

2.     The outline allowed me to visualize the novel in a big picture way that I never had be able to before when I tried writing on the fly.

What I learned from this experience is how important it is to be flexible when you’re working on new projects. No two novels are the same and many times, in writing, old ways and habits don’t always work. Compromise is key: The willingness to try out new ideas and to adapt them in ways that suit you as a writer.

As for me, my fourth attempted worked and I now have a crappy, but completed first draft.

About the Author:

Tanaz Bhathena was born in Mumbai and raised in Riyadh, Jeddah and Toronto. Her short stories have appeared in various journals, including Blackbird, Witness and Room Magazine. Her debut YA novel, QALA ACADEMY, will be published by Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers/Macmillan in the fall of 2017.

Find her here:

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