Monday, October 17, 2011

Two Plotting Tools for the Pantser by Jacqueline Corcoran, Guest Blogger

Jacqueline Corcoran was born in England, but has lived in various parts of the U.S. for most of her life. She now resides in Alexandria, Virginia with her husband, two children, two cats, and two dogs. She holds a Ph.D. in social work and has been a member of the faculty at the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond since 2000. Although she has published articles in numerous professional academic publications and eleven books in her field, Jacqueline is currently finding new opportunities in fiction, a craft she has worked on for over 28 years.

I'm pleased to welcome Jacqueline here today to talk about techniques that will help "pantsers" -- and I'm one of those so I appreciate all the help I can get.


Two Plotting Tools for the Pantser by Jacqueline Corcoran, Guest Blogger

For good or for ill, I am a “pantser,” meaning that I am on the side of “make it up as you go along.” I’ve tried valiantly to be a “plotter” because my main genre is the mystery in which plot plays a central role. I’ve gotten better, but I still fall on the “pantser” side. Despite my orientation, I have found a couple of techniques useful for coming up with enough of a “beginning, middle, and end” thought out ahead of time so I don’t get as terribly stuck as I once did.

One technique that people often think of as an end result is variously called “the pitch,” “the log-line,” “the hook,” or “the premise.” Yes, it is usually used in a query letter to attract agents and/or editors when your novel is complete but it is also a great way at the beginning to test out your concept.

As for the mechanics of the pitch, in movies, it generally consists of one-line but up to three lines for novel writing is fine. Alexandra Sokoloff has the best breakdown of what she calls “the premise” I’ve seen. She is both a screenwriter and a novelist and hosts a blog called the Dark Salon. She says that the pitch has the following elements:

• a defined protagonist
• a powerful antagonist
• a sense of the setting
• conflict and stakes
• a sense of how the action will play out

On the blog, she has many movie examples and a few from her own novels, but here is an example from my mystery A Month of Sundays: In this edgy mystery, 25 year old Austin Police Department counselor Alayne Vaughan pursues her detective boyfriend's case, the alleged suicide of a local poet, almost losing her love, career - and life-- in the process.

This pitch has all the elements named above

• a defined protagonist (a 25 year old counselor, Alayne Vaughan)

• a powerful antagonist (an implied murderer)

• a sense of the setting (Austin, Texas)

• conflict and stakes (the conflict is inherent in the fact that she tries to solve her boyfriend’s case, which he most certainly does not appreciate; she loses her boyfriend, job, and almost gets murdered trying to solve the mystery)

• a sense of how the action will play out (it’s a mystery, so there are certain conventions, but also the protagonist has access to police information both through her job and her relationship with the detective)

What I like about this exercise is that it forces you to define some of the main elements of your novel and ensures that it has enough going for it so that it may one day interest a publisher.

Another tool I find helpful is to write a synopsis. This is also generally considered something you write after you complete your novel when you know everything about it, but I use it to get my bearings at the beginning. I first learned of this technique as a plotting device by Judy Morris in Writing Fiction for Children.

Basically, a synopsis is a summary of the book, discussing the main characters and plot, with the ending included. Charlotte Dillon, a romance writer, has collected numerous Internet links and resources for how to write a synopsis.

The working synopsis will evolve as you go but it forces you to think through some of the main plot points without getting ground down into too much of the details (unless of course you like that kind of thing). I won’t post my synopsis for A Month of Sundays here because it gives away too much!


Jacqueline, thanks so much for this excellent advice and for being my guest today. The working synopsis has been very useful for me, even though I consider it a dynamic document subject to change at any time.

Read more about Jacqueline and her books at her website. Her blog, Memoirs of Mental Heath and Madness, includes book reviews of YA novels and follow-up articles related to the memoir topics.

A Month of Sundays is available from Whimsical Publications and from online booksellers, including e-books for Kindle.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Jacqueline.

Jacqueline - Thanks for your ideas for helping writers to focus and to give stories both scope and definition. Really helpful!! I wish you much success with A Month of Sundays.

John Paul McKinney said...

Thank you for the great ideas. I like the notion of using a "pitch" to see if the story line is going to work right from the start. Being a "pantser" would seem to give a writer more freedom. I like that.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Makes me glad I am a detailed outliner and planner!

Jan Morrison said...

oooh. sorry, but as a died in the wool pantser I'm not sure the pitch would work for me. I'd be knowing too much. I'll try it though. I am trying to do things differently. sometimes!
Thanks for hosting Jacqueline, Patricia!

LynNerd said...

These are great tips, Jacqueline, especially writing a synopsis. I'm pretty much a pantser, too, but I can see how writing a synopsis would help. The three sentence pitch is more challenging, but it's a good exercise. I bet the more we practice it, the better we get.

Thanks for hosting, Patricia!

Pat Tillett said...

A great post and very informative.
I'm most certainly a "panster!"