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Pantsing Your Series

I’m a pantser. I wish I weren’t – I’m so logical and organized in the rest of my life (unless you’re emailing me – all bets are off when it comes to responding to email). Theoretically, I should be just as logical and organized in my plotting. I dream of scenes arranged on index cards, of carefully highlighted plotting notebooks and special research folders.

But that’s not how I write. I make a theoretical plot, then I start writing – then I get to the halfway point of the book, toss it all, and rewrite it again from the beginning. By the end, the book is something I’m proud of, but it’s also completely unrecognizable from my original idea.

With my first two books (Heiress Without a Cause and Scotsmen Prefer Blondes), this process was painful but ultimately bearable (but did I mention painful?). But as my series progresses, I’m learning more about not just how to pants a novel, but how to pants a series. My third book, The Marquess Who Loved Me, came out in February, and as I wrote it I realized how much I have to compensate for my pantsing nature when I’m writing later books in a series.

The cold, brutal fact is this: if you’re pantsing a series, you may have written yourself into unfixable holes.

So what’s a pantser to do? I can’t say I’ll start plotting in advance, but here are some things that work for me:

  • Track the dates of everything that happened in previous books. I use software called Aeon Timeline ($40, Mac only), and I put in key dates from every project – when the hero/heroine meet, where they go, what they’re up to, etc., so that I know where they were if I need to use them as secondary characters in future books. Better, Aeon Timeline allows me to establish when a character was born, and then tells me how old they are on any given future date – so helpful when your book spans a couple of years, so you don’t accidentally leave one character at the same age for two or three years 🙂 I took the time to go back and do this for all three of my books now – I’d rather track it now than get to the twentieth book in my Regency worlds and start reusing minor characters (or, heaven forbid, major characters) because I forgot they existed.
  • Be vague. Be very vague. There are some things you can’t be vague about – hair color and names come to mind. And for secondary characters to feel real and not cardboard-y, they need personalities and preferences. But it’s a lot easier to be concrete about preferences (such as a secondary character preferring lemons instead of sugar in her tea) – you’re not writing yourself into a corner with those. It’s much harder to be concrete about things like how many previous suitors a secondary character has had. If that character becomes a heroine in a future book, you’re stuck with whatever number you gave earlier in the series. I’m now trying to be more vague about personal backstory in early books so I have room to play later.
  • Reread your previous books and focus on scenes featuring those characters. If the hero/heroine in a later book were secondary characters in earlier books, reread those scenes before you start writing. There will always be readers who pick up the tiny facts you miss (like if a character’s hair is a slightly different shade of flaxen). Most people won’t notice that stuff. However, they *will* notice if a secondary character they loved in an earlier book becomes a totally different person in a later book. Rereading early scenes helps you to reset and remember the voices of those characters before you pants them into a completely different voice.

And if all else fails, then maybe this book will be the one that becomes your funny cocktail-party story about how you accidentally turned a character from a virgin spinster to a courtesan. But hopefully, by keeping track of details and staying vague, you can give yourself room to pants a great story without writing yourself into a corner 🙂

How do you plot your series? Do you know what will happen from the first book? Or have you found yourself in a trap of your own making? I’d love to hear how you deal with the later books in your series – thanks for sharing!

22 responses to “Pantsing Your Series”

  1. Great post Sara. I think timelines are one of the most important tools when writing a series. I’ve just been winging it in a computer file. I’ll have check out the software you mentioned.

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  2. Jenn! says:

    Ahh…fellow pantser, Sara.

    When I began writing about pirates, I had no intentions to write a series. But it happened. A secondary character had to have his story. Many of us have been there, right? Halfway into writing his story, it became clear I had a series on my hands. Suddenly I became obsessed. 😀

    Yes, I have written myself into a pickle on several occasions, especially with those subsequent characters who play a bigger role later in the series. One of my biggest problems I have faced has been dealing with ages. Fortunately, I have done what you suggested. I was vague enough to plausibly write my way out. Whew!

    Great post!

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  3. Hope Ramsay says:

    Hi Sara.

    As you know I’m the original OCD plotter. 🙂 I keep a master time line in an excel spreadsheet that has everyone’s birth and death dates and important facts having to do with military service, high school graduation, college, and other stuff. And then, since I use Scrivener as my word processing platform, I keep a running time line in every story in the Scrivener notes section. I can tell you the date and day of the week of every scene since I started using scrivener. I’ve recently started converting this information into a document for each book, and sending it off to my editor and copy editor to save them the trouble of making a time line.

    But I STILL run into issues with characters. I just turned in the teaser chapter for my latest WIP. The heroine is a woman who has been a secondary character in every other book. She’s never really been described, and yet my editor had a mental image of her that was vastly different than my description of her. I had to go back through all the old books to prove that I had never described her as being zaftig. So even being vague doesn’t always work.

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  4. I’m kind of a mash-up between a pantster and a plotter – aren’t they calling that a planster or something like that now? I like to write the first 5 chapters or so, get a flavor for my characters and their issues, and then go back and write out GMCs, plot points, etc., but I still don’t outline every scene.

    Anyway, I have a 6-book series I’m smack dab in the middle of at the moment. I found that, after Book 3 was done, going back to create a series Bible really, really helped. I was compelled to, because the heroine of Book 4 is a much-loved secondary character who is in all the other books. The readers were asking for her story, and I didn’t want to let them down by goofing up the details. I found the bible actually helped me come up with her conflict for the story (because, yeah, I didn’t know all the little details, just the big ones).

    As for painting myself in a corner, the child I mentioned in one line in Book 2 is a character with his own POV in Book 3, but my editor didn’t like that he was only 8 years old (as mentioned in that one line in the previous book). I agreed. He needed to be about 10 for what I had planned. So we opted to remove all the time references that indicated exactly how much time had passed between books.

    Whatever works! LOL

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  5. Shea Berkley says:

    I know where you’re coming from, Sara. I’m a pantster. I’ve been known to be vague sometimes. But being vague is dangerous for me, so I don’t do it that often. I’ve learned to love taking a crazy, complex character from a previous story and put them through a journey that changes them. So all bets are off when I write. I let that character be who they have to be and worry about the next book when that comes along. I tell myself all the time “I’m a creative writer, dang it! If I can’t redeem this character, make him/her heroic, then I need to toss in my pen!” Yeah, it’s hard work, but I love the challenge and for me that’s become the fun part of writing.

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  6. Liz Talley says:

    Yeah, I’m the pot and your the kettle. We’re both black. I never intended to start a series in my first published book…but it happened nevertheless. It worked out because in the last two books, I focused on two people not even related to the first three books – just used the setting and some of the other minor characters. I even mentioned some of my earlier characters and used them in random scenes as necessary.

    My second series was planned because I had an over-arching arc for one character and that line had to be firm.

    Nice post 🙂

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  7. Tamara Hogan says:

    I’m a pantser-turned-plotter (pantsalotter?), and still find keeping track of significant occurrences challenging. As a native, lifelong Minnesotan, I tend to associate my books with seasons: TASTE ME takes place in the fall, when the leaves are changing, CHASE ME is set in the spring, as the last of the snow melts and grass turns green, Book 3 (as yet untitled) takes place in the dead of winter, and the book I’m working now takes place in hot, humid summer. So as long as I have something like “Winter, 2013” associated with a story, I’m doing OK.

    –> Be vague. Be very vague

    Ha! I took a workshop from Jenny Crusie once where she said, “Don’t provide any detail you don’t have to” for the very reason you mention, Sara. Why box ourselves in? 😉

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  8. Diana Layne says:

    I’m having to go back to my first two books and get details I forgot to keep note of, which are turning out important in this book. Originally I didn’t have a series, just a few book ideas, that have somehow turned into a series with an overarching romance, that I never planned, going through each book. I have really gotten myself confused and now I am working on my notecards. I do have scrivener, but I can’t figure it out, it’s not as instinctive to me as WriteWay Pro but I’ve never fully utilized WWP, I’m figuring that out now.

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  9. I haven’t written a series yet, but yes, I too dream of a scene by scene outline, GMC charts and color-coded storyboards. I always have good intentions. I never seem to meet them and I’m starting to realize that I can’t force myself to write the way I *want* to write, I just have to get words on the page and write the way I *have* to write. Usually that means jumping in and writing the first three chapters or so, then figuring out where to go next, then rinse and repeat.

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  10. Great advice, Sara. My series are very loose and even then, it can get tough. Didn’t realize there was software! Thanks.

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  11. June Love says:

    Sara, it’s so ironic that you’re organized in your everyday life, but a pantser in writing. How does that not drive you crazy? Although, I have no room to talk. I’m usually organized in everything, but lately, I’ve let my To Do list go by the wayside. On that note, most days I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.

    When it comes to writing, I’m not as much of a plotter as Hope, but I do like to know where I’m going. Plus, I’m a spreadsheet kind of girl. However, if I ever catch myself in a pantser situation, you’ve given me some great tips!

    Great post!

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  12. Elisa Beatty says:

    Ooh, I love the sound of that software! Anything that will spare me doing the math on my own!

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  13. I call my process “connect the dots.” I know the end, the climax, the midpoint (usually), and the inciting incident. And then I work on making them connect. It’s kind of fun–like going on a road trip and not worrying too much about when you arrive or if you have to take detours along the way.

    I’m working on a 3-book series. Because Book 1 doesn’t release until November (and we’re going to ARCs soon), I was able to get Book 2 finished and Book 3 started before Book 1 was completely baked. The lag time is the thing I like least about trad-publishing, but it’s helped this series.

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  14. Jeannie says:

    I’m a plotter and though I haven’t written any huge series, I do have a couple of sequels and prequels in the mix. I find that even as a plotter, you paint yourself into a corner so there’s no help for that, LOL.

    Both of the books I’m writing this year are technically sequels. Both have to answer questions that I didn’t know the answer to in the first book. *sigh* So I can definitely see the advantage of being vague up front!

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  15. Vivi Andrews says:

    I think in series. By the time I finish book one, I have two, three and four (and sometimes seven) loosely mapped in my head. That’s the only tool I really use to keep from tripping myself up: my head. (I’m lucky that I have kind of a freakish memory for fiction – both mine and other people’s – so it hasn’t bitten me on the ass yet. Knock on wood.)

    When I finish a draft of a book in a series, I go back and read through the whole series from the beginning. That way what I wrote with the H/h as the star of the show is fresh in my memory and it’s easier for me to catch any wobbles as I see earlier references to them.

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  16. I’m a hybrid, writing two series- a romantic suspense and contemporary romantic comedy. I’ve already learned going into book two of both that I need some kind of character chart. I use a simple excel spread sheet. Without it, I’d be spending a lot of time thumping through pages in book one looking for details.

    You’re so right. You do need to take time and read some of the secondary character’s pov when moving them into your hero or heroine position. It’s impossible to put voice on the excel sheet.

    Great advice, sister!

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  17. Kate Parker says:

    Sara, I’m also a pantster doing a series. I find I have to reread what I’ve written in book 1 to make sure my character descriptions work in book 2. I know I need a series bible to keep the details straight. And then I think, one of these days.

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  18. Gwyn says:

    I’m thinking the best thing I can do is finish the series BEFORE I release the first book. The timeline is on the wall, and I have my index cards for personal details, but like you, I’ve discovered pantsing a series a book at a time can be quite the mental exercise—too often a futile one. That said, I’m loving where the last book is taking me, so we shall see!

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