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  • Writer's pictureMike Dineen

Side Hustle Author | First Draft Tips: Plan or Pants It?

Most first draft discussions begin with the question: Are you a planner or a pantser? In other words, do you plan out every chapter of your book's first draft, or do you just write by the seat of your pants and see where the journey takes you?

If I had all the time and energy in the world, I'd probably go with pantsing. Let's face it: It's a little more fun. However, planning has an important advantage for the side hustle author: it saves you time. Plus, I believe the end product ends up being stronger.

However, that's not to say pantsing doesn't play an important role in the first draft, and contribute to the book's overall strengths. That's why I recommend using a combined approach of planning and pantsing for your first draft.

Below you'll find 3 reasons why I advocate for the planner meets pantser approach to writing the first draft, followed by 7 things I'd recommend planning as much as you can before you start pantsing that draft.

3 reasons why I recommend planning and pantsing

1. You gotta get to know your characters.

I can tell you all about someone, including their history, what they're like, what they look like, and so on. But while this might allow you to know about someone, you won't actually know them until you meet in person, chat, interact, laugh, eat a meal together, etc.

The same is true for characters. I like to plan out the details of what they're like, what their motivations are, and what their character journey will look like. But until I actually get in there and start writing the characters, they don't feel real in my mind. And when you're spending time with the character, you will learn things about them you hadn't expected. For example, one character in my current manuscript was just too perfect and lovable that she needed an edge—so I discovered, in writing her, that she used to shoplift as a teenager.

2. It's hard to weave in the B Story.

The B story is such an important thread to a great story, and I have found it challenging in both drafts of my two books. In case you're not familiar, the B story (or stories) is a sub plot or secondary plot thread that connects in some way to the overarching story. For example, in the movie The Ring the B story is the protagonist's fractured relationship with her son, which not only makes the plot and characters more interesting, it works to create thematic significance in her journey to uncover the mystery behind the evil TV child.

While the reader or viewer might experience the B story almost without noticing, in fact it's quite tricky to weave it in their seamlessly—and part of that is the result of the planning vs. pantsing. It's much easier to plan the beginning, midpoint, and ending of a novel: but planning that seamless B story thread that weaves them together takes a bit of back and forth during that first draft.

3. The ending will be a surprise regardless.

The ending of my current draft surprised me. Allow me to explain: From the beginning of the draft I planned the ending. But once I got there, I discovered that all was not as it seemed, and, while the "bones" of the ending remained the same, the "skin" of it changed. (Pun intended, hehe).

So as much as you can plan the ending to death, there will inevitably be a bit of pantsing once you get there. Feeling surprised is definitely part of the fun of writing—but it also means going back to the beginning and adjusting the manuscript to feed into your newly skinned ending.

That's just the nature of the beast. But I will say that there was much less rewriting with my second draft than there was with my first draft. That being said, I'm only at draft 1 of the process—I still have, at the very least, two more rewrites ahead.

But if it was easy, it wouldn't be the same, right?

7 Things to Plan before you start your book, knowing you'll pants them as well

1. Theme

What is the theme? The theme of a story is the foundational idea it explores. For my novel Latcher, my theme was an exploration of how your past always comes back to haunt you. Your theme may change as you get further into the draft, but try to place your initial idea into the context of a universal truth or foundational theme that will hold it together. A couple others off the top of my head are: violence begets violence, the truth sets you free, love conquers all, etc.

2. Premise

Try to capture your story's essence in a one or two sentence premise that explains the protagonist, their motivation, and their obstacle. It doesn't have to be perfect. Your premise is another thing that you will likely adjust, but try to give yourself a strong idea of it before you cast off on your writing journey. The premise for Latcher is something like this: Twenty years after escaping her abusive mother, Jo Smith returns home to lay the past to rest, only to find herself in a fight to escape the grip of an insidious evil that has plagued her family for generations.

3. Beginning

Where will the story begin? A great rule of thumb is to begin the story as close to the action as possible. This is especially true nowadays with the "download a sample" for ebooks. You need to drop your reader into the centre of the action/tension to capture their attention from line one of the book.

4. Midpoint

What's the midpoint? This is the point of no return in the middle of the story, where something dramatic happens that your characters can't go back from. If you're sailing across the ocean, it's the point at which you have no choice but to keep going forward—up until that point, you could conceivably turn back and head home. In Misery by Stephen King, it's the point when Annie maims Paul, forcing him to accept that he has no choice but to fight his way out of the situation.

5. Ending

What's the ending? The ending is quite far off from the beginning of your writing journey, so it may be hazy in your imagination. For my current draft, I knew the setting, the characters involved, and the stakes present for the ending. However, I didn't quite know the specifics of how the protagonist would (or wouldn't?) defeat the antagonist, until I was in that room with him. So for the ending, plan it as much as you can, with the knowledge that you might be as surprised by the ending as your readers are.

6. Characters

What are your characters' archetype? Choosing a character archetype (e.g., the orphan, the lover, the jester, the ruler, etc.) is a great place to start working out their motivations, fears, goals, etc. Your characters will change and evolve as you get to know them, but if you have a framework for the character planned, it helps to keep them on track throughout your first draft.

7. B Story

What is the subplot? You'll likely have several subplots woven throughout the story, but to start, plan for the main one. As a place to start, the subplot will typically feature a secondary character who arrives within the story to teach the protagonist something they need to learn. A subplot of the book It is the bond and friendship between the losers club, which teaches the characters the importance of sticking together—a bond which later helps them to defeat the antagonist. B stories are also very often a love interest, as an easy one to start with.

Bonus: High Concept

You might also look at crafting your story around what's called a "high concept." Examples of a high concept would be something like Jurassic Park, which is a unique story that you can quickly grasp with just a few words: dinosaurs escape at an amusement park and terrorize the park guests. Misery is another high concept premise: an author's biggest fan holds him in captivity and forces him to write the next book in his romance series.

High concept is really great for marketing purposes, because it allows you to hook your reader from the premise of the story alone. It also makes it easier for you to conceptualize the entirety of your novel—which is a time and energy saver. That being said, low concept does not mean the story isn't as catchy—Latcher for example has high concept elements, but I wouldn't say it's quite high concept.

My new book, however, IS high concept, which you'll understand as soon as I unveil the title.

Conclusion: Plan to Plan and Pants your first draft

I am 100% an advocate for planning as much you can, with the understanding that you should also plan to do some pantsing, because not everything can be planned. I say "plan to pants" because I remember feeling a little frustrated with myself for not being able to plan everything in my novel before starting the draft. As such, pantsing parts of it felt like I didn't plan hard enough.

However, if you plan to pants, you won't be surprised that when you hit a wall on a plot point, you just need to do a little fancy free-styling and see where your draft takes you. I'd say 7 times out of 10, it helped me discover things in my story that made it much better.

Ultimately, planning what you can, and pantsing what you must, will save you time on your first draft and (in my opinion) make it a more enjoyable experience.

Happy writing.

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