When a Pantster has to Plot – or how I wish I knew then what I know now…

Excel worksheet showing the timeline for each character

I consider myself to be a pantster because I don’t plot the events of my stories out in advance, but as you can see from the Excel worksheet above, there comes a time when plotting is a necessity.

Every ‘event’ shown in the top half of the timeline has already happened – in book 1 of Vokhtah – and generally speaking, I managed to keep that story nice and tight. The trouble started when I first realised that the timeline for the caravan to and from Deepwater was way out of whack.

That unpleasant discovery lead to the first Excel spreadsheet which reverse engineered the plot, but only for the Blue/Messenger and the Apprentice. If you haven’t read Vokhtah, don’t worry. All you need to know is that the Blue-disguised-as-a-Messenger and the na-Seneschal-disguised-as-an-Apprentice were the two main characters. Reverse engineering their timelines necessitated the making of a map:

Map of Vokhtah created using Inkarnate

The grid on the map allowed me to get a realistic [ahem] idea of how long the different parts of the journey would take. That was when I realised just how out of whack my guestimate in Vokhtah actually was.

What the hell was I going to do about it? Vokhtah was already published and book 2 relies on that timeline. Could I fudge it?

The simple answer is no, I can’t fudge it because a small fudge in book 1 will snowball in subsequent books as I weave the lives of the other characters into the storyline.

In desperation, I went back to Excel and created the spreadsheet you see up the top.

I’ve now got a pretty precise handle on the various timelines, but what’s become painfully obvious is that a few things will have to be changed in book 1. They’re not major things; the story stays the same. What will change is the sequence of some of the chapters. Chapters, and the sequence in which they occur, give the Reader a sense of time passing. I needed more time for certain things to happen, even though they aren’t mentioned at all in book 1. These are the things that happen concurrently with the main plot and lead directly to plot events in the next book.

What kind of things? Gestation, for one. The Six of Needlepoint is mated on day 16 of the story [in book 1]. Something has to happen XX number of days later, but it can only happen if the foetus has had a reasonable amount of time to develop…

Okay, I can see some of you rolling your eyes in disbelief. Why don’t I simply make the gestation period fit what the plot demands?

The reason is that biology is my thing, and although I’m writing about aliens, there are certain things that probably stay the same for all carbon based lifeforms – the bigger the animal, the longer its gestation period. So yes, I could fudge it, the Vokhtah series is a work of fiction about a place and a people that do not exist, but… -deep sigh- I HATE scifi that fudges things.

So, now to my regrets. When I published Vokhtah [book 1 of the Suns of Vokhtah], publishing anything was a brand new experience. I did a lot of research about how to publish as an Indie, but there were so many things I did not know, could not know. One of those things is that the first book of a series sets the rules of the world in place. Subsequent books have to live with those rules. You can’t just suddenly change a core constraint – like time – without ruining the story for people,like me, fussy, picky people with a decent memory. 😦

By the time I’d written the Innerscape series I knew better and did not publish book 1 until the whole damn lot was right. I think it shows in a plot that is tight, despite being written by a pantster. How can I do any less for Vokhtah?

The result of all this soul searching is that once the whole series is finished, I’ll put out a new edition of the first book before I publish the subsequent books. I just hope that doesn’t mean I’ll lose all the hard won reviews dating all the way back to 2013. 😦

Anyway… every decision has consequences, and I’ll just have to live with mine, but boy do I wish I’d known all this in 2013.

Anyone else have regrets?

Meeks-with-a-sad-face

About acflory

I am the kind of person who always has to know why things are the way they are so my interests range from genetics and biology to politics and what makes people tick. For fun I play online mmorpgs, read, listen to a music, dance when I get the chance and landscape my rather large block. Work is writing. When a story I am working on is going well I'm on cloud nine. On bad days I go out and dig big holes... View all posts by acflory

66 responses to “When a Pantster has to Plot – or how I wish I knew then what I know now…

  • Widdershins

    I feel your pain, m’dear. I recently re-read Last Dragon to get back into my ‘voice’ for this second book and I noticed a few clangers, mostly in the first few chapters, but je ne regrette rien. πŸ™‚ … I might do a few touch-ups and re-release it as an ‘author preferred version’ and possibly free, when the series is complete, then again, I might not. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  • chucklitka

    I went back to the first book in a series, after it was published, to give a feathered snake legs, making it into a feathered crocodile/dragon in order to make it a more versatile character, because it had evolved into a major character in the second book. Most people will have either read the revised version, or will have forgotten the old one when they read the sequel. And in your case, as you said, no one but you would know, anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      -giggles- oh that’s brilliant. I love the idea of a snake with legs, and feathers.
      Thank you for sharing your experience, Chuck. I’m starting to realise that this is a common problem, and that I’m not the only one who has it. I wish I’d written this post months ago when I first started agonising over what to do. πŸ™‚

      Like

  • Matthew Wright

    Never regret a new idea! πŸ™‚ Tolkien didn’t – and one of the consequences was that the edition of LOTR we all know and love is actually the second revised one, the first had far too many inconsistencies even within itself as a result of his writing process, and meanwhile his son was able to publish about a dozen volumes of the ‘first drafts’, none of which correlated with the other. The Hobbit was also revised post-fact to work in with the way Tolkien developed the story of LOTR – the riddle game sequence was VERY different in the 1937 edition. The onus is on authors to keep creating, keep thinking.

    I do that myself with my non fiction – as I write this, today, I’ve been working on the third edition of a book of mine, written in 2003 and first published in 2004. The interpretation I now have couldn’t have existed when I first wrote it. I count myself fortunate to have the opportunity to do a new edition embodying my later thinking. It’s all good.

    I don’t know how that works with the mechanics of Amazon and its review system, however – although I am fairly sure that a book, once published, cannot be withdrawn even if the author unpublishes it. I’ve ended up with multiple editions of the same book being sold for this reason, which is annoying.

    Incidentally – and just a mischievous thought – how important is consistency between each volume? I am thinking of Arthur C. Clarke’s successive sequels to “2001”, which were specifically sequels but where he intentionally didn’t worry about consistency of setting and timeline, even over major ‘canonical’ points from earlier books. Each stood alone as a ‘variation on a theme’, which was a form of artistry of itself, whether consistent with the others in every detail or not. (In point of fact, even his “2001” novel was quite different from the movie, down to the Discovery going to Saturn and not Jupiter).

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      If I understand things correctly, new editions are not required unless major changes are made. Thank god the changes I intend to make are things 99.9% of readers would never notice.
      So why do it? Me, I’m afraid. I’ve joked before that I’m extremely logical. I try very hard not to be logical in my fiction, but I have a…need for the narrative to be internally consistent. And that means across all the volumes of a series. It would bug me forever if I didn’t keep the narrative ‘correct’.
      You know it’s weird, but I always thought of myself as pretty laidback, and I am, mostly. But not in my writing. -sigh-

      Liked by 1 person

  • annabellefranklinauthor

    I’m on book 7 of my children’s series now, and throughout the series I’ve had to keep going back and tweaking earlier books to harmonize with later ones. I’m very glad now that I’ve waited to finish the series before I publish any of them, even though it means I haven’t published anything new for years!

    Liked by 1 person

  • DawnGillDesigns

    I think you might lose the reviews, based on how mine vanished when some of my fave authors had new ‘editions’ .Make sure you copy and save them as I bet if you then contacted the reader with their original text they’d be happy to update it for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      Yeah, something similar happened when I changed the Innerscape story from 5 ‘episodes’ to a trilogy. I managed to keep the reviews for Miira, because it was still episode 1, but I lost all the reviews for episodes 2 – 5. Another steep learning curve. But then I did get new ISBN’s for each book. I’m hoping if I don’t do that, I may keep what I’ve already got.
      Will definitely copy the existing reviews before I do anything radical this time. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  • Anne Lawson

    I don’t think I would notice the fudged timeline, but I get why it would really annoy you as the author. And why it makes things difficult for the rest of the series. I am in awe of how far you have gone to correct the problem! I hope the solution to keeping the reviews is as easy as D. Wallace Peach says. 🀞🏽

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      I confess, my fear is that one day, someone just like me is going to read the story and go “You cheated!” On a rational level I know it’s silly, and probably just a throwback to my Catholic school upbringing, but…some things just stick. I’ve given up fighting it.
      Learning that there’s a painless solution, at least so far as the publishing is concerned, has been a huge relief.

      Like

  • D. Wallace Peach

    Now you know why I write my whole series before publishing the first book. I don’t think most of us would notice your timeline challenges, but I know they’d irk me as the author.

    When you’re ready to update your content on book one, just reload it. You’ll keep all your reviews. New readers will get the new stuff and those who’ve already read book one will just keep going. That’s my two cents. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

  • ChrisJamesAuthor

    I strongly agree with Anonymole at the top there. Just as long as you keep writing πŸ™‚ *hugs*

    Liked by 1 person

    • acflory

      -hugs back- My problem is I can’t keep writing until I get it right, at least to my satisfaction. It’s not that I’m a perfectionist – I really don’t like neat and tidy – it’s just that I need things to ‘make sense’. If they don’t I feel as if I’m cheating.
      Btw, part of the pain this time around has been that I had to face up to other changes that will need to be made, in the story going forwards. I think it will be much better than the original, but part of me just wanted to get it done and go on to something new. -shrug-
      I’m pretty happy at the moment though.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Anonymole

    Maybe it’s a case of only the artist can see the flaws.
    Unless the misalignment is egregiously evident, I’d say it’s the author’s prerogative to munge dates or distances or travel times. “Weeks later…” “During the next full moon…” “She’d grown and hand’s width by the time…”

    Remember, it’s the plot, the story flow and the investment in characters that readers care about. If you tie yourself in knots on the minutia of timelines and sequencing — it’ll show in your writing.

    Skip forward a few days or weeks, and reunite your parties’ itineraries along some global event, a storm or eclipse or ceremony.

    Love your map. I’m gonna try and make one or more of my own.

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      -grin- You’re write about Readers, Mole. Trouble is, the first reader I write for is myself, and I do notice fussy things like that. To me, the perfect story is one in which everything flows without any question marks or bumps or ‘what the…?’ moments. When I find a story like that my inner editor takes a holiday and I’m free to roam in someone else’s world. For me, leaving such a world is the problem, which is why I don’t [generally] like short stories. -nudge nudge wink wink-
      I know there are a lot of map making apps out there, but with my Corel background I found Inkarnate to be intuitive and very powerful. And cheap. For $5 a month I can pop in, make what I need and unsub again until the next time. Plus it’s fun. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  • Jacqui Murray

    No surprise as I get to know you that we both use Excel spreadsheets to plot our stories. I’ve posted about it several times. I haven’t needed the changes you ran into (in your Book 1), but you have convinced me my next trilogy will be plotted completely before I publish Book 1!

    Liked by 2 people

  • Candy Korman

    As a committed “pantser” I admire your ambition to cross over. My brain is a pulls the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle and spreadsheets give me a headache. But that’s me and I think you spreadsheet is super impressive!

    Liked by 2 people

  • robertawrites235681907

    HI Meeks, this is an interesting post. I have not as yet published a series and I’m not sure if I ever will. I’m not a big series reader as I prefer standalone stories, but I do make exceptions. What you have discussed here is also true for historical books and I always use a time line of the real historical events when I right. I am a complete perfectionist so I am the same and I go backwards and forwards in my books throughout the writing and editing periods.

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      High Five! I’ve always done research, but I never thought of it as plotting in any way, but in a sense it is. For me, and probably only me, the ideal way to write is to get it all done and as perfect as I can make it, then publish.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Grant at Tame Your Book!

    Thank you, Meeka! You gave the most eloquent reasons for why I converted from pantser to plotter.

    Once I went through the misery of what you experienced, I vowed to find a better way. For the amount of work I put into constructing elaborate spreadsheets, I made a key decision, and poured thay same effort into learning the advanced features of Scrivener.

    For those unfamiliar with Scrivener, it has the built in capability to capture the information you need to measure whether the story unfolds as expected. For example, you can create fields to capture β€œDays from Point A to Point B” (C, D, etc.). Then, as you write on a scene by scene basis, you can plug in the numbers to create the timeline. The app allows the writer to switch from the β€œDocument” (scene) view to the β€œOutliner” (spreadsheet) view. In the Outliner, you can view the timeline to see if it makes sense.

    For me, Scrivener is my Swiss army knife: part word processor, part spreadsheet, part research database, and so much more. I sound like a raving fan, and I am. But that comes from the hard cold reality of having to go through what you experienced.

    If anyone is interested in learning more about the app, visit my site and enter β€œScrivener” into the search box at the top. You’ll find several posts on what the β€œCustom Metadata” fields can do for your writing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • acflory

      Hah! This made me laugh. I use Storybox, which is very much like Scrivener – part project manager, part spreadsheet etc. πŸ˜€ When I first realised I needed something better than Word, I looked at Scrivener but back then it was only for the MAC. Then I found something similar for the pc and I’ve been using it ever since. Can’t imagine writing without it. But I still pants, it’s just that I now have tools to give me the help I need.
      Ironically, the very first draft of Vokhtah had the ‘date’ – in Vokhtan – as the title for every chapter…
      I won’t deny that the work I’ve had to do has been painstaking and painful, but if I plotted from the start, I’d end up with a how-to. Technical writing is my comfort zone. To write fiction, I have to jump in at the deep end, play music really loud, and try very hard not to be logical. I just have one of those odd brains I guess.

      Liked by 2 people

  • Geoff Stamper

    I have such a backlog of regrets that I am no longer accepting new ones.

    Liked by 4 people

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    There are ways to ask Amazon, for example, to push out a new version to all the people who bought the ebook since it was published. I don’t know what other places you have published or whether they offer something similar, but a BRIEF author’s note – pointing to maybe a PAGE at the back might be in order, if you think readers will have noticed the change, OR need to know it.

    My guess: most readers won’t notice and won’t complain anyway, but for the record, and the few who do, deal with it now and then stop worrying.

    I chuckled: ‘gestation’ is CRITICAL to Pride’s Children, and I spent MONTHS making sure my timelines were clean from beginning to end for several possibilities – because I’m an extreme plotter, I knew exactly what steps I’d be following, and precisely where we would end the trilogy (there may be short stories later, maybe a Christmas story, but most of the drama will be in the books of the trilogy, so that may be a sop and an indulgence).

    I have a calendar with everything on it, and I COUNTED and read about development, and figured it all out long ago; there has been no reason to change anything. The only hard part has been to let some longer stretches of time go by (scene headers are dated) with other necessary and important events, but even that was all planned.

    There are babies born – and I’m sticking to a real-life timeline – but the last line of the trilogy will leave a question in people’s minds about what happens as some of those children grow up – adolescents are so, what, volatile? And there may be some strong inequities that have to work themselves out. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    • acflory

      -grin- My alien is nothing like Bianca, but we still need to stay within the bounds of the possible. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable plotting the way you do, but I have to admit that getting so many timelines to work concurrently has shown me so really interesting things I simply didn’t see before. It’s those kinds of discoveries that re-ignite the joy of writing in me.
      As for you, two almost down and just one to go. That’s cause for celebration. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        Some people think that it kills the spontaneity if you plot. I find, instead, that it frees up the details for the characters to have a basic plan in a scene: even improv gives actors something to work from.

        And I can’t afford to futz around – each word costs too much, and I already create 10-20 for each one I keep; imagine if I were pantsing!

        Liked by 3 people

        • Grant at Tame Your Book!

          I agree, Alicia! For me, plotting is freedom from worry, and my imagination runs at full throttle.

          Liked by 2 people

        • acflory

          I’ll be honest, plotting does kill the spontaneity for me. Once I know where the story is going I lose interest. That said, you’re absolutely right about the extra work, but that is both the best and worst part of pantsing because if the writer does re-write until the story is the best it can be, you get a very good story, but that comes with a huge price tag in terms of words and energy and effort. For the moment, at least, I have the energy to do it as it needs to be done. The day I start not making changes because I don’t have the energy is the day I stop writing. Ultimately it’s the quality of the story that people remember, not how the author got there. πŸ™‚

          Like

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            “The day I start not making changes because I don’t have the energy” has already come and gone for me.

            I pantsed the first novel I wrote – and it may never see the light of day, ended up pretty good (but had a hard time getting started, my readers told me), and will be up for rewriting if I ever finish this trilogy. It was a nice murder mystery set in a graduate school physics department, and I don’t want to waste it.

            I find the structure helps me – the same way you find your maps help you. I call the pieces ‘roadmaps’, and I still like the story even if I know almost every detail, because there’s always MORE when I actually write each scene mostly from scratch (that rough draft is very florid).

            I can’t set out on a long journey – it’s been 22 years so far – without knowing where I’m going, so I will know what to pack, and where to rest along the way. It’s bad enough as it is. I’m not on a voyage of discovery – that already happened in my head – I’m on a quest to bring it home. πŸ™‚

            Liked by 1 person

          • acflory

            Yes, after I wrote that I realised that life has already stolen that energy from you, but you have the will, and that is what’s getting Pride’s Children written and published. I still have the energy – knock on wood- but it is getting harder. Ultimately, whatever our process, neither one of us is prepared to settle for second best, and for the story, that’s what counts.
            I think Grant actually said it well when he said it’s the principle.
            The thing I love about this strange and wonderful community of writers is that we all share the /principle/, no matter how different the process.

            Like

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            After banging my head against the graphics, and then inexplicably losing what I’d worked for (SAVE, Alicia, SAVE before you try something new), working against a brain that is not happy with me using it at all, and being stubborn enough to tell myself I’m making progress, I wonder that I keep it up.

            Life would be so much simpler if I wasn’t trying to DO something with it in the middle of a pandemic, physical problems, and a major illness. Sigh.

            Liked by 1 person

          • acflory

            -hugs- The final product will be worth it, Alicia. That’s why you keep going. πŸ™‚

            Like

          • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

            It will be the best I’m capable of right now – and more I cannot do.

            But what I really want to do is plunge into the third volume more, and would like to leave at least a summary of what happens in case I am not here.

            Liked by 1 person

          • acflory

            Gah…don’t think like that! I understand where you’re coming from, but please stay positive. We’ve gotten this far, we’ll make it to the end.

            Like

  • Audrey Driscoll

    I understand why you wouldn’t want to fudge something in book 2 to fit book 1’s timeline. You think out your world and life forms so thoroughly that wouldn’t feel right. Issuing a second edition of book 1 is the best plan, despite the concern about reviews.

    Liked by 4 people

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