First Drafts and Discovery


Writing my first book was grueling because I was so lost. I had only a vague sense of where I was going and a last line that I thought was killer. I clung to the notion that I could find my way in the dark without a plot. What started as a Contemporary YA about star-crossed lovers turned into a Sci-fi Thriller with a secret agency out to kill my MC. My book had an identity crisis. I vowed never to torture myself that way again.

I became a plotter. I did worksheets. Story-engineered my way into my next book, but ultimately hit mental roadblocks. Each worksheet and graph made a little part of me die inside. I was a panster wearing potter clothing. In general, pansters don’t plot their book out before they write it, while plotters get all groovy on the outlines and spreadsheets and plot points before they touch the page. I found neither approach was working for me.

So when my fabulous critique partner Dina von Lowenkraft wrote about when plotting kills you and your story, it sparked a revelation about why neither panstering nor plotting quite work for me: I only need to know enough before I begin, but it has to be the right stuff.

This line from Dina’s blog post seemed meant for me:

Instead of trying to plot a story when their mind doesn’t approach it that way, pantsers should focus on discovering their story.

What a relief to admit that I was having trouble implementing plot-focused rules. Dina explains what discovery in first drafts means for a panster:

When you discover a story, you have an idea, a vision of a character’s emotions, or a feeling you’d like to explore. Instead of thinking about the three act structure and what happens when, pantsers follow a character’s emotional development as he or she moves through events.

This resonated with me because story ultimately stems from the characters and their emotional development, even if the setting is in space and it’s action-packed and they have to throw knives at their antagonists.

Unlike a panster who might discover their plot by the end of the first draft, though, I must have a sense of where I am going before I start writing. A killer last line won’t do it for me anymore. However, I only need to know enough. “Enough” depends on the needs of the story, which means it’s ideal for pansters. What might be “enough” for me in one book — knowing a character’s emotional arc, a setting, and a love interest — might not be the same for a complicated sci-fi setting with major players threatening the future of planet Earth. With the right amount of worldbuilding and character development for each story, knowing enough satisfies the plotter in me who is scared of the dark, but also the panster who wants to wander.

5 essentials as I approach a new manuscript:


  1. Knowing as much as I can about my main character’s emotional arc. What makes her heart burst, what makes her cry in the middle of the night. What she has the most to lose. Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story is an essential guide for me on how to distill the heart of the story down to internal character motivation in order to create a larger story picture. Admittedly, I am still enough of a panster that I open up a folder on Scrivener and add additional details as I go along. This keeps it exciting. I discover new things about my characters, but I must be able to feel my MC from the inside out. Wear her skin. Feel her pain and her joy. Before I sit down to write.
  2. Enough of a setting and backstory. Knowing how the world works in general allows room for discovery as I place the character in an environment that will hopefully make her squirm and grow and fall in love, or out of it. I don’t need to know every single place name, nor every external conflict coming her way. This is where I retain my rights as a panster. If I’ve done a good enough job of getting to know my characters, conflict happens. I set up enough ‘rules’ for my world that I’m not panicking, but not too many that I can’t make changes later.
  3. book summary that I sometimes spend weeks or months nurturing. I tweak it until it sounds right. Until I have “enough” of the emotional and external stakes in there. This is not the same as a synopsis. My book summaries are like book jacket copy. Tightly written, peppy. One version is several paragraphs long and includes an ending. Another is two paragraphs and could work in a query letter. I also write a tidy single paragraph, and a one-liner. If I can’t get excited about it or sell it in a one-line pitch to my internal editor, it needs more time to percolate. I don’t begin writing until I’m happy with the summary.
  4. From the book summary, I draw out a timeline. It is very rough. If the book is a summer romance: things should heat up in August. Or: someone needs to say something to make MC angry in July. So she can take revenge in September. I add to this as I write and shuffle things around. If I had to make a graph of every plot point before I wrote, I would cry. This keeps the tears at bay, but gives me a good sense of where I’m going. As it comes together, I can also see when I’m going the wrong direction.
  5. I keep a story journal with ideas as things come up and reminders about what I want to insert at some point. The plotter in me is relieved my notes are there, but it also keeps my subconscious, panster mind happy because I have flexibility as I write. I have notes like: remember that best friend needs to say something that makes MC feel vulnerable before school gets out. They stop talking. Do they reconcile? Later, if the notes don’t fit into the overall story, I don’t add them inI work that part out as I go along. Which brings it back to knowing my character’s emotional arc, and why reason #1 is where I begin.

Equipped with these five things, I have enough. Enough of a sense of direction, but flexibility as I write. They free me from having to follow a strict set of rules, but also give me structure so that I don’t find myself with the perfect ending, but no way to reach it. It solves the panster vs. plotter dilemma for me once and for all. I get the best of both worlds, can make both my right and left brain happy, and get down to work.

Wherever you find yourself on the panster/plotter continuum, happy writing!

Thanks, Dina, for inspiring this post!

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