Friday, March 4, 2011

Help! My Novel Needs Liposuction!

By Kim

For many years I was an unrepentant “pantser” writer. I never did a character sketch or outline unless it was a class requirement. I began composing each of my previous three novels when I heard a voice I couldn’t ignore and let that character’s story unfold organically. I hoped I had a coherent story in the end. If not, I revised. A lot. I fear that if I unearthed any of those manuscripts now I’d find them to be little more than beautifully phrased meanderings.

When I started writing Knight of the Brush (The Oak Lovers in its nonfiction incarnation) I was forced to take a different approach. Chapter summaries are an essential component of any nonfiction book proposal, and I couldn’t write a four hundred page biography without a detailed timeline of main events of the protagonist's life set in the larger context of history.

Carl Ahrens in 1911
My old habits proved hard to break, however, mainly because my great-grandfather, Carl Ahrens, proved himself as stubborn in literature as he was in life. He had to have the last say, and I eventually switched the book to fiction to let him. The old chapter summaries have been a waste of hard drive space ever since, though I've consulted the timeline occasionally.

About a year ago a critique partner mentioned she worried my book may becoming rather long for a first novel and asked what my word count was. I had been too busy following my muse to check before, of course, and was horrified to discover I was on track to write a 600 page epic. Click here if you’re curious about how I clawed my way out of Word Count Hell the first time.

You might think that exercise would prove a valuable lesson to me, and that I’d impose a little direction from that point on. Sadly, I did not.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when I discovered The Oak Lovers was over 87,000 words long and I had at least 20,000 left to write.

I took a deep breath and renounced my "pantser" ways.

Why, oh why, had I not done so before? Mapping out the completed part of the book, complete with word counts per scene, instantly revealed a few unsightly bulges. Once I liposuctioned the fat away, I was left with a slimmer, more energetic novel. There’s snappy dialogue, conflict galore and (wait for it) a PLOT.

After dancing a jig, I took the plunge and outlined my way to “the end.”

Frequently asked questions I was previously unable to answer:

How much more do you have to write? 13 chapters

Can you do it in 100,000 words? Close enough.

When will it be done? I hope to type ‘The End’ in 2011. I’m a compulsive editor so the rough draft is actually draft # 503.

How about you? Are you a ‘pantser’ or a ‘plotter’ and how does it work for you?


  1. I do both! But I have to admit, I give more thought to plot these days. I outline in the novel itself and then fill in. For example: my new novel looks like this:

    Part I: (name of part)
    Chapter I: (Name of character)
    7K complete
    Chapter 2: (Name of character)
    Outline of chapter and some dialogue I can't get out of my head.

    And on like that!

    I helps, for sure. And with the novel that's about to go out on submission with my was the plot more than the writing that got me multiple offers. My first two novels were very pretty. But the plot wasn't there. I have it down PAT now!

  2. I am a plotter! I'm working on a mystery so I am constantly rewriting, working on clues, and motives. I sometimes worry about things like: Are the clues too obvious? Not clear enough?

    I also like looking at my outline to get a sense of the flow of the story.

  3. Valerie and Suzyhayes, thank you so much for stopping by! I have to say that the chapter I just wrote (after plotting) was much easier than previous chapters. It took me only a week to write instead of three because I knew where to start and where to end. If I could do that with the rest I'll have no problem finishing before the end of the year. We'll see.

  4. Hey Kim, Love the post, your descriptive phrases, esp.: book needs liposuction, word count hell, compulsive editor.
    With axe poised, chop your way through the chapter forest, viciously hacking words from hell(am, being, it, were, that, became.) Plow over uneventful scenes--those that even you can't defend (answer) the *who cares question*.
    Can't wait until your "BEST SELLER" is pubbed. You are def. heading down the home stretch!

  5. I do both mostly because my publisher likes to have an outline! Usually though i've worked things out in my head before I sit down to write--I don't do much plotting in writing as it were--but i have a pretty good idea of where I'm going before I start. Just recently though I've plotted out pretty carefully in writing a big trilogy which is rather different to what I usually do--but while writing the first volume of it, I diverged from my planning a fair bit at various points(and successfully too I might add.)

  6. CBlaire,

    Wow! That made my day. I love the tree references because The Oak Lovers is about an artist known for painting trees. I already hacked out repetitive words and several scenes that were "pretty" but also pretty useless on the first go round. Much of my problem was that I began the book as nonfiction and sometimes constructed whole scenes just to work in some obscure fact. Now that it's fiction that "fact" may still be interesting, even funny, but isn't integral to a forward moving plot. Many life stories don't lend themselves well to a novel format, but this particular life does, as so much that was written about him during his lifetime was rather like a tall tale.

    (See what I mean at

    On this round I murdered the remainder of my darlings, tightened dialogue, etc. One early reader breezed through the first 36 chapters in an afternoon, so I can't possibly be meandering anymore!

  7. Sophie,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I know I won't have the discipline to stick to the outline completely. In fact I already eliminated half of what would have been the next chapter. The personalities I'm writing about are stubborn (both protagonists, but he's impossible to rein in at times). Scenes don't always end up where I intend, but generally end up where they should be.

    A trilogy? Gulp. Not sure I could go there, but my next book will be a spin off of this one.


  8. For the most part, I'd say my plotting and pantsing are a 30 to 70 ratio respectively. However that 30% pantsing also includes research which is usually minimal as well. If I know the overall arc of the story I usually have no problem with creating the details & plot points, character development, conflict, etc. I will say that I have stories that have run away (for the better most of the time).
    I don't count chapters at all except for formatting purposes but I do come up short many times in word count. I had four novels and a novella published in 2010 so deadlines forced me to control the stories tightly. Being an ex-journalist, my style is very tight and concise which can be both a blessing and a problem.
    I am now working on a fantasy trilogy and this is the first time I've ever actually used worldbuiling worksheets and they're working quite well as this genre' lends itself to large word count.
    I think authors have to experiment to find what works for them; mine's a combination of P&P while other authors I know, detail their books out meticulously. I think sites like this help tremendously!

  9. Hello P.I.

    I could detail everything out meticulously, but I know myself - I wouldn't stick with the plan! With this book, I had to have more of an story arc in mind because I'm telling a (mostly) true story in (mostly) chronological order. My problem mainly boiled down to trying to cram too much in rather than simply being wordy. Paring down and plotting the remainder has helped me to see the forest for the trees.

    I'm not sure I'd like having to add a bunch of words I didn't feel were necessary anymore than I did slashing ones I had spent a great deal of time writing.

    Congratulations on your success in 2010!


  10. Hi Kim,
    As I started writing my novel (my first), I started out with an outline. However, as I started writing, my characters seemed stiff and the plot was eh. So I strayed and so glad I did. The story went a different direction but now I feel the pain of revision. Cut, cut, cut.

    I am really having a hard time figuring out how to use both. I like the freedom of pantsing but need the structure of an outline to keep the story's rhythm.

    I did start using Scrivener software to organize what I had written in the first draft and I like some of the features. I might be getting the best of both worlds with it. We'll see.

    Great post--making me think and I like that! ;)

  11. Hi Hallie,

    I doubt I could ever completely give up the joy of having a scene take off in unexpected directions. That's especially the case on THIS book since I am dealing with real people, and their blood runs strongly in my veins. I often feel I'm being "helped" and any time I don't follow my instincts the writing doesn't flow.

    I've never heard of Scrivener - I'll have to look at that! See, I learn something, too.

    Thanks for stopping by!


  12. A complete pantster - but, I've found that somehow in the back of my mind I know I need to stay within a certain word count so somehow it now always works out - unlike my first attempt at a novel that was a HUGE 200,000 by time I finished vomiting it out! :-D - And, since I have deadlines set by my editor at my publishers, I know I have to have something by then, so there's no messing around- but again, I find the more novels I write, the more they come out "whole" chapter by chapter without having to think about it too much. Not that I don't do lots of go'ing overs and rewriting, but they are cleaner each time I guess.

  13. Hi Kathryn,

    I laughed when I read your comment because I've referred to my first attempt at a novel as 'literary vomit' for years! The one I'm writing now is actually novel number four.

    I know what you mean about going over and rewriting. A first draft is always painful, but I actually enjoy rewriting.

    Obviously your approach works for you!


  14. Hello Kim,
    This is my first time over here (thanks to facebook--writers unblocked), and this is also a topic I've often pursued with fellow writers. I'm usually a "panster" but after I get a draft, I turn to plotting. The first draft I lay out in pieces on the floor--each scene gets its own spot. Then I rearrange them in the order they should've been in, and I take notes on what is missing and I remove what needs to be gone.

    And usually that first draft has between 50 and 100,00 words. I get them by doing NaNoWriMo. Of course, since I've had nothing published, maybe this system isn't the right one, but I feel most comfortable with it.

  15. Hi Mapelba,

    Thank you for stopping by!

    I would go nuts if I tried to do NaNoWriMo. I admire anyone who can, but I know all it would do is turn me into a basket case and then I would end up rewriting everything because I'm a perfectionist.

    I've always been a writer who has to feel my way along and who has to have a chapter as perfect as it can be before I move on. I so wish I could write a draft straight through and then worry about revising.

    You method of laying out the scenes on the floor sounds interesting!


  16. Oh, no! I just wrote a nice, long comment and Blogger chucked it. Grrr. I'm not sure what happened.

    I'm a combination of P&P. For my hisfic novel, I've been very much a plotter, whereas my YA has progressed with mostly pantsing.

    Good luck with your novel, Kim. :)

  17. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for stopping by! I'm surprised by the number of authors on here and on Writer Unboxed who have said they are pantsers. I felt so alone in that!

    My book is historical fiction so a certain amount of planning has been necessary. If it weren't for word count issues I'd still be doing that exclusively!


  18. *sigh* Head slightly down, eyes averted, gulp. I did the "pantser way" (not that far off from the way Mapelba does in the post above) and now that I'm editing & revising, I realize I need to combine that with a healthy mix of plotting.

    You commented above - with plotting it took less time and you knew where to start and where to end. Seriously, sounds very appealing. I've answered the "pantser/plotter" question numerous times with - "I free write, I love to write organically" (sound familiar?) But I think, I believe (I do, I do) that I can combine the two.

    Off I go to edit another chapter. Your blog posting accomplished what you started out to do - well, at least it made me re-think my method of madness. Thanks Kim.

    (Penny on FBk)

  19. Hi Penny,

    Your comment made me laugh. I know that sheepish feeling, because I have it almost every time anyone asks when I'll be done or how much left I have to write. I always want to answer, "When the muses tell me I'm done." Most people would just look at me strangely if I did, though.

    I'm glad you found the post helpful! Make sure you tell me when your blog is up so I can pop over!


  20. Dear Kim,

    I am so excited for you and for all those who will get to read this novel!

    Based on what I have read and based on what I know about you, I anticipate this is going to be an exceptional novel.

    Katrina Nunez

  21. I can relate to this almost word-for-word as for your process. I do both- pants and plot. My first novel was completely "pantsed" and my second had a rough outline though it changes the more I delve into the writing of it. Great article!

  22. Katrina - thank you so much for stopping by and for your kind words about The Oak Lovers.

    Aisha - I'm glad to know that I'm not alone! The first "planned" chapter stuck close to the outline, but I already made changes to what will go into the next one. We'll see...


  23. As you know, I'm a plotter. Always, though, view whatever outline I come up with as just guideline to get me moving. More often than not my beginning and ending remain the same, but much of what develops in-between changes as the story unfolds on the written page. Unexpected twists and surprises are among the things I love about the creative process. I'm so excited about your book. It's such a pleasure to be your first reader.


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