So You Think You Can Pants? 8 Pre-Planning Tips Before You Strut Your Stuff
Hey you guys! Time for me to share the transcript from my latest episode of Rambling Prose, So You Think You Can Pants? 8 Pre-Planning Tips Before You Strut Your Stuff, for those who either can’t or prefer not to watch the video. Please do consider clicking like or subscribe on that video if you can. It’s always helpful and appreciated!
Hi, and welcome back to another episode of Rambling Prose. I’m Kasey Mackenzie, author of the Shades of Fury series for Penguin Random House under their Ace imprint and I’m represented by Ginger Clark at Curtis Brown. I write mostly urban fantasy and paranormal romance, but I do also write fantasy, science fiction, and romance. As mentioned in a previous episode (which you should totally go watch!) I am what the writing community calls a pantser, meaning I write mostly by the “seat of my pants.” Staring at a blank page just waiting for inspiration to strike can sometimes be daunting. On the roughest days, it can also be extremely unproductive! Being a pantser doesn’t mean you can’t do some pre-planning, although it’s definitely not for the faint of heart!
So you think you can pants? Let me share 8 pre-planning tips to help make your pantsing life easier before you strut your stuff.
First what I like to start with typically is the hook, the theme, and the initial conflict. Hook: Something intriguing or different about your story that immediately draws readers in and makes them want to keep reading. The hook is something intriguing or different about your story that immediately draws readers in and makes them want to keep reading.
For my Fury series, Shades of Fury, what came to me first was the main character, Riss. I was very intrigued by her story and wanting to explain how her best friend—who had gone missing—three years earlier…her body apparently washes up on shore. Spoiler alert: it’s actually in the very beginning of the book so I’m not actually spoiling it too much. But her body washes up on shore and at first she doesn’t know it’s her best friend who’s been missing for three years. But as soon as she recognizes her best friend, you’re immediately hooked in because you want to know what happened to her best friend. Is it actually her best friend? She thinks it is but she’s not 100% sure because magic is involved in the book. And something like that, you need something intriguing and enticing.
I think also just the fact she’s a Fury from mythology who is also working on the Boston police force—Oh I see my cat in the background. She’s working for the Boston Police Department—I can’t talk—as the Chief Magical Investigator is also something that hooks readers in and makes them want to see, you know, how does she balance her magical role with fitting in with the mundane world?
The theme. That’s the meaning behind or revealed by the story. Some simple ones include things like cheaters never win, honesty wins the day, good triumphs over evil, creating a family beyond the one you’re born into…I think that’s a pretty popular one out there because a lot of us—even those of us who love our families and are blessed to have a good family also have friends that we’re drawn toward and that become as close to us as family. Family is not always blood.
As a writer, you may actually find yourself often gravitating toward the same or similar themes. I think that’s pretty common. And that’s all right. That’s the story that means a lot to you. That’s kind of your core and you should totally run with it.
Initial conflict. You should start your book out with a bang! This may or may not be an actual literal bang. It doesn’t have to be, but it can be. I write mostly urban fantasy and paranormal romance so there’s often some sort of bang or attack or magical goings-on in the very beginnings of my books.
Some people choose to startle the readers from the very first line. Others start with a more mundane moment in the protagonist’s life to set the stage, but then they quickly disrupt things with the book’s inciting incident. This should be a life-changing moment that sets the protagonist upon their journey. It’s the major conflict that they must resolve or the goal they must achieve by the time the book ends. You definitely want to kind of establish that as early on as you can and you definitely want to make sure that you wrap that up by the end of the book—or your readers are going to feel unfulfilled and they may throw the book against the wall.
Now obviously if you’re setting up a series or writing a series, you can also have an overarching series goal or conflict that you don’t wrap up by the end, but there should be a book one as well that you do wrap up, and you kind of want to show some progress toward—getting on the path toward the resolution of this series goal, even if they’re just at the very beginning and it’s going to take 10, 12, 15 books. There should be some sort of movement, in my opinion, for your readers to not feel cheated or like they wasted their time.
Another thing you can do, number 2 of my 8 tips for pre-planning, are Character Sketches. These can be simple or complex. The main purpose of a character sketch file in my opinion is to make it easier for you to jog your memory in later chapters or books if you’re writing a series without having to read the entire manuscript to find that one teeny tiny little detail you want to make sure you’re being consistent on. It can be something like eye color, hair color, height, if height is important. You know, is your character curvy? Are they slender? Personality traits, important quirks, and anything that might be hard for you to remember later that you think is gonna be important.
It’s probably better to err on the side of including too much in your character sketches than too little. And it’s also very helpful to do it as you go. If you don’t, don’t feel bad: You can go back later and create it if you need to. Especially if you have a series. And if you’re the kind of person that discovers your characters as you go, like you don’t lay them all out in the beginning, you can just update that file every time you introduce a new character.
Research. That’s something that you can definitely do ahead of time. Number 3 on my list of tips. What important details do you already know you’re going to need to beef up on to do them justice when you start writing? If there’s something that you’re not an expert on, which I think most of us are writing a bunch of things that we’re not experts on, but we know enough about doing some research at the beginning so that we can kind of fake it credibly enough that readers aren’t going to want to throw the book against the wall, which is our goal.
We can’t make every reader happy, but our goal is to at least not throw them out of the story so much that they immediately stop reading. Is your protagonist a real-world law enforcement official? Make sure you do enough research that you’ll sound credible when you’re writing that someone who is passingly familiar with or maybe even intimately familiar with law enforcement won’t be like well that was a really simple detail and they got that completely wrong and then they’re just going to be thrown out of the story and not trust you at all. That’s probably even more important if you’re writing contemporary or mystery versus fantasy and science fiction where you can do a little hand-waving sometimes.
Which kind of brings me to another tip, number 4. Basic World-Building. I do write mostly fantasy and science fiction, paranormal romance, urban fantasy. So for me this usually involves magic systems, political systems; it could be science fiction technology. For contemporaries this could be the setting, I mean that may apply to urban fantasy, fantasy, science fiction as well, but the setting and how that setting will affect your characters and plot. So anything very important that you feel is going to need to be set out right from the beginning. You kind of want to work out those details, if you can.
A Series Bible. Now this is going to obviously apply to series, but it can be as simple or complex as you want, and you may not be able to do it ahead of time, especially if you’re a pantser, but I think these are things you should at least be thinking about that that can help make your life easier later. You can include the character sketches and world-building notes that you may have already come up with, but you’ll also want to throw in all the major plot points or important minor points that may come up in later chapters or books in a series. Trust me, it will make your way life easier!
The next tip I have, number 6, is an Outline. But wait! You said you’re a pantser! I am mostly a pantser, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do a little outlining. Your outline’s probably not going to be as filled-in or detailed as someone who actually is a plotter, but you can at least hit maybe some of the most important things that you know are going to happen.
Which kind of brings me to number 7, Candy Bar Scenes. Candy bar scenes—I didn’t come up with the term, I just think it’s really awesome. I think I might have gotten it from the Forward Motion Writing Community, maybe Holly Lisle, or I could be wrong. Someone else came up with it, not me. But it can help you really practice nailing the distinctive voice of your POV characters.
Now what is a candy bar scene? Some people write chronologically, I mostly write chronologically; but other people can write out of order, so they may have this distinctive scene in their head that they see that’s maybe not the first scene, it’s maybe a little later in the book, but they really want to do it. So some people will reward themselves by writing maybe less exciting scenes and then they reward themselves with a candy bar scene.
My advice is if you do have any of those vivid scenes in your mind, you might sit down at the beginning and write one or two of them because that can actually help you go back then and fill in all the details. Like how do I get to that scene that I just came up with? Like what happened before that? And then that sets the stage to get you to the scene.
It can also help you practice nailing the voice of your protagonist and/or any other POV characters you have. Not everyone is writing urban fantasy in first person like I mostly do. You may have multiple characters, but you want them each to have a distinctive voice. Unless you’re writing omniscient, then you probably want one distinctive voice even if you’re handling multiple characters. But for me, I just think it’s great to just try to nail that voice down. If you can’t do it by writing the first scene, maybe you can practice a later scene and get into it.
And then number 8, my number 8 tip, for pre-planning steps you can take as a pantser, is to know where you want to end! This is pretty much the case for me with every book. I may not know exactly the final scene, like everything in vivid detailed motion, but I do know basically how I want it to end. Do I want my protagonist to triumph over the antagonist? The answer for me is pretty much always yes. Even if it’s maybe not in the way expected, and it’s not without a high cost.
For you that could maybe mean they don’t triumph over the antagonist. But they should have learned a lesson or grown in some way. Especially if they’re on a hero’s journey. They need to have grown. A lot of characters have some sort of major flaw or shortcoming that they should have kind of grown out of or they’re working on and taking steps toward that by the end of the book. Just knowing where you want to end can kind of help you fill in all the steps to get there.
For the book I’m working on right now, I kind of know where I want to go with it. So it’s kind of making things a little bit easier. I don’t want to give out too much of a spoiler because it is a work in progress. I guess I could go with my first book, Red Hot Fury, I’m blanking on the name. Red Hot Fury, which was the first book in my Shades of Fury series. In that book, I knew that I wanted my main character to figure out who the character that had betrayed her was, I’m trying not to get out too many spoilers. But someone in the book had betrayed her.
A lot of people kind of dinged me on that one because they’re like, “Well I kinda saw that coming,” and I’m like well that’s the whole point. Everybody else should be seeing it coming, but the main character doesn’t because it’s just completely unexpected to her because she never saw it coming. So anyway I knew that I wanted her to figure it out, have a final battle scene with that person, I wanted to have her solve the mystery of her best friend going missing and that body washing up on shore…[Slight pause in video.]
All right, let’s try this again. My husband came out and got some ice while I was filming, so it really threw me off. And it was loud because I have a really good microphone now. So anyway, I was saying that some people dinged me because they said they saw the revelation of the “big bad” coming from a mile away, and my point was that we were supposed to, but the main character wasn’t. And in fact, when I originally wrote that book I had no clue who the main villain was, so the reason why you guys all know now if you figure it out before the revelation, you know because I went back and put in a bunch of clues so that you would know. But the main character doesn’t really see it coming. [Another slight pause in video.]
And this, folks, is why you should record after everybody goes to bed. My son came out here and then he was making noise. Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, I was talking about how the reason that people later were able to figure out who the big bad was is because I went back after I wrote, that’s cause I’m a pantser. I wrote the whole thing and then toward the end I figured out who the big, main bad villain was, and then I went back and put in clues. Which was the point I was making. And the other point I was making was…
Oh, I also knew that I wanted by the end of the book for Riss, the main character, to have kissed and made up with her ex-lover, who she broke up with in the wake of her best friend going missing. There was a lot of fallout from that, and I wanted them to be in a strong, happily-for-now relationship. And we’re going to see as the series unfolds do they make it or not?
I’m trying to think…I think those were the main plot elements that I wanted to tie up by the end of that book, and so those are 8 tips that I hope you find helpful for doing some pre-planning. Even if you’re a pantser, you don’t have to go completely by the “seat of your pants.” And a lot of the times as you get into this process and discover your voice as a writer, you will discover that also you can start tweaking your process and doing a little bit more pre-planning ahead of time.
But if you can’t, that’s okay. If you can’t do any up-front pre-planning and at the end of the day you end up with a book that is you know well-plotted, well-fleshed-out, the characters are developed, you have a conflict and a resolution of that conflict by the end and you’re satisfying your readers, that’s the only thing that matters. These are just some tips that you might find helpful. So if you have found them helpful, please subscribe and please share on social media, and I hope you found this helpful and keep on with your own rambling. And I’ll see you next time hopefully. Thanks!