Plotting vs. Pantsing 11: Rachel Brady

April 29th, 2010

42-17046139I know, I know, we haven’t had enough women, but here we have the first of two in a row.  No, no, hold the applause.  You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful.  What a crowd.

Okay, enough about you.  Rachel Brady works as an engineer at NASA when she’s not writing mystery and suspense fiction.  Midwest Book Review called her debut novel, Final Approach, “a tense thriller perfect for mystery libraries” and Reader Views praised its “interesting and colorful characters.” The second in the Emily Locke mystery series, Dead Lift, is coming in December and Rachel has just jumped into writing the third. She likes connecting with other writers at her excellent blog, Write It Anyway, and talking with bookish types on FacebookTwitter, and Goodreads.

In the interest of disclosure, I have an acute dislike — no, fear – of heights, and since much of Final Approach takes place while sky divers are in free fall, it scared the hell out of me.  Terrific book.

Rachel BradyMessily in the Middle: Getting Happy in My Writing Skin

I’m delighted and excited to visit the Blog Cabin!  When Tim invited me over, he asked me to answer two questions:  Where do I get my story ideas?  How do I put them on the page?

Not long ago, I wrote a short piece that addresses the Where.  The How is more difficult to explain so I’ll focus on that here.

Some writers are “pantsers,” who write by the seat of their pants, laying the story down as the ideas come.  Others, the plotters and outliners, think the whole story out ahead of time.  I’m a pantser with outlining tendencies, so I fall messily in the middle.

Final Approach came to me in key scenes.  Certain parts of the story played in my mind like a movie and, since I saw them so vividly, I wrote them first.  This meant I had a few important scenes from the beginning, middle, and end of the novel, but nothing to link them.  My struggle was finding the “bridges” between these scenes.  Instead of writing from A to Z, it was more like writing from D to H and then L to Q.  This strategy nearly drove me mad.  I promised myself that if I ever wrote another book, I would write it linearly, from A to Z, no messing around.  I was finished with bridges.  Burn the bridges.

The random-scenes technique had two perks.

1.  There was no excuse for not writing.  If I didn’t know what came next, I would skip ahead, way ahead, to something I knew would happen eventually.   Sure, there would be extensive revisions later, but in the moment, words were going on the page.

2.  Each chapter existed as a separate Word document on my machine.  When I was finally finished with a rough draft, I pasted forty separate Word documents together in the right order and watched a manuscript build before my eyes.  That was enormously exciting.

While querying Final Approach, I started working on a new book, the linear A to Z one.  I was a third of the way through a first draft when Final Approach sold, and eventually my editor and I turned our approach to Book Two.  She asked for a synopsis first, an overview of the whole book, including the ending, so she could flag any major issues before I wandered off into the weeds.  This requirement paralyzed me for a long time.  How could I send a summary of the book?  I had no idea how the story would unfold.  I knew how it would end, but not how to get there.

I e-mailed a good writing friend.  “Fake it,” came his reply.  “Make something up, and if it changes when you actually wrote it, say you came up with something even better.”

Ultimately, I did fake it.  But even faking a path took two weeks.  I made way more revisions than a three-page summary should require.  I tried working on it narrative-style and I tried outlining it.  In fact, at the time I was determined to reform as an Outliner.  But deep down I knew that if I waited for the whole book to reveal itself to me, so that I could summarize it in outline form, I would wait a very long time.  Have you heard the advice about driving in fog?  Not to overdrive your headlights?  In my writing, the headlights only stretch a few scenes ahead.  That’s as far as I can outline.  I can not see the end of the road, and I’m envious of writers who can.

I wrote the second book linearly and liked that approach well enough.  It was easier to keep the chronology of the story straight, and I did less hand-waving to get characters where I needed them to be.  Events unfolded organically with this method.  But there were problems.

1.  When I got stuck I stopped writing.  Sometimes it took weeks or months for me to figure out the next scene.

2.  The manuscript existed as a single file on my computer and I developed an annoying preoccupation with its total word count.  Now I’m a compulsive word-count checker.  I wish they made a patch for this.

A rough draft of this linear book, the next in the Emily Locke series, is with my editor now.  We’ll be revising over the next few months and it’s scheduled for release in December 2010.

Now I’m thinking about Book Three.  I started exploring this idea in November as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo).  Participating in NaNoWriMo for the first time was my attempt to shake up my writing routine, and boy, did it ever.

This story is my foray into multiple viewpoints.  It presents new challenges, both in the story and in its synopsis.  I’m not sure how to capture parallel story lines in summary form and, as usual, I don’t know how the story will unfold.  Once again, I’m sweating down here in Synopsis Hell.  I also suspect that a linear, A to Z, approach won’t serve this story well.  In some ways, writing this book is like creating two novellas with a plan to weave their chapters together later in a way that makes sense.  I’ll experiment until I find something that works.  I’ll admit it.  I’m freaked.

But this time, I’m okay with that.  For a long time, I would read writing books or listen to authors at writers’ conferences and then rush to the keyboard to implement their processes.  I’ve decided that this is like trying to squeeze into someone else’s shoes.  What fits another person might give me blisters.  Better to break in my own shoes, I think.  My process will probably always vary by project and will depend on what I’m prioritizing at the time.

When I was little, my grandfather brought home a necklace he’d found at a yard sale.  Its gold-plated pendant said “I’m okay” on one side and “You’re okay” on the other.  If I had to summarize my thoughts about pantsing versus outlining, I’d do it with those four words.  I think that if the story is forming, whether on the page or in our minds, and that if we’re giving it the time it deserves, then we’re all A-OK.  As with the messages on the pendant, there will be times when only one writing approach is visible and working for us, but that doesn’t mean that both can’t co-exist within the same writer and flip-flop, like my pendant did, throughout a project or a career.

14 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 11: Rachel Brady”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    Wow! You know, I was thinking that one of the questions that I wish I’d put to more of the authors in this series was “Do you write linearly?” The question only occurred to me last week. A writing buddy of mine is writing from A-Z and posting her scenes as she goes and they *make sense*.

    I use yWriter (which will give you a total wordcount but does help in terms of being able to drag and drop scenes around – and you can mark scenes as “unused” which leaves them in place but removes them from your wordcount). I realised last week that I can see my scene order (i.e. the actual order I created them in) from the underlying file names.

    It looks like this: 1,4, 5,6,7,16,9,10,17,11,14,18,19,13,33,25,26,34,3,24.

    That’s me writing linearly. I don’t think I’m a natural.

    Did Book 2 match the synopsis at all, in the end?

    Will you have to submit a synopsis for Book 3? (And will it take less time, this time?)

    Final Approach is a wonderful name! I shall keep an eye out for it if it is available in the UK.

  2. Rachel Brady Says:

    Hi Sylvia,

    Sincere apologies for my late reply; I have been out of town and offline since last week. Thanks for your wonderful comments.

    It sounds like we have some things in common. The scene order you listed is eerily similar to how Final Approach came to be.

    Book 2 did match its synopsis, more or less, and yes, I do have to submit a synopsis for Book 3 and have only recently finished that. This synopsis took less time to write, but I “stewed” on the plot (in my head and notebooks) for much longer. Near as I can tell, there is no way for me to rush things. Ideas either spend time in my head and come out more quickly on the page, or I only partially think them through and then agonize forever on a synopsis!

    I hope (but doubt) that Final Approach is available through UK bookstores. In the event that it is not, it’s listed on Amazon UK. Thanks for expressing interest.

    I often catch your comments on other posts here at Tim’s blog. Best wishes with your writing!

  3. Bill Crider Says:

    I’m definitely linear. I’ve worked with other writers on projects from time to time, and I was surprised to discover that one of them didn’t work that way at all. He wrote scenes, and then he decided where they’d go in the book. I’d go nuts doing that.

  4. Rachel Brady Says:


    …As did I.

    For that project, first time out of the gate, it was good for getting words down and finding a story path. I’ll resort to it again if I get stuck, but overall I preferred a linear approach too.

    Thanks for posting. 🙂


  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I’m so sorry there weren’t more comments, but I think the long WordPress screw-up disheartened some people who never saw their comments get online.

    I’m especially sorry because I think that Rachel’s was one of the best and most informative posts in the thread thus far. When I read it, a light came on in the East — I ALWAYS have scenes I know I’m going to write, but when I’m stuck, as I so frequently am, it has never once occurred to me to jump ahead and write them. I feel like the guy who busted out the back wall of his garage because it didn’t occur to him to put his car in reverse.

    And that wasn’t all I learned. So thank you, Rachel, and when we’ve built our readership back up to the pre-screwuop throng, I hope you’ll come back and write for us again.

  6. Bill Crider Says:

    I hardly ever know what scenes I’m going to write, at least when I start. Sometimes one will occur to me as I’m writing, but I never write it until I get to the point in the book that I want to put it.

  7. Rachel Brady Says:

    This has been a really fun series, Tim. I’m happy to be a part of it. Even more delighted to hear that I might have helped you put your car in reverse! 🙂

    Bill, you are a natural pantser! I love when you tell us how the process goes for you. The bit you shared earlier about starting with a single sentence and having little idea where it will lead was crazy talk to me. But look how well it works for you.

    Just goes to show… whatever works!

  8. Dana King Says:

    It’s great that you’re willing to examine your practices and adjust them. Too many writers just go along saying, “This is how I do it,” when each book presents its own challenges. (I know; I used to be one.) A change in technique may not be necessary, but how will you know if you haven’t examined the possibility?

    You have examined the possibilities.

    Sorry for the late comment; I’ve been behind on a lot of things lately. Great post.

  9. Usman Says:

    Hi Rachel, Thanks for a great post about your writing process.
    Let’s say we are merrily pantsing along, plots and sub-plots are there, for good or bad. Then we take the left turn, a great idea comes to mind, it fits the plot, so in it goes. But then this sub-plot becomes bigger than the major plot, not in number of pages, but in its scope, and the canvas attached to it, perhaps the new characters.
    What then? Is it back to the drawing board, or sticking to the original path, the original seed that started you off.

    Tim, It’s great to be back. Work has been murder.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Dana and Usman, thanks for stopping by. You’ve been missed.

    I agree, Dana — when something’s not working, change tracks. That’s not easy for me, since outlining is pretty close to impossible for me, but I did it in BREATHING WATER just to find a plausible series of scenes to get me out of a corner. It worked, but I later went back and rewrote almost all of that material.

    Usman, I’m the guy to ask. In THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the upcoming Poke, I decided I’d go back and tell Rose’s backstory — how she went from being a shy village girl to the woman she was when she met Poke. Three or four chapters, I thought, maybe 6,000-8,000 words.

    45,000 words later, I’d finished that part of the story. So now I had a flashback in the middle of a thriller. I really only had two choices, dump it or live with it. I chose to live with it, changing the ending so it led us back into the thriller that opened the book.

    Does it work? I have no idea. But it seemed absolutely germane to the story I was writing, and I think that’s the test when a new idea begins to lead you away from your story: is it directly related to, or does it illuminate the main idea? If yes, follow it. If no, then either write a book with two distinct plot threads or save the new material for another book.

    One trap to avoid is embracing the new material just because it’s new — you haven’t been slogging away on it for months as it revealed its limitations and problems. New ideas are always limitless and problem-free.

  11. Dana King Says:

    I finished Rose’s backstory on the train this morning; now I’m back in real time. I’ll send you more notes when I finish the book (probably over the weekend), but I can say for certain right now, it works.

    Oh yeah, it works.

  12. Rachel Brady Says:

    Thanks, Dana. Honestly, my open approach toward new techniques comes mainly from desperation. When too much time goes by and nothing is being written, I kind of freak out and conclude anything must be better than nothing.

    Usman, I’m glad Tim got to your question before I did. I still have a phobia of “wasting words.” Once something is on the page, I have a real hard time giving up on it and cutting it. It’s hard to watch a word count drop from 45,000 to 8,000, to use Tim’s example. This is something I still work on. I haven’t experienced a runaway subplot yet. If that happened to me, I might be the type to fall into the trap Tim described, of falling in love with the newer, more exciting idea. Only…my fear of wasting words kind of keeps that reined in. I hope you’ll let us know what you decide.

    Thanks to you both for your comments. 🙂

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Dana — THANKS with whipped cream.

    Rachel, it’s terrible to lose a big chunk of writing and I hope it never happens to you, but it’s arguably worse to put out a book that’s not optimal.

    I think the big challenge is telling between new material that’s appealing primarily because it’s new and new material that’s appealing because it’s right. Time will tell whether I made the correct decision on THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, although Dana seems to think I did. That noise you hear is me crossing myself, and I’m not even Catholic.

  14. Larissa Says:

    Ok, so I’m backtracking…and here I thought I’d been making progress. This is definitely the most informative of all the postings in this series–and it’s got some of the best comments–I am also obsessed with word count! If only because I’ve been making myself write a certain number-ala Tim style-just to put something down. Sometimes I think I should just copy the letter “a” and paste that 1000 times so I can walk away from the computer. 😀

    And Tim-you and I both would have ended up in our living rooms from the garage because we never thought of Reverse-I have these other scenes and I don’t write them because they aren’t “Due” yet in the story-except the story is stuck and I’m not writing anything…something tells me if I write them I might get the jump on what’s actually going to happen next…ahem.

    Thanks for a great post! Why did i wait this long to read it?!? Egads!

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