Plotting vs Pantsing 13: Brett Battles

May 15th, 2010

SHADOW 2Who’s a sturdy enough talent to go 13th in this thread?  Brett Battles, whose Jonathan Quinn “Cleaner” series is among my favorite of recent years.  Brett’s books — THE CLEANER, THE DECEIVED, and SHADOW OF BETRAYAL, the last of which will be reincarnated in a paperback edition on May 25 — are models of the form.  The form, in this case, is the breakneck, intercontinental thriller with solid, emotionally affecting characters, a plot twist every time the reader gets comfortable, and a resolution that’s always unexpected and, in retrospect, inevitable.  If I sound like a fan, I am.  After I read THE CLEANER, I used it as a sort of primer for pacing (this will be news to Brett) and I think my books are the better for it.  So here’s where those amazing plots come from.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had or overheard conversations about this topic.  I guess that’s probably because it’s a core, nuts-and-bolts part of the writing process.

It’s funny.  Writers can be pretty vehement about their particular position.  “Writing a detailed outline is the only way to go.”  “Outline?  No way.  I just write and let the story tell itself to me.”

If you’d asked me a few years ago where I fell, I would have said without hesitation that I was a pantser.  In fact, I was probably sitting on the Pantser’s Board of Directors.  I was the one saying, “I let the story tell itself to me.”  It worked for me, but that’s because I had all the time in the world to write a book.

But then I got my first contract.

Per that contract I had to provide a synopsis of whatever book I planned on writing to my editor.  Obviously I didn’t have to do this for my first book as it had been written prior to getting a deal.  But for the second book?  Absolutely.

Still, I considered myself a full-fledged, card-carrying pantser.  So when I wrote my proposal for Book 2 I made my synopsis as short and as vague as possible.  (Note: I also included the first two or three chapters.)  Fine for me, I thought.  Lots of room to move around.  Thankfully, my editor went for it.

But that’s where the problems started.  I had a year to write that second book.  It sounded like a lot of time, but at that point, in addition to being a novelist, I still had a full-time day job, so as I progressed, I realized that a year wasn’t long at all.

The problem with writing without a clear idea of where you’re going is that you can write yourself into a corner.  And that’s pretty much what I ended up doing.  The draft that I delivered by my deadline still needed some serious work, and it took another four months before I got the book into shape.

You would have thought I would have learned my lesson from that.  But no, I still considered myself a pantser.  After all, Book 2 turned out pretty well.So once agai, I delivered a two-page synopsis and some sample chapters, and, once again, my editor said, “Go for it.”

I’m sure you can guess the result.  Once more the process of writing the book (still with the day job) took far too much time.  And, like before, the draft I delivered still needed some serious work.  (Thankfully, though, not as much as had been required for Book 2.)

So when I set out to write Book 4 of my series, I vowed that I would do things differently.  This would be the first one I would write as a full-time novelist, so I wanted to off right.  But wanting and doing, as we all know, can be two different things.  The proposal I gave my editor:  2-page synopsis and sample chaps.  The same old song.

This book, though, did go faster.  But that was a product of two things.  The first, and probably the most influential, was, as I mentioned, that I had no day job interfering with my writing schedule.  But the second was that, when I hit around pag2 250, I stopped and took a full week to map the book out . . . where I was, where I should be going . . . from each of my characters’ points of view.

(Not really relevant, but here’s what I did:  I went down to Office Depot and bought those gigantic post-it notes.  Seriously gigantic.  We’re talking something like three feet by four feet.  Each central character got a note, and then, below their name, I listed out, in point form, the story from their POV.  I think I ended up having something like eight or nine of these post-its hanging on my walls.  Doing this enabled me to get a handle on where my story was going.  When I turned the book in, it was much more finished than my previous books had been.  Not perfect, but definitely closer to the finish line.)

I knew that for my next book, I was going to have to do something different.  This time I wrote a five-page synopsis along with chapters.  That might not seem like a big leap, but it was for me.

Then a funny thing happened.  My publisher asked if my fifth book, instead of being another in my Jonathan Quinn series, could be a standalone.  This prospect was exciting to me as I was feeling the itch to write a standalone.  It wasn’t that I was tired of my series, far from it.  I just wanted to branch out a little.

When I sat down to figure out the proposal for the standalone, I knew that I was going to have to be more detailed than I’d been in the past.  My problem this time was that I had more than one idea, and couldn’t figure out which one to present.  So I decided, what the hell, let my publisher choose.  I wrote a synopsis for each idea, each of them between 10 and 15 pages in length.  These were much more detailed maps than I’d ever produced before.  Oh, and I also did sample chapters for all three stories.  (I know, I know.  Overkill.)

Bantam chose one of the stories, and, in a little over two weeks, I wrote the first 150 pages of the new book.  Yes, blazing fast.  I’d never written anything so fast.  But there was no question but that this was a direct result of those more detailed plans.

(Okay, just to make the story accurate and more complete — though, again, not necessarily relevant — at that 150-page mark, I hit a hiccup.  I happened to read a novel by a person I respect who had set her story in the same location as I was setting mine.  Turns out that plot and the one I was working on were pretty damn close.  Too close for me to continue.  So what did I do?  I wrote another 12-page synopsis, keeping a few of the elements from the story I’d been working on, but really creating something completely new.  I started at page zero again on November 4th of last year and had a rough draft just over one month later, on the 7th of December.  A month after that, I had a polished draft that was tighter and more complete than any other manuscript I’d ever turned in.)

I was a pantser, but I am no more.  That’s not to say that I’m all all-out, detail-oriented outline, either.  I’m a kind of a blend, a hybrid if you will.My optimum working process seems to be first creating a 10 to 15-page story map with room to expand and change, and then putting my butt in a chair and writing.  the map/outline/synopsis gives me the confidence to plow forward.  In fact, I don’t think I looked back at my synopsis once when I was writing that last book.  But I knew in my mind that I’d figured it all out, so I knew how far I could stray.

The bottom line is that each writer has a different way of writing.  But what I think we need to do is periodically evaluate whether those methods are helping us be our best.  This is not some static, forever kind of thing.  For a long time writing by the seat of my pants worked well for me.  It was really the only way I could do it.  But then things changed, so I changed.

And who knows, in the future I may change again.

7 Responses to “Plotting vs Pantsing 13: Brett Battles”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    That’s fascinating. I love the idea of the giant post-it notes.

    Do you have any idea of the time spent doing the detailed story maps? Clearly a detailed synopsis is allowing you to get through your rough draft much much faster but I’m curious about total time.

    This sounds a bit odder but do you write the synop in order on the first go? Or do you put down planned scenes and then rearrange them to best fit?

    It would be fascinating to read the original synop along side the book and see how things had emerged.

  2. Rachel Brady Says:

    Thanks for walking us through the evolution, Brett. I agree with you that it’s helpful to accept that each project may be different from the last. Having written novels with both methods also gives you a unique toolbox, I imagine: the ability to draw on either skill when you need or want to.

  3. Brett Battles Says:

    Hi Sylvia,
    Usually takes me less than a week to figure out the synopsis, so total time is still WAY down. And when I write them, I tend to write in order. But just like with the full book, the synopsis will go through drafts.

    Interesting thought about comparing the synopsis to the final. I should probably do that and see how things faired. Hmmm…of course, that would mean I need some extra time. 😉 So…I’ll get to it at some point! Thanks for the questions!

  4. Brett Battles Says:

    Thanks, Rachel. It is nice to have the experience of both so I don’t get locked into only doing things one way. Just about to start a new book tomorrow (a new series actually) so will be feeling out which method works best over the next couple of days.

  5. Dana King Says:

    It’s good to see successful writers evolve from one process to another, and possibly back. Rachel wrote of re-examining her technique last week, and your journey has been similar, though not identical. I tend to change it up a little for each project, and always worried that was because I just didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Now, not so much.

  6. Brett Battles Says:

    I think changing things up, even if it’s just a little bit, also serves to keep the writing fresh. I’m constantly worried about writing the same book over and over, so perhaps by mixing it up it helps me to avoid this. (At least that’s what I’m going to tell myself!)

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I have actually changed my writing habits (or at least my attitude toward them) because of this post. I read it in the middle of a three-book-proposal marathon, something I have loathed my entire writing life because it forces me to outline. I read Brett’s piece, and it all made sense to me, and I thought, “If Brett can be that flexible, so can I,” and I went back to work with a new attitude and found that I can — gasp – outline, at least as long as I begin to write every scene so I can get a sense of where the characters are heading.

    So my proposals are 1 and 2-page scenes, complete with dialogue, that turn from writing into condensation and then a new scene followed by more condensation, and when I have a pretty good idea of how the book might come out, I do some cloud-language so I’m not actually committed to anything.

    And they’re terrific proposals, if I do say so myself, and I didn’t hate every minute of it. So a big “thanks,” Brett.

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