Writing By the Seat of Your Pants (aka Character-Driven Writing)

Stephannie Beman asked me to write a post on my writing style, and mine is by the seat of my pants.

1.  Have a plot.

I might have characters in mind, but honestly, I can’t do anything with the characters until the right plot comes up.  I currently have about five main characters but no plot.  I’m waiting for the right plot to come along that will click with their personalities.  It’s mostly instinct.  You can’t force the wrong character into a certain plot, no matter how hard you try.  You just need to “know” that this particular plot fits this particular character.  Only then can you start the book.  This waiting time can take as little as a couple days to a few years. 

2.  Make only necessary notes prior to writing.

I don’t outline.  I might mark down a couple of notes which goes on a sticky note from a program on my computer.  These notes contain the date the book starts (since I write mostly historicals), ages of characters, children, hair and eye color of main characters, and names I might use for minor characters that are hard to spell (like Hothlepoya).  That’s all I do for notes.  I keep this sticky note open on my desktop so I have easy access to it.

Now, if I have a series, the notes get more elaborate.  I have family trees, dates of every book in the series, and notes of how characters look.  I will add a quick note here how awesome and invaluable it is to have an editor or beta reader who has read all of the books in your series because they will remember what happened in other books so if you miss something (say someone had blue eyes in the other book but green eyes in this one), they might catch this inconsistency.

3.  Thinking over a couple of scenes prior to writing.

Usually during this thinking stage, a few scenes will pop up.  The thinking part comes when you’re grocery shopping, driving, cleaning, taking a shower, before you do to sleep at night, etc.  The scenes that come to you are usually the first scene, a couple of middle scenes, and maybe the end (maybe not the final scene) but a resolution.  Most of the time, I just have about two beginning scenes and about two or three middle scenes.  I rarely start off with the ending.

4.  Start writing.

I find the less planning I’ve done ahead of time for the book, the greater ease I’ll have with writing it because I’m allowing my characters to develop the story to suit them.  I still need them to be a good fit for the plot, and when they are, the story pretty much writes itself. 

I think this is also an instinctual thing.  I’ll write a book and veer off in a direction that I never intended, but if I let the characters decide how it goes and follow along with what they’re doing, every time they will end up resolving all the subplots that pop up.  I don’t know how it happens or how to explain it, but it works.  I’ve only had problems when I was trying to force my will on the characters.  When I try to step in and control things, the story stalls and falls apart.  I’ve learned that if a story is starting to stall, I’ll put it aside and work on something else.  While I try to maintain a certain word count each day, I work on about four books at one time so I can write in a book that is going along smoothly and come back to the one that slowed down when I figure out what direction to take it in.

5.  This type of writing requires you to shut out the critic and the praiser.

Why?  Because your characters need to be themselves.  You can’t let anyone tell you what to do with them.  So what if someone hates alpha males?  If you main character wants to be an alpha, let him be.  And I know it’s hard not to try to please a fan who wants your character to be a certain way or do something out of their character (ex. I hope the hero punches the bad guy), but if your character doesn’t want to be or do something, don’t make the character do it because the book will feel awkward to you.  I’ve made both mistakes in the past, and now I have to give myself permission to upset some people by letting my characters be themselves.  It’s not easy to do, but the characters know what’s best for them.  (Just like when you have to let your kids grow up and be who they are.)

I know.  It’s easy to see why you need to shut out the critic.  If we’re constantly thinking of everything that is wrong with our characters, the plot, the scene, etc, we’ll never finish the story.  It can be hard to shut the critic out, but I have my emails filtered for me and now only allow approval of comments on my other blogs and block people who are rude.  It’s not that I don’t want to learn how to be better.  I do, and I have editors and beta readers I trust who give me their honest opinion, but when they do it, they do it kindly.  A little sugar goes a long way. 

But the praise part needs to be shut out, too.  Why?  Because I never want to get to the point where I think I’m so good and so wonderful that I have no need to improve.  Too much sugar can make you sick, you know?  Again, I filter these out and take them in small doses, mostly when I have to remind myself that even if my books aren’t for everyone, there are some people out there who like them.  It takes more positives to balance you out than negatives.  Again, the honest but kind editors and beta readers are essential. 

I’m not saying you have to pay for editors or beta readers.  You can barter services.  But I do believe it’s important to get a fresh pair of eyes, and I actually prefer at least two.  I average three per book.

6.  If you get stuck toward the end when trying to resolve subplots, then outline.

I’ve done a short outline as I’ve neared the end of a couple of books to get an idea of how to resolve each subplot I introduced into the book.  I don’t outline what I already wrote.  I take it from where I am in the story and write a short description of each scene that will resolve the subplots and finish up the book for the ending.  Usually, this is when I’m two or three chapters away from being done with the book.  I don’t do this often, but if I’m trying to make sure I don’t end up with loose plot points, this is what I do.

7.  You’re done when the book feels done.

Again, this is just something you know.  When you’re satisfied with everything, the book is complete.  There have been a couple times where I added another scene because of beta reader feedback, but this rarely happens.

8.  Edit.

I don’t edit while I’m writing the first draft.  I know some people do, but when I write, I keep moving forward and I don’t look back.  My goal is to get the words down.  I err on the side of writing too much because deleting is easier than adding once the book is finished.  If I wonder about a consistency point (ex. a minor character’s name), I highlight it and will check it out when I’m in the editing stage.  If I get stuck while writing the book, I stop and work on something else until I’m ready to come back to it. 

My first drafts are rarely ever rewritten.  What I end up with is pretty much polished up in the editing stage, but all the scenes are still there as they were in the beginning.  I did just finish the first draft of a book that required rewriting and a ton of revision in the sense of scene swapping and subplot changes.  It was a huge pain to do, too, but the story is better for it.  Why did I end up having to do all that work?  Well, I wasn’t listening to my characters.  I was trying to mold them into what I believed the critics wanted because the subgenre I wrote this book for is very picky.  But in the end, I wasn’t happy with the finished product (which was done at the beginning of April), so I wiped the slate clean and started over, inserting previously written scenes as the characters wanted and adding scenes according to what the characters wanted and deleted scenes that were no longer necessary.  I am now done with the second version, and while I know the critics will slam it hard, my characters are happy and so am I.  Sometimes you have to be okay with giving the critics something to be critical about.  ;) 

I also finished another first draft about two weeks ago that needs no rewriting or scene swapping.  It just needs the basic edit and beta read.  So there will be minor changes in this one.  I took a month off from writing in this book when I got stuck on a plot point and came back to it when I had resolved it.  I’ve learned that I can’t force the story, and in this book, I let the characters do whatever they wanted and they gave me a couple of surprises but they knew best and I’m happy with how it turned out. 

Now both books go to the editor first and then beta readers who also proofread as they go along.  So it’s a process, and even though I write by the seat of my pants, I do have a routine that goes with writing each book.  It’s not like I don’t have a sense of direction, but for me, the best thing to do to create the story is to let the characters do whatever they want which is the fun part of the journey.  :D

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21 thoughts on “Writing By the Seat of Your Pants (aka Character-Driven Writing)

  1. Exactly! This sounds so much like me!

    • It’s both a fun and terrifying way to write. On the one hand, you are often surprised by what the characters do, but on the other, you have to trust their way will work.

  2. I combine outlining and seat of my pants. I do a little outlining, but I go by seat of my pants for some of the story.

    • When I’m stuck, outlining helps to see where the book is going. I know some authors who need to have an entire outline before they begin writing. I tried that once, but the characters changed the entire book on me. After that, I didn’t outline before writing a book.

      • When I first started my first novel, I went kind of free style, but now that I am on my third I have been outlining and writing scenes as they come to me and I think I have improved.

        • I think as we write more, we figure out the method that helps cut down our work time. It sounds like you’re more of a planner. Stephannie Beman is, too. There are a lot of different ways to write a book. :D

  3. I’m more of a plotter. I improvise here and there along the line, but much of the road is mapped out.

    • I say use the method that works best for you. :) I’m guessing you don’t run into writer’s block, and that’s something that periodically happens to me.

  4. You’ve pretty much described the writing system I’ve used for years. Only, you described MUCH better than I ever did!

    • I’m glad I described it well. When Stephannie asked me to write this post, I had no idea what to say. This post took me about three weeks to write. :)

  5. ghughbodell

    I start with an idea, then a broad outline of the plot and over a period (generally one year) the outline is developed ever more granularly until…to my surprise, I have a novel that flows and is 98% written.
    I know it sounds OCD but it really works for me!

    • Raine Parsons

      Yes, that plan pretty much works for me too.

    • If it works, then that’s the way to go. :) That’s a pretty neat system you have. It sounds like writing is effortless when you do it that way.

  6. Hi Ruth, Thanks for the closeup look at the mechanics of your writing production. A couple of questions: 1. Do the main characters that appear in a novel come to you all at once carrying the seed of a plot that you then nurture with the few notes you make, allowing you to then begin your first draft? 2. You say you don’t revise as your write, and I’m stumped on why you don’t have to go back and edit/rewrite another draft or two. I don’t seem to be able to write “near-perfect” copy no matter how hard I try, and I’m not just talking about typos. If I could find a way to do so, or perhaps change my attitude towards the first draft, it would save me alot of time. (I usually dread rewriting and don’t like it very much when I’m in the midst of it.) Any advice of suggestions?

    • When I venture into a new genre, I still end up going back and rewriting. I hate rewriting. To me, when the first draft is done, the last thing I want to do is go back and do extensive work on a book. But that’s what I just did with my first Regency. I rewrite 1/3 of it, kept 1/3 of it, and did a lot of scene swapping and modifications to the other 1/3. It was a huge pain. I was also revising it as I was writing it. That was rare for me now, but looking back when I first wrote historical western romances, I was doing the same thing.

      I think the more we write, the better our first drafts get. A lot of books I write take place in the same “world” so minor characters of one book become main characters in another, which helps me get familiar with them before I write. Someone I know writes out short stories based on the main characters’ past before she writes the novel. She never publishes these stories but uses them to get acquainted with her characters. For a new book, I have a vague idea of how the characters really are. I have surface ideas (like “shy” or “confident”), but it’s not until I’m writing the first two chapters that I know their personalities. In fact, for the first three chapters, I’m driven more by plot. I like to start at a crucial place where the character is having a crisis where they have to make some kind of decision. These aren’t big things. For example, in one book, I started it with the heroine being sold to the highest bidder by her bigamist husband. The crisis enables me to force the characters to respond to the scene they’re placed in. During this scene, I get to learn if they’re a fighter or a peacemaker, outspoken or soft, optimistic or pessimistic, do they have a sense of humor or are they serious etc. From there, they’re able to take off and direct the book.

      I also just learned that I can’t force the story or listen to others tell me what the story is supposed to be or how they want my characters to be. I was doing mandatory word counts on a certain book, but then I was forcing out words to get the word count and it messed up the book. I would have been better off working on another book instead or just taking a break from writing on that day. As for listening to others (even the fans), I can’t do it. Their vision of the book and/or character isn’t always what the character wants, and I’ve had to accept that even if I’m not going to make a fan happy (and that’s very hard since I want to make my fans happy), I have to write the book as the book is meant to be written.

      Are there areas where you stumble while writing your first draft? My trouble spots are listening to others whose vision for the book isn’t mine, forcing the word count on that book, and starting a new genre. Are yours similar or different? I can set up a post to get a discussion going on getting the first draft as close to perfect as possible to avoid major rewriting if you want.

      Or maybe someone else has a way of smoothing out the first draft as they write it. If anyone does, please comment. :D

      • Thanks for the additional information and ideas. As far as my drafting process goes, I’ve been writing the first draft straight through and then going back and fixing things. I guess I’m a picky writer because I like to find the best word whether its a noun, verb or adjective, so I find myself getting bogged down changing words and rewriting sentences on my second pass through a novel. And at times I wonder if working that way doesn’t take away from the initial energy the writing had the first time through – if that make sense.

        Right now I’m preparing the second novel-length story for a detective character – I epublished the first novel in January. I’m doing the research and creating the characters and some to the scenes have already begun to write themselves in my mind. I can see how using characters from book to book in a series will speed up the planning and maybe even the writing.

        And yes, I’d like to hear how others writers approach their first draft and the drafting process. Early on in my writing life I read a couple of how-to writing books by crime novelist Lawrence Block advocating making your first draft your only draft. Is that what most people do?

        Regards, Reynold.

        • I’d only do the first draft as my only draft only if the story turned out the way I wanted it to. Some books are easy to write and all that’s needed is some polishing up. Other books feel like you’re pulling teeth to get down on paper, and I find those are the ones that require work. I find putting the harder-to-write books on hold and only writing a few hundred words in them when I feel like it to help. Forcing my last book has caused me to do more work in the end. Taking my time with another difficult book might upset some readers due to delaying the publishing date, but in the end, it’ll be less work. I’d rather make it less work, even if it takes longer. This is why I like to have more than one project going at a time.

          I have a friend who goes back and changes words to clarify her meaning. She usually goes back and edits each chapter as she finishes it, and that method works for her. My problem is that I don’t know where the story is going so even if I polished up each chapter, one of my characters might throw a wrench into my plans and I have to ditch a subplot, which makes that polishing up wasted time. But she has a plan going into the book and likes to outline. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. The key is finding out the method that best works for us. :)

  7. lynelleclark

    I like the way you put it: By the seat of your pants :) It sounds like mine. But my note book is not to far. I am busy with rewriting and it does take a lot of time but I am satisfied with the outcome. I guess that is how we learn.

    • I did more rewriting early on than I do now, and I used to keep a lot more notes. I’d say my first year of writing romances involved a lot of rewriting and revising, and I have at least two versions for those stories. :D I think what happens is that as you write more books, you figure out how you work best and go into the next book with strategies already in place. I think it’s fair to say that each new book seems like it was less work to write and research (as long as it’s in the same genre). The Regency I just finished was my first, and I did a lot of rewriting, note taking, researching, and revising on it. I’ll admit that on same days it was painful to work through because I got so used to writing historical westerns without needing to much more than research a couple of items. LOL I got spoiled.

  8. Pingback: Stephannie Beman’s Writing Method | Stephannie Beman

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