How To Write a Novel – Pantser or Planner?

how-to-write-a-novelOctober is here already. That means National Novel Writing Month can’t be far behind.

For the past two months, I’ve been conducting a series of story clinics with an eye toward helping you prepare for writing your next novel.

In August, the series began with discussions on writing single-sentence summaries and in September, we walked through the character development process. If you missed either one of those story clinics, here’s the link to the single-sentence summary introduction and here is the link to the first character development post. These clinics, like all of our clinics, are available for review at any time.

This month, I’m talking about a few ways to actually write your next novel. There are five Saturdays in October, so that means four lessons plus this introduction, but there are many ways of writing a novel.

In fact, there is an endless variation on the theme with pantsers at one end of the spectrum and pre-planners at the other end.

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A Few Definitions

Before we get started, I want to define terms just to make sure we’re all on the same page.

Pantser: Also known as writing by the seat of your pants, pantsing, winging it, and writing intuitively.

With this method, no pre-planning is involved. The writer gets an idea for the story and starts writing the story. The writer may begin at the beginning of the story and work through to the end or may start at the end and work backward. It’s not uncommon for a pantser to begin writing in the middle of the story and work in both directions.

It’s also not uncommon for the pantser to work in a non sequential manner. That is, he or she may write a pivotal scene in the middle of the story, then the scenes that set up the pivotal scene, followed by the scenes that arise out of the pivotal scene.

I’ve written stories and scenes in both ways.

The one thing that is common with most pantsers is that they don’t know where the story is going when they begin. At best, they have a general idea of how it might end. They write each day to find out what happens next then fill in the gaps as necessary.

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Pre-planning: Also known as plotting and outlining.

A writer who works by this method plans out every detail of the story before writing the first word. Characters are well-developed, the plot is well-developed, and subplots and minor characters have also been mapped out.

Although this method of writing is widely known as plotting, that’s not an accurate term. All writers plot, but some plot as they write seat-of-the-pants, some plot during revisions, and some plan their plots before they write.

I also don’t usually refer to this type of writer as an outliner because a pre-planner may not outline. There are many different ways to pre-plan, which we’ll discuss later this month.

So for the purpose of this course, we have pantsers and pre-planners and all those in between.

Hybrid: All of those writers in between the strict pantsers and the strict pre-planners use various combinations of both methods. They have adapted what works and discarded what doesn’t until they have their own unique “hybrid” method of writing. Our own Danielle Lincoln Hanna uses a hybrid method of planning, which we’ll cover in the third lesson.

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October’s Course Schedule

  • Week 1: Introduction
  • Week 2: The Strict Pantser
  • Week 3: The Strict Pre-Planner
  • Week 4: The Lincoln Hanna Method
  • Week 5: The Lewis Method

No matter how you write novels, you fall somewhere on this spectrum. The vast majority of us, in fact, are somewhere along the continuum from strict pantser and strict pre-planner.

I hope you’ll join us for this month-long course.

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Well-Rounded Characters – Unlocking Deep, Dark Secrets

Today is the fourth and final lesson in this month’s story clinic on character development. I hope you’ve enjoyed the lessons. I also hope you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your new lead character.

Links to the previous lessons are below.

But there is a lot more to the process than those three steps. Basically, you should keep digging into your character’s psyche until you know them inside and out.

3 Tips for Uncovering Those Deep, Dark Secrets

unlocking-your-characters-deep-dark-secretsThe secrets your character keeps will be what influences his story the most. They may not be at the crux of the story’s conflict, but they will affect the way the character responds. For most of the story, they will hinder the character or cause harm to him or those around him. They are the demons he’ll have to face before he can solve the real problem.

There are many ways to uncover these secrets. Here is one tool and a couple of methods that have helped me through this process.

Tool: Character Interview
Go back to the character interview. The section pertaining to core principles and attitudes is where you’ll be most likely to find the deep, dark secrets in your lead character’s life.

The questions you want answers for now are existential questions. Meaning-of-life questions.

  1. What is this character’s view of the world?
  2. If your character had one day to live, how would they spend that day?
  3. Is this character able to trust others easily?
  4. Does this character hold things in?
  5. What is this character’s greatest fear?
  6. What is this character’s greatest hope?
  7. What is the worst thing that could happen to this character?
  8. What is the best thing that could happen to this character?
  9. What single event could throw this character’s life into complete turmoil?
  10. How does this character react in a crisis?
  11. Has this character ever had a brush with death?

The answers to these and other questions will go a long way toward identifying your character’s deepest secrets. The sorts of things that even family members may not know.

secretMethod: What Lie Does Your Lead Believe to Be True?
Almost everybody believes something about themselves that isn’t true. Experience has taught them a lie. They’ve been told a lie by someone else—possibly someone they love—and they’ve come to believe it. Quite often, the lie has its foundation in childhood, but the person is able to reason well-enough to recognize the lie.

Your lead character should also believe something about him- or herself that isn’t true.

Before you panic, though, let me tell you there are eight common categories from which most of these lies arise. They are

  1. I’m a disappointment
  2. I’m not good enough – inadequate
  3. I’m not good enough – defective
  4. I’m too much to handle and will be rejected
  5. It’s all my fault
  6. I’m helpless or powerless
  7. I’m unwanted/unloved
  8. I’m bad

These are very basic. Whatever your lead character believes to be true will affect everything he or she does—whether it’s true or not. How the character is affected will differ from character to character. For example, if your lead believes he’s not good enough, he may attempt to disprove the lie by becoming an over-achiever or he may resign himself to the lie and never do anything notable.

A person who believes they’re powerless may attempt to disprove that belief by taking charge of everything or they may let themselves become a perpetual victim. How your character reacts is part of his or her character and that’s why I put this in the Deep, Dark Secrets category.

There are three things to consider when thinking about the character’s big lie.

Where did the lie come from? Did something happen to the character that convinced him of the lie? For example, a young child who survived a car accident that killed both parents might believe she wasn’t good enough to save her parents or that she was to blame for their deaths even though there was nothing she could have done.

How does the character respond to the lie? Does she believe it’s true, but attempt to disprove it or does she give in to it?

What needs to happen to help the character see the lie for what it is? Chances are, this event will end up playing a vital role in your story, so take time to think it through. Don’t worry if you don’t know the answer right away. The story may have to develop before the answer becomes clear, but be aware that you will need an answer. Sooner or later.

Method: Back Story
Also known as character history.

The more you know about your character’s history, the better understanding you have about why your character is the way he or she is in the story.

There are lots of opinions about how important this is and how extensive it needs to be. My personal opinion is that you can’t know too much about how your character was raised, where he went to school, or his work history.

As with all the other parts of the character development process, this will take shape over time. Let it. Review it periodically so it’s up-to-date as you write your story.

However, the more developed it is when you begin writing, the better tool it is for finding interesting and unexpected subplots if you find yourself in need of one.


Character development doesn’t really end until your story is finished and published. If you happen to be working on a series, character development continues through each book in the series.

The tips I’ve shared with you throughout this month’s lessons are just the beginning. I hope they’re helpful, but I also hope they’re just the jumping off point for you as you develop your lead character.

Your Assignment

What is your lead character’s Big Lie? What does he believe to be true? How does he respond to it? Here are three things to consider when thinking about the character’s Big Lie:

  • Where did the lie come from?
  • How does the character respond to the lie?
  • What will it take to make the character realize the lie is a lie?

Review the questions in the Secrets section of the character interview. How do these answers change previous answers?

Spend time working out your character’s back story. Use the interview questions as a starting point.

Bonus Lesson

If you enjoyed this story clinic, subscribe to Indie Plot Twist before September 30, 2015. Opt in for the newsletter and get a bonus lesson on character journaling in the October 2015 IPT Newsletter.

Other Resources

Well Rounded Character Worksheet Part 4 Deep Dark Secrets

Characters That Live and Breathe

How to Write Memorable Characters

Well-Rounded Characters – Getting Personal

writers-best-friendWelcome to lesson three in our character development story clinic. The previous posts are here.

In previous lessons, we’ve talked about getting acquainted with your lead character and getting personal. We mentioned how this process is the same process as getting to know real-life people. They begin as an acquaintance, then become friends. The longer you know them, the more you learn about them.

Treat character development the same way. Step-by-step.

Now for today’s post, getting personal with your lead characters.

Getting Personal: How Well Do You Really Know Your Character?

hands-bibleAs you learn more and more about your character, the traits you can observe will change from basic things like appearance, speech patterns, and mannerisms to more specific traits. Traits that may be observable only under certain circumstances. While there are no specific things to watch for in this section, be aware that you may discover some observable characteristics that appear only in moments of stress, such as tugging at an ear, twisting hair around a finger, or fussing with a shirt button.

The questions you’ll ask are more personal. Questions about marital status, family relationships, and finances. Here are a few questions you’re likely to run into.

  1. What kind of love life does this character have?
  2. Have they ever been in love?
  3. If so, how did that experience affect their life?
  4. If not, how has that affected their life?
  5. What are they looking for in a mate?
  6. Do they even desire to marry?
  7. Do they want a family?
  8. What condition is the marriage in?
  9. What kind of relationship does this character have with mother and father?
  10. What kind of relationship does this character have with their siblings?

Tools: Character Interview/Dossier
Go back to your character dossier. Keep adding to it. Flesh out those basic details as you’re able to. The same for any other questions you’ve already answered. Review the information and change it as needed. Be aware that the answers are not usually written in stone. Answering a question about how your character relates to an older brother may necessitate changes elsewhere.

Again, this isn’t something you need to do before beginning to write. In fact, for most writers, many of these kinds of details will appear during writing. Just make sure to record them whenever they appear.

But it is a good place to start.

Tool: Curricula Vitae
Otherwise known as a resume. While there is a section for career information on the character dossier, there’s no better way to understand your character’s professional self-view than by writing a resume for him or her.

Obviously, the more information you can include, the better you’ll know your character, but just the basic information (type of work, time at each job) is a good start.

apple-bag-collaboration-154-400Methods: Backstory
Continue developing the character’s backstory. As you learn new things, add events and situations that illustrate these things to the backstory. If you don’t want to do a full life story, focus on a few key events and flesh them out as much as possible.

Methods: Face-to-Face Meetings
In the previous post, I introduced one of my favorite methods for getting to know a character more personally: taking them to lunch. Or dinner. Or meeting them in their office or at their favorite place. In the Getting Friendly section, these sorts of meetings are the sorts of meetings you’d have with someone you didn’t know very well but wanted to.

The meetings you want now are the heart-to-heart sort of meetings that occur between people who are close friends and may be confidants. Don’t worry if you don’t start as a confidante, but you should be looking to develop the kind of give-and-take with your character in which you begin to hear things no one else is likely to hear. We’re not talking about deep, dark secrets. That’s for later.

But things I’ve talked about with characters at the Getting Personal phase are divorce, childhood trauma, notable successes and the failures they never want to remember.

Methods: Skin Diving
This method was first introduced to me by Danielle Hanna, my brainstorming partner and one of my writing partners. She wrote a guest post about it, which you can read here.

With this method, you aren’t interviewing your character. You are your character. It involves a bit of role playing and—to be honest—can be quite uncomfortable if you’re on the self-conscious side.

But it is a worthwhile method despite that. I learned a few things about the character I mentioned above when I spent a little time in his shoes.

Bonus Tip
Try a character journal entry first. You’ll be writing as the character anyway. Try on some of his or her mannerisms while you’re writing.


I don’t do all of these steps with every story and I don’t do them in the same order every time. The beauty of this process is that it can be tailored to any story. If I don’t need to go through a step, I don’t. If I need to repeat a step, I can.

It’s also organic in the sense that all the parts work together. If a character reveals something that changes the plot, it’s easy enough to go back and make those changes in the plot steps.

Your Assignment

Work on the “personal” section of the character interview.

Did you meet with your lead character last week? Were there any surprises? Did he or she hedge on some answers or refuse to answer altogether? Take a little time this week to probe those areas more deeply. See if you can uncover the reason for the reticence.

Other Resources

Well Rounded Character Worksheet Part 3 Getting Personal (click to download)

4 Tips for Getting To Know Your Characters

Why Your Characters Should Have Flaws

Well-Rounded Characters – Getting Friendly

2015-05-06 FriendsIn the last post on developing character, we talked about getting acquainted with new characters, particularly your lead characters. I likened that process to your first impressions and first conversations with new friends. (If you missed that post, you can read it here.)

But writing believable characters is more complicated than making new friends and while you do go through all the same stages, you need to be more than just casual friends with your most important characters.

In other words, once you’ve become acquainted, then you need to get friendly.

Getting Friendly

In the getting acquainted phase of the process, I mentioned a few things you’d be likely to learn from a casual acquaintance. Their name and maybe an occupation or interest, for example.

In a face to face meeting, you’d also make observations on such things as height, weight, hair and eye color, and so on. You’d see some mannerisms and speech patterns. You’d begin to form an opinion on what type of person you were talking to.

Obviously, that’s not as easy with a fictional character as it is with a real person. Especially in the realm of physical traits, mannerisms, and speech patterns. You can’t just walk up to a new fictional character and observe those things.

But there are ways to get to know your characters better and to get friendly with them.

Building Relationship

When you’re meeting new people and making new friends, the process is all about building relationship. You find common interests and focus on them at first. Say you and your new friend both like baseball. That’s what you talk about. You learn how deep the other person’s interest is, how much trivia they know, and how often they go to games. You might even go to a game together.

Do the same thing with your character. Every one of your characters will have something in common with you. It’s almost automatic. Find those things and focus on them at this stage of character development.

Here are a few tools and methods to get you started.

Tools: Character Interview
Remember that character interview I mentioned in the previous post? The one you can download for free here? It has a section for this part of the character development process.

Questions to answer from this section of the character interview include:

  1. Speech patterns
  2. Gestures
  3. Physical expressions
  4. Curses
  5. Favorite/frequently used words
  6. Manner of walk
  7. Quirks
  8. Optimist or pessimist
  9. Introvert or extrovert
  10. Philosophy (this may be only a general idea)

There are a lot more questions than these to ask, but these will get you started.

Methods: Random Scene
This is quite a lot like the introductory scene or omniscient narrative I mentioned last week. In this case, however, you’re focusing not on a random event, but on that thing (or things) that you and your character—your new friend have in common. If the common interest is baseball, for example, write a scene in which your character is at a game or talking about a game with another character.

Or with you.

Methods: Go Out For Lunch
take-a-character-to-lunchFiguratively speaking, of course. You’ll get some pretty strange looks if you try this in a real restaurant!

This is one of my favorite ways to get to know characters better. You can do this one of two ways.

For a more formal type of meeting, try the character’s work place and treat it the same way you might treat an interview if you were gathering information to write an article about someone.

For a more informal meeting, meet your character in a favorite diner, pub, or other location. I’ve met with characters on their back deck, at a city park, and in a restaurant.

It sounds difficult and perhaps scary, but once you get into it, it’s one of the easier ways to get friendly with a character. Granted, it doesn’t work with all characters, but it will work with many of them.

The bonus is that the way your character behaves toward you is the way they’ll behave toward other characters, as well. So you can get a feel for their style of interpersonal interaction, as well as getting more specific information.

By the way, this is a great way to begin at square one with character development and proceed from there. I have started with a very formal interview and progressed to a near friendship or beyond with new characters with this method in the past. It’s great for surprises, too, because sometimes the character takes over and that’s always fun.


Remember,  you’ll gain an increasingly deeper understanding of a lot of these things as you learn more about your character. At the getting acquainted phase, you might learn where they work. As you get friendly, you might hear that they don’t like their job and discover a hint of a dream job, but it won’t be until you get personal that the character tells you what that dream job is.

That’s okay. In fact, that’s as it should be. As you gain a deeper understanding, you can change your answers to reflect the new information or understanding.

Your Assignment

Continue fleshing out the interview questions for your lead. Get into the more personal parts of the interview. Answer as many of the questions as you can and completely as you can. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers. The beauty of the character interview is that it can expand as much or as little as you need.

Meet with your character. If you don’t know where to start, begin with a twenty-questions sort of interview. It can be in person or not.

If you know enough about your character to know what he or she does for a living or where their favorite place is, try writing a personal interview at their office or in that favorite place. Don’t stress over this. It may not work the first time, but keep trying. The more you write this type of character development, the easier it will become.

And watch for those bonus tidbits! They will happen.

Other Resources

FREE: Well Rounded Character Worksheet Part 2 Getting Friendly (Click to download)

Characters That Live and Breathe

How to Write Memorable Characters