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Writing Advice

Drafting for pantsers

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you probably know I’m not one for planning before I write the first draft of a story. I’ve tried it, and I just never stick to the plan. It’s a waste of time for me. I prefer diving right into a story and dealing with problems as they present themselves. Today I thought I’d talk a little bit about my drafting process.

Rough/Zero draft

Some people claim that every writer is a planner because most writers go through multiple drafts of a story, so your first draft is your plan. I don’t believe in arguing with strangers on the internet, especially about something as minor as drafting stories, so…Whatever.

For me, a rough draft (or a zero draft) is a quick and dirty version of my book. It doesn’t feel like a plan or an outline, it feels like a novel. It’s an ugly novel with bad pacing, info dumps, and settings that look like sketchy white rooms, but it’s still a novel. There’s a main character with a goal, something stopping them from reaching that goal, conflict, dialogue, the whole nine yards. It may not be perfect, but that’s not the point. The point of a rough draft, for me, is to figure out the beginning, middle, and end of the story. That’s it.

I have a few goals for a rough draft.

  • Establish a macro world and micro worlds
  • Rough out my major characters
  • Figure out the major conflicts
  • Write out the main plot and get an idea of subplots

Second draft

What I do in the second draft, and really in all subsequent drafts, depends on how the rough draft turned out.

In my current novel, I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t continue writing because I was missing a major character. I had known something was missing for a while, but I got about 3/4 of the way through the story before I figured out what that was. Basically, my antagonist needed a henchman to do his dirty work. This character is a real villain–he’s downright evil–and he’s going to appear several times throughout the story.

I also need to rewrite certain elements of the main plot.

I suspect I’m going to have a massively different story by the time I finish the second draft, but it should still loosely follow the chain of events from the rough draft.

Goals for the second draft:

  • Work the villain’s scenes into the rest of the story
  • Rewrite the deuteragonist’s storyline so it fits in better with the main plot
  • Make the protagonist more dynamic

Additional drafts

I’m hesitant to say what I might do in later drafts of my story because things are still in early stages. I’d guess that I’ll have less work to do as I refine ideas and details become more solid, but we’ll see. Sometimes you think you’re on the right track, and then a critique shows you that you’re way off base.

It’s too soon to worry about all that, though. For now, I’m just going to work on what I know is problematic and deal with the rest when I get to it.

Do you have a system for drafting stories? Feel free to share your experience in the comments.

10 replies on “Drafting for pantsers”

Thank you! I believe in being transparent about my process; everyone writes differently and being satisfied with your work is the only thing that matters. As far as fiction writing goes, I’m a total disaster. I try to be a little more organized with the blog, but it’s still kind of messy behind the scenes. I have a lot of drafted posts that are waiting on finishing touches.

I know very little about writing in length, so your posts fasinate me, they’re so informative. Can I ask how long it takes for you to write these initial drafts?

It depends on how complicated the story is. I’ve written two novel-length stories now. One was 150,000 words, which was actually too long for its target audience and genre, and took me about 6 months to write. It’s been sitting on my hard drive for a long time because it needs a lot of editing. I’ll eventually get around to that and probably self-publish it as a trilogy someday. The one I’m working on now took about 8 months total if you only look at the time I was actually writing regularly. I took a break from working on it at the start of the pandemic, so that pushed it out to 10 months from start to finish. I’m hoping to get two rounds of revisions completed on the current novel this year. The second draft is going to take a while because I have so much to rewrite. The third draft shouldn’t be too bad.

Some people write much faster than I do. There’s actually a contest called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) where people take the month of November and try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I know several people who have completed it. Other people take years to finish a book.

Thank you! Some people are planners, and they do put a lot of time into outlines, character development, and so on before they actually start writing. For a lot of them, that outline gives them the freedom to be creative because they don’t have to worry about what comes next while they’re writing. I like the idea of being a planner, and I used to create these detailed outlines for stories, but then I never stuck to the outlines once I started writing. It’s easier for me to just write and fix any problems once the draft is finished.

This is exactly what I needed to read. I sometimes feel like everyone is telling me to plan plan plan and it just doesn’t work for me. I am a complete pantser. Reading your description of the zero draft was like going through my experiences of my own draft! I am currently on draft two, a lot has changed from the zero draft, and I sometimes feel like I’m getting there (but most of the time feel like there is still so much more to edit).
Thank you so much for writing this.

I’m so glad I was able to help you! The unfortunate side of pantsing is that we tend to have more developmental editing to do in later drafts than plotters usually do (at least to my understanding), but I don’t mind that so much. I’m a better editor than writer, so it works for me.

If you want to learn more about zero drafting, Alexa Donne has a great video over on her YouTube channel. She’s also a pantser, though she refers to it as discovery writing.

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