From Pantser To Plotter: My Conversion, Part 2

So yesterday I talked about the aspects of craft that are very important to my plotting.  I warn you, this is another tome and has lots of screenshots.  Bear with me.  Today I want to talk about organization.  I think this is one of the stereotypical fundamental differences between pantsers and plotters.  There’s this notion that pantsers are somehow out there, ungrounded, flower children (or something) and that plotters are rigidly organized.  I can promise you that even as a die hard pantser, I was never in any way an ungrounded, out there, flower child.  I have always been an organized soul.  But even as I’ve transitioned to being a plotter, I’m still not one of those rigidly organized people who freaks if a book is out of alignment.  I’m somewhere in the middle.  And so, I am willing to bet, are a whole lot of other writers out there.

See the thing about it is, being a plotter does NOT necessarily mean that you outline.

Crazy southern writer say what?  (Okay, yeah, that there is proof positive that Hannah Montana is on way too often in my house…)

I’m serious.  There are a lot of ways you can organize your plot without ever writing out a formal outline like you did for those research papers in college.  I’ve tried out a lot of them, and I have to admit, I am a software geek.  I love playing with new software and learning how to use it and whether it’s something that will work for me.  I’ve tried out many over the last few years during my conversions.   If you care, you can check out my previous posts on In Search of The Perfect Plotting Tool, Back In The Saddle Again, and Search For The Perfect Plotting Tool Continued.  They mention some of the programs I’ll be talking about today, and others that wound up not being my thing.  You may also have heard people talk about Scrivener.  I don’t know squat about Scrivener because, well, it isn’t free, and I don’t care for Macs.  For the rest of the world who live on PC and who prefer to try and use stuff for FREE, you’re in the right place.

The first program I’d like to introduce to you is Text Block Writer.  For you folks who like post it notes, note cards, or simply want a way to jot things down and organize them one way or another, this is the way you can do it without worrying that your kids, cat, or dog will accidentally knock the pile off and mix everything up.  I think of TBW as virtual sticky notes.  As you can see below, there are 3 columns and a holding area per page.  Now you can actually add more columns on a page, but my personal experience is that it gets a little clunky.  If you need more columns, there are multiple pages–up to 100 of them that you can click between.  Now what I like about this program is that you can use it to outline if you wish (and you can see in the example below that it’s set up that way with a Chapter 1 and then post its for events that happen there), or you can use it to organize notes on characters, backstory, and story threads.  It’s the latter I most often used.  I say used because I’m not using TBW on my current project, but I still feel it’s very worth mentioning.  If you’re having trouble reading the image, try clicking on it and it should take you to the full sized version.

One of the things I really love about this program is that when those random ideas occur to me–you know the ones you don’t know how you’ll use but you totally have to write down?  Well I just made a block, wrote it down, and chunked it in the holding area over there on the right until I knew how to use it.  This sort of thing is handy for a single story or, as my CP was doing, to manage characters and notes for an entire series.  And for those people who like to color code things, you can do that as well.  I had different color blocks for different types of notes.  And I could also change the color of the background of the block to indicate the status of the scene (white for outline status, yellow for draft, green for written).  In any event, there is a lot of flexibility with this program, and I think you should check it out.

Moving on, here’s one of my very dear favorites for when I write romantic suspense (favorite because in RS, timeline specifics are very important for my story).  Storybook is an open source software you can find at SourceForge.  I’ve seen it through many many versions and each one improves things.  One of the absolute coolest things about Storybook is that they have a wishlist forum where you can make suggestions or report bugs and if it’s feasible then Martin (the creator)  or one of his programmer buddies will put it in a future version.  I’ve had several of my suggestions incorporated over the last couple of years.  How often is it that software developers actually LISTEN to the people who use their program?  Seriously.

So okay, an overview.  There is no way you can read this tiny print, so I encourage you to open the full image in a new tab if you’d like to see what I’m actually talking about.  Or better yet, download it yourself.  Done that?  Okay, so this is your main page (I’ve opened the demo included with the download, as I don’t have a current project with me that I can use as an example).  What you’re looking at is the chronological view.  Those three columns you see are three different story strands–think of them as the plot threads you have to keep up with.  See how they’re nice and color coded?  They are also arranged from top to bottom in chronological order.  For a book that has a very specific timeline where you absolutely need to know whether this thing happened on Monday, March 16, 2009 or on Wednesday, this is the program for you.  To the right you can see a File Tree showing lists of Characters, Locations, Chapters, Strands, and Parts.  Let’s look at some of these in detail.

What you see below is the Character box for Bart Simpson.  You’ve got your basic options for gender, major or minor character, name, birth and death days, occupation, and a choice to color code him.  I find this handy when looking at who is in each scene.  There are also tabs for description and general notes on the character.  In either of these places you can put your more detailed character worksheets if you are inclined to do so.

Next up you see the edit scene box.  Notice how you can check off which strands this scene deals with?  You also can specify chapter, the status (outline, first draft, done type thing), number the scene (and I think they now allow you to drag and drop to reorder scenes).  The thing I ran into trouble with was the required date.  Since this program DOES so heavily rely on chronology for much of its organization, you have to stick a date in there.  Sure you can totally make them up (and I often did), but sometimes I just didn’t have a date.  I didn’t know when stuff would happen.  And until I made a date up, I couldn’t save the scene.  Martin’s still working on a way around this, but apparently it’s really really complicated from a programming standpoint.  In any event, this is AWESOME for keeping track of timelines if that’s very important to your plot.

Below you see the Book View of your project.  This is the one I use most often because it’s how I write.  I go in chronological book order from scene one to scene two and so on.  This view immediately told me what strand I was working on, who was in the scene, where it took place, when it took place, and gave me the summary of whatever I was supposed to be writing.   I also seem to remember that there is a color coded frame system that indicates the status of the scene.

And finally, you have the charts.  Blame it on my background as a scientist, but I love charts.  In this case, you have the following options available, which is really fabulous for managing large casts, figuring out where people where at what point in the story, etc.  I can see this being really useful to anyone writing mystery or another story where it was imperative to keep close tabs on who was where when.  There are plenty of other features that I’m not highlighting now (because this is already running long), so I’ll just say that if you’re interested download it.

Now, the piece de resistance, I want to introduce you to my favorite of all the various programs I have tried.  Hal Spacejock author Simon Haynes has created yWriter, currently in version 5.  Like all the other programs I have mentioned here today, it is free, and it is awesome.  I talked yesterday about the scene and sequel constructs by Swain?  Yep, this program is designed with them in mind.  This is another one of those you’ll need to open in another screen to see what you’re actually looking at.  Below is the overview screen.  This is what you see when you open a project.  To the left I have all of my planned chapters listed (I happen to expect 28 chapters with 2 scenes each for this book, but you can absolutely add them one at a time as you go, if you prefer), with the total word count of each, plus the cumulative word count.  In the box to the right, you see the listing of scenes in the selected chapter, which tells you the POV character, number of words in the scene, title of the scene, status of the scene, who is IN the scene, where it takes place…  And at the bottom, that red, yellow, and green thing?  Yeah, that’s the Goal, Conflict, Outcome.  You will also see tabs for the Characters, Locations, Items (that pipe wrench that Professor Plum took into the library would be listed here), Scene Notes, Content, and Description.  Some of these I find a bit redundant for my purposes, but that’s up to you.

Now when you create a blank scene you get the following.  You pick the chapter it’s in, name the scene, select whether it is an Action or Reaction scene (scene vs. sequel)–which gives you the Goal, Conflict, Outcome or Reaction, Dilemma, Decision at the bottom to fill out–, pick if it’s part of the main plot or the subplot, the POV of the scene,  and if you’re really into it, you can pick exactly what day, hour, and minute the scene starts and how long it lasts.  I don’t know what those rating things are about.  I don’t use them.  There are multiple other tabs–the same ones you’ll see on the main page.  The Content tab is where you actually write the story if you are so inclined to use this as your main Word Processor.  You can later export it into a Word file.  This is what I choose to do (though I know full well I’ll end up doing a full read through of the final exported draft just to fix formatting crap).

Now you see that tab for Notes? This is where I make use of my little scene worksheet.  At the top I type up whatever I know about the scene.  This was an early one, so I was very clear on exactly what happened when.  Some scenes I have are not even total sentence summaries.  You can make this as detailed or as vague as you want.  Then at the bottom, I paste in my scene worksheet and fill it out.

There are assorted reports you can print, summaries, full outlines of whatever notes you’ve made.  Adding and removing scenes and chapters is only a few button clicks and with another click or two, it will renumber chapters for you.  There are also drag and drop capabilities if you need to move a scene or a chapter. There are room for project notes as well, though I don’t really use those.  Other features include a storyboard that will list scenes by character (as in showing all the scenes a character is in, in order), scene lists that will simply give you a full list of all planned scenes (also in order), and even a word usage tracker so you can see if you overdo it with some particular word in your manuscript or a Find Problem Words feature (either preset or user defined).  And for the truly organized and disciplined, yWriter also allows you to set a work schedule that will give you a daily writing target (in number of words based on the date you say you want stuff done).

There are, of course, detailed pages for Character Sheets, Locations, Items, etc.  Again, you can put as much or as little info in here as you like.  I personally have pics of my hero, heroine, and villain in their profiles.  There’s a Goals tab in there for each character as well, and that’s where I put my GMC info for each one.  I think that’s one of the things I love most about this program is that there are plenty of essentially blank tabs that I can turn into whatever I personally need.  So I have easy access to all my information with just a few clicks, in just one program.

That’s really the hallmark of something that WORKS.  Something that can be used by lots of different people in different ways.  So even if you’re a die hard pantser, I encourage you to take a look at some of these programs.  Storybook might be a bit much for a true pantser, but both Text Block Writer, and yWriter can easily be adapted for use by panters.  See if some of them work for you.  Sometimes a bit of organization is all the muse needs to take off in a new direction.

Share your favorite way to organize your story info in comments for a chance to win a gently used copy of Witch by Barbara Michaels.

The winner of yesterday’s copy of Rachel Gibson’s Sex, Lies, and Online Dating is…Stacey!

Drop me a line at with your mailing address, and I’ll be sure to get that out by the end of the week.

18 thoughts on “From Pantser To Plotter: My Conversion, Part 2

  1. This is by far the *coolest* post. I downloaded Storybook and have been playing with it all morning. Thanks so much for the heads up. I didn’t even know this creature existed, but it’s really helping keep track of things.

  2. I discovered yWriter a few months ago. I absolutely *love* it! Being able to move scenes around, add and delete easily, make it so much easier to edit “big things” than trying to navigate one huge document. I also use the scene descriptions as sort of a rough outline, planning a few scenes ahead as I finish one. And it’s extremely valuable having the character names and info all in one spot – I’m constantly forgetting names and such for the first part of the book, and it’s easy to look it up quickly with yWriter.

    I also find it easier to just “jump in” to a new scene when there aren’t any other words around it. New scene equals fresh blank box, and I’m only focusing on what I’m writing right now, instead of what I’ve already written. Very helpful for keeping the momentum up on a first draft.

    1. I hadn’t really thought about it, but you’re right. I think when I have a full document, I have far too much of a habit of going back and reading and revising and polishing the early stuff before or instead of moving forward, which means less forward progress. I definitely think it helps to be able to focus one scene at a time.

  3. It’s not free, but I really, really enjoy Liquid Story Binder. I tried yWriter, and I can’t remember why I didn’t enjoy using it, but there was something. And I figured that since an organizing tool is just for me and my brain, if I didn’t enjoy using it, I just wouldn’t.

    LSB seems to have many of the same capabilities, but it’s hampered by an extreme learning curve, and, yes, cost. But one of the huge benefits to me is that you can create “Shortcuts” in LSB. Simply point to the file or URL, and LSB will keep it in a list, much like Internet bookmarks. Instead of having to try to remember where I put that supplemental spreadsheet I doodled at work, or fire up Firefox and find the bookmark, I can do it from the software itself – which tends to cut down on the “ooh shiny!” part of research that will draw me away from actually writing. And I enjoy the variety of formatting options and tools available to me there.

    I’d like to not be included in the giveaway, please. It’s not my sort of book, and I’d rather have someone who would love it have the opportunity to do so.

    1. I’m not familiar with LSB but it sounds like it has many of the features of a Wiki. That’s another one of my organizational plotting obsessions that I’ll write a post about some other time. I find them very handy for organizing notes and thoughts on full world type stuff like I have for the series I’m working on.

      1. Oooh, a Wiki! Please do! LSB is good for many, many things, but it’s hard to remember where I’ve put all my little “jots” sometimes. I hadn’t thought about using a wiki, but the ability to link notes to other notes, and to outside sources… my inner plotter is drooling already.

        1. Maybe next month I’ll have the time to sit down and do a series about wikis. I think I have an old post somewhere with vague stuff, but who knows where that post is.

  4. Kait, this is amazing that you have compiled here! I’m in a pattern that’s working right now, but when it quits working (you know it will, all the good stuff just stops being effective one day), I’ll be checking these out.

  5. Thanks for this–especially all the screenshots and the comparisons between the programs. I’m also a sucker for organizational strategies.

    I’m going to jump in and share the wiki program (tiddlywikiwrite) I put together using Tiddlywiki. It’s free/opensource, and freely customizable.

    This is a free ebook version of a LB&LI workshop I held two years ago.

    What I like about it is that it’s a javascript app that runs in any browser, but is on your local machine, not on the net. It’s not *exactly* a wiki–I think of it more like index cards meets database. And you can plunk it on a thumbdrive and take it with you computer to computer. I organize all my novels using it now.

  6. thanks for the rundown on these apps…i have scrivener…which is pretty cool. though i like the look of that post it app.

  7. Another very helpful post.

    I had an earlier version of yWriter on a previous computer, but for some reason I never reinstalled it after switching computers. I will rectify that ASAP.

    Also thanks for pointing out “Storybook” which I hadn’t heard of before. Since I am currently working on a project where timelines are of essence, it will certainly be helpful.

  8. I guess as a reader not a writer I never really thought about tools of the trade so to speak. Buts its awesome to see programs like this out there that can help keep the plot organized. Those are some cool looking programs.

  9. Thank you so much for mentioning these programs. I didn’t know about Storybook — I’m going to download it right now and fool around with it. Cheers!

  10. I have yWritter and, what little I’ve played with it, I agree with you. I really need to open it up and learn it better. Thank you for your insights on it.

  11. I have yet to use this kind of method. To me, it looks very daunting. Plus, I like the process of sitting down and filling out index cards (my favorite plotting tool).

  12. thanks for the info on the software. i’d actually downloaded yWriter some time ago but never actually got around to using the thing seriously.

    thank you for this series of articles. very interesting examination of the pantser/plotter continuum. after two failed screenplays and several aborted novels i’ve discovered that i am both a plotter and a pantser.

    i now plot/outline so i have a general idea what i’m doing — beginning, middle, end kind of thing — then pants my way into getting to know the characters and adding flesh to the outline. then back to outlining for a while, more pantsing when that seems to flame out, etc.

    not sure how this will all pan out in the end but i’ve certainly got a lot farther with the WIP than i have with previous efforts. fingers crossed i guess.

    thanks again for the articles.


  13. Hi, Kait. I’ve downloaded Storybook recently, but I’ve had issues with it. I could only open it upon installation, but after I closed it I couldn’t open it back up without reinstalling it. Did you ever have that problem?

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