Do you plot your novel to the last detail or do you fly by the seat of your pants? Do you know where you are going when you put pen to paper or are you winging it for the entire journey? In other words, are you a plotter or pantster?
Pantster is a great word, isn’t it (even if my spell check objects to it)? But, like all my best ideas, it is stolen. The question was raised by Tabatha Stirling, author of Blood on the Banana Leaf, during a discussion at our recent Unbound event at Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh. I’ve already written a little about the way I planned The Backstreets of Purgatory: a detailed plan for the first draft before the characters took it upon themselves to thwart my effort to control them.
Me? More plotter than pantster
When I asked Tabatha her own question, not only did she kindly ignore the fact that I was a wretched question-thief but she happily agreed to contribute to this post.
Flushed with good will from her generosity and delightful response, I tried the question out on several other unsuspecting writers. Once they realised I wasn’t asking a personal question about their undergarment preferences, they were also happy to write a few words for me. And what a fantastic group they are.
Along with Tabatha Stirling, they include: novelists Jules Grant and Jennie Ensor; leading media medic and novelist, Carol Cooper; author, editor, speaker and writing coach, Roz Morris; poet-novelists Lynn Davidson and Kathleen Jones; blogger and travel writer, Sandy Bennet-Haber, and writer, editor and creative writing tutor, Anne Hamilton. You can find out information on all the contributors and where to find their work in detail at the end of the article.
From initial ideas springing from a day-dreaming story-dwam or a single image, to creating sound tracks for each character or holding conversations with them, to letting them loose in exotic places and waiting to see what they get up to, and trying to keep track using spread sheets, post-it notes or revision cards (that might get ignored), the result is a fascinating insight into other writers’ working practices.
Tabatha Stirling, author of Blood on the Banana Leaf, Unbound.
I have always yearned to be ordered, less eccentric and much more detail-orientated. However, those aspirations are as likely as our Beagle going off her food so I have to take what I can get.
I am a Pantster. I have an idea. I think about it bit. Then a bit more. Then I start writing. And then I get to where I can’t remember which monsters did what and if I left Professor Tranter in the Cathedral at the end of the third chapter.
Then I buy revision cards that I scrawl stuff on. Then I forget where they are and when I find them they are decorated with Toddler scribbles and unidentified ‘gunk’.
It seems incredible that I ever finish a book or a story blighted as I am by the Mists of Tabbydrama!
But I do. So it must work for me. I still idolise the detail-orientated though.
Plotter to Pantster Score
Jules Grant, author of We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire, Myriad Editions
I’m not sure I can separate these sensibly but I believe passionately in both.
I tend to write and organise my story simultaneously, although it feels more organic than organised. Initially, an idea in the form of a voice or a picture will creep up on me from behind and worry away at me until it takes some sort of focus or shape, it’s not a completely conscious process. I seem to slip into what my Dad would have called a dwam. I’m not sure there is a direct English translation for this, a waking dream or day-dreaming state I suppose. In a story-dwam it is as if my mind unconsciously filters out anything that distracts from the story-process—with the obvious consequences for what is commonly and affectionately known by others as ‘real-life’. This is something I have done all my life, to the immense irritation of every school teacher I ever had.
A story-dwam can last months and drives everyone I love mad. I might jot down a few notes but that’s it at this stage, I’ll probably lose them anyway. It is as if I have to know who the story ‘belongs’ to and be able to see her and hear her in my head, before I can go any further.
Then there just comes a moment when I can’t do it all in my head anymore and I know I need to write.By this time I will usually have in the back of my mind a general ‘shape’ for a story and the character development, but of course this can—usually will—change as I write.
I write in a simple word-processing programme. At this stage I just want to get my main character chatting to me, to write down everything she says, mess about with the voice and point of view. I don’t focus on plot at this point or worry about what I write or the way I write. I’m still on my quest to find out who my main character is—albeit on paper now—and what her problems are. To find out what she really wants, as opposed to what she thinks she wants, and discover who or what is keeping her from getting it. I don’t need to know at this stage whether she gets it in the end. Which is just as well, as I often don’t have a clue till we both get there.
I start a running an outline at the same time I start writing. I use an Excel table file to outline but any file that has a table format would do. I tend to think and write in pictures and scenes and not necessarily in any final order, so Excel is a godsend for me. I use the formatted table as a kind of story-board to help me spot problems as well as to tighten up and organise my story later on. On the table I make a note of every scene or story-event I write or imagine, each scene with a separate cell and row of its own. A short paragraph or even one word or image will do at this stage, I can come back to writing it more fully later (or not, if it loses significance as other things develop). In Excel, I can move cells/rows—therefore the scenes or story-events—around easily and I have an instantly-accessible note of everything I have done and haven’t done, and things I intend to do. It is easy to see the emerging shape of your story as the table fills up, highlighting any gaps or weaknesses in the story or character development, and this makes it easier to tighten things up at a later stage.
Once I’m writing in earnest, I tend to move between prose and my outline continuously, adding, deleting or amending both as I work. If I didn’t do this I would certainly still write, but I’d probably never arrive at a finished product! Outlining allows me to move forward with a story and makes me feel in control, even when I’m not.
I believe in beginnings, a middle, and endings, that a character drives story and all that clever story-jazz, but I don’t believe in unbreakable rules or infallible blueprints, never have. For myself, I want to find a complex character, put her into her own personal worst nightmare, then just take my foot off the brake and let her take me places. But then I always did love a risk.
Plotter to Pantster Score:
Best of both worlds
Jennie Ensor, author of The Blind Side, Unbound
For me it’s both. There’s a very enjoyable stage of semi-conscious dreaming about all aspects of a new project, waking up with spellbinding ideas and taking off on meandering thought-fests before getting on with the tasks of writing and plotting. Early on, I love writing without knowing entirely where I’m going, and only finding out after it’s written. If a novel is totally planned out too early I lose interest. But once it’s got to first draft, my instinct to tamper kicks in and the endless re-writes begin.
Plotter to Pantster Score
Meandering thought-fests with a background plan
Carol Cooper, media medic, novelist, author of Hampstead Fever
My name is Carol Cooper and I’m a pantster.
Before I turned to fiction, I’d written over ten non-fiction books, some of them illustrated child health titles for Dorling Kindersley and the like. These demand precision planning, with regimented word counts for each chapter, each page, for each box. Nothing is left to chance at the outline stage, or anywhere else. Besides, I’m a scientist by training. How could I not be a plotter?
Yet, when it comes to novels, I’m a pantster. I begin with a few characters, a setting, and a rough idea for the story, and off I go. Despite the copious plot notes I force myself to make along the way, I never stick to them for long. The story grows organically, and my characters, once I get to know them, make all the decisions for me. They’ve changed the ending of both my novels by simply refusing to do what I’d jotted down on index cards, even when I’ve highlighted it in bright pink.
I reckon writing fiction engages a different part of the brain.
Plotter to Pantster Score:
Scientist aside, a self-confessed pantster
Roz Morris, editor, speaker, writing coach and author of (among many other books) Nail Your Novel
I do both. I collect snippets of ideas, write them on index cards and arrange them in a sort-of order, then fill in gaps, change everything around. I start feeling my way with my characters and figure out what they want to do in the mess I’ve put them in. I might write an outline synopsis, or jump straight into the text. I build up an Undercover Soundtrack (music that seems to somehow belong to the characters and setting) and I go running with it in my headphones. I take the draft I’ve written and make a beat sheet (a very customised summary of each scene), check the structure, change everything, think about the characters again, change everything again, collect more music, go for more runs …. and eventually there is a novel. It’s a combination of planning and organic discovery as I pare back the layers and understand what the idea is trying to tell me.
Plotter to Pantster Score
A bit of both with added music
Lynn Davidson, poet and novelist
I’m first of all a poet, and when I write fiction I usually start with a picture in my mind or a phrase and write to find out something about it; to unpack it. I do usually have a sense of subject area—I knew with Ghost Net that I wanted to write about a family that is living between Prague and Wellington. I knew with The Desert Road that I wanted to write about sisters raised in central New Zealand during the building of the Tongariro Power Project. But I open a small door with a little picture on it, and I meet my characters. And I make my way through the story almost as they do, bit by bit. I find this means lots of rewriting and it may not be a sensible way to go. But it’s the way that interests me. I really like Kirsty Gunn’s work—especially Rain and Big Music and I heard her say once (ages ago at a festival in Wellington) that she has no idea what’s going to happen when she starts her novels. She finds out as she writes them. Of course with Big Music she knew she wanted to write a novel to the sound of the Highland bagpipes—piobaireachd. The novel is almost more of a score than a text. Brilliant. And Woolf also wrote almost as though she was writing music. This interests me. I’m not much of a builder; I’m more of a wanderer and a listener.
Plotter to Pantster Score
Wandering and wondering
Kathleen Jones, poet and novelist
I have to know what the story is before I start but only in a very loose, beginning, middle and end kind of way. I work out the details as I go along. Being a poet also influences the way I write prose fiction. With a poem I get a line or an idea and then just let my imagination go. Stories often start with a strong first line too. I do a lot of ‘free-writing’ :putting the pen on the page and setting it in motion. It can be quite surprising what turns up! Editing then becomes the important bit of the process, where all the wild ideas have to be tamed and sometimes I have to choose between alternative versions. I am cheered on by Catherine Cookson’s method of working: ‘I always start with the characters and put them in an environment and see what happens.’ It created a lot of best-sellers. The place and the people are as important to me as they were to her. The way they interact can produce some interesting plot lines. Maybe that’s why I often choose exotic places to set my stories in. I like taking my readers (and myself) out of the familiar.
Once I’ve got the outline of the story in my head, more or less, then I create the back-story. I believe that this has to be credible if you want your readers to love and understand your characters and their motivations. I create time-lines, family trees and do a lot of research into the background of both time and place. But I aim to include as little of this as possible in the finished book.
When I’m writing non-fiction it’s quite different. Everything has to be carefully planned and plotted. I keep charts and diagrams and chapter summaries. The wall is covered with multi-coloured post-it notes and I know where every narrative arc is going. But I’d find that very restrictive for fiction. I love the knowledge that it’s my story and I can take it wherever I want to.
Plotter to Pantster Score
Poetry in motion
Sandy Bennet-Haber, blogger and travel writer, editor of You Won’t Remember This—Travel with Babies and Anne Hamilton, writer, editor and creative writing tutor
If I am anything at all I am a pantster. In my non-fiction, short form writing I tend to get away with this. For longer fiction writing I have this fear, I think, that by writing towards a plotted outcome my story will become forced towards that point without being able to unfold organically. But without a plan, there is a danger that very little happens, that the work becomes ‘plot-challenged’. For my novel in progress, I have recently started working with a mentor (Anne Hamilton) who describes the work as having a quiet plot but being no less important and engaging for all that. However, Anne is pushing me (at my own request) to plot my work more. It is early days, so I am yet to discover if I have a planner in me.
Plotter to Pantster Score
with possible added plotting
My academic PhD was so much ‘easier’ as it had to be planned to the nth degree… and it’s only since doing that I’ve accepted that if I plan (reasonably, not totally) fiction, I get things done. And, you know what, it’s no less creative, and the same moments of ‘inspiration’ occur but the bonus is—I finish things!! I think I’m now 75% planner, 25% pantster which = finisher! And that’s what matters.
Plotter to Pantster Score
And you? How do you go about starting a longer work of fiction? Is it all planned out to start with or do you find the story as you write it? Do you use any of the methods this group of writers use? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
A Massive Thank You to All the Contributors
Tabatha’s debut novel Blood on the Banana Leaf takes you into the dark heart of Singapore’s maid culture. It is available to pre-order at unbound.com where the first special edition is currently crowdfunding. You can also find Tabatha at volequeen.com where she writes about being creative, being a mother and being bipolar. You can follow her on twitter @volequeen
Jules’ thrillingly original, drug gang novel We Go Around In The Night And Are Consumed By Fire is set in Manchester and stars the all-female Bronte Close Gang. It has been long-listed for The CWA (Crime Writer’s Association) Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award 2017 and for The Polari First Book Prize 2017. It is available from Myriad, Amazon and Waterstones.
Jennie’s thriller BLIND SIDE has recently been published by Unbound. The paperback edition is available from your local bookshop (UK only), including Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Daunt Books and independent booksellers or online at Amazon, Waterstones and the ebook through iTunes and Unbound.
You can find her on her website, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram and @jennie_ensor on twitter.
Carol’s latest novel Hampstead Fever is available to buy. She blogs at Pills and Pillow Talk and can also be found at www.drcarolcooper.com
Roz is a hugely prolific writer. Her book Nail Your Novel explains in more detail the process that she has outlined here. You can find the book and all about her writing process on rozmorris.wordpress.com.
Kathleen is a poet, biographer and novelists, whose subjects include Katherine Mansfield, Catherine Cookson, Christina Rossetti, and the pioneering 17th century writer Margaret Cavendish. She can be found at www.kathleenjones.co.uk
Details of all Lynn’s poetry and fiction can be found at lynn-davidson.com
Sandy is an Edinburgh based Australian writer. At thirty, she became a backpacker and blogged her way around the world. She has a husband and two young sons and is the editor of ‘You Won’t Remember This- travel with babies’ – published under her own publishing platform Flamingo Rover.
Anne’s book A Blond Bengali Wife is the ‘unexpected’ travelogue of her adventures in Bangladesh. Her editing services can be found at http://www.writerightediting.co.uk.
Pen nib by MJS, Unsplash
5 thoughts on “Are you a plotter or pantster?”
I loved your visual scoring method and to see how many different approaches people take to reach the same goal – a finished novel. Some great tips here too!
I think that I’m a little bit of both in my writing style now…was just pantster in the beginning like when I wrote my first book, I had an idea of where I wanted it to go but it got there on it’s own while I was writing it. Now, I’m writing my second book and I am a plotter. I decided that I needed an outline to define each chapter in order to get to where my book is going. I still do some writing on the fly though in the chapters and just add it to my outline as I go : ) I was never good at coloring between the lines. I always liked coloring the whole page not just the picture.
Thanks for commenting. It’s interesting how your approach has changed. And I find it fascinating that everyone approaches it in a different way. It really make me sure that prescriptive writing advice is not the way to go. Everyone has to find the way that suits them.
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