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A writing plan: are you a planner or pantser?

Do you have a writing plan?

It seems there are two kinds of writers: those who have a writing plan, and those who write on the seat of their pants.

I would love to write a synopsis, the theme, the backgrounds of each character, the main events of each chapter before I ever begin, but that just won’t work for me.

 When I start a novel I only have a germ: a snatch of dialogue, an incident, never a theme. I don’t even know what kind of characters will pop up or which will prove to be major or even where the setting of dramatic scenes will be. But despite the discipline of degrees and diplomas and a Ph.D. I’m an irrevocably, irredemiable pantser.

Pantser Process

Working on the small germ, as I write something happens to the character speaking or experiencing the incident. That turns into a chapter. At the end of one chapter, I know what has to happen in the next but not further. By about the fourth chapter something emerges that enriches or expands the plot, becomes a sub-plot or develops one of the characters.

The novel outline falls into place when I know the ending. Usually that’s before I get halfway. Then it’s a matter of laying out the remaining ground, including character backgrounds, needed for reaching that end.

All my fiction has one thing in common (as well as their manner of creation) — they are character-led. I can’t write any other way. There’s no great plan but interesting things gradually emerge.

Example

Here’s an example of my writing process. A Relative Invasion (a trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII) began with one tiny thread.  An elderly man told me his school had been evacuated to a village where after milk and biscuits, the children were walked around the village in a crocodile seeking billets.  A tall seven-year-old, (‘He’ll cost a bit to feed and clothe’) this man was the last to be chosen.   
I thought, children must have been so resilient at that time. And so Billy was born, a sturdy well-meaning child. He was only aged five in 1937, and so I found myself writing historical fiction (with all the research that entails). The key figure at that time was, of course, Hitler, and his rise to power came as result of German resentment, humiliation and envy after the end of WWI.

Consequently, a cousin for Billy surfaced. He would experience these negative emotions and be a psychological bully to make Billy’s life a misery. I made him artistic and physically frail. However, this Kenneth would need to be a charmer for the adults to be blind to the bullying.

Now I had a theme for my novel: the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) would be mirrored in micro by the two cousins in their developing rivalry.  Billy then needed a secret symbol of power to support him. I hit upon a Cossack sabre, that then needed a background story of its own. This led me to research the Russian/Germanic conflict at the start of WWI. I realised that the sabre icon would need to filter right through the story.

I am not recommending this approach to writing, just showing how a novel can unfold as the narrative continues, and in this case, it was a trilogy that emerged.

Remedies

Ideally, have a writing plan. There are loads of HowTos on Amazon. Don’t risk half-baked advice from ebooks. Some may be good, but play safe.  A good book is Diana Doubtfire’s classic writers’ guide a paperback you may get cheap as it’s been around some years.   

Are you are you an inveterate pantser? Then buy Scrivener and let it organise you. See my last post.

(I first wrote on this subject for the ALLi blog)

2 thoughts on “A writing plan: are you a planner or pantser?”

  1. David Hunter says:

    I think a lot of writers are pantsers. I remember there was a recording of an interview with Joyce Carey who said that he often started of his writing with a some dialogue or description but usually had no idea how the work was going to develop. Perhaps that’s one of the attractions about the approach, that you keep surprising yourself, agreeably or otherwise, with the added danger of getting hopelessly lost and finding that perhaps you are working on two or more unrelated stories.

    1. Rosalind Minett says:

      It’s good, I agree, when the surprise emergence works out well. At the first rewrite, the desire to become a planner is high!

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