Writing Tip #5 – Plotters vs. Pantsters

Hello my lovelies,

where has the sunshine gone? In any case, we’re not worried, because you have better things to do than worry about the weather don’t you? Yes, it’s time to think about plotting and planning your book! In earlier posts we identified what genre you’re going to write in, along with what you know and love, and can therefore write about, so we made a good start. A quick disclaimer: This post isn’t about the technical aspects of writing a book = how to create a story arc, how many acts to use etc. it’s about your approach to plotting and planning… with my own experiences thrown in for good measure.

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Because guess what? As with many things when it comes to writing, plotting/planning is slightly different for everyone. There are as many ways of doing this as there are authors. Some people love to fly by the seat of their pants and simply ‘write into the wind’ with no clue where the story will take them. These are the ‘Pantsters’ of the blog title. Some like to have a general timeline with a beginning, middle and end (the traditional three act structure).  At the other end of the spectrum there are those who will have project management style Gantt charts and post-it notes and colour-coded index cards with every little detail on them, aka the ‘Plotters.’ The important point is, as in my last blog post about learning your craft, the path you pick needs to suit you; it’s a question of personal style.

  • You may be a ‘Pantster’ and opt for no planning whatsoever if you’re a really laid back person, enjoy the thrill of creativity and need the element of surprise in order to keep you excited about a WiP (Work-in-Progress) and have written before, so have a good understanding of how to create a good story arc and keep it tight. On the other hand, with this approach you may find that your key themes get lost in the mix, characters do their own thing, you go off-piste halfway through, the pacing is off (the dreaded ‘saggy middle’) and that the story ends half way through the desired word count i.e. you end up with half a novel.

I had some experience of this when I first started writing, back in my early twenties, and at least fourteen years before I was published. I was writing short romances aimed at Mills & Boon, and when I was writing my first two or three books (which shall never see the light of day!) I used to sit down most evenings and write into the wind. In my head knew who my two main characters were; what they each wanted (internal conflict); what might prevent them from getting what they wanted and the setting/circumstances (external conflict); and how I thought they might get there, but it was as loose as that. And boy did I suffer! I lost count of the number of times I wrote myself into a corner, either because my story arc came to end 30,000 words in (the M&B titles were circa 50,000-55,000 words full length) or because my plots had massive holes in them. As I got older, wrote more, was offered my first publishing contract and was then under deadline, I radically changed my approach…

  • You may opt for some light planning if you need some structure and a framework to write within but are quietly confident that you know how to get to the end of the book without too much trouble, or that you can handle any curve balls your characters may throw at you (once you start writing, you’ll know what I’m talking about 🙂  For example you might write an extended synopsis of the book, which is a 3 – 5 (A4) page summary of the whole storyline from start to finish. Alongside this you may have a character bio for each of the main characters, and also some notes on the structure of the book i.e. straight prose, diary entries, emails, multiple or single view points, which chapter is from whose point of view, number of chapters, estimated length of chapters, time (past versus present, with dates) etc. On this basis, you are less likely to have problems finishing the whole book, and are unlikely to write yourself into a corner. But if you follow this approach, don’t be afraid to flex as you need to, and if you come up with a better idea then amend the outline and change the story.  If your characters speak to you and they want to do something different, stop and think about where that might lead, and if you should adapt your story accordingly.

When I was writing my #LoveLondon series, I was working on the above basis. The series is made up of five novellas and one novel, all romances set in London. I had the titles from the outset so already had my event/date and the exact setting before I started writing them. Each story can be read as a stand alone, or works together as a linked series because one of the main characters in each of the novellas is related or knows Matt or Zoe, the main characters from the novel, Picnics in Hyde Park. So I wrote a rough outline for each of these stories, a bio for the two main characters, and then because of the complexity with regards to the linking of characters and events, I created a timeline with dates and characters on it so that I could check for continuity. This was also to make sure I wasn’t missing months out of the year, or introducing someone the reader had never met before! This approach worked well for me. It was a great balance of having enough information without stifling my creativity.

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  • If you’re detail-oriented, or under deadline, or have a complicated structure that calls for careful planning, you may want to go for the belt and braces approach and be a ‘Plotter.’ This might mean a colour coded spreadsheet where every scene of every chapter is laid out, and the minute detail of the themes, balance of dialogue versus setting versus action, use of five senses etc. is noted along with a full bio of every character in the book. Different people will use different tools, and there is writing software out there that you can use for this, or writing planners you can buy. You may use coloured post-it notes and lay these out so you can ‘see’ the balance and structure visually i.e. pink for setting, blue for male character, red for female character, yellow for key theme 1, green for key theme 2, etc and where this doesn’t look right you can adjust accordingly.  Plotting works really well for some authors, but others hate it because they know everything that’s going to happen in the book, and so they’re no longer excited about writing the story and they lose interest. This is Not Good Idea. So if you think this isn’t for you, ditch it – don’t be too prescriptive.

I’m being a Plotter for my new book. That’s because it has two viewpoints, uses a couple of different devices to tell the story, includes past and present scenes and chapters over a twenty year period, and most of these are not featured in chronological order. I also want to be able to share detailed ideas with my editor Charlotte and get her input, as well as make sure that the whole story curves beautifully over 90,000 – 100,000 words.

For me, what this looks like is (a) story board with ideas and pictures, timelines etc so I have a visual of the book which keeps my inspiration alive (b) character bios of five main characters so I can add colour to the book with rich detail and (c) a detailed chapter by chapter outline from start to finish, outlining key events in each chapter, who they involve, where and when they’re set and what happens in each of the scenes within each chapter. I’ve never worked in such a detailed way before, and wondered if this might stifle my creativity and make my writing feel flat, but actually it’s going really well (other than taking forever due to the demands of daily life including the day job!) When I sit down to write I have an aim to work towards, but I also give my characters enough space to express themselves and go off on slightly different tangents, and adapt the storyline if I need to. I’m still writing organically in the way I prefer, and feel excited about this book 🙂

I didn’t think I’d be saying this, after doing light plotting for years and thinking that was my thing, but now I am firmly in the Plotter camp and happy to stay there.

So, what works for you already, or what approach are you going to take? Any thoughts or experiences you want to share? And are you a Pantster or Plotter or something in between? Let me know!

Until next time, happy reading & writing,

Love, Nikki x