Phill's Blog

Notes, news & ramblings about writing

Phill's Blog

Planner or Pantster?

A regular discussion among writers is about the best approach to the long and sometimes daunting business of writing a novel. When you sit staring at the blank sheet or screen with 70,000 words ahead of you, what do you do?

Some say that best route is to plan everything very carefully. Stephen King and Dan Brown are reputed to be writers who do this, and there are many others. They are the planners. In the opposite corner are those who say that planning stifles creativity, and the best thing to do is sit down with an idea, start writing and see where it takes you; in other words, fly by the seat of your pants. These are the pantsters.

I’m not a natural planner, mainly because I’m always impatient to get on with the story. I wrote ‘Paradise Girl’ as an out-and-out pantster. I had the idea of the unstoppable virus and the heroine forced to face it alone. She and her twin brother had already come to me in an unfinished (and probably never to be finished) story I’d been pushing around for a while. I had one or two scenes in mind, but I had no idea how the tale might end. I needed a location, and could find none better than a house like my own, about five miles further on from where the back of beyond finishes! Thus prepared, I gave it a push and let it roll.

‘Pantstering’ is hard work. All novel writing is actually, as those who have tried it know. But I mean in this case particularly so. The pantster often goes up blind alleys and has to retreat; additional ideas arrive, and sometimes even new characters appear. These and the fresh plot elements they bring often force the pantster to go back and rewrite scenes already done.

I wasn’t going to write a sequel to ‘Paradise Girl’, but the book has gone well enough to persuade me there’s sufficient interest to make one worthwhile, so now I am. It’s called ‘Aftershock’ and I’m 33,000 words in (a little under half way). This time I decided I’d do some serious planning before launching into the first draft.

I spent two months thinking about the characters, the plot and possibilities. This was easier than with a totally new novel, because part of the heavy lifting had already been done: some characters and the back story already existed in ‘Paradise Girl’. I made lists, mind-maps and charts on A3 sheets.Then I spent another couple of weeks writing a 10,000 word synopsis of the plot.

An online contact suggested to meRandy Ingermanson’s ‘Snowball Method’ (you can get his book on Amazon). It’s an intriguing idea and offers a formula for taking a broad idea and developing it in various ways until it’s a viable script.

The time I spent on planning is paying off very well as I write ‘Aftershock’. There was one period when I went off piste and strayed away from my plan. I found the plot wandering along different lines and soon ran into problems. I realised what had happened and yanked it back, which was easy because I knew where it should have been. And actually it was a relief to get back to the track I’d prepared.

I love the fizz I get when a new idea comes up, and that still happens. The last stage in the Snowball Method (penultimate stage, really, because the final one is to write the novel) is a detailed scene by scene list. I never did this and I think if I had I would have found it too constricting. For example, a couple of characters have appeared who weren’t in my original synopsis, and one of them has led to an incident and interaction which I think is effective. If I’d already worked out each scene in the finest detail that wouldn’t have happened, and I think to do this would for me stultify things and take away much of the adventure of writing. To be fair to Randy, he makes it very clear in presenting his Snowball Method that you don’t have to buy in to the whole package and it’s up to the individual to find the bits of it that work best for them. His approach has certainly helped me in establishing a structure which supports an exciting (I hope!) narrative arc.

So I think I can say that I’m now a definite ‘plantster’. Of course, there are another 40,000 or so words to go and it could all yet fall apart. The first draft should be done by the end of June, at which time I’ll be looking for beta readers to let me know it they think it works. Any volunteers?

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