Wednesday Wondering – Plotter or Pantster? by Helen Rolfe

Books come in many genres and sub genres and writers all approach the blank page in their own individual way. Some dive straight in with only an inkling of what the book is about and let it develop in that way; others come up with a detailed plot first; some have a rough idea of the story but very clear ideas of the characters within it. What works for one person may be the complete opposite of what works for another, but as writers, we usually find out what works best for us.

I would have to say that I am a plotter. I’ve always had lists, kept diaries, been fairly organised, and maybe that is why. But it’s not quite as clear cut as that. As part of a Masters in Writing we studied ways that writers think of ideas and then generate books from these. The “germ seed” idea is as it sounds: a basic idea of what you’re going to write about – perhaps the book will be about a young witch going to school for the first time, or perhaps it’s about a café owner who falls in love with the competition. Once I have my germ seed idea, I expand on that and come up with the rest of my story. I think of the main characters and write a bit of a CV for them: hair colour, eye colour, likes and dislikes.

When I have a more detailed idea of my story and the main plot points, I like to do my research as often this guides me on what will happen in the story. I may find that the research phase sparks a completely different tack for my story.

So, whilst I would describe myself as a plotter, I am not so regimented that the plot I come up with is followed to the letter. I think that it is important to stay flexible as some of the best story ideas can come when we least expect them to. Quite often when we write our stories we find the characters doing something we hadn’t anticipated, and then the story goes off in another direction. I think that it’s important not to quash these changes and to allow ourselves the freedom to let our characters develop on the page just as they would in real life.

Every Write Romantic has their own way of doing things too and the beauty of it is that there are no rights or wrongs. But it’s always good to share and pick up tips that may help us to get the very best out of our work.

Helen R 🙂

Jackie says…

I used to be a complete Panster but after getting myself in to too many scrapes and dead ends I now have a middle ground, between plotting and ‘pantsing’ which is a loose graph of events and a very vague chapter by chapter list. I have a huge whiteboard and stick up bits of paper with blue tack, and whenever a change of plot or plot thread occurs to me I write it on the whiteboard. I also write down the traits of my characters as they occur rather than plotting them out as ‘people’ before I start. This is probably due to laziness rather than anything else although it does take me time to ‘see’ what my characters look like. Near enough always have an ending in sight ‘Happy Ever After’ of course, I am a romantic writer.

Deirdre says…

I’m definitely a plotter by nature.  Whatever I’m doing, I like to know where I’m going and how to get there, in detail, before I begin.  It’s probably partly down to my personality but also a great deal to do with the job I did at the university where I produced schedules for the team covering every arm of our operation; that was the only way to ensure everything got done within the great big hamster wheel that constituted the academic year.

When I first attempted a novel, I planned the whole thing in advance, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, because I thought it would be the easiest way to tackle it.  The novel itself was a dismal failure.  The plan worked up to a point.  As a security blanket it was useful as I could always see what was meant to happen next, even though I changed it constantly as I went along, but with hindsight it was too stifling and each time I had a new idea I hesitated to use it in case it wrecked the plan and left me at sea, drowning not waving.

Although I loosened up a lot with the plotting of the next books, I carried on with it to some extent, thinking that was the only way I could write – until I had a crack at NaNoWriMo and launched right into a new novel with only the vaguest idea of the plot, and I didn’t even write it down!  I still haven’t.  I have a few notes as to what needs to be included, but the rest is in my head. It’s the speed of writing that made the difference.  Steaming ahead regardless is wonderfully freeing, and although I’ve had to stop a few times since and the writing’s slowed down, this is the closest I’ve got to being a pantster, and I must say I’m enjoying it immensely!

Alex says…

I’m definitely a planner.  For Beltane I had every plot point worked out before I started but then things started to change as I went along.  That was partly because my characters developed a mind of their own and partly because things that I’d thought would work didn’t feel right when I’d written them.  With my new book I’m trying to be slightly less obsessive in the planning.  There is a mind map on the wall of my spare room but I’m more prepared to let things work themselves out. I know where it needs to get to for the end, I just hope the character co-operate and we actually get there!

Julie says…

I’ve actually changed over the years. My first novel took me a decade to write because, quite honestly, I knew nothing about writing when I started it! I knew the basic story but I had no idea where to start it, where to end it or what would happen in-between so I just wrote and wrote! Then edited and edited and edited some more. Definitely a pantser approach. I learned a lot about writing and what does and doesn’t work for me during this time and was determined that book 2 wouldn’t follow the same process. If I likened it to a journey, I’d say book 1 was like me travelling from my home in North Yorkshire to London via Russia, then China, then France, then the USA, then Japan. Hmm. Lots of airmiles gathered, lots of discoveries made but a heck of a long time to get to my destination.

So, for book 2, I wanted a more direct route. I already knew my characters as it’s a series and, as before, I knew the rough story but I started with the key events that would happen in the book (think births, deaths, marriages kind of thing) and wrote them out on post-it notes. I then put the post-its in a logical order so I had my flow of major events. I then took a notepad and plotted out each chapter on a couple of pages highlighting the key scenes in that chapter and making sure my post-it notes were accounted for. Then I wrote it, helped by doing NaNoWriMo for a significant chunk. This time my journey was shorter but I would still say I’ve inter-railed round Europe a bit because I didn’t think to plot out my character arc and have had to go back in and make quite a few changes to get it.

I’d say that I’ve evolved from a pantser to a definite plotter which fits more with me and how I work in the day job as I’m actually a really organised person and good at planning. My approach to writing still isn’t perfect so book 3 will probably stop off at Paris and Prague but the journey’s definitely getting shorter and shorter!

Jo says…

I have always been a complete pantster, having a vague idea of a plot and then letting the writing take me where it wants me to go. It’s a cliché, but I’m always amazed at how much the characters want to write their own story! However, with my first two books, I’ve realised that my themes could be deepened and, particularly at the beginning, draw the reader in from the start. I gained this new insight through a combination of things including a great session at last year’s RNA conference led by Julie Cohen, as well as feedback from beta readers, pitches and submissions. However, I realise that because of my pantster tendencies, sometimes I wasn’t really clear about what my themes were until I was a way into the story. As a result, the initial chapters didn’t pull the reader straight into the heart of the story like they should. So now I take slightly more of a plotter approach, in that I think about the character’s motivations, the themes of the novel and how their characters might arc over the story, by identifying some likely pivotal moments.

For this year’s NWS submission, some of which was written during NanoWriMo, I tried writing a synopsis before it was written. By the end, although I had stuck to the themes, a lot of the plot had still moved in different directions and those determined characters had still had some of it their way! So I guess, although I am clearly still a pantster at heart, I do plot a framework now. Someone recently said that Joanna Trollope knows the beginning and the end of her novels at the start, but lets the rest evolve as she writes. I think that will continue to be the way I work too, but with Julie Cohen’s, and some of my beta-reading WR colleagues’, brilliant advice ringing in my ears to “deepen those themes” throughout! I think I might coin a new name for my writing style and say am a plotpant, which makes me sound not unlike a begonia 🙂

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6 thoughts on “Wednesday Wondering – Plotter or Pantster? by Helen Rolfe

  1. Thanks, Helen, this is so interesting and shows just how many million ways there are of tackling the novel and how useful it is to be flexible and try out different methods as we go. I want Jackie’s whiteboard! But I like being able to take my notes right away from the computer, out into the garden maybe, as I can sometimes come up with something different/better that way, so perhaps my large notebook is best for me. I love ‘germ seed’. It’s the way I start too, and now I have a great name for it! Also like the idea of Jo being a begonia…

  2. Great post, Helen! I agree with Deirdre that it just shows there is no right way and we begin to adapt and vary our style with experience. I loved Julie’s analogy of the journey she took to book 1, but what an incredible learning experience that was xx

  3. Fabulously interesting post Helen. Like most of us Write Romantics, I’m a plotter. But that hasn’t always been the case. My first ever completed book I just sat and wrote with no idea where it was going or what my characters were doing. Or what I was doing for that matter! Now, I have the whiteboard, post-it notes, character CV’s and pictures. The important thing to remember though, is that there isn’t a right or wrong way. You just have to go with what works for you and enjoy the process of writing!

  4. I think that this is the biggest lesson I have learnt when writing…there are no hard and fast rules! There is guidance of course but as writers we need to filter out the bits that we do and don’t need to get the best out of our work 🙂

  5. Hi Linda,
    Nice to hear from someone who doesn’t plot…as they say, every writer is different so it’s a matter of finding out what works for each of us. I’m a plotter but I don’t fancy my chances in a game of chess, even against my kids. I have no idea about the game!
    Helen R 🙂

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