‘I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.’ Douglas Adams
There are as many ways to write a story as there are writers, each of us taking our own journey to the end of the tale, discovering which methods work best for us as we commit words to paper. As I continue to learn more about the process, I’ve discovered that most of those methods tend to fall into one of two groups; planners and pantsers – I’m assured these are the technical terms and they can be defined as follows:
Planner: Writes a detailed plan of their novel, chapter by chapter, making sure loose ends are tied up, that the story progresses at an acceptable pace and the desired conclusion is met. Often this is in a chart format. Then they start to write.
Pantser: Starts to make a plan, has a few ideas, or one idea, or maybe a couple of characters. Starts to write and realises they had no idea what the story was actually about and lets the characters lead them forward, finding it works out perfectly in the end.
I may have exaggerated slightly, but this seems to be what happens as we write, at least based on comments and conversations I’ve had and seen with other writers. I am a pantser. There, I’ve said it. When I started writing about Ambeth I had three main characters and two events set several years apart. How they got there, what the links were in the chain of the story was a mystery to me, until I started to write. Then it all fit together beautifully, strands from the first story moving forward to link with subsequent books. Oh, except for the bit where one of my main characters insisted that ‘he wasn’t all that bad’, leaving me with a plot crisis where I had to justify why he would do a very bad thing. Still, it was solved and I moved forward, heaving a huge sigh of relief.
I’ve seen the wonderful charts used by writers as they plan each character’s development through the plot, chapter by chapter, and I curl in envy. I tried to do one once, with the best of intentions and I did actually complete it. Then I started to write and, well, this whole new thread appeared that I hadn’t considered but that fitted perfectly into the story, leading it forward to the conclusion (which then ended up being different from my chart). Perhaps there are planners recoiling in horror as they read this, and for that I apologise, as I can no more write from your point of view than I can from that of George R. Martin. My voice, just like my method, is my own.
There’s a lot of information out there about how to write, online communities, courses and blogs just bursting with viewpoints and knowledge to get you on your way. A lot of this is very helpful, of course it is, but at the same time starting to write is kind of like having a child. You hear a lot about it but, until you actually do it, you don’t really know how you’re going to react to or manage the process. So don’t become so tangled up in planning (or lack thereof) that you can’t actually write. When putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard for the first time it can be daunting and terrifying, so it’s easy to put it off by giving yourself the excuse that you can’t start until everything is absolutely ready. Writing, however, is a creative expression – if you are true to yourself there really is no right or wrong way to do it. So put aside the self-doubt, start writing and see what happens.
NaNoWriMo is just weeks away, and for some of you out there it might be the first time you’re going to sit down and write a novel, the perfect excuse to actually get on with it. Committing to 50,000 words in a month is a big deal – I’ve been writing for years and am still slightly questioning my sanity in signing up for it. But I do have an idea and a couple of characters, plus an ending and a few scenes in between, so for me that’s a good starting point and I feel ready to begin. So find your starting point and just do it.
Which one are you? Are you a planner or a pantser or some wonderful hybrid in between?
You can read more about Helen’s experiences as a writer on her blog. She is currently working on the fourth book in her series, The Ambeth Chronicles, with the final two parts also taking shape. More books are waiting behind those. She is yet to find an agent.