Painting By Numbers? – Exploring the Advantages of Plotting and “Pantsing”

There’s an oft-described dichotomy between writers between “plotters” – those who assiduously and diligently plan their stories, sometimes with great precision, and “pantsers” who write by the seat of their pants in seeing how the flow comes, and writing whatever comes to them in the glory of the moment. Dan Hook summarised these approaches well in his recent video, which inspired me to examine perhaps a little more closely how I’d define myself as a writer.

In the period of consideration that precipitated this post, I realised it was a journey.

But first, it’s important to examine both approaches. I think both embody a very different school of thought for writing, especially prose.

Plotters – sometimes referred to as planners or architects – aim to have the main beats of their stories down in some form before commencing the start of writing. And indeed there’s a variety of degrees to which this can be done – some writers choose to plan every moment of their stories, forming a skeleton of a plot onto which they hang the meat of the prose. Some simply sketch out a vague idea of what they want to happen in each chapter, or act, or part, and then let that act as a guide to their writing.

There’s a host of techniques – Save the Cat is a commonly referred to method in scriptwriting and increasingly, prose; indeed it’s a book I’m to read very soon – but the essence, I’ve inferred, from plotting a story, or using an outline to map out where that story needs to go, is that it can make it easy to check if the story has the elements of story – an inciting incident, conflict, the character journey, to name a few – and they’re in the correct narrative places relative to the work.

“Pantsers” – somewhat less crudely termed discovery writers – usually open with a blank page and start typing whatever the flow brings them. It’s a complete dichotomy to the planned, almost technical approach of planning: you go where the story takes you, and you discover that story – world, characters and plot – with your characters. Discovery writing can be extremely pure and cathartic as the words simply flow.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

However I think it’s reductive to simply put these approaches at odds to each other –  in very broad strokes, planning is technical; pantsing is artistic. These things do not seem to gel together at all! But crucially, despite some perceptions, there is no need for a writer to occupy one camp or the other.

These terms, despite a casual glance suggesting otherwise, are not mutually exclusive. I think Dan makes an excellent point in his video that an effective strategy is to harness the advantages of both approaches where the situation warrants. For example, in his upcoming novel Displaced, the first in a series, the idea came from a university assignment and grew organically from then, and on completing the first, rough, draft, came the plan to support that.

This is a good approach. Being a discovery writer doesn’t always mean going in blind. You can easily approach a work with a vague idea, flesh it out and then work a plan around it as it develops. In my own journey, I can definitely see the discovery writer I once was. In my NaNoWriMo 2010 novel The Last of the Steamers, I had no plan. I didn’t even break it up into chapters. I simply had an idea – perhaps a few extremely vague notes – and went with it. The resultant novel will likely never see the light of day for reasons I mentioned in my earlier post.

I think a blended approach is best. Here’s the start of the outline I used for the first act of my WIP post-apoc novel The Thaw:

(Be warned, some spoilers for this follow, if that’s important to you!)

This outline took a long time to devise. I didn’t use any specific schema besides the classic “three-act structure) for this; I even worked that down to a fairly granular level, breaking each act into three parts, of three subsequent chapters. indeed, I found this was just the right amount of depth to allow me to take a blended approach.

With this outline I strove to get the key, must-happen events of the story (the “bones”) codified. Then I simply wrote. My personal view is that having this level of detail in terms of key plot events allows for writing of the actual chapters to harness the power of discovery writing. Having that vague plot already there allows for the writing itself to take twists and turns, as long as it accomplishes those things.

This plan also strove to include a technique I admire from the Expanse books by James S. A. Corey, and indeed from A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin – give each chapter a specific point-of-view. Visualising this on my plan through the use of coloured tags helped me distribute the “story” accordingly, and helped to make sure the point-of-view doesn’t linger in the hands of one character excessively.

This plan, however, doesn’t accurately represent the work as it’s gone through edits by me, and that’s fine. It worked well for the initial draft which it was designed for – the project’s evolution outside of that is fairly incidental to this document. It represents my overarching ideas for the story and I feel that working to this plan resulted in an excellent piece, which continues to evolve and tinker but the blueprint of this plan sits at the very heart of the 104,000 word draft.

Is this plan perfect, though? Absolutely not – I feel I could structure this far more efficiently now, and indeed on future novel projects I will iterate and improve this basic template.

But returning to perhaps the main point – this plan embodies roughly about the amount of detail I feel comfortable in having in my plans. Sure, there’s no reference to story beats or story components, but they’re in there in less obvious terms. The story does still contain all those elements – inciting incidents, character journeys, internal struggles, barriers to success – but I’d admit that this plan is v1.0 for me and I’ll always be happy to adapt, tweak and learn.

That said, this has led me to reflect on the initial first draft of The Thaw quite fondly as I found that blended approach seemed to work quite well. I’d admit to being a technical writer – my prose reflects, I feel, my approach: it’s precise, methodical but doesn’t lack that whisper of artistic flair. I don’t get preoccupied in writing flowery, gushing prose that could be argued as easily resultant from discovery writing; and if I did, it largely gets edited out!

I feel an over-planned story whose outline is totally inflexible becomes simply a painting-by-numbers exercise that simply isn’t fun to write. And if writing isn’t fun, why do we do it? Fiction that’s enjoyable to read needs to be enjoyable to write, and as a writer I consider myself less and artist but more a craftsman, taking that blended approach of precision and planning with a good dose of creating art.

By creating a loose structure onto which to hang your writing you give yourself guidelines that can be loose and flexible enough to allow for the natural journey and organic twists that can’t be foreseen and planned in advance to emerge during the actual writing. A plan should be a roadmap, not a straightjacket.

But wait, there’s more!

It might be easy to assume that for this entire post I’m referring to fiction writing. However, I think these tips and insights work for both fiction and non-fiction work, though fiction being the lens through which I’m making these observations. With non-fiction many of the same rules apply – plan out the arguments or points you want to make, structure out the research or key points to reference and the actual writing, as long as it hits those beats or makes those points can flow pretty much freeform.

To conclude, I think putting oneself in one camp or the other is facile and overly reductive, but finding a balance of both approaches, and knowing when each works best, and how one can complement the other, really reaches the sweet sauce between writing for the sheer fun of it and coming up with a rewarding, cohesive and engaging piece – whatever you’re writing!

Brevity and Briefs: Reflecting on a Short Story

Recently I submitted a new piece of work to my friend Kent Shawn as part of his short story competition. I decided to craft a brand new piece for the occasion and duly planned and wrote a lockdown-themed thriller story entitled Left Outside.

This was a difficult challenge but also one I relished.

If you’ve by chance read any of my previous short stories that are posted on my website (for example my last one, Growing Storm), you may notice that they are on the long side of “short”; indeed, Growing Storm weighed in at approximately 12,000 words.

Kent’s competition, however, had a word-count limit of 5,000 words, less than half of the length of Growing Storm.

Problem? More a challenge.

I was pleased with how Left Outside came together. Firstly, having the goal of 5,000 words – and a deadline – focused my energies quite dramatically. It was great to be writing to a “brief” that I wasn’t able to cheat on. I had to get the story under 5,000 words, and I had to have it done and submitted by July 1st this year. The latter was a goal I easily made, though I didn’t rush the piece at all; I estimate that Left Outside took about 6 weeks to put together.

In some of the video blogs I’ve seen from Kent he’s said that some writers, when faced with the 5,000-word limit, have bemoaned that the limit was restrictive. I could’ve been the same; indeed, back in my final year at University, I complained that my creative writing dissertation piece had too small a wordcount at 8,000 words and my complaint successfully had that increased to “up to 10,000”, to the chagrin of some classmates but to the relief of me and some other like-minded writers.

And this is the journey of discovery I found myself embarking upon: to make my story “work” for this small amount of words I had to look at my writing style and adapt it to suit this brief:

  • My fiction prose is plot-heavy: building a cohesive plot in such a short amount of words can be quite difficult because there’s simply not enough narrative room to have that beginning, middle and end as you may expect. With Left Outside, I had to quickly throw my characters in and introduce them, while imbuing a sense of the setting. Instead, with a piece this short, it’s better to focus on a moment in a greater story perhaps that could be expanded upon. In Left Outside, we open with the protagonist, Adam, abandoned on a gravel path in the middle of some deserted location. We don’t know how he got there, or what happened prior – these are all narrative points that we could’ve expanded upon with more words to play with.

    But this is advantageous in a way because we the reader then experience the discovery at the same time that the protagonist does and this was useful in creating the sense of mystery and confusion that I wanted to start off with. I gave the reader very little information as to what had happened, and I let Adam be the audience surrogate for that initial discovery.

    Indeed, one of the struggles perhaps I encountered was the switch from writing mainly plot to going more character-led. One of my writing weaknesses, I feel, is my characters exist to serve the plot. In Left Outside, I didn’t have “time”, so to speak, to waste on setting up the plot so I had to focus on making some vivid characters. I don’t think it was entirely successful, but it was a learning experience.

    I think, also, I was ambitious in trying to still tell a complete story within the confines of 5,000 words. There’s perhaps more mystery in Left Outside than I initially intended but this is because I didn’t have the wordcount left over to expand.

  • Description must be economical: I’ve been complimented on several occasions for my vivid worldbuilding and description. But there’s simply no room in a story of 5,000 words to describe every brick in every wall, every blade of grass. While I was editing the story, I picked out extraneous description to the minimum, almost, required to tell the story. But I didn’t want to make the prose bland and perfunctory.

    Description in this story was limited, really, to pertinent details that the reader needed to know. It was a good exercise in paring down some of that description without losing the sense of what’s being described and keeping it at a suitable level of prose without it turning into a dull-to-read recount. That said I still think there are definite moments where a sense of the place – and the feeling within the place – is built up and concentrated.

These two aspects meant challenging my two strongest storytelling skills – plot and description – for this project. In retrospect now having submitted – but without knowing the results of the contest as yet – leaves me thinking, yes, this is perhaps what I could’ve done differently, but also I feel quite content with how the project turned out. I’m very pleased with Left Outside, it’s not perfect but what I can take away from this is what I can improve and do better with next time. Indeed, reflecting now, I still feel the balance of plot, description and character was a little off; but this is something to work on going forward.

It’s important with writing not to stay in a comfort zone and only ever write what you know, but you should challenge yourself to write new things you may not have considered before, and practice skills to keep your writer’s skillset supple. With Left Outside I am thinking how to better plan out stories like this because I still think I put too much plot in, and what sort of ideas would perhaps work as more “moments” for a short story like this. But knowing the word count in advance was certainly helpful – to paraphrase an excellent simile from a writer friend – to know the size of the mould into which the jelly (story) is to be poured to see if it fits.

In editing the story I was conscious that this was for a competition so treated it perhaps more judiciously when it came to editing than I would’ve for stories I simply publish on my website. The story went a couple of times to a couple of writer friends who offered feedback on successive drafts and also to a friend who hadn’t read it at all and was given the third draft that resulted from earlier feedback. This is a good approach, mixing feedback from those familiar with the work and it’s development to those who come to it totally fresh. But I didn’t want to over-edit the piece so once I was happy with it, the fourth draft became the submission.

In dealing with the feedback it was important, also, to not just try to please all the suggestions but take the ones that were achievable into the draft. Good commenters giving feedback will make suggestions, well aware that their suggestions may or may not be taken. There were some great suggestions that would’ve needed a substantial rewrite to achieve, and I was happy with the sections in question, though gave them a good spit and polish. But the feedback that would’ve required a more structural re-think also had ideas that were great and would’ve been implementable if the story could’ve been longer. That too is a skill to hone, of knowing what feedback (and don’t get me wrong, it was all good feedback, I wish I could have done it all) is achievable for a specific project.

Writing Left Outside, though, was a great learning experience and I am still very pleased with the resultant story. I only hope the competition judges feel the same, too! But more importantly, I feel, it’s renewed my sense that short stories are good proving grounds for plot ideas, writing styles or character situations. I’ll endeavour to hone my brevity skills with more sub-10,000-word short stories in the future, I’ve left this project with many ideas for new shorts!

Writing Thoughts: Writing Secrecy and Improving Confidence

When I first started to take my writing ‘seriously’ in 2010 I’d never tell a soul what I was working on. I’d keep it to myself until it was done (the project I started then, my first-ever Nanowrimo novel The Last of the Steamers, sits unfinished awaiting a substantial rewrite even now) – even telling people that I was simply working on a ‘secret project’.

In retrospect I came across to the unaware as aloof and utterly irritating, and I’m a bit embarrassed vicariously for past me. Why was that? I suppose, back then, I simply lacked confidence to discuss my project – either through a lack of confidence in my abilities or a lack of confidence in my prospective story – a story that I know probably does have legs but needs major development. I didn’t want to discuss it in its embryonic stages out of a perception of embarrassment.

Anyway, I am pleased to say that these days I am the opposite – and I think this is an important development in my writing psyche. These days I am always chomping at the bit to talk about plot and ideas with fellow writers – a great deal of the best ideas are borne out of these discussions. I’ve had some of my best a-ha! plot moments from having chats about ideas with other writing friends and it’s genuinely, in some cases, reshaped how a prospective plotline goes.

For instance, I’m throwing around an idea I had in 2018 for a climate-apocalypse adventure called Heatwave. The premise would be that due to reasons unknown for now, the Earth’s climate has heated up, and this has rendered much of Southern England uninhabitable. Instead of writing a complex political-based thriller (Scotland not being happy at being essentially annexed by England for its water and living space is the baseline for that strand of the idea) I had a chat with a friend about my thoughts on this and eventually instead of an ‘escape to the North’ plot, the story would be a journey into the uninhabitable zone for the protagonist in search of some unknown, taboo truth.

In effect, the entire thread I’d planned for the narrative got flipped and I’m extremely grateful for that friend for taking the time to chat about it as it would’ve been a lot of work to do this later down the line when I had thousands of words down already.

Even writing the above paragraphs show how my mindset has changed in that time. For Steamers you’d have been lucky to get ‘I’m writing a book…’ out of me. Early writer me wouldn’t have even dreamed of divulging plot details or ideas like that – maybe out of some fear of them being ‘stolen’? I considered plot ideas like the Crown Jewels, the most valuable parts of my writer’s armoury that I had, so they had to be kept totally secret and secure. Or, worse than the possibility of idea theft, having one’s ideas rebuked as rubbish or juvenile or unworthy. Those wounds would’ve cut deep.

But largely I’ve found the writing community, and the writers I know, are not amoral jackals waiting to pounce like vultures on the scrawniest morsel of plot-related meat; they’re more supportive and helpful-minded. I’m fortunate that I have a decent – and slowly expanding – network of writers to throw plot ideas off of, and I’m always more than happy to provide the service in return.

Plus, I feel I’ve grown in confidence of my ideas because I have faith in their virtue and value. I know that they are good ideas, but more importantly, I can defend them with the knowledge of why they’re good ideas. That’s not to say a debate or discussion isn’t welcome – indeed it’s often useful to honing or refining those ideas.

Reflecting on this, some of my most valued and treasured times studying Creative Writing at University came from my writing workshops where a group of like-minded writers would workshop a piece and offer constructive feedback, criticism or thoughts. Those discussions would often result in excellent plot additions or alterations that simply the writer may be oblivious to, or otherwise would never arrive at. Sometimes it takes that external input to accomplish that lightbulb moment. I think that being able to workshop a piece – especially an unfinished piece – is the most valuable opportunity and would highly recommend doing so for fiction pieces.

I also feel that my writing confidence has grown because I’m happy with my choices of genre. Perhaps, in those early days, I was embarrassed by my idea for The Last of the Steamers because it’s a bit of a pulpy adventure novel, it doesn’t break the mould of what those kinds of stories they are. But now I find myself comfortable being a writer of genre fiction as it’s what I truly enjoy, though my thoughts on genre vs literary fiction are for another time.

The point regarding genre confidence also means that, while I am at home in my current genre – I’m also confident to know where I’d perhaps like to break the myths. I was set a challenge a good while ago by a university friend to try my hand at a romance story. This would be very much a new thing for me as it’s both a genre I’m deeply unfamiliar with for a variety of reasons, but also because to my knowledge there’s not a lot of male romance writers. Why? A good story is a good story regardless of those labels and if it’s derived from a burning desire to tell that story then I say go for it.

Overall though the development of a writer’s confidence an important journey to go on but very rewarding as it can reap benefits. And especially let yourself be open to workshopping your pieces, even if it’s only to a couple of trusted writer friends as growing that confidence in presenting unfinished ideas is important – those workshopping your piece will never (if they’re decent and good) ‘tear it to pieces’, so open up and realise that they want the piece to do as well as you do and they’re offering their own advice on how to get there. You’re always free to accept or ignore this advice but it’s worth taking on board, especially if it’s well-reasoned, constructively-critical advice. Don’t be afraid!

Writing Thoughts: Developing Healthy Writing Habits

Recently I’ve been exploring a bit more of the writing community – it’s great fun getting to know an interacting with more like-minded souls who are embarking on the writing journey.

I’ve recently subscribed to UK-based writer Benjamin T. Milnes as part of these efforts and I’ve been watching his various videos on his YouTube Channel – there’s some very good writing advice there and some great insight into his own processes. Recently he published a video about building writing habits:

This was a very good video and I’d strongly suggest you watch it in full. Certainly it got me thinking about my own writing habits and how important that is to constantly evolve but also to be aware of one’s own habits, so I think it’d be helpful to reflect on my own writing habits and some of the pertinent points from Benjamin’s excellent video.

Benjamin makes an excellent point that writing needs to be habitual, or a book will never get written. Occasional writing is almost worse than no writing at all as the speed at which one produces a work is glacial. Benjamin talks in his video about his initial draft that he was working on occasionally being one that would’ve taken years to complete. This is routinely unsatisfying as a writer for a few reasons:

  • The book takes forever to write – I feel that if you want to take writing in any way seriously you need to be somewhat productive and able to sustain writing large amounts of words in a fairly short time. Writing occasionally does very little to foster a professional attitude to writing that is necessary to be in any way a professional writer or author.

    I know this myself from my past projects: The Thaw is a book I wrote in my second year of University – so, 2016 time – and it’s only now approaching a stage where I’m ready to get it professionally edited and then start querying it. There’s been periods of months between edits – some of those times are unintentional, due to real-life stuff taking priority – but I look back in some shame at the time it’s taken me to get The Thaw done, because it has taken a long time and also, when reading the later drafts, I realise it’s a great book and I’m immensely proud of it; I just want to get it done and out there!
  • It’s easy to lose track of ideas – as one’s memory of writing a specific section wanes as time passes it becomes increasingly difficult to remember those points and having to look those up again for the details only serves to further slow the writing process down.
  • You’re unable to work on other ideas – if you’re spending so long writing one book, what good is having an idea for another if you don’t have the creative endurance to work on it? I am, myself, quite single-minded in that I don’t tend to spin more than one creative plate at a time, lest they all suffer.

So where can occasional writing come from? One aspect I’ve acutely had to deal with in the 10 years I’ve been writing “properly” is a sense of imposter syndrome. I think about writing a lot, but actually putting pen to paper, or hand to keyboard can be a terrifying prospect as I don’t feel worthy. But I know that I am – firstly, I hold a degree in Creative Writing. But more importantly once I gain that initial momentum of getting going even on a short session the flow quickly follows.

But I do have a great sense of what I type needs to be perfect first time I type it or don’t bother and that is a killer fear that results in procrastination – doing anything but writing.

What, therefore forms a “healthy writing habit”?

In the video, Benjamin starts by stating his initial writing habit was to write 500 words before doing anything else. That’s not a bad starting point for establishing writing as a routine that you do, not something you’re almost too scared of doing. However I don’t necessarily agree in totality with daily writing goals:

  • Daily writing goals leave no room for off-days – sometimes when you’re writing constantly, you can suffer from burnout.  I think writing every day results in added stress and pressure to create, which can be one of the biggest motivation-killers
  • You write anything to reach that goal – Stephen King famously, in On Writing, said that he wrote “ten pages a day”. I’m sure he also referenced getting those done before anything else in his day. While that does result in the word-count quickly accumulating, as Benjamin qualifies later in his video, it’s better to write 500-1,000 decent words a day than 4,000 absolutely terrible ones that you’ll only have to fix in editing.
  • Unattainable goals can hurt motivation – sometimes you just can’t write as much per day as you’d like, and I think that having unrealistically-high wordcount goals – Benjamin mentions in the video upwards of 7,000 words a day – not only results in churn but you set yourself up for failure if you simply can’t write that much on any given day; this sense of failure takes the enjoyment I think is key when writing to stay focussed and motivated.

I agree – forcing yourself to get in the chair and put pen to paper can be the key to setting up a healthy routine. And yes, finding a time of day that you’re most productive at helps massively too. I recall writing quite large sections of my stories at ungodly hours in the morning – that was what worked for me at the time and sometimes when the muse hits you, you have to grasp it then and there.

So what are my own personal thoughts on developing a healthy writing habit? Let’s examine the mindset I’ve thought up over time:

  • Set weekly or monthly goals to accomplish – this strikes a fine balance, I feel, between writing every day – which while good when it’s sustainable can be a drag when not – and writing occasionally, which is very unproductive. Setting a weekly goal also allows, I feel, for the intricacies of real life – it allows for “off-days” that you simply can relax on, either to cool off or let ideas percolate.
  • Work on diverse projects you can switch to as you feel able to  – While I’m a poor proponent of multitasking when writing, sometimes you get stuck on a project and if you’re being too rigid with yourself with your writing habit, that can, like so many of the other pitfalls, just crater your motivation. I like to have a few projects or goals for any specific period of time – say, editing one longer piece, working on another shorter piece or throwing together a post for my website – that I can jump to on a specific day.
  • Be mindful of letting those days-off turn into months-off – distance from a project is healthy – King once again stated in On Writing that once a draft is finished to throw it in a drawer, to take some distance from it before returning. But too often I’ve let that becomes a several-months gap, for which I’m kicking myself. But it’s about allowing yourself that period of relaxation, recharging the batteries, even being able to watch TV without feeling guilty you’re not constantly writing that helps but maintaining that momentum. It’s a fine balance of maintaining a good distance from the project to remain objective to losing sight of what it was you wanted to achieve.

With six weeks’ worth of recuperation time, you’ll also be able to see any glaring holes in the plot or character development. And listen— if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself. Screw-ups happen to the best of us

Stephen King, On Writing

My personal writing habits are to set those weekly or monthly goals. For instance, I’ll aim to “do something creative” most days of the week – whether that be writing new words, editing projects, or working on a blogpost. Attempting to do a mix of writing and editing keeps both skills supple and gives a project to “switch to”, should the motivation on a given day peter out. I prefer to work during the day these days, with the window open and the sun shining – though creating a productive workspace is a topic for a future post.

Benjamin states in his video that a motivated writer achieving 7,000 words a day can have a novel done in a couple of weeks – but should they? As before, such high volumes so quickly increases dramatically the chances of “churn”.

Setting a more healthy and attainable long-term goal of 500-1,200 words I feel is ideal, especially for those new to writing longform prose. I recall cutting my teeth on that in November 2010 as part of NaNoWriMo when I wrote a book entitled The Last of the Steamers – it was a fantastic achievement to have done, and the average writing goal of 1,700 words a day to achieve 50,000 words in November is just at the upper sweet spot of what Ben – and I – consider a decent goal.

Nowadays however my timeframes are more relaxed – I recall more of King’s advice from On Writing:

The first draft of a book—even a long one—should take no more than three months, the length of a season.

Stephen King, On Writing

I agree, that is the sweet spot – my first draft of The Thaw that I’m currently working on took around 4-5 months. This missed the goal set by King (and that I’d set myself) but I was still happy to have taken my time, and I’m sure that the next book I hit the ground on (I’ve plenty of ideas!) will further get me to that goal.

The most important takeaway for authors approaching this? Train yourself to be productive, and don’t fear it. But also find a healthy compromise that maintains your productivity but doesn’t result in stress. After all, each word that you write each time you can is a word you didn’t have written before!

I’d also highly recommend Benjamin T. Milnes’ YouTube channel as he’s posting some great videos on craft and his own work. He’s also on Twitter and Facebook.