Panster or plotter?
I write romance, often with a paranormal or fantasy twist, and I try to give my historical stories the level of detail acceptable to those readers who enjoy the historical genre. Whatever I write I always try to offer readers the best read I can.
Like many new writers I have wondered; ‘have I got the writing process right?’ Sound familiar or bring back memories for those of you who have been writing for some time?
In my efforts to develop my skills I’ve pored over many blogs and read other advice available both on the net and in print. All my searches to discover the magic alchemy needed to make my stories live and breathe have led me to accept this conclusion – there is not one right way to write a story.
I admit to being both surprised and a bit disappointed at this discovery, but I was also entertained to find my way of writing, no matter how odd I thought it might be had a name. I am a pantster writer, a term that has nothing to do with underwear of any type. The name comes from the old idea of flying by the seat of your pants, winging it, heading out into the blue with the hope of a soft landing.
This discovery made me smile and along with images of raffish pilots, of stunningly beautiful wing-walkers in tissue light gowns and mythical creatures of the air, the term gifted me a kind of understanding. As I’d searched to find the right way to write I’d read of plotting and eager to take command of my writing I tried it. I made copious notes about the characters and their motivation, the setting, descriptions of where my characters started in the story and how they changed in response to the challenges they faced. The right stuff appeared in my notebook, and I only had one last step to complete, carefully put the lot together to make a story.
However, the plotting technique didn’t work for me. The characters I’d toiled over refused to follow the recipe I’d concocted. They threw non-adjustable spanners in the works, destroying my painstakingly built plot line or character profile with impunity.
Now, some of you who write may shake your head at these treasonous characters and say: ‘What is this girl talking about?’ That’s probably because you’re not a pantster writer. Nothing wrong with that at all, my best wishes and good luck to you and happy plotting on your next story. However, those of you who nodded agreement at my wretched disobedient characters probably understand my difficulties and joys.
Being a pantster isn’t always easy, but I’ve discovered when it works, writing this way is, for me, a true delight. I am a stubborn creature. If I weren’t I’d have given up writing long ago. I didn’t stop writing when my efforts at plotting failed. I went back to how I’d first begun when the urge to write caught me in its grasp. I let the pictures in my mind drive the story. Bliss, everyone behaved, apart from a few understandable changes that were character led, and when I wrote myself into a hole, the characters helped me out, because we were a team. The private cinema of images in my mind has taken me and my characters on happy romps through all kinds of situations and I’ve finished several stories flying by the seat of my pants. Those scenes in my head inspire me to follow their lead, make me question and before I know it, I have discovered a character, a situation, or a problem that leads me into a story. Sometimes the images appear with nothing more to prompt them than me gazing out at the view, other times they arrive in answer to perhaps a piece of music, a visit to a historic building, or a photograph. Some are gentle and I can chose to work with them or not, others are so strong it’s impossible to let them go. These usually become fully-fledged characters.
You might think writing a novel without lots of notes must be very hard work, but I don’t see it that way, not when I live so close with the characters as the story grows. Writing this way, there are times when I’m the heroine, or I’m my hero. I get to know them intimately, with their desires and foibles, their passions and fears, and so the process doesn’t feel like hard work. I don’t mind the effort I make on their behalf, even if I have to research something in depth to make sure it’s right for them, such as how the time for fashionable dining changed in eighteenth century London. I did this for A Matter of Some Scandal published by Lyrical Press. I knew my heroine Prudence would want her household run on the most modern schedule of the day and had to find out what that might be in the 1740’s, otherwise Pru’ would have been very disappointed and not the character I knew her to be.
I also find when I write male characters, and some readers have been kind enough to say they enjoy my male characters; there are times when the sheer power of those characters astonishes me. Magnus Johansson, who appears in Timeless, published by Lyrical Press is such a one. I have no idea how he got into my head, but once he appeared in the first pictures in my mind as he strode about the beautiful home he is restoring, I had to let him loose on the page.
One of the things about being a pantster writer and allowing the characters to lead the story is I’m not always sure of the ending. Being a romantic I like happy endings mostly, but in Fiona’s Wish, also published by Lyrical Press, I found whichever way I tried to lead the characters they’d have none of it, and the ending followed the tradition of the Celtic legends that gave inspiration to the story.
My, ‘Your Heart, My Soul’, published by Liquid Silver Books is my most romantic yet. This tale deals with love and heartbreak from the past reaching out to touch the life of two young lovers in the present. A ghostly tale with lots of emotion and I have to say the words flew onto the page as I wrote it.
Of course, not every story arrives with ease and sometimes the words prove nearly as stubborn as I am. When that happens I find it’s best to take a walk in the woods or down by the river, or work on something else while I wait for the next images to arrive.
I often have two or three stories to work on at the same time. Usually one takes precedence, but I have the others for the days or hours when I need an alternative. Some people might think there is a chance the characters and plots may become muddled up, but I don’t mix up members of my family in my thoughts, nor do most of us. I don’t forget the plot of my favourite movie when I watch another, and for me it’s like that with writing.
The characters take on a life of their own through the whole of the critique and editing process, and if I’ve done my job as an author they live for the readers too. As a writer my hope is that the reader enjoys the story I’ve created, finds the characters entertaining and enjoys reading about them. If I manage to fulfil those goals I’m happy.
Thanks for reading
This post was first published in February 2013
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