Sunday 15 November 2015

How I Write (or, how I learnt to be a planner rather than a pantser)

I hadn't intended to write a blog post this weekend. I'm putting the finishing touches to my latest novel and I'd already skived off on Friday to meet up with Novelistas Ink for Trisha Ashley's and Annie Burrows' joint book launch. But when we did our usual 'round robin' where we talk about what we've been up to over the past month, I mentioned my writing method and the whole room went silent.

OK, to be a little more truthful, one Novelista interrupted me mid-flow (which is very hard to do) and said, 'Does anyone else write like that?' And then the room went silent.

So, how do I write?

Well, to backtrack a little, with my first novel, A Girl's Best Friend, I just sat down and wrote it from start to finish with no planning whatsoever. I had a full-time job, so I wrote it during my lunch break and at evenings and weekends. In fact, I still remember one of the guys at work leaning over my shoulder, reading what I'd written and saying, "That will never sell."

A Girl's Best Friend took eighteen months to write. Books 2, 3 and 4 were written in  much the same way, but by then I was at home looking after my children and each book took a year to write.

With book 5 (Nemesis) I hit a snag. I'd always had trouble getting started on my novels and had lots of half-written stories in my drawer. From my second novel I'd got into the habit of writing a brief synopsis and writing from that, so I knew where I was going and what was happening, and who the bad guy was - although he/she often changed! But I wanted to speed up. It was still taking me over a year to write a novel and I wanted to write faster. I have a bad habit (I know it's bad, all the writing guides tell me so!) of writing each chapter, and polishing it BEFORE moving onto the next one. So I thought, 'I'll write a first draft, very quickly, without pausing, without looking back, until I'm finished.'

It was a disaster! I got halfway through (about 50,000 words) and it wasn't the story I'd envisaged at all. Because the heroine was fifteen when the story started, and I'd just written 50,000 words of her being fifteen, it was turning into a Young Adult. I had to scrap the whole lot and start again. 

OK, so when I say 'scrap' here's another tip for you. When I delete huge chunks of text I start a new file called 'outtakes' and paste them in there, in chronological order so I can find them again. (The 'find again' bit is important, because occasionally I change my mind and need to put some text back again.)

Nemesis was eventually re-written, in  much the same way as I'd written my previous books. The 50,000 words I'd cut out wasn't wasted, as about 20,000 of them made it back into the book as flashback scenes. And, despite all that angst, it remains one of my favourites!

Book 6 (Something Wicked) was going to be a novella, so I decided it was a perfect time to trial a new writing method. I knew I wanted the story to be 30,000 words long. I looked back at my previous books and checked how many words per chapter I usually wrote, and then worked out how many chapters I was going to need. I then wrote a very detailed synopsis, with a page outline per chapter, explaining exactly what was going to happen. And then I started writing.

It worked! It actually bloody worked! If I realised I'd become stuck on the same chapter, polishing and re-polishing, I just moved onto the next one. If I didn't feel like writing a particular scene, I moved on to one I did feel like writing. There was even one point where I wrote the last chapter and began working my way forward - which is why I call Something Wicked 'the book I wrote backwards'. Now I write all my books this way.

I have learned two things from this: 

(1) Ignore all the 'how to' books and write in the way which suits you best, which makes you happy and gets your story finished. 

(2) Don't tell your friends your weird and wonderful writing ways, because if they don't use the same method, they're liable to think you're crackers.


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  1. Hi Louise, great inspiration here for how to get a handle on your writing! I tend to use the write and hope approach - and am about to bin most of 20000 words, wail! Perhaps a plan would be better - everything's worth a try!

    1. Thank you! Yes, it was the 'write and hope' approach which got me into so much trouble!

  2. I think this is a great idea.
    I was going to blast out my third book during Nano2015 but it hasn't been working out and so far I'm only up to about 10k. I will give your method a go. Thank you.

    1. So pleased you found this helpful, Suzanne! It was the pain of dumping so many words which made me rethink my writing method. It does take time, but once I had the plan written the writing itself was much quicker - not necessarily easier though!

      You are very braving taking on NaNoWriMo! It is something I've always wanted to do, but always bottled out! I think I'm right in saying that you are allowed to write a synopsis beforehand though?

      Good luck!

  3. Thank you for sharing. I have struggled with being a prankster so I will definitely outline my novel.

    1. You're welcome, Linda! I'm pleased to help!

      (I'm assuming you mean 'pantser' rather than 'prankster' and that autocorrect got the better of you. Although being a prankster sounds far more fun!)

  4. Thank you for sharing. I have struggled with being a prankster so I will definitely outline my novel.

  5. I like this article Louise. I too was a panster and did far too much polishing of a chapter before moving on. But with recent books have moved more to planning because of pressure of time, and it's working. Like you, I sometimes do scenes in a different order, or move them about, which is not a problem.

    1. Thank you, Freda! Meticulous planning, and writing backwards, does seem to be the way to go when there is pressure of time x