Like many writers, I like to read about the process other writers go through when they set about creating something, whether that’s a novel, short story or anything else. I think there’s always a desire to wonder if another person’s system might work that little bit better than your own and result in better work.
In particular, I’ve been quite interested in the debate between plotting – setting out a novel in its entirety before embarking on the project – and ‘pantsing’ – flying by the seat of your pants and telling the story as you go, because these are very different methods of working.
Now that I’m working on my second novel, I thought I’d share my method and the ways in which it has changed in case it’s of interest to anyone starting out.
My first effort at a novel in 2011 was completely ‘pantsed’. It was for NanoWriMo, so this was more out of necessity to beat the clock than out of a conviction that this was how I would work. Unfortunately, it was also completely pants and hasn’t seen the light of day since. I still like the idea, but the execution was so poor that reading it makes me embarrassed.
However, it was my first novel and it did get me started on the road to publication, so at least it was a beginning.
My next attempt was a YA story I’d had brewing for some time and for whatever reason, I decided to follow a method that involved carefully planning each chapter and writing a synopsis before I started.
This really appealed to me – but it didn’t work. I found that writing in this way removed all the happy surprises that usually come about as I construct scenes and make my characters interact. I also found I was unwittingly trying to rush each chapter to get on to the next point on the list. These factors killed the creativity for me and the novel stalled indefinitely.
Back to pantsing
When I first decided once and for all in 2016 that I would work on the story that became Revolution until it was finished, I was back to pantsing again. I sat down at the laptop or notepad and just kept writing. This time, I wasn’t going to abandon the project – but it did result in some quite major challenges.
The first was that the novel was shorter than I wanted it to be (around 40,000 words) and it didn’t contain any action from the baddies’ perspectives, which made it feel quite sparse and more like an outline than a proper novel.
And the other thing was that there were some pretty major plot holes. Characters in two places at once? Check! Never-ending days and then inexplicable night-times despite bright sunshine just a scene before? Yep!
This had the effect of making the editing process extremely lengthy and arduous – in fact, I was pretty much unpicking it and remaking the novel from the foundations up again. So, while pantsing did result in me finishing a novel and brought about some very fun passages and writing sprints, I didn’t especially want to do all that again.
Somewhere in between: writing perfection (for now)
So, based on all of these experiences, I have created a new system that seems to be working for me on the second novel. I discovered that I don’t like to know too far in advance what’s going to happen – but I do like to have an idea of where the next couple of chapters should be headed. I want to know the ending, but not necessarily all the steps that will get me there.
I also wanted to work directly on to the laptop because I can keep up with the speed of my thoughts, but know I’m the kind of person that needs some kind of paper system to stay on top of brainwaves, chapters and other paraphernalia.
Therefore, I bought a traveller’s notebook and created a main notebook insert, a folder for loose notes and put a jotter in the pocket at the back. I started with brain-dumping all the ideas I had for the novel in the jotter, which I find helps my mind make connections and brings the story to life.
I then started writing the first chapter in a Word doc on the laptop. When I was finished, I used a single page in the main notebook insert, headed it ‘Chapter 1’ and wrote bullet points concerning all that was going on in that chapter, including characters involved, settings, etc, on that page.
Finally, to prevent me being apprehensive about the next writing session and having to look at a blank page when I started the next chapter, I went back to the jotter, scribbled ‘next’ and then brain-dumped all my thoughts about what I wanted the characters and the plot to be doing next.
Each session, I repeat the process, meaning my notebook is getting pleasingly full of synopsis pages and my jotter has plenty of useful nuggets that I shouldn’t keep forgetting by the time the next time I sit down.
It sounds complicated explained like this, but it isn’t – and best of all, it’s working for me. I’m about 21 chapters in now and I’m getting the satisfaction of knowing enough about what’s going to happen next to keep me from worrying , but also enjoying the fun that comes from having the story lead itself.
If you’ve been struggling with finishing projects, maybe a change of methods or a little work on figuring out what might help you blast through to completion could help – just like it did me.