Plotting vs Pantsing

When you write, do you prefer to outline beforehand? Or write by the seat of your pants?

I go for a walk without a map and discuss plotting versus pantsing. Beware: heavy-handed metaphors ahead!

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks, Mark Stay here. I’m on a walk today.
One of the things I want to talk about today is plotting versus pantsing. Something that’s been on my mind quite a bit. And I’m on a walk because, and you should be aware of this, there are some heavy-handed metaphors on their way, because I’m going on this journey today and I have no idea where I’m going. Hey, hey, hey. Plotting, pantsing, eh?! Anyway, so let’s get on with it.

So, yeah , let’s define some terms first. So, a plotter is someone who outlines before they write. A pantser is somebody who writes by the seat of their pants. And this term was completely new to me before I started the podcast I hadn’t heard of it before. I think it’s an Americanism, frankly. But yeah, it kind of makes sense. You know, there are people who make it up as they go along. And I’ll be honest, I was, uh… the idea of that always kind of terrified me and I was always a very big outliner. And anyone who’s listened to the bestseller experiment podcast will know that I got quite a bollocking for that from Ben Aaronovitch, because my outline was, well, for Back to Reality that I’d written with Mark Desvaux was some 50-odd-thousand words long. Which is, to be fair, is quite a lot. And it was quite a wake-up call for me. In my defence my background’s in screenwriting and in screenwriting, you have to outline everything because you need to serve stuff up to directors and producers, pitching stuff that you haven’t actually written yet. I’ve done it. Just this week, I put together a 10-page outline for a TV show for the director to see. Now, I’d rather write that 10-page outline than a 50-page pilot show that he then doesn’t like at all, you know, so it makes a lot of sense to do that, certainly in the film world. And certainly if you have a deal with a publisher, they’re gonna ask to see synopses upfront, but not big ones, usually just three paragraphs tops, usually. So, you know, you do have to outline a bit and certainly Ben Aaronovitch says he does, like, a page. You know, before he writes anything and other authors we’ve spoken to, people like Martina Cole, you know, they do a page. The important thing is they have an ending. They know where they’re going. They know where the protagonist is going. Anyway, back to me. and my fifty thousand word outline.

Ben’s bollocking was quite a wake up call because it made me think, actually should I really be… is this is the right way to do this? Is there a right way or wrong way to do this? So the book I’d been working on before the podcast that I put aside to write Back to Reality was my fantasy novel, The End of Magic, which I had outlined very, very heavily. You know, I had three plot strands going on and I needed to know where they were going. And I felt outlining would really, really help me. And I’d done it. I’d finished the draft before starting the podcast, put it away. And then sort of a year later, after we wrote Back to Reality, I picked it up again, had a look at it and realised two of the threads were fine, really, really good. There was one character that just wasn’t working. A character called Oskar, and he needed work. I had a choice, then. I could have sat down and outlined it very heavily. Or I could have pantsed it. Fly by the seat of my pants. Well, that’s what I did and I loved it. It was great. I mean, I had the safety mat in that I knew everything that was going on all around him, you know, I knew what’s happening with the other characters. I knew how the story was going to end. I had a very good idea of how I wanted his story to end. So I approached the rewrites of his chapters just with the attitude of “What happens next?” What can be the most interesting thing that happens to poor old Oskar? I made his life hell. Very difficult. And I loved it. I had a great experience. And what’s interesting is in a lot of the reviews, people single out Oskar’s thread as their favorite bit. So that was a lesson learned, you know, and I took that to heart. So when I started working on my next project, which was the Woodville books, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants this one. And I did.

The Witches of Woodville Books, starting with The Crow Folk. OK, I figured, you know what? Let’s pants these. A little bit of history on the books. I’d been writing them on and off for about ten years, basically as contemporary fiction set in the current day. You know, with magic and what have you. It just wasn’t working. And so I put them away and it was my TV agent who said, you know, why don’t you set them in the Second World War? He figured I could sell a TV series like that to the Americans. Much to his annoyance, probably, I started writing it as a book series. And it all clicked into place. But what I did was abandon any previous story ideas. I worked on the characters, particularly the character of Faye, and just figured where I wanted her to end up and headed towards that ending. So I did kind of a one-page outline and got to know Faye. I wrote the book up and around her. And I would ask the question, what happens next? How can I test her? How can I make life difficult for her? How will she recover? And pick herself up? And dust herself off and become a better person? And it was fun. It was really freeing.

The other habit I started was I got a notebook and at the end of my writing day, which is only a couple of hours each morning, I would write what happens next or write down sort of half baked ideas, “What happens next?” Or finish mid-sentence. And the old brain— Wow, look at this. The old brain would be ticking away. And I would usually have ideas at some point during the day. Send them to myself. And the next morning I knew what I was going to be writing. So, in a weird way I was still outlining. But just, you know, one nibble at a time. And it worked and it needed surprisingly few rewrites as well. Because that’s the thing with outlining. I think I always viewed it as a safety net. I always viewed it as that thing… How rude. I always viewed it as that thing of, you know, at least I know where I’m going. But, you know, I’ve been writing for so long now, I kind of know story structure. I kind of have a good idea of what should happen next. And then I heard on the Script Notes podcast, a brilliant talk by the screenwriter Craig Mazin, where he said what he uses is, he knows where he wants his character to end up. He kind of has his ending in place. And then he writes from the opposite of that, you know, so he knows how they’re going to change over the course of the story. So he says, whenever I got stuck, I would just think, OK, I’m going from “this” to “the opposite of this”. How is this chapter affecting that? How is my character changing in this part of the story? And it’s such a simple rule and it works. So I use that. And I’ve used it for the second book in the Woodville books, which I’ve just handed in to my agent. You know, that’s kind of been my method. But that’s not to say that I’ve abandoned plotting altogether. I have to do it with screenplays. It’s just like I said, I’ve just done a TV thing. So this idea that it needs to be an either/or thing is hooey. I think George R.R. Martin says, you know, writers are either architects or gardeners. You know, they build something or they let it grow organically. I don’t see why you can’t be an architect with a garden, frankly. Why the hell not? Yeah. By the way, this is where we shot the video for The Crow Folk. It’s changed a bit since the summer, hasn’t it? There’s normally a path here. These are new!

That’s not to poo poo people who outline, you know, outlining, I’ve done it and it’s been successful for me, you know, if that’s the way you do it, go for it. All power to you. But I don’t think you have to define yourself as one or the other. You know, allow your writing style to evolve over time, allow yourself the flexibility to change the outline, because, by all means, study the Hero’s Journey, Save the Cat, all of those seven point story things or whatever. Understanding structure is important. Definitely important because it allows you when you are stuck to maybe fix things. But what I would say is all those books, you know, on why Thelma and Louise and Silence of the Lambs is, you know, the greatest structured screenplay ever. They’re all done from a point of analysis. After the fact. The screenwriters weren’t thinking like that. You know, they were just thinking what happens next? And either through experience or their own insight, they were able to come up with great solutions. And believe me, they didn’t come up with it first time. They would have rewritten and rewritten until they got it right. See, don’t let anyone define what you should be as a writer. You have to figure it out for yourself. That takes time. It’s taken me over 20 years.

So here’s the heavy-handed metaphor bit. When I left the house this morning. I didn’t know which way I was going to walk. I knew that I was going for a walk, but I didn’t have a preplanned route. But I know the area really well. I didn’t realize it was going to be so muddy back there. But I got through it because I’ve been here before and I sort of know the way. Huh? I told you. It’s heavy-handed, didn’t I? I’m a writer. I do metaphors, me. Oh, yeah. But, you know, I’ve ended up here. I’m pretty happy with that. Yeah, it’s not bad. All things considered, at the end of it, I’m going to reward myself with a cup of tea, maybe a little cookie or something. Here we go. Till next time, happy writing. And if you get lost, don’t worry. There’s usually a path somewhere.

Five Tips For Writing Around A Day Job

Want to write a novel, but juggling a day job, commute and other such commitments? I’ve written novels and screenplays while shuttling back and forth to London, and here are five tips that helped me make the most of my limited time…

I’m Pantsing the Pants Off This (and Loving It)

Or, How I Learned to Write Without a Massive Outline

For as long as I’ve written, I’ve loved a good outline. It comes from my screenwriting where outlines are something of a necessity when dealing with agents, producers, directors, etc. They like to know what they’re getting for their money upfront and it’s not unusual for the writer to put together some kind of pitch, synopsis or beat-by-beat outline ahead of actually writing the thing.

I’ve done the same with my novels. I’ve always liked to write a thorough chapter-by-chapter outline — a clear roadmap, because I’d hate to be halfway through a hundred-thousand word novel and not have a clue what happens next, or discover a massive plot hole. If you’re a regular listener of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, you’ll know that it got me a proper bollocking from that nice Mr Ben Aaronovitch (skip to about 26 minutes in…).

Since the Great Bollocking I’ve had two novels published, Back to Reality and The End of Magic, both heavily outlined and people seem to like them. But… both were well in progress when Ben gave us an earful, so I figured what the hell, I should just finish what I started with them.

I listen back to our old podcasts fairly regularly. Not out of any vanity, but I really do believe we got tons of amazing evergreen advice from some of the best authors in the business and it would be daft to ignore them. One thing that became clear is there’s no single method of writing a novel. Lots of writers love to outline, plenty of them are pantsers (writing by the seat of their pants… a term I had not heard before starting the podcast), many do a little of both. There’s no definite, step-right-this-way-to-success system. You have to figure out what works for you and build on that.

I was happy outlining, but I’ve prided myself on never writing anything the same way twice. Every time I start a project, it’s a little different and I learn something new. I figured it was time for a big change, so why not try and pants a full-length story?

But what about that fear of getting lost? Of getting halfway through a story and not knowing where to go next?

It was another podcast that had a nugget of advice that unlocked it for me. I’m a big fan of Scriptnotes, a podcast for screenwriters (and things that are interesting to screenwriters). In it, screenwriters John August (Big Fish) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) discuss craft and the industry, and I find it invaluable. Last summer (2019) they released an episode featuring just Craig who gave a talk that he’s given to screenwriters at festivals over the years.

It’s a brilliant episode, crammed with terrific advice. It’s behind a paywall now, but you can read a transcript of the full episode here.

The advice that stuck out for me was this…

“If you can write the story of your character as they grow from thinking “this” to “the opposite of this”… you will never ask what should happen next ever again.”

Craig Mazin, Scriptnotes, ep403, 41m 50s

A little lightbulb went off in my head. It was the same question I would ask myself while writing an outline anyway, so why not apply it to the blank page of a fresh draft? Would it be any different? Would it be any better?

I’ve been using and adapting this method for one screenplay (written on spec, no outline necessary) and one-and-a-bit novels and I’m loving it. I’ll start with a one-page outline, but with a bigger focus on character and theme. Who is this character? How will they change, and what’s stopping them from doing it? With those two polar opposites in mind, I rough out a very basic story and then start writing. It can be hard at first as you test the water. When I get stuck, I put the laptop aside and start scribbling in a notebook with Mazin’s advice in mind: What’s what the worst thing that can happen? What will stop this character from getting what they want? How will they overcome it?

If I can’t figure it out right away, I might stop writing altogether and get on with my day. More often than not I’ll have a solution come out of the blue while I’m washing dishes, in which case I dry my hands and email myself the note ready for the next day.

It’s working so far. The screenplay has a director and producer attached and looks like it’s a goer, and the one and a bit novels…? I’m hoping to have some good news about them soon.

I’m not saying this is going to work for everyone, but I’m enjoying living on the edge. If you’re a big outliner, why not give it a go? All you’ve got to lose is your word count…

10 Productivity Tips For Writers

On the most recent live show of the Bestseller Experiment podcast we got talking about how to make the most of your writing time. You can listen to the whole podcast here (where we also launch the BXP2020 challenge, which will make 2020 your best writing year!) and I’ve listed my top ten productivity tips below…

Procrastinate first

This may sound a little odd, but we all have our favourite forms of putting off writing, so why not just get them done and out of the way? Mine is social media. If you follow me on social media, you might notice that I’m busy first thing in the morning (breakfast), I might pop up for ten minutes or so mid-morning (tea break), then there’s lunch and then the evening when I’m done.

Diving into Twitter and Facebook first thing in the morning quenches any curiosity that there might be something more interesting going on in the world. I pop in, have a laugh (or get outraged), put it aside and then jump into the writing.

Close the door

The old advice from Stephen King. Most people think The Shining is about a writer battling his inner demons, but I reckon Jack just wants to make his daily wordcount and his wife and kid complaining about the terrors in the Overlook Hotel really isn’t helping the poor guy hit his targets.

Closing the door works. If you’re lucky enough to have a room of one’s own then use it, and make sure your family or flatmates know what it means: no knocking unless there’s a fire, nuclear war or similar*.

Before I was lucky enough to get a writing room, I used to write on my commute on a busy train. I used headphones to block out the world. If you’re a time poor writer — and who isn’t?! — you have to make the most of your writing time and any distraction can be detrimental to keeping your train of thought. Which brings me to…

*Unless they bring tea and biscuits. I can allow that occasionally.

Silence (or nature sounds)

I used to have specific music playlists for any writing project and I find these useful when I’m brainstorming ideas and trying to get into mood… But when I’m in the thick of a draft I now need complete silence. It might be a middle-age thing, it might be that I just need more brain capacity to concentrate on this stuff, but I can’t write now if the theme from The Witchfinder General is scratching at my brain.

When I’m travelling and using headphones I’ll use a nature sounds app. This blocks out extraneous noise and is far less distracting than music, though you if you find that you start getting annoyed by repetitive bird calls, then maybe switch to a white noise app.

Set targets

What are you actually going to do today? Is this a first draft and you’re hitting a word target? If it’s a screenplay, how many pages do you want to do today? If you’re editing, are you working on a particular chapter, character or thread? Whatever it is, set yourself a goal. Once you’ve hit it you can either smash through or, what the hell, take the rest of the day off and binge something on Netflix. One of the biggest lessons we’ve learned on the podcast is setting achievable goals is one of the biggest boosts to writing productivity.

It’s one of the reasons we launched this thing.

Know your arguments

It’s all very well splashing words onto the page, but what the hell are you actually saying? What is the point of this book? This character? This scene? And where are you in the story?

I always take a moment to figure out just where I am in the story. If my protagonist starts at A and ends up at Z, where am I in the alphabet of change? How is this scene helping them evolve and head towards that ending? What change is occurring through drama? In other words, how does this scene earn its place in the story? I find that once I have a clear idea of that, the rest comes relatively easily.

Make notes always

One of my favourite moments of the podcast is when Sarah Pinborough challenged the “Write every day” theory that we were really excited about.”That’s bollocks!” she said…

Listen to the whole episode here

And she’s absolutely right. Keeping that story brain ticking over in the back of your mind is so important. But, if you’re like me, you have no idea when inspiration might strike. It’s usually at two in the morning, so I have a stack of Post-It notes by the bed, or I’ll be out for a walk and a story problem might solve itself and I end up sending myself an email on my phone before the thought it gone…

And that’s the dread thing. I know now that if I don’t make a note STRAIGHT AWAY, it’s gone. For good. Again, that might be a middle age thing, but it’s real. Always be ready to make notes wherever you are.

Change medium

I’m a pretty speedy typist. My dad used to be secretary of football referees association and I used to type up his handwritten notes for their newsletter on a second-hand fire-damaged BBC B computer, so I was a touch typist from about age eleven. The temptation for me is to stick to typing on a screen because it’s so fast, and that’s great when I’m on a roll, but when it comes to problem-solving you can’t beat pen and paper. There’s something about scribbling on a pad, or a scrap of paper, or on a whiteboard that fires up a whole new set of synapses in my noggin. I’m hearing a lot of writers are switching to dictation now that the tech is getting more reliable. I haven’t tried it yet, but watch this space.

Regular breaks

This might feel like more procrastination, but at my age I have to get off my arse every hour or so, if not more. If I’m working from home there’s always a bit of washing to put on, a dishwasher to empty, some vacuuming to do. Getting up and moving around gets my blood flowing and it’s a good way to let the brain take a breather, and it often leads to solutions to story problems. And of course nothing beats a good walk…

From one of my very productive walks… Yes, this is work!!

But doesn’t all that interruption break into my concentration…? Well, I have a thing for that too…

End mid-sentence

Whenever I take a break, and especially at the end of the day, I try to end either in mid-sentence or in the middle of an incomplete scene. This means that when I resume work I’m not faced with a blank page or fresh chapter to start. I just need to polish off what I was working on yesterday. I’ll often leave myself a note along the lines of, “You were thinking this, and this thing was going to happen next.” That’s usually all I need to get started and before I know it I’m up and running and ready to tackle the next chapter.

Similarly, if I ever get stuck I’ll go back and rewrite or edit the pages running up to the moment of stickiness. This run-up usually gives me the momentum I need to break through the sticky bit and keep going.

Prepare to change

Here’s the thing. What worked for me two years ago, doesn’t necessarily work for me now. I’ve never written a script or a book the same way twice. I’m always looking to shake things up. I think the day I think I’ve got it all figured out is the day to give it up.

Bonus tip: Back up your work

Every day. Back up your work to a dongle, a cloud, email yourself — whatever it takes to ensure that your magnum opus isn’t sat on a device that will inevitably crash and die. There’s no “maybe” about this. Tech dies every day and often without warning. Sometimes it’s unavoidable and that’s horrible, but you can and should take steps to avoid it.

The 3-2-1 back up rule is best: keep three copies of your data, two on different storage media and one off-site.

I hope this was helpful. We talk about this more on this episode of the Bestseller Experiment.

And do please leave your own tips and comments tips below

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The End of Magic edit update

Over lunch today I finished the latest phase of the edit. I’ve been picking away at my editor Simon Spanton’s notes (over 350 suggested changes and comments) for a little over three weeks now.

I started with the easy stuff, namely all the extraneous crap marked ‘Delete’ by Simon. Suggestions to re-word awkwardly phrased sentences, clarity where there was confusion, repetitions…

… and a whole section where I had a character eating stew from a plate instead of a bowl (d’oh!). I find this is a nice warm up before the main event, and a good way to reacquaint yourself with a book that you might not have looked at for weeks or even months.

There was a whole debate about rats on a ship, how fast a ship would sink, and how many lashes with a cat ‘o nine tails would kill a man (Simon is an extremely genial and friendly chap, but knows an awful lot about naval punishment).

We went back and forth on the size of armies, weaponry, lethal farm tools (who knew that the cutting edge of a scythe blade was on the inside of the curve? Simon did, thankfully), dog bites, poisons, rats, crops, injuries, the efficiency of messenger pigeons, the physiology of merpeople…

… putting a saddle on the back of a wyvern, and the mental and physical cost of using magic.

There were a few moments where my characters rushed into action without much thought of the consequences and it was great to have the opportunity to dig a little deeper and think about why they made those impetuous decisions.

It’s been fun if hard and intense work, but there’s no question that it’s improved the book. And it’s not over yet! I’m sure Simon will have a few more notes for me, and then we’ll move onto the copy edit where it gets really forensic.

I’m hoping to have a revised version of the opening chapter that I can share with you soon, in the meantime thanks to everyone who has supported the book so far, and if you’ve not yet pre-ordered you can do so here.