Figured I’d not done many posts on the actual process of writing for a long, long time. A good solution? Some bite-sized (possible, if I keep the waffle down, unlike now) blogs on some of the most important things I’ve learned in my three(!) years as a professional writer.
I’m basing this series of six posts on the majority of questions I’m asked via email. First up is one of the most common — whether I plan or “pants”.
I’ve done a few posts on the topic in the past. But to be honest, my process has changed over time. I used to be a full-blown pantser (pantser = make it up as you go). Then I shifted more to the middle. Nowadays? I’m a full-blown planner.
I’m living proof that people who think they are pantsers can plan if they put some advance time and effort into it. And I’m definitely of the school of thought that a well-planned book can make the entire writing process a hell of a lot easier.
Yes, Stephen King isn’t a fan of planning. But he’s an absolute master of the craft. Not planning is fine, but an understanding of what underpins the craft of fiction is pretty important if you’re going to make it up as you go — which is not to discredit the process of pantsing, btw.
My process usually goes something like this:
1.) Study the market. Read books. Figure out what I enjoy (a harder process than it should be). Figure out what readers are enjoying. Find a happy medium between what stimulates me creatively and individually, and what books/genres are resonating with readers. I think of this not as writing to market, not at all. Rather, using the market as translation software for the untamed beast that is my writing voice.
I’m also not condoning writing in any genre just because it sells. I’m talking about a balance between creative desires and commercial potential. For example, I don’t like writing in the romance genre. That’s no fault of the genre — I just don’t think I write good romance novels. So I don’t write/publish in that genre, even though it’s the most marketable kind of fiction.
On the other hand, I love writing and reading post apocalyptic horror. I add my own unique suspensey spin on the genre, with a literary depth to the morally ambiguous characters, and challenging themes that aren’t usually present in similar stories. And that’s as key a thing as anything — individuality. Don’t copy stuff. Take inspiration from what you enjoy reading, from what many readers enjoy reading, sure. But then add your own spin on things. Set yourself aside from the crowd. Do this, and you’ve already got a headstart.
2.) I boil this down into an idea. The idea might come first, or perhaps it’ll spawn as a result of my research. An idea is just a grain. The initial spark of life. The flame of inspiration. But it’s nothing. Not until it becomes…
3.) A concept. A concept is an idea on a questionable substance. It’s an idea with ‘what if?’ attached to it. What if aliens invade earth? What if rabbits breed with tarantulas and form a new species of post apocalyptic super villain? What if? provides dramatic potential. That’s exactly the job of the concept — creating a vehicle for dramatic experience. The spark of the idea becomes a full blown flame.
4.) I think about character next. What’s my character’s problem? And I don’t mean “they only have one arm” or that kind of problem. I mean their inner demon. Their flaw. Their issue. I want to know what my character has wrong with them, so I know how to fix it (or how to make it defeat my character depending on the story) at the end of the book. I want to know how to prepare that vehicle of dramatic experience for a journey.
Character is the fuel to the engine of dramatic experience. It’s the stakes. It’s the care package. And it’s where the emotion kicks in. You think about your character, give them something to care about, give them a flaw, and you work from there.
But the whole process is a lot more enriching if you combine it with…
5.) Theme. Yep, that dirty word. When I was at school, I always had theme down as “world peace” or “racism” — that kind of thing. And that’s where a lot of fiction writers get it wrong.
Theme is the issue at the heart of your story. It’s the thing you’re exploring. It goes hand in hand with character. If your character has a drink problem, maybe the theme of the story is investigating addiction from different angles. Or maybe it’s the solidity of marriage in the face of opposition.
Theme is the heart of your story. You can leave it out if you want, but it’ll sneak in there subconsciously anyway, so you might as well spend a few hours thinking about it and getting it spot on.
6.) Now, I work on structure. I throw all the ingredients above into a pot and write out a brief summary of the key plot points. I flesh that out, split it up into acts, figure out what goes where. Every time I write a one-sentence summary of a scene, I ask “what’s the mission?” By that I mean: what is this scene achieving in the wider context of the story?
If it’s achieving nothing, it goes.
This approach is perhaps my favourite reason for planning over pantsing. It allows me to see my story from a macro level, allows me to fix potential lulls before I’ve even written them. And it doesn’t take the energy out of my book. That used to be my old excuse for not planning. If anything, with mission-driven scene planning, it just makes me all the more eager to get started.
7.) I write the thing. More on that process in the coming weeks.
Overall, this might seem a long-winded process. Another reason many people don’t plan. Sure, it might take a week on first try. But now, I’ve got my planning process down to a couple of days. A couple of days hard work thinking about the beats and plot points in my story, the thematic journey, the character arc.
All that makes for a better story.
I’ve just now realised this post isn’t so bite-sized anymore. My bad.
If you’re a pantser, think about planning. If you’re a planner, think about pantsing. The intention of this post isn’t to discourage you from your method, just to open your eyes to another way of doing things.
Speaking of which, I planned the heck out of my latest novel, Chloe, using the methods above. It’s gone on to be one of my most successful launches ever. Check it out if you want a more in-depth, real world look at how I go about structuring things.
Hope it helps. Maybe I’ll keep this series of posts up!