Most authors like to plot a book out before they start to write. For some, that may be a couple of A4 sheets of scribbled notes. For others, it will be so detailed that it includes every chapter and scene, including lists of characters present and what happens, with a huge pile of background notes on characters, places, research, historical data and so on. The advantage is that when they come to write, they can focus on the words and not have to keep stopping to work out what happens next. The disadvantage is that a tightly plotted book can feel over-contrived and artificial.
And then there are pantsers. What’s a pantser? An author who writes by the seat of her pants, that’s what. A pantser sits down with a blank sheet of paper (metaphorically, because almost everyone writes direct to computer these days), maybe a character or two and an opening situation and… just writes. She never quite knows where the story is going until it gets there. The advantage here is that the story often has a more natural, organic feel to it. The disadvantage is that it’s all too easy to wander off-track and get diverted into possibly interesting but ultimately irrelevant side plots.
Neither way is better or worse than the other, since there’s no right or wrong way to write a book. The best way, perhaps the only way, is whatever gets the story written and that’s going to be different for every individual. But for any writer who’s having trouble finishing a book, it’s worth trying an alternative. If you’re a plotter, try pantsing. If you’re a pantser, try a bit of outlining. Whatever works.
I’m a pantser at heart. Of the five books I’ve published so far, four were entirely pantsed, starting with that blank sheet of paper, a single character and an interesting situation, and allowing the story to evolve however it wished. I like to call it discovery writing, because I discover the story as I write it.
What about the fifth book? That was The Fire Mages’ Daughter, and it was a little different. It was a sequel, so I already had a character in mind, and she was in an interesting situation. Her mother was a powerful mage, and so she was immersed in magic from the moment of conception until her birth. I wanted to explore that idea. How would it affect her, physically? How would she be different from any other child? So I had a character and a starting situation, but no plot. I had some ideas about what Drina would be like, but no idea where life would take her or what challenges she would face.
So for that book, I turned to the only plotting book I’ve ever found that works for me: Take off Your Pants by Libbie Hawker. It’s a very character-based approach, nice and simple, so it only took me an hour or two to come up with a plausible outline. I veered away from that towards the end, but it was a lifesaver because it got me off the ground.
For the current work in progress, The Second God, which is a sequel to the sequel, I didn’t need a full outline, because I already had a pretty good idea of how things would start off. And it rattled along really well, so that I’ve now got 70,000 words written. But… I’ve got to that sticky point in the middle where I have half a dozen different plot strands running through the book, and I need to start to pull them together. And that means I need to know how things end.
Now, I could just let it unfold. I’ve done that before, and let the characters lead me along whatever path they choose. And sometimes that works well — and they surprise me! But for a truly satisfying and resonant ending, especially since this is the end of a trilogy, I needed to be sure everything is tightly focused and not too rambling. And that means…
Being a pantser to the core, my plotting doesn’t involve wikis and spreadsheets and timeline software. I simply wrote down all the dangling plot threads I’d accumulated and points I felt were important, about twenty or so. Then I mulled it all over (while doing the ironing, as it happens; mindless chores are perfect for this). And gradually, some ideas coalesced. I think it will make the book a little longer, but that’s fine — epic fantasy is meant to be long.
And that’s probably all the plotting this book is going to get. Watch out for The Second God in September or thereabouts, and you can judge for yourself how successful it was.