Plotting vs Pantsing – it’s not either/or

Over the past year or so I’ve been gearing up to write a new novel, and I’ve had to rediscover my own writing process all over again. Writing The Alchemist of Souls took so long that I barely remember how I got from vague idea to first rough draft, and whilst the two sequels are very recent, they were written so fast it’s something of a blur!

If anything, writing The Merchant of Dreams and The Prince of Lies gave me a very misleading view of how I work. I assumed that because I was able to come up with an outline fairly readily and only needed a couple of drafts before it was ready to polish up and send to my editor, that this was the way it would go for all future books. Turns out, not so much.

Whereas on the sequels I was working with familiar characters and an ongoing plot, in this new project I’m starting from scratch. Not, admittedly, from a blank page like some true pantsers such as Stephen King, but while I have some characters and a setting, there are a thousand plot possibilities, a thousand places I could take them. And although I need a basic outline to prevent me from running out of steam, try as I might I cannot outline an entire novel in advance – at least not a first novel in a series. My creative right-brain only comes out to play when I’m writing prose – outlining is too left-brained and analytical, and hence liable to go astray if I try to do it before I’ve written anything. It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum: I need an outline to finish a first draft, but I can’t outline until I’ve spent time hanging out with the characters on the page. Aaargh!

I blogged about my struggles to pin down a plot last summer and autumn, but it wasn’t until today that the light bulb went on. This is the early, unpublished phase of my career all over again: piles of false starts but no finished novel. Back then I made the mistake of thinking that if I couldn’t get into a story after a couple of attempts, it was a lame idea and I should try something totally new. I now know that I should have persevered and explored all the plot possibilities before moving on – but what I didn’t realise until today is that the false starts are a vital part of the process for me as well.

Note that this is a different thing from Chapter One Syndrome, whereby a writer polishes and tinkers with a novel’s opening over and over instead of completing the draft and then revising. This is writing a first chapter and realising you don’t like the way the character has turned out or where the story is heading, and trying again with a new character or scene (or both). I’m not really bothered about the quality of the prose (and in any case it tends to be at least tolerable), but if the story isn’t working it has to go, regardless of how good the scene is.

This came to a head because for the past two weeks, my writing process has been:

  1. At the weekend, come up with a brief outline of the whole book, and a detailed outline for the first couple of chapters
  2. On Monday morning, fired with enthusiasm, start writing the first chapter
  3. By Tuesday or Wednesday, realise it’s not working for one reason or another, and grind to a halt

Rinse and repeat! I was just beginning to despair when I realised that this is a necessary stage for me. It only takes a few hours out of my weekend to throw together a new mini-outline and decide how the book is going to start, and only a few hours of writing to discover if it’s going to work. Better to do it that way than to labour over an outline for weeks or months and have it still not work.

So, next time someone asks if I’m a plotter or a pantser, I can honestly say “neither”. Or perhaps more accurately, “both”. And at the end of the day it matters not one whit how you write a book, as long as it gets written.