Writing a novel: There’s no one right way to do it. One of the biggest points of difference among writers is whether to plan in advance or not, with those who do referred to as ‘plotters’ while those who don’t earn the moniker of ‘pantsers’ – as in, by the seat of their pants. But which way is right for you? Twenty authors tell us whether they’re a plotter, a pantser or something in between.
Dr Kim Wilkins (left) is the author of novels including The Infernal and Daughters of the Storm, and she has also written novels such as Duet and Gold Dust under the name Kimberley Freeman. She’s a plotter, and says plotting out in advance helps her books come together more quickly.
“I have a general idea of how the story is going to flow from beginning to end, like where the major transition points are, where the beginning becomes the middle, where the middle becomes the end,,” she says.
“Then I divide it up and brainstorm ideas and put them in some kind of order. From that maybe I will brainstorm the beginning with a bunch of scenes, or brainstorm part of the middle, and then I plot maybe two chapters ahead, in quite a lot of detail.
“And that means that when I sit down to write, when I turn off the internet and have my two hours, I look at my notebook and I go, ‘OK, well, I’ve got to write a scene where Sam and Violet meet in secret and they go and dance in the empty ballroom while the snow falls’ – that kind of thing.”
“My first two books, I was a total pantser, so I just sat down and just whatever came out came out and I followed that path,” she says. “My third book, with The Ark, I kind of wrote myself into a little bit of a corner at one point, and that was when I thought, ‘Well, maybe plotting could be useful…’
“So, with the third one I actually sat down one afternoon just to do the dot points, the key story beats that I wanted to hit. And the next thing I knew I had written myself a 5,000-word outline. Which even for me, as a plotter, is a little bit extreme. I’ve never gone quite into that much detail before. But the novel is a romantic urban fantasy. It’s very different from my first two novels.”
Graeme Simsion (left) is the author of the hugely successful novel The Rosie Project and sequels The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result, as well as The Best of Adam Sharp and Two Steps Forward. He plots first, though that plot isn’t set in concrete.
“I have a complete, laid out plot on cards, on physical cards, index cards, as screenwriters are wont to do, before I put anything much on paper,” he says. “I might write a chapter, just to get a sense of the voice and whether it’s going to work and so forth.
“In the case of Adam Sharp I wrote a short story, as a precursor. I think it’s a great way of working up a character. So, I had a bit of a sense of what I wanted to do there. But then I went back, I got the entire plot sorted out and then started again.”
“I’m a plotter. Early on I tried being a pantser but I lost so many stories about two-thirds through that I realised, for novel-length projects at least, I needed to have a plan. The plan changes as I write, but having a basic structure is really important to me.”
Novelist Margaret Morgan, who has a varied professional writing background, says it was her screenwriting background which taught her the importance of structure when working on her debut novel, The Second Cure.
“I very much plotted it out in advance,” she says. “Essentially, the characters are all people who I used to explore different aspects of those themes. So that the characters would be personally affected, deeply personally affected in some cases, by both the parasite and the reaction to it, so that I could explore the emotional underpinnings of the story, really.
“I mean, it might have been a nice kind of ‘what if’ essay or something, if I hadn’t done that. But I’m interested in character. So I used those characters to dig deep into the emotional heart of the idea.”
Six-time novelist Josephine Moon (right) says becoming a published author changed her from being a pantser to writing a synopsis first, and she’d recommend other writers do the same.
“I can see the real value in having…. being able to see problems in advance,” she says. “Before they happen. Because the first version of Three Gold Coins was actually set in the Cotswolds and that was a totally different storyline. I got 50,000 words in and I just went, it’s not working. And it was horrifying. It was like, at what point should I have seen that I’d written myself into a hole here that I can’t get out of? And if I had done the synopsis, I may have been able to see that.
“So there you go. There’s my great tip. Write a synopsis before you start writing the book. I told you. I’m a slow learner. I finally got it.”
Just start writing
Tamsin Janu (left) is the award-winning author of junior novels Figgy in the World, Figgy and the President, Figgy Takes the City, Blossom and Winston and the Wondrous Wooba Gymnastics Club. She says she’s definitely a pantser, but she’ll think about a story for a long time before she writes it.
“I’ll have a premise and I’ll jot down a few points before I start writing,” she says. “I’ll generally kind of know where I’m going, or I’ll at least know the first half. And then when I’m a quarter way through I will have thought of the ending.
“I find that stories sit in my head for a long time before I actually write them. And so that really helps with the planning process, because I’m just thinking about them all the time, often for a number of months before I actually write anything. By the time I get down to write, I really want to write the story.”
“I need to have a general idea of the shape of the story – what I want to feel will happen, how it will resolve and the general shape of it and the sort of character that you’re dealing with and so forth,” she says. “But I really find it an incredible process in that the writing, just the process of writing seems to just spark off so many ideas – it’s like putting a puzzle together. It only seems to be when you start to put those pieces in place do you see the connections and do other ideas spark.
“I enjoy it because it’s an adventure for the writer as well,” she says. “You don’t know where it’s going to end up and you therefore are also excited about where the journey is going to take you. So, I think that’s a really nice part of it. There’s a downside, I think, and the downside is just that you might end up reworking more.”
“That gets me to a point where I will get 25,000 words into the book and think, ‘I have absolutely no idea what’s happening. I should probably figure it out before I go further,’ because then I just veer off and I have to then do a u-turn and come back to where I kind of verged away from what I was actually trying to do and start again anyway,” she says.
As her writing progresses, Anna does mind maps and character profiles and writes down fragments as they occur to her, even if they don’t fit the part she’s writing right at that moment.
“I have different scenes that will occur to me that I write then separately and know that later on they might show up in the book, which is helpful not just to get the words down, but also to understand the characters in the story better,” she says. “So, some of that stuff doesn’t end up in the book, but it’s still been useful in terms of understanding what the book is for and what it’s about.”
“I like to write the whole first draft first before I do a lot of research,” she says. “I have tried and tried and tried to be a planner, and it just does not work for me. That part of my brain which plans out every other area of my life in minute detail does not work when it comes to writing.
“I find that there’s a danger that if I research too early, I then write to what the research tells me is possible. What I want to do in that first draft is let my imagination run wild, and just write the story that my imagination tells me is the best possible story. And if I research first I become trapped within the actuality and the research.”
“I find it surprising sometimes what happens when I don’t have too many restrictions on. You know, for instance, in To Become a Whale, the dog Albert is probably one of the most significant parts of that book. And he was not in any outline that I wrote. I just was writing and I thought, oh, he needs a dog. And I wrote a scene where he found it.”
Lisa Jewell (left), internationally bestselling author of 18 novels, is another author who says she’s tried to be a planner but is fundamentally a pantser.
“I occasionally have a lightbulb moment. But most of my working out and plotting and deciding what to reveal and deciding what happens next happens while I’m writing it down,” she says. “So I’m a writer who has an idea for a book, gets it as complex inside my head as I possibly can without my brain exploding.
“I’ve tried to sit there with a notepad and trying to work out what happens in advance, and I can’t do that. So I get my brain to bursting point with an idea and then I start writing chapter one. And then I write 1000 words a day, every day, until I’ve got 80, 90, 100,000 words. I just keep writing. That’s the only way I can stand a chance of working out what my story is and how I want to tell it, is to actually just tell it.”
Sandie Docker (right), author of The Kookaburra Creek Café, The Cottage At Rosella Cove and The Banksia Bay Beach Shack, says she’ll think of an idea and let it marinate for months before putting pen to paper, and describes herself as absolutely a pantser.
“I fly by the seat of my pants. I don’t plan my novels. So all of them have started with just that one scene, like the beach scene. And then I sit down and I ask myself the questions: who is she? Why is she sitting there? Why is she so upset? What’s going on? And I just let it grow from there.”
“I don’t plot things, I don’t have plans, I don’t have set writing hours,” she says. “I’ll write in really big chunks. So recently, to finish a version of the adult book that I’m working on, I did I think it was 16 or 17 straight hours. And then I slept for five and then I did another nine.
“I constantly have ideas. And sometimes for me, the big tricky thing is actually being able to work out which ideas are actually going to go somewhere and have enough substance to them. Sometimes I don’t work that out until I’m halfway through a very bad manuscript.”
Eliza writes down ideas as they come to her, and comes back to them when she’s looking for a place to start.
“I don’t think there’s anything as daunting for a writer as sitting and down and staring at the blinking cursor of Word or Scrivener or whatever program you’re using, and not having an idea but knowing you need to write something,” she says. “It might just be a paragraph that I’ve written, or a little snippet of dialogue, or it might be the blurb of an imaginary non-existent book that I’ve just written down. And I find that just alleviates some of that pressure when it is time to start working on the next project.”
Somewhere in the middle
“I get a notebook and I jot down off the top of my head as much as I can think about the world, about the character, about scenes that I can imagine coming up, and usually my first few chapters are really cemented in my mind,” she says.
“I’m not a complete pantser, I don’t open up a Word document and just begin, I kind of have a beginning, but then once I’ve started writing then I switch into pantsing mode, and all kinds of marvelous, weird things start happening on the page.”
“I know roughly who my protagonist is. I have an idea of the journey that he or she is going to make. And I pretty much always know what is going to happen at the end. And I am usually working towards a far distant but strong scene at the end. But, there is not a lot of detail there. And so, as I write, which is what I have been doing today, is sort of feeling the way from one plot point to another, in the dark sort of thing.
“A lot of my best ideas are those sort of little, you know, not the full story ideas but the little ideas that make it a bit different, a bit special, that come during the writing process. I have tried, I have tried doing the full plot on cards, but it just changes as I’m writing so it’s a waste of time.”
Sally Hepworth (left), bestselling author of five novels, says she started out a plotter but has loosened up as time has gone on.
“A lot of plotting and a lot of planning started when I was writing The Secrets of Midwives, and even The Things We Keep, as well – the first two books,” she says. “But since then, and I’m not sure if I’ve actually moved away from that so much as I’ve just internalised a lot of that, I haven’t had to actively plan and actively think what’s the goal, motivation, conflict? What’s the character arc? I think I’m just maybe, hopefully, doing it intrinsically a little bit more.”
Sally’s books have been contracted meaning she has to give her publisher a synopsis before starting, but she’s not bound to that.
“My editor has told me, you know, you don’t need to… As long as the book is good, as long as we like it, don’t worry too much if you decided to move away from a plot point that you put in the synopsis. So I tend to write the synopsis, and then I put it to the side, and I write the book.”
Bestselling historical fiction writer Victoria Purman (left) says she’s not a plotter at all. “Once the story is in my head, and I know the story now, then I just have to sit down and write. And that takes immense feats of concentration,” she says.
“I do have an instinctive knack for the flow of the story. And when you’re in the middle of writing the soggy middle, boy you know it. Because you’re writing scenes without going anywhere. So there is that thread.”
For her book The Land Girls, Victoria had structure in the form of a timeline for the WW2 setting of the book and other factual details.
“The land army was formed in mid-1942 and my book picks up in December of 1942 as these three women join the land army. So I knew that in December 42 the land army, they went off. What happened at that Christmas, who played cricket that summer, when were the… I knew that Pearl Harbour had happened, that the bombings on Darwin had happened. What happens in 1943 in Europe. Where would the troops have gone.
“This was the complicated thing, actually. If someone joined up in Sydney, they couldn’t have been in a particular division because that division was raised in Melbourne, for example.”
“I really like structure, and I find it so, so helpful,” she says. “I don’t know how someone just sits down at a computer and just starts from nothing. I would find that completely terrifying.
So I do do a lot of plans beforehand, just in terms of getting the structure right. But my usual method is to write something quite short to begin with, that’s got the structure all there. Only about 30,000 words or so. And then just let it grow and grow and grow.”
Anna says screenwriting techniques are useful when she’s editing or struggling to get something to work.
“There’s something called the eight sequence method, I find that so, so helpful. And really getting into the nuts and bolts of it can really, really help. Even doing diagrams and mapping your story visually, I think, can be really helpful as well.”
So there you have it. 20 authors, and 20 different ways of constructing a novel. If the way you’re writing isn’t working for you, consider switching it up: plan out some scenarios if you’ve not been doing that up til now, or just sit down and write if you’ve been tied up in plotting ahead.
If you want to ensure that your story has a tight, compelling plot, find out more in our course Plotting and Planning with bestselling author Kate Forsyth.