Plots, pants, etc

I’ve heard a lot about ‘plotters and pantsers’ — there are enough articles (sss, ssss), and obviously my favourite would be this one, but that’s not how I write.

My stories come fully formed. They arrive. They filter through the clouds, fall through the clear bit between the clouds and me, plonk themselves in my head and shriek, ‘Write meeeeee.’ I then have about an hour to wallop them out, before I forget them entirely.

Because of this, my life is a story graveyard.  I remember very clearly a point last week when I genuinely thought about my latest idea, and realised, this was THE ONE. The perfect book; something I’d be enthusiastic about writing, with a story that was both complex, with strands of complementary subplots, while also retaining a simple humanity at its core. And it was original. It was a psychological thriller cum sociological observation, but basically a story about a girl.

Finally, I was flushed full of enthusiasm and that elusive joy, certainty — hurray. Then my child needed feeding, exercising, and putting to bed, and can I remember the story now? No. I remember how I categorised it, but the main story is absolutely gone.

I sometimes wish I were a ‘plotter’, because if you throw down a corkboard and cover it with post-it notes, jotting character references and peppering them with back-story, all the while picturing what this, that and the other character would actually do in a given circumstance, then even if you were to forget the whole premise of the book, at least you’d have some notes to jog the memory. For me, though, this kills the fiction. I plan my scientific writing because that’s how it’s done — but for me fiction is a fly-by-night, a flash (no matter how long the story), and the exhilaration comes from racing to catch it. So my post-it notes end up lurking behind the furniture, growing fur and becoming curly, until I finally realise how disgusting they are and throw them away. They do not speak story to me.

Pantsing, on the other hand, looks like a surefire way to write ten thousand half-stories. Does anyone finish a story that way? Just by starting something, writing, and ‘wondering where it will go’? It’s a brave way to go and I admire the adventurers, but I would not finish anything other than flash that way, and possibly not even a flash that I liked.

I have to know the story before I start, and it has to arrive fully formed, running like a little imaginary film in my head. I get clips; my art is to describe them before they fade, leak out of my ears, and float away to another, more functional skull.

I should use a Moleskine but I’m not going to, because again that doesn’t work for me. (Writing methods aside, £12 for a little notepad? Yez gan barmy?) No, I’ll stuff the back of an envelope into my jeans, and a Bic biro, and next time I look like I’m going to miss a story, I’ll scribble, ‘Mary, telephone, loser-Mum’, and if I can still decipher that when I get home, there’s a chance I might have netted something that’ll make the hairs stand up on someone else’s neck.

Just saying, there might be.

In other news, I like this post: Eat Your Lima Beans: The Importance of Becoming the Writer You Aren’t.

So if I don’t write something eye-boggling after the next ether drop, I’ll have to go back to Scrivener and pull up the last lot of fake, electronic post-it notes, and start the trudge. Oh my…

Someone pass the Bic, and please keep something crossed for me.




  1. Chris says:

    I’m not a plotter either. Sometimes the story arrives, fully formed, and sometimes I start with an idea and write with it. So, I’ve a half-zillion half-started stories, just like you say, and another half-zillion half-forgotten ones. And many, many undecipherable notes. Just came across an old one this morning. Scribbled on a scrap of newspaper: “Grey man. Mirror. Polish.” If you can use that, be my guest.

    • TU says:

      We ought to be able to sell half-finished stories to writers who are out of ideas. I love the idea of ‘Grey man. Mirror. Polish,’ I once wrote a story that started with a grey girl in a mirror (a passenger seeing her reflection in a bus window). I did finish that story, but it wasn’t published and now lurks in a drawer. Here we go, I’ll dig it out:

      She flopped down, her coat crumpling beneath her and yesterday’s cigarettes flattened under her feet. As the bus creaked forward she touched her forehead to the grey girl’s in the window and thought of her journey.

      Just before that, and just after, are some truly cringeworthy bits of over-writing. Ow. Some of my old stuff reminds me of that blog, ‘How to Write Badly Well‘.

  2. Chris says:

    Haha, I’m sure your old stuff isn’t quite that bad.

    That excerpt reminds me of a number of notes I’ve scribbled while riding city buses. They’ve all remained scraps though.

    It also suddenly reminded me of a collaborative piece that writing friend Claudia del Balso started last fall. I threw in a couple of paragraphs. The person after me took it in a different direction.

  3. He he! Sounds a good enough method to me! I’m a plotting-pantsing mix – I start off with the beginning and the ending which changes very little over the next few months, years (decades??) but I have no idea what the middle’s going to be before I start. I like to do some planning after about 20k words when I’ve got a few characters doing their thing but I find myself panicking I’ll forget some amazing gem (!) and find myself doing this kind of plotty-copy thing, where my plan will be another 20k words and full of half written scenes. It’s not particularly scientific but it does seem to work for me. Great post!

    • TU says:

      Hi Jackie, thanks for commenting. Yes, I do the plotty copy thing if I’m writing something long. I use Word, and just write a mini draft (a synopsis in headline form) and format it as Word headings, then use Document map to flick between the parts. It allows the dumping of gems into the correct sections of the book / story, even if those sections are not yet written. I think Scrivener allows for easy sectioning like this too, but I trained on Word, old habits etc.

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