Planning vs. Pantsing

When it came to writing stories, I was always a pantser. I didn’t know the term at the time – I learned it years later, on NaNoWriMo, when I was setting up my page and awarding myself as many badges as I could get without technically cheating. (I love badges. It’s one of the things I miss most from being in Guides).

“Pantsing” is, apparently, writing without a plan – by the seat of your pants, as the saying goes. Pantsers write their stories by sitting down, getting started, and seeing where it takes them. It’s an approach that works for a lot of people. It’s taken me nearly twenty years to realise that it doesn’t work for me.

I’ve technically written four novels in my life. The first, Indian Horses, was my passion project when I was a child – an epic set in the Old West with talking horses and a Native American hero, written when I didn’t realise what an enormous racist mess the entire story was. This gave way to The Shadows, the fantasy novel I’ve been writing since I was fourteen, and a story I still believe in but have realised that I’m not ready to write yet. Then there was Spider Circus, a prequel to The Shadows, which I self-published and was pretty happy with, although I know I could do it better now. Finally, there’s Sigyn – still a work in progress, but I’ve written a novel-length draft, and dammit, that counts.

(Incidentally, a note to writers – if you have a slight lisp that comes out when you’re tired or stressed, maybe don’t give all your stories titles that begin with S. Trust me on this).

I wrote endless notes around those stories – about the worlds, the characters, the way the magic worked. But I didn’t plan the stories themselves, because I firmly believed that if I did, the story would die. Breaking it down and listing each event would kill it. I wanted to keep my story alive.

I guess it worked. My stories did stay alive. In fact, they rumbled on in perpetual loops of regeneration – every time I finished, I needed to start again, because it wasn’t right, I hadn’t got the beginning down properly, or the middle, or the end, and then the plot was soggy here, and then it was too rushed there, and then a subplot had changed and I needed to go back and deal with all the knock-on effects, and then those shifted everything else out of balance…

I mentioned earlier that I started writing The Shadows when I was fourteen. I’m now thirty-two. I’ve been writing Sigyn for three years, and I’ve only just got it. And the only reason I’ve got it is because, finally, I started planning.

I’m part of The Golden Egg Academy, an editorial service and generally brilliant group, that has helped me immensely with my writing. One of the most important things, for me, is the GEA’s emphasis on breaking down your story into act structures (thank you, John Yorke), to make sure the plot rises and falls in a way that makes sense, that doesn’t drown the tension or drama in an ocean of waffle, and, most importantly, doesn’t leave the reader feeling bored or let down.

Towards the end of 2017, I met with the two editors who I’ve been working with to do through my story, and see what fitted, what didn’t, and how to make it work. I went away from that meeting with a few ideas, which became more solid when I broke Sigyn down into different beats (taking a technique from Save The Cat this time).

I’ve just started yet another rewrite. I thought I would be dreading it. Instead, I feel really positive, because, finally, it feels like I know where this story is going, and how to finally make it work. This time, I don’t just have an idea – I have a plan.


About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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One Response to Planning vs. Pantsing

  1. J. Cleary says:

    Really helpful, thank you.

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