Guest Tips #3 Rosy Thornton

Planners v Pantsers

Writers, I have discovered, are either ‘planners’ or ‘pantsers’ (who write by the seat of their pants), or some combination of the two. For myself, I have always been a pantser.

I always used to mumble and apologise for not having a plan, until I heard the wonderful Ali Smith on the radio one day, saying that she doesn’t plan her books but is an ‘intuitive writer’. Now I hold my head high, and toss my hair artistically. ‘I’m an intuitive writer,’ I say – which sounds so much better than, ‘I just muddle along.’

My process – as with most pantsers, I imagine – is to conceive at the outset a small group of characters and an initial situation of conflict. Both the characters and the story then develop as I write.

In terms of characters, these will necessarily be very shadowy in the early stages. I have never understood how anyone could sit down and fill in one of those pro forma character outlines before they begin to write. (What is your character’s birth sign? Most treasured childhood memory? Favourite kind of cheese?) How can I know these people before I’ve written the book?

At the beginning they tend to be endowed with one or two salient characteristics to fix them in my mind – much as, when we meet new people, we tend to notice one or two key things about them. Perhaps they remind us slightly of someone we know, perhaps we even assign them in our mind to a ‘type’; but as we get to know them better, as we watch them think and speak and act in different situations, more depth and individuality is gradually revealed. It’s exactly the same for me with characters in my books: I get to know them more intimately by placing them in situations on the page and seeing how they respond. I become acquainted with them just as I become acquainted with people in real life.

The development of story is never quite as simple. Plot and structure are not my strong suit, to say the least! But when it is going well, the story gathers its own momentum as I write. I find that, for me, writing a book replicates very closely the imaginative process which accompanies reading one. You know how, when you are reading a good book, and you finish a chapter and lay it down, your mind is filled with possibilities? The characters are alive in your head, still talking and acting, and your mind leaps ahead to the many possible ‘what nexts’?

Well, that is exactly how it is for me with writing. As a chapter or scene nears its conclusion, my mind is sparking with ideas for the next scene. There may be occasional flashes of longer term insight – sudden images of later possible big events, possible endings – just as happens when you are reading a book. But mostly my mind – conscious or unconscious – is busy only with the immediate story, and the immediate what-happens-next.

It makes the process of writing into something of a rollercoaster ride – a journey without a map, which unrolls as a series of discoveries. At any one time I am either rushing to the end a scene on the downhill slide, because it has unfolded in my mind and I am desperate to get it down, or else I’m slowing on the uphill slope because a new scene has suggested itself, but only grindingly, tentatively to begin with, as I feel my way into this new segment of action and interaction… and then the next piece of track opens up clearly and I gather speed again, throwing myself into the scene and rushing on again towards its end.

Writing to a plan works well, I know, for many, many authors. And there must be something more safe and reassuring about it, knowing where your path leads, seeing it all mapped out. It may well lead to more consistent results. But I love my rollercoaster voyage of discovery and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

Rosy Thornton writes contemporary women’s fiction. Her latest novel, THE TAPESTRY OF LOVE (Headline Review), was published in paperback in October. It tells the story of an Englishwoman who sells up her house in England and moves to a remote hamlet in the Cévennes mountains in France to start up in business as a seamstress and tapestry-maker.

Rosy is also a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where she teaches and writes on various aspects of law.

Find out more about Rosy and her work here.

This post is part of the Guest Tips Series, a collection of pieces of advice and personal experiences from writers who are not me. Bits of advice or ranting from writers who are me can be found here, in the Tips for Writers bit of the blog. If you fancy writing for me, you can find out a bit more about the hows and whys and wherefores here. 

11 responses to “Guest Tips #3 Rosy Thornton”

  1. Tim Franklin says:

    I’m such a pantser too. I have a lot of anxiety about trying to write a novel as a result: starting out on a play (20,000 words max) with no clear map is fine – I can redraft three times before in the same time it would take me to hash out one draft of a novel.

    Still! Good to know that you can do it and succeed!

  2. Rosy Thornton says:

    That’s funny, Tim, because I would imagine a play would need a really tight scene-by-scene structure and be far less fluid than a novel – and hence would need more pre-planning. Interesting to discover that is not necessarily the case!

  3. Thanks Rosy!!

    I’m a total pantser (and I love the term!) After some fairly stinging criticism of a recent effort, I resolved to change myself into a planner. So I spent weeks scrawling out character sketches, and dissecting the plot into tiny pieces. Hell, I even got a pinboard, and wrote out little post-it notes detailing every plot twist. It’s so not me…

    Now about seven chapters in, I’m totally bored with the whole work, and debating shelving it. When I look at the pinboard, my heart sinks. Not because it’s a rubbish story, but because the sight of it laid out like that makes me feel as though I’m writing with my elbows glued to my sides. It’s not fun.

    I’m not meant to be a planner….

  4. Sam, the only thing which would induce me to try planning is actually the pinboard and the pretty coloured post-its. I will admit to a minor stationery fetish. But whenever I have tried it – even to the extent of thinking ahead to some key scene later on in the book – it has been a disaster because, by the time I reach that point, the characters have always evolved so that there is no way I can make them do the things I’d had in mind for them.

    Just be a pantser and proud!

  5. Jane Eagland says:

    I think I’m temperamentally a pantser, or as Julia Jarman has described it, someone who likes to ‘grow’ a novel rather than plan it to death. But then what does one do about publishers demanding a synopsis they can take to meetings with the money-people, who seem to be the main decision makers?

  6. Jane, my experience would suggest, just make it sound as good as you can – and once the the book is written, if it’s good enough, they won’t care that it bears no resemblance to the synopsis!

  7. “In terms of characters, these will necessarily be very shadowy in the early stages. I have never understood how anyone could sit down and fill in one of those pro forma character outlines before they begin to write. (What is your character’s birth sign? Most treasured childhood memory? Favourite kind of cheese?) How can I know these people before I’ve written the book?”

    I agree, Rosy, I have to get to know my characters as I go along. I can’t be doing with all these charts and plans. However, I do find the heroes tend to drop fully formed onto the pages – a fact that makes me feel guilty. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

    Very thought provoking post (and a wonderful book, might I add. So evocative)

  8. Jeanna thornton says:

    I am a total non planner…writing is similar to channeling to me…but safer. 🙂 Nice post! Thanks!

  9. Thanks for the brill post, Rosy. I’d like to be a planner, but I’m a pantser – at least I am in the first draft. Then once I have a first draft I need to plan what I’m going to do with it to turn it into something readable. Jane makes a good point though – you might be an instinctive writer but once you start publishing, your editor and agent might want you to be a bit more of a planner…

  10. Thanks for having me over here, Jenn!

  11. Lola says:

    I’m a planner as I don’t write fiction so I need a plan in order to write decent essays 😉

    However, I rarely have clear plans when I post on my blog which is not in my native language(I’m Italian but I write in English). I’m aware that a blog shouldn’t imply an effort and it’s not a “proper piece of writing” but I do put a certain amount of effort when I don’t write in Italian.

    I’m fascinated by creative writing not in the mother tongue. I wonder if the process of writing -creative writing- would be different.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *