Guest Post: Planner or Pantser: The ‘Oh yeah!’ moment

Ed2Cover400I wanted to write books for pretty much as long as I can remember.*

I had lots of ideas – vague, dreamlike ideas that were apt to disintegrate on close inspection. I started writing lots of stories. I finished very few. I began my first novel at 13; but didn’t finish a first draft of it until 15 years later. It was about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. Wow, I wish I hadn’t missed that boat! It was also terrible, but [redacted: grumpy observation on how much that matters].

The trouble was, I had no idea how to plan and structure a novel. I had some vague, naïve idea that complex, thrilling stories just magically happen. They don’t. Not from my pen, anyway.

At the age of 34, with many and various jobs behind me, but little satisfaction, I gave up full time work to write Darklands. I had no agent, no contacts, no safety net. But I also had no dependants or responsibilities. So I just did it.

Whether the book was any good or not, whether it got published or not, these were uncertainties. But whether or not I finished the book was not. I was gambling everything on writing this book, so I was damn well going to finish it.

That meant planning. I was not going to do my old trick of getting three quarters through the story, then running out of steam, and having no way to resolve my loose ends. I was going to plan it thoroughly before I even started.

I like twisty-turny stories. My very favourite thing to happen in a story is when there is some revelation that pulls the rug from under your feet. You never saw it coming, but in retrospect you can clearly see that the clues were all there. You kick yourself and wonder why you couldn’t see it; you admire and envy the author’s sleight-of-hand (Diana Wynne Jones was great at this, a particularly fine example being Howl’s Moving Castle).

That was what I wanted to do with Darklands. And it is an astonishingly difficult thing to do well. When writing a novel you necessarily become so familiar with every aspect of your story that it becomes almost impossible to view it objectively. One of the hardest things in crafting a story is to judge your own level of subtlety in dropping plot hints. To the casual reader, would that clue hidden in chapter 6 seem blindingly obvious? Or is it so subtle and obscure that no one will pick up on it at all?

The thing I’m most pleased and proud of is when readers have told me that they didn‘t see the twists coming, and that they did have that ‘Oh yeah!’ moment when the rug was pulled away and everything fell into place.

I really can’t see how that would happen in any other way than by careful and strategic planning.

I know that many writers advocate the pantsing method. Stephen King for one has made a damned good living from it, and seems to know what he’s doing. But speaking purely for me and my own writing style, I feel like pantsing is the childish, confused approach that doesn’t deliver. I’ve only started to produce good, convincing work since I adopted a rigorous approach to planning.

* I realised early on that I wasn’t quite the temperament for actually having adventures, so I thought I’d make them up instead.

EmmaWoodcockAuthorEmma Woodcock is the author of the young adult novel, Darklands, in which Sophie finds herself transported to a mysterious and seemingly idyllic parallel world, where nothing and no one is quite what they seem.

You can follow Emma’s adventures in indie publishing at, on Twitter, and on facebook.

At some point later this year she will be publishing her second novel, Kikimora, concerning a reluctant monster, a lovestruck magician, a kind-hearted Rusalka, and a very wise cat.

Many thanks for Guest Posting, Emma. 

Perseverance paid off in the end and ANOTHER vote for planning. 🙂

About elwoodcock

Emma Woodcock has worked variously as a pump jockey, envelope stuffer, librarian, potter, and most recently, web designer. She lives in Derbyshire with a boyfriend and a child – but still no dog, despite her constant hints… She has been trying to write books for the past quarter century, but the need to make a living kept getting in the way. She has now perfected the ability to live on twigs and acorns in order to pursue her literary ambitions. YA fantasy, Darklands is her first novel, It will be followed in 2012 by Kikimora, the story of a reluctant monster, a heart-broken magician, a frustrated violinist, a kind-hearted Rusalka - and the magician's cat, who just might have the solution to all their problems.
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9 Responses to Guest Post: Planner or Pantser: The ‘Oh yeah!’ moment

  1. Pete Denton says:

    Thanks for agreeing to Guest Post, Emma. Another great story on the trials and tribulations gone through to realise a dream of publishing your work.

    I have my autographed copy sat on my bookcase and I plan on reading it when I finish my current draft.

  2. jmmcdowell says:

    I started as a pantser, and I still mostly am. Now, I try for at least a general idea of the main story arc in my head before I start writing. But subplots and the trail to get from A to B to C still unfold as I go. That’s just the way my characters prefer to work with me.

    All writers need to find the approach that works for them. Often, it’s a trial-and-error process. Which technique works doesn’t matter—as long as it works for us.

    So here’s one pantser in the gallery. 😉 But I’ve got nothing against planning—I do it in most of my life!

  3. Planning is the key to good writing; and I am pretty sure that even the well known published ‘pantsers’ have the larger structure in their heads before they begin. Isaac Asimov summed it up once – he would always know where his novels were going to end, and he knew where they began. The rest filled itself in, though if you read what he wrote it’s clear he also had the macro-structure in his head anyway. I think it’s reflective of balance; what these people are actually ‘pantsing’ is the detail of the plot, around the wider structure which they have already pretty much figured out. It’s a very different kettle of fish from authors who plunge into a story without iknowing how it will end or where it might lead.

    • elwoodcock says:

      Yes, I think you might be right, Matthew (no pun intended!). There are certainly degrees of pantsing.
      If you use it at just the micro-detail level, then I’ve done a bit more pantsing on my recent second draft of Kikimora. I changed a couple of plot points, and as a result needed to add quite a few new scenes. I have to admit that I did get a few nice new ideas out of ‘just making it up as I went along’ 🙂

  4. 4amWriter says:

    I do both, planning first then pantsing. I love the freedom and anticipation of pantsing, but I stay on a general track via a 3-act structure. I think there are advantages and disadvantages for both styles, and as JM says, we need to find the best method for ourselves.

    Great post.

  5. Yeah, I’m a mix myself, although lately I’ve begun to see greater value in planning.

  6. Kourtney Heintz says:

    I’m a fan of planning especially with mysteries and thrillers. You have so many clues to drop and twists and turns that have to be smooth and natural. 🙂

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