Writing from Life Symbolism and Motif in Your Writing

jacquelinepye

Writers-Wheel-Magazine-Issue-7-Mid-Autumn-2015

THE WRITING PROCESS – TO PLOT OR

NOT TO PLOT: THAT IS THE QUESTION

The writing process covers so much ground, from the

moment we get the idea for a story, right through the

various stages of planning, writing, revising, editing and

proofreading, that it’s no wonder we sometimes lose

our way. Oh, if only I could just write, most authors

moan, without all the boring stuff standing between me

and publication. In fact, once the writer has completed

the final draft, the copy-editing and proofreading are

best left to professionals anyway. But when it comes to

starting the project, you’re the captain of the ship and

have a decision to make: how much, or how little, do

you want to plan in advance?

Picture the scene. You’ve got your idea and found a

place where you can write undisturbed. If you’re lucky,

your fingers will move magically over the keyboard and,

almost without any effort on your part, you’ll have the

first chapter done and dusted in time to pick the kids up

from school. On the other hand, you might be staring

into space, thinking, ‘How on earth do I start?’ Good

question, and one which might have a different answer

according to whether you’re a ‘pantster’, a ‘plotter’, or a

bit of both.

The word ‘pantster’ has arisen from the expression

‘flying by the seat of one’s pants’. It’s when the writer

starts out with a story premise and then lets the characters

take the action hither and thither without mapping

out events in advance. Stephen King is in favour of this

approach. In the following quote from his book On

Writing, he calls plot a ‘noisy jack hammer’.

‘I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps

even just one) in some sort of predicament and

then watch them try to work themselves free. My job

isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate

them to safety – those are jobs which require the noisy

jack hammer of plot – but to watch what happens and

then write it down. The situation comes first. The characters

– always flat and unfeatured, to begin with –

come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I

begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome

may be, but I have never demanded of a set of

characters that they do things my way. On the contrary,

I want them to do things their way. In some instances,

the outcome is what I visualized. In most, however, it’s

something I never expected.’

I recognize this style of writing, because I have to admit

that I am more pantster than plotter. I tend to know

what will happen at the beginning of the story and have

a rough idea of the ending, but often get stuck in the

middle. This is a common danger of working without a

plan – which would have outlined, for instance, when

conflict arises and between whom; or perhaps, at which

point in the story to introduce a new character.

As for the plotter method, as the name suggests, it’s

about planning a structure upon which the story can be

superimposed. It can take the form of computer spreadsheets

or notebook scribbles; if there’s enough space

and your loved ones don’t object, wall charts, even!

J. K. Rowling is a plotter. She used handwritten

‘spreadsheets’, divided into columns for planning chapters,

timelines, main plots and sub-plots for the Harry

Potter series. It’s clear that working with such a large

cast of characters, stretching across seven books, she

couldn’t possibly have managed without a scheme of

some sort, to ensure that everything tied in with previous

books. In her case, plotting was essential. But it is

recognised that too much plotting can be confining and

can sometimes end up giving the work a formulaic feel.

I prefer to call the plotters ‘planners’, because the plot

is only one aspect of what can be planned. Characters

and settings could also be fleshed out at this stage. As a

pantster, I don’t create every character in advance. I list

characters as they appear, giving minimum details such

as date of birth, relationship to the protagonist and

physical appearance. Some writers fill out character profiles

in much more detail, but as long as I can see and

hear them in my head, that’s enough for me.

I also type a list of locations. I didn’t know, when I wrote

the first book, that two more would follow with the

same main character, so this list came in handy when

she revisited some of her old haunts and meant I didn’t

need to trawl through the books themselves.

Last, but not least, are chapter summaries. After each

chapter, I heave a sigh and open the summary document.

Encapsulating what I’ve just written is the last

thing I want to do at two o’clock in the morning (it’s

1:40 a.m. as I write this!), but it’s invaluable for a quick

reminder. It’s also important to keep earlier chapter

summaries updated. Pantsters’ characters will sometimes

change: someone who is warm and friendly early

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