“Pantsing” vs Plotting and Other Useful Literary Terms

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The lovely Jenn J McLeod invited me to be part of a blog hop about the writing process so here is my response. Where do I start? Probably by admitting that my writing process has multiple personalities!

Before we get to that, for those of you who haven’t yet caught up with Jenn’s wonderful book, House For All Seasons, make sure you do. If you like the idea of small towns that keep big secrets then I guarantee you will love Jenn’s work. I also love the fact that she escaped the “corporate chaos”, as she calls it, of Sydney to move to her own small town and follow her dream. And anyone who runs a series of author interviews on their blog called Bar Yarns and Beer Nuts is an author with a great sense of humour, which you’ll also find in her books. Jenn’s response to the blog hop questions can be found here. You can also link up with Jenn on Facebook and Twitter.

So onto the blog hop questions about me and my writing process.

1. What am I working on?

Well, obviously if I tell you the answer to that, I’ll have to kill you! No, seriously, I blogged about this recently and you can read about it here. But to add to what I said in that blog, my year is really inspired by something author Kate Forsyth said in her talk at the Australian Society of Authors National Congress last year. She talked about the need to be diverse, to not be one book or one genre, but to have lots of different writing projects on the go, to stretch yourself. That really resonated with me and if you know Kate’s work, you’ll know she means what she says. She’s published novels for adults, children’s books, fantasy series, folktales and many more.

So I’ve given myself permission to try a couple of other projects that I’ve been to scared to do much about because I thought I was a writer of adult contemporary fiction. But who’s to say I can’t also be an author of other kinds of books? So 2014 is all about that, for me.

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I’m addicted to notebooks – I always hope that beautiful notebooks will help me to write beautiful things!

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

Well, my two published books both tackled subjects that many people told me were not “popular”; that publishers would be scared of. But that wasn’t true; they were both published after all. So I think that’s one difference.

The other difference, and I’ve had a lot of people say this to me, is that my books fit into a space between literary fiction and commercial fiction. The plots are too commercial to be literary but they are written in a style that is too literary to be commercial, apparently. Which I had never really thought too much about; I just wrote the way that came naturally to me. But with a couple of books’ experience behind me and more knowledge of the publishing industry, I can see that this difference has perhaps been a drawback. Booksellers like books that can easily be categorised as one thing or another, not hybrids.

So, in my move to be more diverse in 2014, I am also going to try to fit more squarely into the genre within which I’m writing; to follow the rules a bit more so to speak. At first I worried that this meant I was being derivative, the same, but I think just having a strong awareness of this potential pitfall means it hopefully won’t happen to me.

3. Why do I write what I do?

With my first two books, it was because I couldn’t have not written them. What I mean by that is I had the themes of those books very much in my head and they wouldn’t let go. I had to sit down and wrap plots and characters around those themes because I couldn’t stop thinking about them. It was really as simple as that.

I always say in my writing classes that some of the best story ideas are to be found in the things that worry or bother or intrigue you, the things that you naturally want to find out more about. Chances are if you do, a reader will too.

4. How does my writing process work?

This is where the multiple personalities come in! With my first two books it was very much “pantsing” versus “plotting”. If you’ve never heard that lovely literary term before, “pantsing” literally means flying by the seat of your pants.

I had an idea, as I mentioned in point three, that I couldn’t let go of. A character with a particular voice attached herself to that idea in both cases and then I sat down to write. The story unfolded for me page by page in the same way it does for a reader. Characters would suddenly appear as I wrote, characters who I hadn’t planned to be in the books, but there they were. Selena in What is Left Over, After is a classic example of this (you can read more about her appearance here). As I wrote, I would always hope and pray at the three-quarter mark that an ending would manifest itself. Thankfully it did.

The novel I have recently been working on, A Beautiful Catastrophe, which is historical fiction set in New York in the 1920s, came about in a slightly more planned way. Not totally planned, but I knew many of the key plot points before I began writing, and then many other subplots and plot threads became apparent soon after I started writing. I put some of this down to Scrivener, my new love which I’ve blogged about here, some of it down to perhaps having written two books already and maybe knowing a little bit better what the hell I was doing, and some of it down to luck. The right idea, the right character, the right time.

I also think being forced to wait to begin writing the book helped. Circumstances, namely Hurricane Sandy in New York, intervened and made me wait a few months longer to begin than I would have liked. But this gave me a lot more thinking time so that when I finally had the time to sit down and write it, the story was a lot more formed in both my conscious and subconscious minds.

Who’s blog-hopping next week?

So that’s me and my writing process. Next week, authors Sara Foster and Emma Chapman are joining the blog hop and answering the same set of questions about their writing process on their bogs. If you don’t know Sara and Emma, let me introduce them briefly.

Sara Foster is a former book editor who switched to the other side and became a bestselling psychological suspense author. She has published three books, Come Back to Me, Beneath the Shadows and Shallow Breath. And what do Hilary Mantel, The Guardian and The New York Times have in common? Well they’ve all raved about Emma Chapman’s debut novel, How to Be a Good Wife, which will literally keep you up past midnight reading itSo make sure you check out their blogs in one weeks’ time.

How about you? If you’re a writer, what is your process? And if you’re a reader, does any of this surprise you? Did you think authors would know more about their stories before they began to write them?

11 comments

  1. Great post, Natasha! I hadn’t heard the term ‘pantser’ before—I will remind myself of it often, I’m sure 🙂

  2. I could lose HOURS on your site. I LOVE it! So many interesting snippets. And you know I have a favourite quote when it comes to not following the rules (FYI – I was initially told my House for all Seasons, with its four-part structure, would not sell. I persisted!) I once heard Jodi Picoult say, “The best books straddle genres and attract a variety of readers.” So there you go! Looking forward to Sara and emma next week. I did not know Sara switched sides! 🙂

    • Hi Jenn, thank you for your lovely comments about my blog. And I LOVE that quote. I wish I’d heard it a few years ago when I was trying to keep my chin up in the face of people telling me I needed to be one thing or the other! Thanks.

  3. Glen Hunting

    “I am also going to try to fit more squarely into the genre within which I’m writing.” Which of the two genres is that, pray tell? Do you feel yourself to be more ‘literary’ or more ‘commercial’?

    • Well, neither really, truth be told. But I’ve let go of some need I had felt to be literary – my latest novel is historical fiction so a much more commercial genre really and I’ve learned a lot by writing within a genre that has a more clearly defined set of expectations around it than literary fiction has. It’s very hard to say these are the conventions of literary fiction, whereas it’s much easier to do that for historical fiction. I liked rising to the challenge of conforming to expectations while still delivering something that felt unique and wonderful and like an engaging story (well I hope I’ve done that!)

  4. Hi Natasha, I love the idea of straddling the commercial/literary divide. After all, I believe it’s mostly a marketing issue. As a reader I didn’t notice a book that did this, I either loved it or didn’t. As a writer it’s an issue I’ve had to face and for now I’m indulging myself with writing what I love – an I might just be kidding myself that I have a literary style anyway :). Thanks for sharing and am looking forward to your latest novel.

  5. Pingback: Sara Foster - Hopping on the blog: writing plans and processes

  6. Pingback: The 10 Things I Must Have Before I Start Writing a New Book | While the kids are sleeping

  7. Pingback: EMMA CHAPMAN » Writing Process Blog Hop

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