We are thrilled to have Julie Cohen as our guest today. Pantser or Plotter we can all earn from this informative piece.
When I started out my writing career, I would have considered myself a ‘pantser’: someone whowould have brought me out in hives. I had some characters, I had a general set-up, I had some vague idea of where I was shooting for…other than that, I just went for it and lived the journey with my characters as it happened.
Somewhere around my eighth novel, things changed. I was writing a story about an artist who was drawing a comic strip that echoed her real life (except with added giant space ants), and I discovered that I couldn’t just make stuff up as I went: I had to plan the events of both stories. I didn’t plan out the whole thing before I started; I just paused, every now and then, as I wrote, to work out what was going to happen a couple of steps down the line.
As the years and the novels have gone by, I’ve become more and more of a planner and less of a pantser. This is partly because my novels are getting more complicated, and maybe also partly because my brain is getting older and less flexible. Now, before I write, I usually make a plan on Post-its for the general story. Sometimes I try to write a synopsis, too.
My latest novel, TOGETHER, is the most complicated one I’ve written yet. It starts in 2016, and goes backwards, following a couple’s life from their 43rd wedding anniversary all the way back to the day they first met in 1962. Because it starts at the ending, I absolutely had to know the ending before I started to write. Because it’s told backwards, I had to plan out each part of the novel in incredible detail, so that everything made sense, and yet no twists were given away beforehand.
It was a novel that was even difficult to talk about. “At the beginning, in 2016, which is actually the end of the story, but you read it first…”
I used to think that planning my story this way would ruin my enjoyment in writing it. Why even bother when you know the ending already? But it doesn’t at all. A neat plan is very different from a living, breathing world of a novel. I still discover plenty about my characters and my story as I write. And there’s a whole different kind of satisfaction in travelling with a map.
From starting out my career as a ‘pantser’, I’ve now gone in the other direction, so much so that today I need to start writing a new novel, but I’m panicking a bit because I only have a plan for the first 25,000 words.
What I’ve learned above all, though, is that every novel is different. What works for one story, and at one stage in your career, may not work for another story, or another stage. Every novel, whether planned or not, is its own journey.
Julie Cohen’s new novel, TOGETHER (Orion), was chosen by the Independent as one of their Ten Best Book Club Books, and her two previous novels, FALLING and WHERE LOVE LIES, were shortlisted for the Romantic Novel Awards. DEAR THING was a Richard and Judy pick. She’s a popular teacher of creative writing and runs her own literary consultancy. She joined the RNA New Writers’ Scheme in 2002 and since then has published twenty-one books. Her website is www.julie-cohen.com and she is on Twitter as @julie_cohen