Pantser division: two ways to set about writing a historical fiction novel

Someone asked the other day how I set about writing a novel, and since I have written a fair number of them (17), some of which have been very successful, I thought I might share some of my secrets with you. There is an accepted distinction among novelists between “Pantsers”, those who fly by the seat of their pants, and “Plotters”, those who sit down and meticulously plot out every scene in advance.

There are said to be two types of novelist: Pantsers and Plotters

Pantsers just sit down at their keyboards and start typing, allowing the novel to go any way it chooses as driven by the whim and imagination of the writer, and that gives a certain originality and freshness to the story when it is done. However, it can mean that a novel appears oddly, and sometimes badly, structured. On the other hand, Plotters make notes and draw plans and some even use Post-It Notes on cork boards to work out every scene and every twist of the plot, all before they write the first line. This gives a pleasingly elegant structure to the book but doesn’t allow much room for those flashes of inspiration – those A-ha! moments – that can lift a humdrum novel with a swift direction change or switch in the perspective.

The truth is there are very few people who are extreme Pantsers or dedicated Plotters. Most people use a mixture of both techniques. It’s a spectrum, you might say. As for me, I have never launched out into the blue with a blank page and no idea where I am going with a novel. I always start with a plan of some kind, even if it is just “write a gory novel about Robin Hood but make him a morally-grey gangster type”.

Outlaw - Angus Donald
I did very little planning for my first novel Outlaw

After the first few novels in the Outlaw Chronicles I developed a system in which – don’t laugh – I took a piece of A4 paper and drew two horizontal lines on it to divide the paper into three equal parts, three “acts”, and I would write in pencil the ten or so main events that would happen in each act. Act 1 always ended on some kind of plot twist or revelation. For example, in Grail Knight – a quest novel – I revealed that Nur, a terrifying, witchy ex-girlfriend of Alan Dale, would be joining him on the quest to find the Grail. (Sorry for the spoiler, but I wrote that one a decade ago; if you were going to read it you’d have done so by now.)

Act 2 always ended on some kind of disaster, a low point. So that Act 3 started low and could build to a satisfactory victory as the climax at the end of the book. I still use this sort of structure but I have abandoned the piece of A4 paper. I now open a file and type out Chaper 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 etc and put notes in each chapter describing what I think is going to happen. For example, Bjarki is about to be hanged but a mysterious one-eyed traveller rescues him at the last moment. (Oh come on, haven’t you read even the first chapter of The Last Berserker. That’s not a spoiler, that’s shame on you, reader!)

It might sound as if I am a Plotter but that’s not really true. In fact, I don’t know what my characters are going to be like before I begin to write them. I sometimes don’t know what they are going to say until finger hits the keyboard. Gratifyingly, my characters grow out of the words they speak. I had no idea, for instance, that Tor would be so rude and so spikily unhappy, until I started writing her dialogue. And apart from a few “way-marks” – a skirmish here, a robbery there – I don’t really know how the story will unfold.

So I’m not a Plotter, but nor am I a Pantser. I would probably call myself a “Structural Pantser”. I set out a broad structure in the chapter lists, a twist at end of act 1, disaster at end of act 2, and a big fight at the end of the book, and I write towards those goals. But, crucially, I allow my plot to change as I am writing it. I know I am still going to end up at the Battle of XXX, with young YYY being slaughtered by the evil Captain ZZZ at the old mill – but I don’t really know what is going to happen before that climactic event.

But enough of me rambling on about the craft of writing. Thanks for paying attention to my nonsense. My best advice to you now (tongue only a little bit in my cheek) is to go out an buy a few copies of some of my 17 wonderful books and read them. Give them to your friends too. And leave a nice review, please.

The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1), The Saxon Wolf (Fire Born 2) and The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) are all available as paperback or eBooks on Amazon. If you want to be kind, buy me a drink on my Ko-fi page.

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