This week Sarah Todd Taylor gives us an insight into her writing process. Always interesting to see this topic, for other authors as much as for readers.
They say that writers divide into two camps – Plotters and Pantsers.
Plotters love to plan everything. They love timelines and maps and sticky notes and index cards. They like to have their entire book sketched out before they start to actually write it.
Pantsers like to dive in and see where their imagination takes them. They feel constrained by too much planning.
I am firmly in Camp Plotter. I think it’s because I write Crime and Spy fiction. I can’t imagine diving in without knowing where to plant clues that will lead my detective to the culprit in a way that is convincing and satisfying for the reader. That’s not to say that I always stick to my original plot, though. Things often change along the way, and thinking about how I write has made me challenge whether I am really as much of a plotter as I think.
My method is that, once I have the germ of an idea of what I want to write, I immerse myself in books, films, music and pictures that feel like the story that I want to tell, to help me get fully into the world and spark ideas. I also use Pinterest boards to build a visual image of what my world might look like. I draw up character outlines for each of my characters, concentrating on how they act, how they react to people and what changes their character might go through during the book. Then I start to plot. I sketch out a basic idea of what will happen in the book, adding a timeline so that I know what is happening when. Then I write this out again, adding in more detail – which characters are where, which clues will be planted, who will find them. Then I go through again and divide this all into chapters. I sometimes draw out maps so that I can be clear where my characters are in relation to one another at any time.
To help more with characterization, I draw up a sheet with all my character names down one side and then a brief description of what happens to them in each chapter. This can help both to give me a visual snapshot of where my characters are and how frequently they appear. If a character disappears for a few chapters and they are meant to be important, that’s something I need to fix. For my main characters I like to add a note about what they learn in each chapter or how they change, to help build a convincing character arc for them.
Finally, it is time to write. I sit down and write straight through. I used to edit as I went along and I really admire authors who can do this. Their first drafts look like my fourth. But I’ve learned that I just can’t do that. If I let myself get distracted by editing I never finish anything. Instead, I just keep writing. This can sometimes mean that I’ll end up writing a scene where a voice in the back of my head says ‘this is going to get cut’, but I have to write it out anyway – it’s how I work through things. As I write I make notes about what I think might be working and what isn’t, but I don’t edit. I keep going. When I finish my first (utterly terrible) draft, I let it rest for a couple of weeks and then I come back and I restructure. It feels almost like having cast a show and then coming back and moving all the characters around, deciding what they are going to do. First drafts for me are for getting ideas out. Second draft is where the real work begins. I wonder if that is why I much prefer working on second drafts to first. It’s where I feel truly creative. Once I’ve done a significant restructure the next few drafts are mainly fixing plot points, fleshing out characters and polishing, but that vital second draft is the one I love best, the one where I take everything and re-arrange it.
So which are you? Plotter or Pantser or even something inbetween? The thing to remember is that either is fine. There is no ‘right’ way to approach how you write – the trick is to discover which way works for you.
Sarah Todd Taylor was brought up in Yorkshire and Ceredigion, where she now lives. Inspired by a life lived with cats she created the Max the Detective Cat series of mystery books for 7 to 9 year olds. Sarah’s books are set in the theatres of 1920s London and she draws on her experiences of treading the boards on the Welsh stage to create the world of her Theatre Royal. When not writing, Sarah likes to spend time with her guinea pigs or sing opera.