The perennial debate about “the best way to write” between writers misses a fundamental point.
It’s not binary.
Pantsing a book, or writing by the seat of the pants, espouses a free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness approach that implies absolutely no thought of character or story arc, just a meandering flow of words that somehow, magically, produces a story.
Plotting, as the name suggests, espouses a very structured approach to story writing. Every plot point is known. There are no surprises for the writer. Plotting takes up as much, or more, time than the actual writing.
But it’s not binary.
Not a single pantser sits in front of their keyboard, no idea where they want the story to go.
And not a single plotter knows every word/every scenario they will experience.
I identify as a plotter, so it’s best I explain from the plotter’s point of view.
I really plot the hell out of a story. I write crime-fiction, so I don’t understand how it is possible to do it any other way. I know what the crime is before I start writing. I know who did it, who looks like they did it, who couldn’t possibly have done it, but knows who did it, how it was done, why it was done and the drips of clues necessary so the reader doesn’t feel cheated when the killer/extortionist/whatever is revealed.
But that plotting is 1) maybe thirty words per chapter and 2) only extends to the first two acts. Until I’ve written those two acts, the sum total of my plotting for Act Three is what the first chapter in the third act needs to convey and what happens in the last chapter.
For each of the chapters in Acts One and Two, I write a few sentences indicating what the chapter needs to achieve (the below are from “Number Fifteen“):
“Team scours Andy’s last 48 hours — or at least starts the process. Split in the team — youth think cops should do the job, older know that’s not going to be enough”
“Terry and Kat are decoys for Jason/Rhonda attack. Dan and Stew and Andy show up and it’s a full on battle. Curious fight, no winners on either side.”
“It’s an ambush — the slap back from The Organisation. Back at home the Organisation attacks Andy’s house — Andy back in the hospital, Kelly is taken.”
Sometimes the note for a chapter (typically in Act One) is:
“Leave blank for future use”
This is to allow for additional information that may be needed to resolve the story — things that come up in Act Three.
The sentences above (not the “leave blank” one) result in 2000 – 3000 words per chapter. I have only a general idea of what those words are before I write them. I essentially pants the chapter within the constraints of what that chapter needs to be.
So don’t fight, people. Both are legitimate ways of writing.
For the past twelve years, I’ve been honing my writing skills, publishing (at the date of this publication) one non-fiction book — you’re reading it — and eighteen novels.
I write mostly crime fiction. A couple of sci-fi books are in the mix, but the overall gist is crime.
Private Investigators in Australia.
Telecommunications Engineers in far-flung parts of the world sticking their noses where they shouldn’t.
A millionaire Irishman solving mob-related crimes in South Florida.
A young Australian actress, trying her damnedest to make a living in La-La-Land.
When I started, I knew nothing about CREATING a story. I’d read thousands by then. Some were great, some were awful, and most were just good.
I started writing my first book, Matt’s War, with an interesting concept, believable characters, and no idea how it would end. I knew there should be a beginning, middle and end, but I had no idea what should happen in each of those three parts, what triggered the transition between them, and how much of the story each of those parts made up.
“Common sense” says the beginning is a third of the story, the middle is a third, and the end is a third.
Turns out, no.
I had a general idea of how the book should go. I definitely knew how it started. The rest, well, I trusted it would work itself out.
I finished the first draft after a couple of months. Okay, more like twelve months.
The story had an end. The characters had an arc. The good guys won, and the bad guys were punished (with a thin, hanging thread setting up a sequel).
But I ran into many familiar first-writer problems: A dead middle. Clues were revealed too early (or, in some cases, too late). It had an abrupt ending. It was on the bad side of the scale. Unfortunately (for me), it was a story I really liked.
I put it aside and started working on my second. Family Matters. (The second book I wrote, not the second book I released.)
It progressed in the same way. It had a good start, but I had NO idea how it would end; a middle so dead that I decided to have my main character shot to keep it interesting. And a really sloppy ending.
Around the same time I completed the first draft of Family Matters, I was introduced to the basics of story structure. I learned some important points about storytelling. The key ones:
The hero / main character needs to drive the conclusion. He or she can’t be “rescued”. (Not a structure thing, to be fair, but it drives the plot points.)
Every critical character, weapon, characteristic, etc., should be introduced in Act One even if it’s just a passing reference.
NOTHING new (weapons, skills, people critical to the ending) should be introduced as late as Act 3.
And a few other things that I’ll get into throughout this little book.
All of this was new to me. But it resonated. This was a PLAN—a blueprint for the story, laying out the milestones along the journey. I’m an engineer by training, and an engineer likes nothing more than a plan.
I re-wrote Matt’s War and Family Matters with the principles I outline in this book. Matt’s War is still one of my favourites and sits at 4.5/5 stars on Amazon.
Family Matters is still a bit of a mess —too many plotlines make it a bit busy. But I still like it. And it is a massive improvement over the first draft. A reviewer on Amazon said, “…I was hooked from the very first page. It was superbly written, fast paced and thrilling, straight to the point without frills.”
Everything (fiction) I write now is built around structure. I’ll argue in this book how adhering to a structure doesn’t mean cookie-cutter stories, and I’ll also argue that once you are familiar and comfortable with the concept of structure, you should forget it and write your story.
But you have to understand its power first.
I’ve written eighteen books over the past dozen years. They all “follow” the structure laid out in this book. These guidelines keep your story pacy and on point. When writing a story, my goal is to have the reader start at point A, finish at a completely unrelated point Z, and wonder how in the hell they got there, yet at no point in that journey get pulled out of the story.
My readers seem to think I’m getting the hang of things:
“This is a fast read, interesting plot.” – Book ‘Em review.
“Very action packed, on the edge of your seat story.” – Broken review
“It was so fast paced that sometimes I couldn’t tell if the story advanced by one day, one week or one month. But it was really entertaining and definitely a page turner.” – Broken review
“This is a short, fast read, …with lots of action, a few twists and turns, and several suspects to follow.” – Batteries Not Included review.
“It’s action-packed from start to finish with a twist or two to keep the reader engaged” – Number Fifteen review.
“As the case progresses, the plot gets more and more twisted, involving double cross, revenge, and manipulation. A fast read that’s pretty much all on the surface like an action/adventure.” – The Murder of Jeremy Brookes review.
And dozens more.
Making sure you hit the beats described in this book can ensure your story doesn’t lag, and your readers don’t toss your book on the DNF pile and reach for someone else’s.
What this book doesn’t do.
At no point will I talk about dangling participles, split infinitives or mismatched subject-verb pairs.
There are tons of how-to-write books. My best tip (if you’re interested) is to read your brains out. Read your favourite genre. Read a genre you never would think of reading. Read as much as you can.
You’ll see dozens of ways to express the passage of time, or how to effectively use dialogue tags.
My second best tip is to write. A lot. Find your voice. It’s not Neil Gaiman’s voice or Lee Child’s voice. It’s your voice.
And my third and final non-structure tip is to forestall edits until you’ve got your first draft in the bag. Don’t interrupt the creative flow with niggling things like, what was it again? Split infinitive or incorrect verb tenses. That’s for later.
This is not a long book. You should be writing, not reading about how to write. I could put together 400 pages of fluff, but I prefer meat and potatoes writing. This is quick and concise.
Full disclosure: I’m going to spoil a bunch of movies, and some books.
Tomorrow, When the War Began
A Knight’s Tale
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)
Matt’s War – Tony McFadden
61 Hours – Lee Child
The e-Book will be available on Amazon on July 15th. The paperback version, shortly after.
I’m looking for preorders to give Amazon’s algorithm a kick. All presales are counted as sales on the release date, May 1. A decent sales volume pushes the book up the charts, gaining it more visibility.