I’ve never heard of a pantser before, but I can relate to the problems Rosalind Minett has when she’s writing. So often my characters run away with themselves… but then, it is quite exciting not knowing how your story will eventually get to the ending you know will happen. I leave it to Roz to explain.
Thank you very much, Jane, for inviting me onto your very interesting site. The travelogue I describe here occurs only within my four walls: my writing process.
It seems established that there are two kinds of writers: planners and pantsers. Wrestle against it though I will, and despite the discipline of degrees and diplomas and a Ph.D., I write without any planning. I’m not just a dyed-in-the-wool, but an irrevocably skin-stained, bone-irradiated, ingrained irredemiable pantser.
A small germ, such as a stray phrase or incident, visits me. I follow it, it turns into a chapter or a theme. When I start writing, a novel, more often than a short story, begins. When I get to the end of one chapter, I know what has to happen in the next but as I struggle to find exactly the right word something often emerges that enriches or expands the plot, becomes a sub-plot or develops one of the characters. I usually know the ending before I get halfway.
I have two psychological dramas waiting to be edited, have published crime novellas and satirical short stories, and I’m currently working on the last section of Book 3 of a trilogy – historical fiction. However, these all have one thing in common (as well as their manner of creation) — they are character-led. I can’t write any other way.
A Relative Invasion is a trilogy set in the Home Front of WWII. It all began with one tiny thread. An elderly man chatting to me mentioned that he had been the last child to be ‘chosen’ by the villagers where his school had been evacuated. The children had been walked around the village in a crocodile. This man had been a tall seven-year-old, (‘He’ll cost a bit to feed and clothe’) and was only taken in reluctantly.
I thought, children must have been so resilient at that time. And so Billy was born, a sturdy well-meaning boy. But he was only aged five in 1937, and so I found myself writing historical fiction (with all the research that entails). The key figure at that time was, of course, Hitler, and his rise to power came as result of German resentment , humiliation and envy after the end of WWI.
Somehow, a cousin for Billy surfaced, one who would experience these negative emotions and turn them into psychological bullying to make Billy’s life a misery. However, this Kenneth would have undoubted talents and be charismatic. I made him artistic and physically frail.
Now I had a theme for my novel whereby the feelings and tensions in Europe (macro scale) would be mirrored in micro by this family, and particularly the two cousins in their developing rivalry.
Billy was going to suffer and the parenting style of those times would mean he wasn’t supported. So he needed a secret symbol of power and a supportive adult to advise him as a contrast to the ineffective parents. I hit upon a Cossack sabre, owned by this kindly man. The sabre then needed a background story of its own. This story led me into Russian/Germanic conflict at the start of WWI. And the sabre as Billy’s icon of power would need to filter through all three books.
All the characters are affected by the pre-war nerves, preparation for invasion, evacuation and the dreadful reality of war. Billy has other parent figures while evacuated, and Kenneth isn’t far away. They grow through childhood developing different strengths and talents. Adolescence and post-war austerity bring the rivalry to a crisis. The outcome is devastating. Billy must find an honourable resolution, while Kenneth ensures he will always have the last word.
In a much earlier draft, this was Highly Commended in the Yeovil Prize (Novel) 2011, it gained the Editor’s Desk on the Authonomy site with a full and glowing review from Harper Collins, while an extract converted into a short story, was Runner Up in the Guildford Festival.
Research is time-consuming but writing from young Billy’s point of view, was my greatest challenge. If the voice is not right, the reader will not identify with the character. A child’s view will miss the bigger scene. Furthermore, only those scenes that he can directly witness can form the narrative. I used devices such as heading each chapter with a date and headline and having Billy told of events where he hadn’t been present. It hasn’t been an easy trilogy to write and I did a great deal of rewriting. A planner would have fixed all this before even beginning!
This gives some insight into my writing process. I admit, my pantser style is unlikely to change.
Thank you, Rosalind for that insightful glimpse into the way you work!