Welcome to our writing advice column where you'll find bestselling author Julie Cohen answering reader questions! Hit a roadblock or have a writing-related query? Drop them in the comments or email firstname.lastname@example.org and keep your eyes peeled for Julie’s response in later columns.
I see so much talk about plotting your novels, but I’ve been finding it much easier to just sit down and write. This is my first attempt at writing a novel though, so I’m worried that I’m setting myself up for trouble further down the line. Are there some parts of the story that I absolutely should plot in advance? Are there any dangers to just seeing where the story takes you?
The more I think about these writing questions I’m receiving for this column, the more I realise that the answer to them is usually ‘Yes. And no.’
And plotting vs pantsing* is one of those eternal debates without any real clear answer.
I have a bit of a reputation for being a plotter and planner these days, but I actually didn’t plot out my first few books at all. I made up some characters, a situation, and figured out roughly how it would all end, and then I just let the story discover itself as I wrote. And that was great fun. I think it worked for me because from so many years of reading, I already had a general sense of how a story was shaped—its high points, low points, climax and conclusion—and my mind followed that path subconsciously. I know a lot of authors who write like this, and they seem to do very well.
As my books became longer and more complicated, though, I realised that my mind wasn’t big enough to be able to juggle all the elements of my story as I wrote, or to keep it all in my head for the several months to a year it was going to take to write it. That was when I started planning at least part of my books in advance, to give myself a road map to follow. And I still do that, more or less, depending on how complex the story is. I’ve planned out my last few novels in some detail. I’ve either done it before I’ve written a thing, or I’ve paused at about 20,000 words in, about the time when I’m thinking, ‘what next?’ and made a plan for at least the next few thousand words of the story.
That’s not to say that I follow those plans religiously. In fact, in my next novel which comes out in the autumn, I thought something entirely different was going to happen at the end, and I also had no idea that an important subplot even existed until one of my characters told me so on about page 320. And I had to go back and put the whole subplot in, retroactively.
I still think it’s enormous fun to unearth the story as you write, and to allow yourself open to any possibility. When it works, it’s one of the most magical things about writing. But by not plotting, you might leave yourself open to problems: plot threads that go nowhere, too many plots, too few plots, dead ones, a sagging middle, an unsatisfying, tacked-on ending.
Then again, by plotting too much, you could lose the magic of discovery. You might feel it’s too formulaic, or you might get bored because you already know what’s going to happen. (I know some writers who plot out every single scene beforehand, though, and they tell me they don’t get bored!)
I think generally that as we write more and more, we discover what works best for us. Of course, you say that you’re writing your first book, so you’re at a real discovery phase of your career—you’re not only discovering your story, but you’re discovering what techniques work best for you. There’s no right way and no wrong way: you should do exactly what feels right for you, and for your novel. And you may find, as I did, that your techniques change book by book.
As a good rule of thumb, it might be useful for you to have a few things in mind as you write—maybe not a proper plan, but maybe one or two important events that you’re working towards. It might be useful for you to know generally how your story will end. Of course all of that might change, but it gives you something to work for, especially when you get to the sagging middle, or what I call the ‘suckage point’: about 40,000 words into your book, when you sit back and wonder what the heck you’re doing and why you thought it was a good idea to write a book in the first place.
(The ‘suckage point’ is a subject for a future column…)
It also may be useful to have a general idea of the shape of a story: think about how your favourite stories have ups and downs; how the events work to a climax; how the ending feels for the reader. As you read, or watch films, think about how the story is put together—not what literally happens, but what kind of thing happens, and at what point in the story. And if you want to explore story structure further, there are some great guides out there.
Mostly, though Debbie: don’t beat yourself up. Don’t feel you’re doing something wrong because you’re not plotting, or because you are. Enjoy writing this novel and discovering yourself as a writer. You’re at an exciting part of your writing career, with a lot in front of you.
*‘Pantsing’ means ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, or making it up as you go along.
Julie Cohen has had 21 books published under her own name and pseudonyms, selling nearly a million copies and being translated into 15 languages. Several have won or been shortlisted for awards, including the Romantic Novelists' Association's Award, Best Romantic Read and the National Readers’ Choice Award. Her novel Dear Thing was a Richard and Judy Book Club pick.
Julie is also a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing, tutoring courses for Penguin Random House Academy, The Guardian, Literature Wales, The Victoria and Albert Museum, and Writers' Workshop. She runs a fiction consultancy business, with several of her clients having gone on to publication. Her latest book is Falling.