Due to a potential shortage of internet while I’m away in Guernsey (Tuesday to Saturday), I’m scheduling this post just in case I’m unable to post it. So I actually wrote this on Monday. Time travel, dude.
As you may be aware, I’ve been working on what I like to refer to as assassin!novel for Camp NaNoWriMo this July. Okay, so assassin!novel turned into assassin!trilogy book 1, but that’s to be expected, right? Its working title is, in fact, Butterfly Of Night, and as of writing this post, it stands at 83,014 words. It’s not finished yet, but I’m getting there, and there’s even a slight chance that by the time you read this post, it’ll be finished. But I doubt that.
It’s been a slightly weird process for me, yet in many ways it resembles the route I took writing Weapons Of Chaos for NaNo 2012, albeit about a sixth of the speed, given that I wrote that thing in less than a week. Maybe it’s something about planning NaNo novels before I start which ensures that I won’t end up following the plan nearly as much as I expect to.
I’ve already written on this blog how I wrote a plan and sent it to a beta reader, Cathryn, for critique, and she pointed out that it was two books. Thus, assassin!trilogy became a thing. So far, so good. The plot I wrote for book one wasn’t exactly detailed in places, but it provided a solid synopsis of what was going to happen, and I was fairly proud of it.
Now, I wasn’t planning to work on this novel so soon. My intention was to finish editing The Quiet Ones and to query it come August or September. I got suddenly carried away with the idea of this novel, though, and wanted a break from editing to work on a first draft, so I decided on the 1st July that I was going to do Camp after all, and I wrote the plan there and then. It was a little rushed, and because I was doing Camp, I didn’t have time to seek feedback on my outline the way I’d hoped to, so I just dived straight in.
You can see what’s coming, can’t you? A minor character by the name of Emma turned up, in that way that minor characters do. Much like Nathaniel in Forget My Wings or Mel in one of the later Death and Fairies books, she quickly outgrew the role I’d planned for her, becoming an absolute rock in the protagonist’s life.
I liked Emma. She was a fun, interesting character whose backstory wasn’t overly tragic in the context of the novel, but it gave her depth. She became the brightest and best thing in the protagonist Isabel’s life, and I was glad of that, because Isabel’s life seemed fairly miserable and I had hoped I’d figure out a way to give her a break soon enough. Emma was that break, and she blossomed into a major character before I’d even realised what was happening.
But Emma wasn’t in my plot outline.
In fact, she was just one more character in a list of people who weren’t in the plan. Dr Vernant. Graham Whittock. Toni Rolleston. Mortimer. Daragh. Ronan. Michael. Angela. Ms Cunliffe. None of them were people I planned for in the slightest. In a time-honoured tradition of desperately seeking names at short notice, they mostly ended up named after the authors of the Celtic mythology books on the shelf directly to the right of the desk where I work, but that’s a small matter, I think.
And all of them I could work around because they didn’t mess up my plot too much, but Emma. Oh, Emma. She threw a major spanner in the works. Solved a plot hole in the problem, but only by completely derailing what I’d planned and forcing me to make a lot of changes as I went along. I suddenly remembered why I’m a pantser.
See, I like planning as I go along. I’ve got a whiteboard on my wall where I’ll scrawl ideas, even if they’re as simple as questions like Is Daragh a good guy? Once I’ve written them down, I’ll stew them over in my head, and add bullet points or ideas to the board as and when I figure them out. I’ll plan the resolution to a subplot without actually knowing how the novel’s going to finish, and I’ll talk to myself until I’ve got a few chapters sorted in my brain before I write them, but I’ll never be certain where I’m going after that.
In a way, having a pre-written plot has helped me, because when I got completely stuck I could look back. Bearing in mind this is a novel about assassins, a question that came up more than once was, “Who is she meant to be killing next?” Fortunately, I worked that one out in my plan, so I could have a look, even if the event itself had been moved to another place in the novel or the details were changed. It stopped me from getting too stuck on little details and too caught up with the things I hadn’t got around to figuring out.
But trying to stick to that plot would have ruined the novel. Emma was needed. Graham was needed. Michael was needed. These characters that I didn’t plan for added depth and intensity to a plot that was otherwise shallow and simplistic, drawing my protagonist deeper into a net. I’ve spent so many years claiming that my characters write the story and I just try to keep up, so I’m amazed that I still don’t trust them to carry my plot. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that when a minor character tries to steal the show, let them: they’ll make it better.
Maybe I shouldn’t call myself a plotter or a pantser. Maybe I’m both. Is there a word for that kind of thing: a plotser? Whatever it is, that seems to be what I am. Write a plot. Try and follow the plot. Give up and let the secondary characters invent the plot. Figure out an ending when you’re ten thousand words away from it and desperately trying to remember all the subplot strands you didn’t put in intentionally.
It’s worked for the last few years, so who knows? Maybe it worked this time. I’ll have to finish the novel and read it through to find out.
What about you — plotter? Pantser? Or a bit of both?