Category Archives: writing

The great plot vs pants debate

Two paths, one destination

It is common wisdom that there are only two ways to write a novel. The first, an approach favoured by such trivial scribes as Stephen King and Ian Rankin, is to start writing with little or no idea of what’s going to happen, or to whom. Known as ‘discovery writing’, or more commonly in the US as ‘pantsing’ (from ‘writing by the seat of your pants’), to a degree it allows the writer to share the reader’s sense of anticipation as they literally watch the story unfold beneath their fingers.

The twists and turns of pantsing

The second is the polar opposite. ‘Plotting’ involves mapping out the story’s points to completion, long before any ‘once upon a times’ or ‘dark and stormy nights’ take flight from the author’s imagination. Moderately-successful writers such as J K Rowling and John Grisham adhere to this method, potentially because their heads would be at risk of exploding if they didn’t.

Pros and cons of pantsing and plotting

Pantsing, as mentioned, injects writing with a sense of wonder, unbound by strict arcs, character journeys and points which must happen for the story to make sense. For the writer, every page can feel like a cliffhanger, and the pull of being forced to exercise that spontaneous creative muscle can be an irresistible one.

On the downside, a draft produced by the pantsing method runs the risk of requiring considerable rework once complete. If the writer started off with little idea of how things were going to work out, early chapters may have plot holes, inconsistencies or even not make sense at all. Likely too, the novel’s themes wouldn’t necessarily have become clear until partway through the draft, meaning the tone of those early pages might be way off the moody mark.

The plotter is less likely to miss those points. With sometimes every single scene of the novel worked out beforehand, themes, foreshadowing, emotional journeys and the like can be woven in from the very first page. Characters and events will obediently go where the story needs them to go, rather than allow themselves to be written into impossible-to-escape corners.

The straight and narrow path of plotting

The main disadvantage – and criticism – of the plotting approach is that it stifles creativity, that its structure suffocates all chance for the story to breathe, to take unexpected turns, to evolve. If, partway through a plotted story, the author has a brilliant story-serving idea for how things need to be different, the plotted approach disallows it: at worst, it could even be a case of back-to-the-drawing-board.

One approach to rule them all?

As is always the case with writing and with creativity in general, there is no ‘right’ way. Some writers seek to strike a balance, plotting little more than a one-page synopsis, then pants their way through the detail, using the plot as a lodestone to guide things where they need to go. Others are strict adherents to one or the other, and – having based successful careers on their chosen method – they’ve made the right decision (for them).

As for me, I’ve tried them both and I know where my allegiance lies.

The first novel I ever seriously tried to write was a meandering pantsed mess. Though I had a rough idea of the sort of story I wanted to tell (something about exciting adventures in a mythological circus), I had none of the detail worked out about what was going to happen. My poor characters were left wandering round a monstrous big tip with no idea what to do. The draft of that disappeared in the Great Macbook Crash of 2011, and trust me, that’s best for everyone.

Next time, I turned my hand to plotting. I took an approach which has evolved into the one I use today: plotting out each scene or chapter, making sure I know who’s involved, what they’re feeling, what they do and what the resultant impact of their actions is. The first novel I produced using that method went the same way as the incomprehensible circus of pants, but at least I finished it, and – within its pretty amateurish context – it made some kind of sense.

An incomprehensible circus, yesterday


I’ve stuck to that over the years, learning more about craft, structure, character and generally evolving with every word I write. Today, I can’t imagine writing a novel without having the whole thing mapped out (and using Scrivener, I literally can see a map of it, which helps that dominant visual side of my brain immensely). I may not experience the thrill of discovery, but I relish the comfort of the known and the knowable: and enjoy being led by the helping hand of my plot through the narrative.

Without the worry of writing ever-increasing circles of nonsense, that allows other aspects of the novel room to breathe and grow. And there’s still room for spontaneity and surprises, particularly I’ve found when it comes to the dialogue between characters. It works for me – though that doesn’t necessarily mean it works for everyone else.

Finally, there is probably now some bizarre analogy I could make about pants, but I shall valiantly resist.

After all, doing that wasn’t in the outline I created for this post before writing it.

Work in progress: Redrawing The Lines

London, 1839I enjoyed responding to the Edinburgh University LitLong short story contest recently, which asked authors for a piece responding to Edinburgh’s history, taking a map as a starting point.

I felt that the story I wrote, Redrawing The Lines, had some extra mileage in it, so I told myself if it was successful I would consider extending the premise out into a novel-length piece of work.

I was delighted when the story was shortlisted, so duly kept my promise. I have spent the last few weeks plotting out Redrawing The Lines as a fully-fledged novel, and have started to draft it, with about 6,000 words of the 120K target complete so far.

Inspired by the work of authors like David Mitchell and Iain Banks, it is a piece of magical realism set in the present day and told in a first-person present viewpoint.

The as yet unnamed protagonist is a Mapmaker, a member of a select and secretive order of Cartomancers, people able to travel into the place and time depicted on historical maps.

Originally founded as a power for good, the Cartomancers now serve the desires of the highest bidder. When he discovers a way to make things different, the protagonist’s loyalties are torn. Dealing with a difficult personal life and with more than a few secrets of his own, he is faced with decisions that not only have the potential to change the course of his own life, but that of the whole world.

After several months of writing pulp serial fiction (which I’m still continuing with), I’m taking my time with Redrawing The Lines, crafting a more literary piece of work with an intricate plot and fully-rounded characters.

I’m aiming to have the first draft complete by the autumn.

Suki’s Dream Factory

Suki's Dream FactoryI’ve just published episode 1 of a new serial – Suki’s Dream Factory. A pulp cyberpunk adventure, it introduces Suki Sakamoto to my roster of characters…

It’s a place where bored Lunars can go to escape the harsh realities of their lives and experience their heart’s deepest desires – for a price.

Suki Sakamoto runs The Factory, a dream simulation facility on the bright side of the Moon. Earth’s satellite has been transformed into a playground for the super-rich — and into a battlefield where massive corporations wage war on each other from lofty boardrooms.

When a dissatisfied executive makes a complaint against the Factory, Suki and her assistant Holly find themselves investigating the disappearance of a woman last seen in Darkside, a place crawling with lowlife drug addicts and criminals.

And when Suki’s quest forces her to confront the sins of her past, she realises there are some things she will never be allowed to forget.

All That We See Or Seem is the first episode in a series of pulp sci-fi cyberpunk adventures featuring Suki Sakamoto, the enigmatic and embittered proprietor of The Dream Factory.

Each episode in the serial can be read standalone, whilst together they build to tell the story of Suki and her colleagues as they struggle to deal with dangers past and present in a future world where technology and money reign supreme.

The Curious Tale of Orpheus King

The DevourerI’ve just published my first story of 2015 – The Curious Tale Of Orpheus King.

In a world still coming to terms with the aftermath of the First World War, Orpheus King is a struggling young stage magician trying to make an impression on the fickle audiences of the music halls and theatres of the capital.

Despondent and penniless, he considers giving up on his dreams — until a strange visitor reveals an impossible truth that causes Orpheus to question everything he believes.

The Devourer is the first episode of The Curious Tale of Orpheus King, a story of occult secrets and brooding horror in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft.

So join Orpheus as he discovers what strange and curious secrets lie beyond the veil…

Fairytale Hit Squad – 1.3 – Oh Brother

Read the previous episodes

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SOME OF THE younger leads gasp at the mention of the name. Step-kids, mostly, who spent their formative years trying to escape the clutches of a Wicked Mother or Father. A girl in pigtails and a blue check dress like a tablecloth starts crying. I can’t be sure from this distance, but I think she had a run in with one of the Wicked Witches. That explains the black furry goat legs, at least.

‘I’m looking for brave souls,’ says SB, stifling a yawn. ‘Volunteers to venture into the Dark and bring Gretel back to us.’

Every Jack in the front row shoots up his hand. SB smiles down at them, like a dog looking at a litter of eager puppies.

‘Or,’ she says, her lids almost closed, ‘to kill her.’

The Jack hands shoot down again. Baby sits forward on his haunches. ‘Now she’s talking,’ he says. A Secret shoots us a glance, tapping the barrel of his gun.

‘First,’ she says, ‘someone who knows Gretel very well would like to say a few words.’

A pair of Secrets lead in a young guy. He looks away with the fairies. Actually, he probably is.

‘Hansel?’ SB taps a gloved finger on the side of the podium. The guy slurs his head in her direction, his eyeballs taking a few seconds to follow. ‘Tell us about your sister, please.’

He looks like she’s just asked him to recite all of the thousand-and-one tales from memory. He swallows, looking out over us. I feel sorry for the schmuck. If the fairies have been at him, we probably all look like magic rainbow unicorns covered with moondust.

‘Gretel…’ His voice is far, far away. ‘She’s always been …’ His eyes wander up to the chandelier.

‘Unpredictable,’ finishes SB. ‘Disobedient.’

‘… a good girl.’ It’s like the guy didn’t hear her. A smile spreads across his face like the sun coming out. ‘She … she saved me, once.’

‘I’ve never believed their version of things,’ whispers Baby. ‘I reckon they ate that old woman’s house and made the whole story about the oven up to cover their tracks.’

The Secret has his gun pointed at us now. I nudge Baby in the ribs. He growls but takes the hint.

‘All that was a very long time ago,’ says SB. ‘Please tell us all about Gretel now, Hansel.’

His eyes are scanning left and right, like he’s reading an autocue. ‘She changed. Grew distant from me. One morning, I even found her reading one of the Forbidden Books.’

Struwwelpeter’s hair shudders like a breeze is blowing through it. He’s a living Cautionary Tale; I’ve never understood why SB lets them in. They never learn.

Not like me, of course. I learned my lesson a looooong time ago. I remember talking to Blue about it, trying to persuade her. She refused at first, telling me that’s not what my father would have wanted. And how being real wasn’t all talking teapots and cuddly woodland creatures; I had to expect the good and the bad.

I insisted though. I showed her, rolling up my sleeve. Pointed at the skin, sagging like a burst balloon. My body was making up for lost time, aging me like a dead tree. I was lucky if I had a month left, maybe two.

I pleaded with her. Told her I was sure. My nose didn’t move an inch. I wasn’t lying, she could see that.

So Blue agreed. She shifted to a deep sad navy colour, then tapped me on the head with her wand.

And turned me back.

Back into wood.

Fairytale Hit Squad – 1.2 – Attention All Leads

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‘ATTENTION ALL LEADS.’

The intercom above my desk wakes up with a static crack. ‘Report to the briefing room immediately.’

I grind the end of the cigar I’ve just lit into the ashtray. Another royal decree, no doubt. Maybe someone’s been careless, stepped out the boundaries. Did it myself once, told some broad in a bar who I really was. Fortunately for me, we were both seventeen sheets to the wind and she took it as a joke.

I wish the same could have been said for the Secret Police. Even though I don’t need to eat or drink, being locked up in the tower in solitary for a month wasn’t exactly up there with a trip to Pleasure Island. By the time I was let out, my joints were so stiff I had to oil them for hours.

I pull on my jacket and step out my office. The big arrows pointing to the briefing room are flashing. I nod a hello at one of the Jacks. He ignores me, in a hurry to get there and take prime position at the front, no doubt. As one-dimensional as all the rest of them.

‘How ya doin’, P?’

Baby looks like he’s just woken up, his fur sticking up at all angles. He yawns, baring baby teeth.

‘Just right,’ I say, flashing my polished teeth.

He growls. ‘Y’know, every time I hear that, it just gets funnier and funnier.’

I resist the temptation to ask him if someone’s eaten his porridge again. He’s alright, really. All grown now, almost as big as Daddy. Still acts the runt sometimes though.

The briefing room’s packed by the time we get there. Baby and me take places at the back. I can feel the eyes of the Secret Police guys near the door, like they’re drilling into the back of my head. I’m seen as a loose cannon, a risk. If it wasn’t for my special relationship with Blue, they’d likely sand me down and make a walking stick out of me.

Just my luck. Struwwelpeter’s right in front of me. It’s like sitting behind a hedge; I can’t see a goddam thing.

I can hear well enough though. SB’s voice is like cut glass.

‘Thank you all for coming. I’m glad so many of you could make it.’

‘Like we got a choice,’ Baby grumbles. I nudge him to keep quiet. He’ll end up in quarantine if he’s not careful.

‘I imagine you’re wondering why I’ve called you here today,’ says SB. She’s spinning things out a bit. Obviously going for maximum impact. ‘I know most of you are very busy.’

I’m glad of Struwwelpeter’s hedge hair now. If I wasn’t hidden by it, I’m sure SB would be looking right at me. I can picture the row of Jacks sitting at the front, nodding vigorously.

‘I’m afraid I have some rather upsetting news,’ SB continues. It goes deep dark wood silent. ‘You may have noticed that one of our number is not with us today.’

All I can notice is the back of Struwwelpeter’s mangy head. I’m sure there are things living in there.

‘Gretel Humperdink.’

I only know her vaguely. Nice-looking blonde, but a bit too serious for my tastes. I know she’s got issues, but then so do we all.

‘It upsets me greatly to have to inform you that Gretel has defected.’

A Jackful of gasps from the front row. Even I’m surprised. There hasn’t been a defection for over a hundred years.

‘Yes, I’m afraid it’s true.’ SB sounds more angry than upset. ‘Miss Humperdink has left us for the Wickeds.’

Fairytale Hit Squad – 1.1 – A Lady Calls

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SHE’S A STUNNER, no word of a lie.

Slinky red dress, looks like she’s been poured into it. Heels like daggers. Blonde hair (it’s always got to be blonde hair). A cigarette in one velvet gloved hand, a letter in the other. Smoky eyes, dark and mysterious. The sort of dame you’d sell your soul to in return for just five minutes alone with her.

She’s exactly what I ordered.

‘Mister Collodi?’ Her voice is smooth like fine brandy. I drink it in.

‘That’s me.’ I feel a twinge in my nostrils, brush it off with an idle gesture. ‘What took you so long?’

‘Have you ever tried to cross the city during rush hour wearing heels like these?’ She kicks up a calf, points to her shoes. With all the grace and poise of a ballerina. She fixes me with those eyes, like a predator daring its prey to make a move. I feel my chest splintering.

‘Never mind, you’re here now. Sign this.’ I push the paper across the desk, hand her the pencil I’ve been chewing on. She looks at it with distaste, like I’ve just given her roadkill and asked her to eat it.

‘There.’ She finishes her signature with a flourish. Every move deliberate. Bewitching. I touch the pendant round my neck, make sure it’s still there. Still doing its job.

‘Now, Mister Collodi. What do you want me to do?’

‘A simple job. Should be a cakewalk for someone of your … abilities.’ I hand her the photograph. It’s been taken from a distance, but the subject’s face has been magnified by the guys in the tech team.

She glances down then back at me. Quick as a mousetrap. ‘No Prince Charming, is he? Should be easy enough.’

‘There’s a bonus if you get it done without leaving any trace.’ The guilt is an old friend. It’s used to being ignored.

‘I pride myself on my efficiency, Mister Collodi.’ Eyelids droop like blinds being drawn. ‘I’ll be back before you’re ready to lock up for the evening.’

‘I keep long hours, sister. I’ll be waiting for you.’ I think about asking her if she wants to join me for dinner. Or a drink, at least. Which, over the last few months, has taken the place of dinner anyway.

I remember SB’s orders though. About never getting too close. I cross my arms behind my head and put my feet up on the desk, ignoring the creak of protest from my limbs.

‘Until later then.’ And she’s gone, a curl of cigarette smoke curving in the air where she was standing, a moment before.

I get on with some paperwork, trying not to think about the poor chump somewhere out there, going about his business, unaware of what’s just happened here this afternoon.

Unaware that I’ve just sentenced him to death.