Friday, 26 December 2014

Planned Spontaneity

EDGE Author Sara Grant Asks: Are you a planner or a pantser?

I love New Year’s Eve. I know it’s technically just another date on the calendar, but for me, Big Ben's twelve bongs signal a fresh start. The slate is wiped clean for the new year and anything is possible.

This week my husband and I will sit down and write our goals for 2015. We set personal and professional goals – everything from developing new book projects to volunteering to improving relationships with family and friends. While preparing for this annual ritual, I realized that I live my life like I write my books: I start with a plan.

When I worked in corporate PR, I was known as the queen of the matrix (not the cool movie kind but the boring ol' chart kind). If there was a plan to be written and a timeline to be organized – I was your gal. I don’t get out of bed without a to-do list and if you’ve served on a committee with me, odds are I was the one to type up the meeting notes and organize a to-do list. I’m sure there’s a psychological diagnosis for my obsession with planning – but as yet no cure. 
"I’m a plotter who is often surprised
by the unplanned twists my story
takes me once I start writing."
 – Paula Rawsthorne
Albert Zuckerman in Writing the Blockbuster Novel believes that plotting and planning a story isn't crazy at all: “No sane person would think of setting out to construct a skyscraper or even a one-family home without a detailed set of plans. A big  novel must have the literary equivalent of beams and joists strong enough to sustain it excitingly from beginning to end, and it also must contain myriad interlocking parts fully as complex as those in any building type.”

"I am a loose plotter (tighter if it’s a thriller),
but without fail my characters (who are pantsers)
ALWAYS surprise me and take over,
creating unexpected  plot twists and turns!" 
– Katie Dale
I asked my fellow EDGE authors if they were plotters or pantsers. In other words, do they carefully plot their novels or do they ‘fly by the seat of their pants’. I’ve scattered their responses throughout this post. We all combine planning and spontaneity. Some seek order from chaos while others plan first but allow space for surprises. 

"I start with a huge mess of seat of the pants ideas and
'discovery writing’ then attempt to make sense
of it all with some structure/plot for subsequent drafts.
These often derail into more pantster anarchy too,
but it's the only way I can discover the story I'm trying to tell!"
 – Dave Cousins
One year my friend and I were lamenting our lack of spontaneity. She said, ‘Why don’t we plan to be more spontaneous next year?” We, of course, laughed at the irony of the statement. But I’ve come to realize that planned spontaneity is the perfect way to describe my writing process. I research and plan but then let the characters surprise me. A give and take of whimsy and calculation is what works for me.

"I have an outline of the story in mind,
but nothing more plot-wise, and
I generally find that things change as soon as I start writing.
Having said that, I am determined to be much more of a plotter
for the next book, and actually have a chapter plan
in place before I start writing!"
 – Keren David
Sometimes I write a detailed storyline, noting what happens in every chapter. Other stories spring from a bulleted list of milestones. I typically write the opening chapters as I’m developing the storyline to play with voice. But my creation process isn’t strictly logical. Each writing project must engage my head and heart. I have to be able to solve the puzzle of my plot and subplots – how they twist and tangle together, but I also have to figure out the heart of my story: Why is this story so important to me? Why am I the only one who can write it? 

In The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, Akiva Goldsman, award-winning film writer and producer, explains what I call heart this way: “The trick is to be connected to the material of your imagination, thematically and concretely, write what interests you because if you’re NOT fascinated and excited by the writing of the script, the reader won’t be fascinated and excited by the reading of it. Try to find something in the idea that speaks to your own life, something you think is authentic, true, compelling in your story.”
"I do a cast list with character studies and back stories - but only a para each - decide on the landscape; consider the crises and the climax and then I’m ready to rock and roll. I am a discovery writer who likes to plan a bit before I actually start. But most of my writing is done in my head, thinking and day dreaming, followed by great spurts of writing." – Miriam Halahmy
When I have my plot outlined and a sample chapter written, I must feel compelled to write the story. It should occupy nearly every waking moment and keep me up at night. The story must demand to be written. 

"I’m a panster! I usually start with a character, then comes the idea for a story.
I write an opening - sometimes a paragraph, sometimes a page,
and occasionally a chapter - then I let the story develop
on the page as I'm writing. There are times when I wish I was a plotter though
because it would make the writing process a whole lot easier for me!
I’m about to start a new book, and I'm going to be attempting the plotter route..."
 – Savita Kalhan

I’ve never written a book that goes exactly as planned, and I’ve never lived a year without unexpected surprises. I write goals and make plans and then roll with what each minute, hour and day brings. 
"I am a percolator first. I don’t take notes of my ideas,
I sit and wait for them to form into a full story in my head.
When get that click as a series of ideas form one cohesive whole,
I’ll write a synopsis (one or two pages), then I flesh out the synopsis
 into a chapter by chapter outline. . . I am rarely surprised by my characters
- I have a zero tolerance policy for misbehaviour - but occasionally,
in the course of writing, I will do some research that inspires me to add a scene,
or take things in a slightly different direction. However,
I know my ending before I start my opening."
 – Bryony Pearce

So plot or pants...
How do you write?

How do you live? 


Sara Grant has written two edgy teen novels -- Dark Parties and Half Lives -- and a funny series for young readers -- Magic Trix. For more information on Sara and her books, visit or follow her on Twitter @AuthorSaraGrant

Friday, 19 December 2014


Paula Rawsthorne looks at the work of FIRST STORY and reflects on her first term as a writer-in-residence.
One of the enjoyable aspects of being a writer of Young Adult fiction is being invited into schools to meet students and do author talks and workshops, but since September I’ve also been a writer-in-residence, working for a fantastic literacy charity called First Story.  My role involves undertaking weekly after-school workshops with a group of students at a Nottingham secondary school.  This provides a unique opportunity for us all to have fun developing and experimenting with creative writing.  In the summer term individual First Story groups in schools around the country will have a professionally produced anthology of their work published.

First Story was set up in 2008 by writer William Fiennes and former teacher, Katie Waldegrave.  They wanted to open up the opportunity for state secondary schools (particularly more challenging schools) to benefit from having a writer-in –residence. 

William and Katie began with First Story groups in eight London schools.  It now has writers and poets in 49 schools across the East Midlands, Gloucestershire, Lancashire, London, Oxfordshire and West Yorkshire.  To date, First Story has helped 4,500 young people write 90,000 stories and poems and publish 145 anthologies.  The First Story website contains impressive statistics about the impact of groups on students’ self-confidence as well as improvements in writing and even school attendance. 

I believe the ethos of First Story is key to its success.  It aims to develop and encourage creativity, literacy and confidence in the students.  Writers’ sessions with the First Story students aren’t tied to exams, assessments or even homework.  The emphasis is on creative writing for the pure enjoyment of it.  When students are freed from the stresses of having to reach targets and attain grades they are able to relax and develop a love of words, spend time tapping into their imaginations and conjuring up stories and poems without having to worry about ticking boxes for teachers and exam board.

Our group hold the sessions in the school library.  We always have cakes and juice to give everyone energy after a long day of lessons and I hope the atmosphere is relaxed and, at the same time, stimulating.  Through workshops, using all kinds of prompts and concepts, we let our imaginations run wild.  Importantly, First Story also values the wealth of experiences that each student brings with them and workshops that tap into memories and daily life often produce powerful, inspiring work.

 Every writer-in- residence relies on a good school liaison person (a teacher or librarian) who is committed to the project.  They're an integral part of the group, joining in with each writing exercise and keeping everyone on track.  I’m lucky to be working with Rachel Stone, one of Nottingham Emmanuel’s librarians.  Rachel has even used her considerable talent as a poet to run a session with the group.

First Story encourages off-site sessions to take students out of the school environment and this term I took my students to visit a wonderful ‘secret’ library.  Bromley House is one of the few private members libraries left in Britain and is truly a hidden gem in the heart of Nottingham.  The librarians of Bromley House were more than accommodating.  They gave us a fascinating tour of the warren-like library and also offered us their lovely reading room in which to do our workshop.  It was such an inspiring and atmospheric environment to get creative.

Also this term the school organised for performance poet, Mark Gwynne Jones, to do a session with our First Story Group and this resulted in a trip to the Nottingham Contemporary.  Here, some students got to perform their work on stage at a Lyric Lounge event as part of the 'Nottingham Festival Of Words'.

First Story held their Young Writers’ Festival in September.  Our group, along with 500 other First Story students from around the country, travelled to LMH College (Oxford University) for a fantastic day of workshops and inspiring talks from, amongst others, Mark Haddon.  The next day another 500 students came along and heard Philip Pullman speak.


 Eleanor and Becca from Nottingham Emmanuel School performing their poem to 500 student. (Photo by Richard Budd)
In March we’ll be bringing all the East Midlands students to Nottingham University:  The region’s writers-in-residence will be running workshops, and students will also get a chance to explore the campus, chat to undergraduates and find out more about life at uni.  Nottingham University has further been involved with First Story by providing an undergraduate, ‘shadow writer’ who attended our sessions and really mucked in.  

These partnerships between First Story and academic and cultural institutions are happening all over the country.  They benefit everyone involved and expose students to new experiences and aspirations.

Having your writing published in a professional produced anthology (by OUP) is a big deal and the fact that the students are involved in the whole publication process gives an even greater sense of achievement. It also teaches them important skills in editing and checking their work, working as a team to decide on a title for their book and even coming up with the cover artwork.  The launch for their anthology is also a big deal and the students play a vital role in organising the event to make it a special occasion and celebration of their writing.


Mark Haddon speaks to First Story Students at the Young Writers’ Festival (Photo by Richard Budd)

A couple of students from each school group will get the opportunity to go on a residential writing course where they’ll be working with writers, poets and peers from all over the country.  I know that students and writers alike find this an unforgettable experience. 
First Story also looks to the future with their students and hopes their experience of the group will establish a longer term love of writing.  With this goal in mind we encourage past students to set up their own writing groups, reading groups, literary society etc.

I have found my first term of working with Nottingham Emmanuel’s First Story Group an absolute pleasure.  The students are a fabulous lot and I’m continually gobsmacked by the stories and poems that they create each session.  I’m already looking forward to next term and I’m pretty sure that, around the country, my fellow First Story writers-in-residence will be feeling the same.

If you want to know more about First Story’s extensive work and how schools can get involved with them, please see their website.

 Watch this clip ‘A Year of First Story in five minutes

First Story on twitter

Paula on twitter