Sheldon Townsend writing methods photo

Writing Methods | Pantzers vs Plotters Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

What's your writing method? Do you plot everything out before you start, like you did with your essays at college? Or do you just start writing? Myself, I just start writing and then plan as I go. In this guest post, Sheldon Townsend discusses ways of writing from a practical point of view.

Writing Methods | Start Pedalling

by Sheldon Townsend

Sheldon Townsend writing methods photoThere are, in my opinion, two opposite extremes of writing methods. These are generally called "panters" and "plotters" but even that doesn't capture the range of writing methods. There are people who just write and write well. I have a successful author friend who tells me that she is as surprised by the ending of her novels as her readers are. I know of people who outline every plot point, even every paragraph, and the writing is just filling in details. Myself, I liken the way I write a novel to a road trip: I know where I’m starting, I have a good idea of where I want to go and how to get there but while I'm on the way I don't get upset if I end up taking a detour that may or may not lead to my original destination. For instance, I once made a typo, liked how it twisted the story, and kept it.

The point is, there are as many different ways to write as there are writers. I would have a hard time teaching a writing class because, while I know and use a few techniques to improve my writing, I have no idea how to plot out a novel in advance or use tropes or writing prompts. Another writer friend of mine gave me a spreadsheet where you put in the number of words you are aiming for and it tells you when to put in each plot point. I don't write that way. I probably could if I had to but people don't seem to mind my semi-pantser style.

Packing In the Action

“put your feet on the pedals and pedal for all you're worth”

I write fantasy and science fiction thrillers and a lot of my reviews call my books "action-packed." They sure don't feel that way when I'm writing them but I will admit, I write the boring parts just to get to the fun-to-write and fun-to-read parts (and, actually, I hope there are no boring parts). But to explain to another person how I do it is sort of like explaining how to ride a bicycle: put your feet on the pedals and pedal for all you're worth. I don't say, "Oh, it's been 10,000 words since the last action scene, I need an action scene." The signposts along the way of my road trip are usually the action scenes I have in mind for a book. Then I just write to get my protagonist to that scene. But sometimes an action scene will just pop up as I'm writing when I decide, "This would make a great action scene if . . ."

I'm trained as an engineer so the following is a bit of an engineer being OCD: My last novel, Book of Death, is 81,552 words long. The gaps between the actions scenes average just over 7,000 words. The longest gap is just over 12,000 words; the shortest gap is around 3,200 words. As you can see, it's pretty random because I don't plan ahead how many words between each action scene. My only hard and fast rules are: 1) have an action scene early in the book and preferably in the first chapter and 2) have the biggest and best action scene near the end of the book (i.e., the climax).

What do I write during those gaps? I introduce characters, introduce my worlds, add tension, add more tension, and get my character to the next place he needs to be as interestingly as possible. And did I mention adding tension.

“Long detailed descriptions of, say, a room, don't interest me”

I have no idea why I make some of the decisions I do. I think I tend to write the things that interest me. Long detailed descriptions of, say, a room, don't interest me. I'll fill in enough information to give the reader a sense of being there, but I won't spend 500 words describing the wallpaper. In my as-of-yet unpublished sequel to Book of Death (called Gods of Strife), I spent 2,025 words flying my protagonist from Tehran, Iran to New Orleans. Why didn't I just say, "I flew from Tehran to New Orleans" (the novel is written in first-person)? Because the flight, on a military jet that had to stop twice to re-fuel, interested me.

Which sort of brings me to my bottom line. I started talking about writing styles and how I write. But I write books that I want to read. And I would want to read 2,000 words on a military flight. And I think that is the key to being a good writer: love what you write. I tried to write a novel in a genre I have never written in and have never read (I did do some reading to prepare to write it). And the novel turned out not very good. Because it wasn't what I loved. When I write well is when I write what I love (fantasy and science fiction thrillers).

So don't ask me how to write. I'll just tell you to go write and figure out your own style. Yes, there are tools, tips, tricks, techniques (I have my own five rules of writing) but you have to figure out how you are going to write. You may be a highly detailed plotter or you may be a come-what-may pantser. And if you try being a pantser and you don't write marketable stuff, you might look into being a plotter. But you won't learn that until you write, just like you won't learn to ride a bike until you start to pedal.

2 thoughts on “Writing Methods | Pantzers vs Plotters Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

  1. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Is a question I get asked or I add in any interview I do and this basically the same method I’d used in writing the commentaries I did several years for several years, the only difference had been I didn’t need to go into any significant detail as I did with writing my first YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel, “I Kissed a Ghost.”; I only needed to list the major points I needed to cover within the 1,000 word limitation I had to deal with.

    This how I always answered the question:

    I’d probably say a little of both. As I said in the above, I made a skeleton of an outside, writing down the basic plot points I’d like to hit as the story unfolded; and as a sculptor starting with a wire base of what they’d like to have, I added material, then took some away, until I had the finished product I had in mind.

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