Pantser not plotter

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I am a proud pantser. I have friends who are master plotters. They have methods that they swear by – some with wonderful names like snowflake. (I have absolutely no idea what it does or how you use it but I love the name!). They cannot begin their story until they have worked out their overarching theme, all the various plot points and the highs and lows. Some even take it down to granular level by mapping out their stories scene by scene.

I stick my fingers in my ears and shut my eyes when they talk of such things. If every part of your story from the characters, to the plot, to the very scenes the book is made up of, are planned out like a shopping list before your eyes, doesn’t it deaden the writing? Where is the room for an idea to grow and take hold and shake the very foundations of your story? How can a minor character fill the space to become a major character? How can the magic happen?

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If every detail is planned out surely the ideas that do not conform to the original idea are stymied, the minor characters forever denied the chance to grow, the magic confined to the narrow space of the mapped out plot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure you would end up with a good story at the end of it but would it ever sprout wings and fly?

It is a fallacy to think that pantsers do no planning at all. Before I start, I always know who my main characters are. I understand what drives them and what will motivate and change them over the course of the story. I always know where the story starts and I always know where it finishes. The bit in the middle, however, is a wonderful mystery tour.

My plotting friends think I am mad. They gleefully point out that if I knew all my twists and turns before I started I would not need to do so many rewrites, many of which are necessary to incorporate ideas that happened along the way. I would respond by saying the ideas that happen along the way are often the best ones that may never have seen the light of day under the weight of their plots and plans.

For me rigidity kills creativity. They may be more economic with their words and their time but I would rather not have my writing route laid out before me like a map. I prefer to meander and see where my mind takes me.

I could not write like they do and that’s fine because they cannot write like me.

I look at them and shake my head. Sometimes, it seems to me the elaborate plotting and mapping is merely a distraction technique to keep them from having to sit down and write the thing.   Often it strikes me as the comfort blanket they need to wrap themselves in before they can commit to the long haul of writing the book. Each to their own. Their comfort blanket would be my strait jacket.

When it comes to writing there isn’t a right way or a wrong way to do it. There are many different ways. What is important is that you find the way that works for you. Try all the different methods out for size but try writing at least one story by the seat of your pants. You may just find that’s all the method you need.

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Building a Story House

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There are many analogies for writing a book. I always liken it to building a house.

A house needs strong foundations. For a writer our foundation is our plot. It has to be solid enough to support a story from the beginning to the end.

A building needs a well-built structure to stand on the foundations – the walls and the roof.  This sustains the building, protecting it from the elements and hostile invaders. A book needs a carefully planned structure too. A writer needs to think about whether the book will be divided into various parts or whether it will rely solely on chapters, will there be a prologue and an epilogue, who will tell the story and will it be in the first person or third person.

The house builder needs to give careful thought to where the doors and windows are placed for maximum effect, the doors need to give easy access to and from the dwelling, the windows might focus on a wonderful view or concentrate on bringing lots of light into the rooms within. For writers, our doors and windows are the opening of a story, the highpoints that drive the narrative forward, the unexpected plot twists that surprise and delight readers and finally the ending.

To make a house a home, it needs subdividing into rooms that work individually but also as a whole with the rest of the house. In writing, our rooms are our scenes. Every scene should have a purpose, if possible more than one. If they don’t then they are merely padding and have no place in the finished book.

Once a builder has all the basics in place they can start to decorate by adding colour to the walls and coverings to the floors followed by the furniture.

story house 1For a writer they can only start to decorate and add the furniture once the plot is nailed down and the structure is complete. That’s when the editing starts. Imagine having to emulsion a mansion, room by room, day after day until the whole building is complete. That’s how editing a novel should be. At first it seems like a massive task, a never-ending task, but sure enough once you start working through the chapters, as a builder would work through the various rooms, you start to see progress.


And, just as with a building, once one edit is finished it is time to start the next. A builder would add skirting boards and cornices. We do another run through to make our words flow even better than they did before and then another and another.

Once a building is finished there is usually a long snagging list – little imperfections that have been overlooked. Writers need snagging lists too. A read through as a reader rather than as an editor can highlight these, a section where the pace sags, an inconsistency regarding names, a lack of tension. This is where our beta readers come into their own.

story house 2

Once a building’s snagging list has been resolved it’s time for the builder to hand over the keys to the new owners who proudly move in and hang pictures on the walls and curtains at the windows.

Writers too can enjoy these moments. The final polishing of a manuscript is always immensely satisfying, the writing equivalent of plumping the cushions on the sofa.

Building a house is a long-term project as is writing a book.

So, the next time you embark on a new book picture yourself digging the foundations of your new story house. When the going gets tough, as it always does for home builders and writers alike, picture where you will be when the work has been completed.

Trust the process and trust yourself. In a year or maybe less you will be standing inside your beautiful creation, plumping the cushions ready to put your story house on the market for sale.

Happy writing!


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Rent the story house before you buy it

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I was talking with two writer friends recently on retreat. One of them is a little less experienced. She was musing on what genre she might like to write in next. She is currently writing a Young Adult but is not certain that it’s a genre she wants write in all the time. She is keen to finish her YA book but she is also eager to explore other stories in different genres to see which one suits her best.

rent the house 1

I suggested whilst still working on the YA novel, she experiments with some short stories and see if anything grabs her. Writing short stories would give her the ability to play with different genres and different ways of writing, new voices and new methods, without committing herself to the slog of a new novel.

In other words, she should rent the story house before she buys it and writes a novel.

rent the house 2

With all the talk of finding one’s voice as a writer, I firmly believe the best way to do that is to set yourself the task of writing a series of short stories.

Write down the names of all the genres you can think of including mash ups, mix them all up and put them face down in a pile. Then write down the style – first person, third person, single viewpoint, multi viewpoint, experimental, repeating these as many times as you need to so that you have the same number as you have genres. Mix them up and place them face down in a separate pile. Finally write down a series of random words or phrases. Make sure you have as many random words or phrases as you do genres and turn them over.

Now, from each of the piles choose a piece of paper. For example:- Crime, Third Person, Sunny Day.

Bam! Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go write that story and then the next one and the next one.

Some of the genres will not suit you. Some of the stories will be a struggle to write. Some you’ll never want to read again.

There will be stories which fall squarely in your wheelhouse and with which you’ll be completely comfortable. Though fun to write, these stories won’t tell you anything about who you are as a writer that you did not already know.

It’s the stories in between where the magic happens. Like putting on a comfortable coat, genres you have never tried before will totally suit your writing style, whole new areas of writing could open up to you as a result. The only limits on your imagination are the ones you put in place.

rent the house 3

So next time you are stuck and not sure what style suits you or which genre to concentrate on, why not rent the story house for a bit and then you’ll know whether you want to buy it or not.

Happy writing!

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Why writers need to be more like Katy Perry

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We’re all familiar with Katy Perry, right? The songstress who brought us powerhouse self-empowerment songs such as Roar and Firework and the blast of frivolity that is Last Friday Night. Katy Perry = Top Ten hits, multi millions in the bank and sell out shows wherever she goes.

Katy Perry
Katy Perry by Eva Rinaldi courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0

But have you ever heard of Katy Hudson? Nope, me either until I happened to stumble across an interesting fact. Katy Perry started her singing career as Katy Hudson who, based in Nashville, sang Christian songs. In 2001 she released her debut album of gospel music, the eponymously titled Katy Hudson. It was a critical success but a commercial failure.

Katy Hudson reinvented herself, came back as Katy Perry (her mother’s maiden name) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Would Katy Hudson ever have made it so big? We’ll never know.

To do a complete one eighty on your name, your image and your music takes guts, but I guess if where you are is not where you want to be and you’ve given it your best shot, why not shake things up by trying something different?

I am as guilty as any other writer of pigeon holing myself into certain genres. We are encouraged to do it from the outset because agents and publishers need to know who we are and what we do so they can file us away in their minds under certain headings. Business wise it makes absolute sense and if you are killing it in the genre you are writing in then happy days.

But it is also important that whilst we know what genres we are writing in we are not defined by them. We always have the ability to step outside our comfort zone and write something different. Taking your mind for a spin in a totally different direction can be liberating.

If your writing career is presently more Katy Hudson than Katy Perry why not step back and look at the bigger picture. Would you be better off writing in a different genre, possibly under a new name? I am all for stickability but nobody wants to be flogging the proverbial dead horse. Would a reimagining relight your fire as a writer?

If you think it would, put on a Katy Perry track and let your imagination fly. All that matters is that you write from the heart and all writers know that good things happen when we do that.

Katy Perry 2
Katy Perry 2 by Gilles Dufresne courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Happy Writing!

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Takeaways from being on retreat

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Takeaway by Jeremy Segrott courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

I was recently on a writers’ retreat for a week and what a glorious and blissful week it was: fabulous surroundings, fantastic company and space to think and write.

But how to keep that vibe going now that I am home again and normal life has to resume?

Having been in a wonderful bubble of creativity surrounded by like minded friends, it is of course impossible to recreate that feeling back at home when the hoovering needs doing, the dog is barking and there is a teetering ironing pile (heap?) which is calling to be done. But I need to try.

My top five takeaways from my recent retreat:-

1.  It’s important to have time and space to let your imagination off the leash away from a computer screen or notepad.

Otherwise known as day dreaming, it is easy for this vital activity for writers to be crushed by the demands of the everyday. I am pretty good at doing this whether on retreat or not because walking my dog Willow is perfect daydreaming time. So that’s one box ticked.

2.  It’s important to write what you feel.

I went on retreat with a plan of the projects I wanted to work on. I came back from retreat with none of those projects progressed BUT I did come back with a short story/serial which with some polishing I should be able to sell to a women’s magazine and which I am excited to keep working on.

The takeaway here is not to be too stringent with ourselves about what we are choosing to write. The important thing is that we are writing.

3. It is wonderful to have a group of writers who are now firm friends with whom to discuss the mechanics of writing, the difficulties of particular genres, what’s selling and what isn’t and how we see our careers developing.

The takeaway here is that whilst writing is a solitary business, all writers need a support network to fall back on or reach out to.

Social media can fill that gap if you aren’t lucky enough to have a writers’ group close by but nothing can quite make up for a lively debate/discussion over a good meal as the wine flows.

4. It was wonderful to have nothing in the schedule other than to write.

It is of course impossible to recreate that feeling now I’m home but the takeaway is we all need to make time for writing because time won’t present itself and say now you can write. Chores will always need doing, bills will always need paying, day jobs need to be done. It is up to us as writers to cherish and value our work enough to place it higher up the to do list. One hour a day for five days a week is surely doable, isn’t it?

5. I enjoy writing.

That might seem like an odd statement for a writer to make but it is all too easy to forget why we do this job sometimes.   The beauty of taking an idea, working on it and producing something from the rough clay that can be moulded into a finished story is a thing of wonder. One of my New Year’s Resolutions this year was to remember to make writing fun. On retreat, writing was fun. I need to bring that mindset next time, and every time, I sit down at my desk to work. And that’s something all writers should try to do.

Takeaway by Phil Campbell courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons licensed by CC BY 2.0

Happy Writing!

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On Retreat

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As you are reading this I am presently on a writers’ retreat. We may be minutes from a busy town, but I am happily ensconced in a time warp idyll surrounded by bucolic countryside. A salve to the mind and a huge inspiration creatively.

On Retreat
The view from my bedroom window

I am lucky enough to belong to an extraordinary writers’ group. There are seven of us in the group and we are all novelists, some traditionally published, some indie published, some hybrid and some unpublished. We meet once a month in a local bookshop when we celebrate any successes members of the group have had, usually with Prosecco, we critique two pieces of work, taking it in turns and discuss any writing related subjects that happen to come out of our discussions.

A group of different people, most of whom did not know each other before joining, brought together by their shared love of writing have, as time has gone on, become firm friends. We are a support base, a sounding board, a ready made set of beta readers and a sympathetic ear when things don’t quite go to plan.

In addition to our monthly meetings, we already have a summer meet up for wine, nibbles and chat and a Christmas meal at which a lucky dip of a preloved book is swapped with another member of the group.

It was my idea to float the retreat with my friends in the group. I had always been intrigued by the idea of a retreat. We all lead such busy lives and finding time to write is precious. I had in mind that maybe three or four members of the group might be interested and we could rent a little cottage by the sea.

To my surprise and delight, all seven members of the group wanted to come. Bang went that cottage by the sea. Worse was to come. No one in the group wanted to share a bedroom. First world problems and all that. In my mind, I upgraded from country house to mansion.

A fellow member of the group found the most extraordinary place. Mansion does not do it justice (and no I am not going to tell you where it is because we want to come back!).

We write in our own individual spaces all morning, come together for lunch, have a group session on a particular aspect of writing between 2.00 pm and 3.00 pm and then either take a walk in the garden or the woodland, have a siesta or, if we want to be very industrious we can go back to writing. We break between five and six in the evening for a glass of something fizzy on the terrace and enjoy our evening together over a meal and several bottles of wine.

Everyone, prior to the retreat, was asked to write a piece of flash fiction inspired by the theme or title of May Day. The competition entries have to remain anonymous and have been available downstairs in the hall for all of us to dip into. It has been fun trying to work out who wrote what.

On our last night we have splashed out on a private caterer to come in and cook us a three course meal. At the end of the meal we will each be given a competition entry to read aloud. Then we will all vote (anonymously) for our favourite. The winner and runner up will receive a prize and we will then see how close we all came to guessing which story belonged to which writer. It should be a fun way to end a fabulous writing break.

I have never been on a writing retreat before but as I was the one who suggested we do this it would have been bad form not to go along. I am so glad I did. I feel as though we are living in a creative bubble and leaving here and going back to reality will be hard to do.

We are already talking about making this an annual event.

I made plans about the projects I wanted to work on but staying in such an extraordinary setting has swept me along. Voices of characters I never thought I would write about have  demanded that I tell their story. Four and a half thousand words later, I have a short story or serial that is ready to go. I also have the memories: fabulous company, great food, lovely surroundings and brilliant weather. As writing retreats go, I think we struck gold.

I cannot speak for writers’ retreats generally and going away with strangers may have been more problematic but if you belong to a writers’ group or if you have a set of writing friends who all get along well together, why not find a house to accommodate you all and step back from real life for three or four days to rest, recuperate, fill the creative well and write. Like me, I am sure you will be really glad you did.

Happy writing!

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White Lies by Ellie Holmes


Being Social

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Writers today, whether trad, indie or both, need to have a social media presence. It’s another thing on the stuff to do list but hopefully more enjoyable than doing your filing or your tax return.

Before I launched my writing career I had no social media and it was a sharp learning curve. I opted for the main players – Twitter and Facebook and chose to add Pinterest into the mix as well.

I had thought Pinterest would be my favourite because it allowed you to be creative, producing Pinterest boards for various subjects, people or themes. I had thought Twitter would be my least favourite. I’m a 100k kind of girl. I don’t do short. I thought Facebook would fall somewhere in between.

Social media2

What did I know?

I do love Pinterest but I find it time consuming so tend to create boards in spurts and then have a break from it. I daresay I’m doing it all wrong but hey that’s part of the fun right? I don’t take my social media too seriously as you may have guessed. Life’s too short and there are too many other important things to be getting on with like writing.

Pinterest is great for creating boards as companion pieces for my books, however. That is a piece of escapism I enjoy after the hard graft of a book is done and it makes you see your book in a purely visual way which adds an interesting dimension.

Facebook has been a bit of a drag for me. I have lots of friends. I have a page that many people like so that’s nice. I don’t engage with it anywhere near as much as I should because I find it boring (oops! Did I actually write that?). It is not my social media of choice. I try to energise myself to get on there and take part but I never seem to be able to sustain it in a meaningful way.

And that leaves Twitter. Ah, Twitter. Remember I said I thought Twitter would be my least favourite? Ha! Turns out, I love it. I am on it most days and find it the easiest platform to use, the most engaging and interesting to be a part of and most importantly, for me at least, it’s fun.


I put up links to my blog on Twitter – some of you may have found your way here from there. I put up articles that I find entertaining and so am keen to share. They don’t always relate to writing in fact I would say it’s a pretty even split between writing and non writing subjects. I tweet about the things I enjoy and which interest me and yes I do put up tweets about my books but they do not make up the majority of what I share with my followers, they probably account for less than a third of my content.

There will be lots of writers out there who, with very serious faces, will tell you how you should sell, sell, sell on all these platforms. They will probably tell you that you should be on at least another three I haven’t mentioned and possibly double that. Yeah, well. As I said above life’s too short etc.,

Don’t go on social media expecting to sell books. Go on social media to engage with other people, get caught up in debates, have a laugh and a joke, ‘meet’ interesting people, reach out to someone who is having a hard time, share the joy of someone who is celebrating an achievement and most of all have FUN. Enjoy the human interaction and you never know you may just sell a few books along the way, too.

Being social

Happy writing!

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White Lies by Ellie Holmes