Children Book Tuesday :: Writing by heart


As some of you know, I have spent much of the last week sitting beside a lake, writing. Words flow in a steady stream. I pause for a moment to look up at the magical horizon, then back at my computer, lost in the story as it unfolds.

This is what I imagined it would be like to write a novel.

Like many lovers of books, I’ve had a quiet fantasy to at some point write a novel. Every novel I have read since I was a kid makes me feel like maybe I could do this too. But it was an airy fantasy. Because, as I have been finding out, writing a novel is far harder than it looks. It’s craft. It’s hard work. It requires knowledge.

I’ve studied writing at university, and have written many thousands of words since. Last year, it occurred to me that I really need to learn how to write a story. A novel-length story. I can write a 350 word picture book. I can write 150,000 word course books. But as far as I knew, I didn’t have the skills to write a full length novel.

My first step was to ask other professional writers: what courses have you done? What books have you read? Where did your knowledge come from? I read blog posts and websites. Some resources I have come across include Story, by the formidable Robert McKee, James Patterson’s masterclass,  Writing Irresistible Kidlit  by Mary Kole and The Snowflake Method by Randy Ingermanson. I also did a wonderful course through SCBWI Netherlands earlier in the year with Sarah Davies. Threads started to come together, and I began to understand the makings of a good story. The task of writing a novel began to feel less daunting.

Because I haven’t been doing a lot of paid work this year, I’ve had time to write. So armed with a little knowledge and time, I began. I had a few story ideas, so started to flesh them out. It seemed that writing by heart was my style, and I would write, and write and write, and suddenly had 10,000 or so words for a couple of stories.

But that’s where I’d get stuck. I began four different times. Four different stories. Each time, when the uphill bit began, and my story started to lose momentum, I fell into the temptation of a new prospect. A new character would come to mind, and a new plot would unravel, and I would leap from what I was doing into the next project. It became easy to start, but incredibly hard to keep going.

One of the popular theories in fiction writing, is that you are a pantser or a planner. Al Tait says you are a mapmaker or a discoverer. By all attempts, I thought I must be a pantser, i.e. someone who writes by the seat of their pants, and sees where the story takes them. The discovery is fun. Characters come to life, and an initial idea for a plot swells and twists, taking you in all sorts of directions.

In life, I am a pantser – someone who plays everything by ear. I wait and see where I end up. There is no official plan. No law degree, or linear education. I have done things because I like to, or am interested, or because a particular door opens at a particular time and it just feels right to step through. Mostly, this approach has worked. But there have been times, {like nowish}, where I find myself living in a tent, with no clear objective and direction. The world is my oyster, but geez, that’s a scary concept.

As is completing a novel, when you have absolutely no idea which direction you are heading.

Of course, when I explained the concept of pantser vs planner to my husband, he had to play the devil’s advocate.

‘I don’t buy it,’ he said. ‘No one will be one or the other. They will be a combination of both.’

I read about the Snowflake Method at some point in my self-education, and decided it wasn’t for me. I’m a pantser, after all. But maybe there was something there – something to help me.

When I write education and training course books, they come with an outline. I use the outline, and fill in the blanks. I work fast and well, and before I know it, I’m 100,000 words in. Because there is an outline.

When I thought about my life as a pantser, I had to think again. Yes, sure, I’ve followed random paths, and taken unexpected forks in the road. But then again, I do have clear goals and objectives. I know, and have known for a long time, that I want to be a professional author, and I know roughly what my objectives within that look like. I’m heading to certain plot points along the way. Plot points evolve as I move towards them, and goals shift, but that just makes life interesting.

Could it be I am not such a pantser after all?

I revisited the Snowflake Method, and applied it to one of my stuck manuscripts.

I couldn’t bring myself to do the whole scene by scene, Excel spreadsheet breakdown, so I did an abbreviated version. My steps were:

1. Write down a clear story hook; make sure it sings

2. Write down a clear plot summary, outlining the key arcs and finale of story

3. Get to know characters thoroughly, and outline a story synposis for each

4. Flesh out the story synopsis

5. Write.

In truth, the planning stage didn’t take long at all, because the idea was already there, and I had already taken three attempts to write the story.

When it came to writing character outlines, the story really took shape. I could start to see various subplots, and understand my characters’ motivations. I needed to see how this story would shape them.

While I started a scene by scene lowdown, I gave up when I got to the lakes of Austria. It was time to launch in, headfirst. And so the tick tick of my keyboard began.

On Saturday, not long after rewriting my story from the beginning with my new outline in mind, I sent myself a 30,000 word draft of an almost complete middle grade novel.

Of course, there is no way this is anywhere close to being complete in real terms. Now the really hard work begins, as I go back over it, refine the story, and probably rewrite every line.

Still – something a week ago which seemed impossible was suddenly possible.

So maybe, as usual, my husband is right. Writers, or at least me, aren’t one or the other. A bit of pantsing and a bit of planning can take you a long way when writing a novel, just as it can in life.

What are your thoughts on this?

Join in for Children’s Book Tuesday by linking your post below. Anything related to children’s books is welcome!

  • How exciting! Gotta love it when you get to type THE END. SO satisfying. Well done!

  • Amy

    Frameworks and planning exist to support the creative process – and they work. I suffer from a little bit of over planning (lots of graphs, lists, calendars) which is something I am trying to work on. Well done YOU for recognising how far you have come in just a week. My theory is if your husband doesn’t ‘buy’ Plotter vs Pantser he must be a firmly one or the other.

  • Congratulations on 30,000 words! Well done. I’m a bit of both, I plan, then I let the story flow and see where it takes me, then I plan…. 🙂

  • I can’t love this post enough.
    I agree with Gregor, I think that you have to be a bit of both. I started my book having no idea what was going to happen, and so many unexpected things have taken place, but at the halfway point I did feel the need to sketch a chapter by chapter outline of what would happen from there. Oh I so envy you the time and space to just sit and write it, and in such idyllic surroundings too.
    I find writing my book to be my happy place. I have just returned to uni to do a BA in creative and professional writing to gain help and mentorship in writing my book.
    Can’t wait to read yours.

  • This is SOOOO exciting! So exciting. I’m a planner. Just as I am in life. But I don’t fret if my characters veer from the plan. That said, I’m a short story gal, so if I were to attempt a novel, who knows?
    Cannot WAIT to read anything you have written. x

  • I’ve been to some author events where the writer’s described themselves as both. A planner perhaps broadly but then let the story take them wherever.

  • Fantastic post Zanni! This is JUST what I needed to read right now. I’m also working on my first middle grade novel. I’m going to try your abbreviated Snowflake Method, I think it will help my direction. I’m only the first few chapters in right now but I think a bit of planning will help. I’ve just ordered a copy of ‘Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life’ by Anne Lamott. I’ll let you know if it’s good 🙂

  • Don’t you love it when your husband is right? 😉 I’m so excited about your novel and your new children’s book. It all sounds so very romantic writing by the lake. I love reading about your adventures xx

  • Natalie @ Our Parallel Connect

    This is me. I advent written a novel in over 5 years now but I have written 3 novels. The first one I just wrote but a basic outline and seemed to get stuck a lot. The second one I planned a little more, including characters and it flowed well. The third one I did a bit of both and never completed it. The thought of editing these books makes me scared. #teamIBOT

  • I like to think of it, as with most things, on a spectrum. At one end there are the pantsers, at the other end the plotters. I fall more towards the pantser side, but not completely. First draft, I am mostly a pantser. I just need to write and write and write. Spewing out words, characters and plot till I reach the end. Then the hard work starts. That’s where I go back and work through the plot. Where I sit down and plot out what’s working, what’s not and what needs to change. Then I can write again. And the process continues.