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I used to be a Pantser but I’ve Changed my Mind by Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

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Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

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A while back, I wrote a blog for this website called ‘to plan or to plunge?

In it, I explored the different approaches to novel writing and tried to explain my own process as faithfully as I could. I touched on that well-known typology among writers that divides us into ‘the ones they call planners’ and ‘the ones they call pantsers’. In my rush to belong to one of these fabled groups, I think I may have been a little hasty. So dear readers, I’m back with some news. And the news is I’ve changed my mind.

In trying to make sense of myself as a writer, in the early days, it was so seductive to have a handy shortcut to explain aspects of my process that I found difficult to understand. ‘I am not a planner!’ I declared with relief almost as soon as I came across the idea that I didn’t have to be. The moment I heard pantsing was a thing, I clung to that description for dear life. Admittedly, ‘pantser’ isn’t a particularly attractive label, but at the time I reckoned it was more acceptable than the name I secretly thought I deserved i.e. writer- who-doesn’t-have-a-clue-what-she’s-doing. I guess you could say I chose pantser over chancer.

My resistance ran deep. Why was I so opposed to planning? And if you’re a pantser yourself, why are you? I think it comes down to a lot of things. Personality plays a role for sure. I’ve never been one to read the instructions before firing ahead.  Also, to be fair, us pantsers may still have a point. Creatively speaking, planning has its problems. Too detailed an outline can extinguish the very curiosity that keeps writers going.  It can rob us of the encounters and surprises that unplanned writing is famous for. I was fearful that any kind of plan might be a kind of psychic prison, draining the joy of discovery from the process. But pantsing had become exhausting for me. As an approach it’s almost definitely more chaotic and time-consuming. Heading off without any idea where you’re going is a strategy almost guaranteed to be littered with false starts and dead ends.

It was a looming book deadline and the memory of pantser-induced directionlessness that made me change my tactics. It also came from listening to other writers about the way they go about their work. Dan Mooney and Kit De Waal for example both spend lots of up-front time developing each story idea, and fleshing out the shape of their plot before they begin writing. Their books are brilliant. If writers like those can work with a plan, then maybe, I thought, I could try it too. My new book, All The Money In The World, is the first novel I properly planned in advance, not in minute detail but in terms of its overall structure, its turning points and its key moments. Did it smother the joy of real-time discovery? I’ve got news for you! No it did not. It helped in ways I couldn’t even have imagined.

I guess the real lesson for me is that no-one should be too rigid about the ways their work gets done. If you’re a writer, I think there may be wisdom in freeing yourself from some of the very rules that helped you to get going in the first place. A thousand words a day? Well, yes, great to get the juices flowing and to silence one’s inner editor etc. but when I apply that rule in the absence of any direction at all, my work can go round in circles and get hopelessly tangled up. I’ve fooled myself by reaching some mountainous word count goal, but without a core idea from the beginning, or a strong sense of setting, or some clear understanding of who my characters are, those word mountains have often been wasted.

Is there a middle ground? Of course there is. Most wise writers already understand what, six novels in, I’m only beginning to discover. There’s something better than plunging straight in and better than planning the story down to its last full stop.  The secret is mapping. Having a map provides just enough information to set off with confidence, but not too much that the adventure won’t be worth it. A story map is something that helps to orienteer a way towards and through important narrative landmarks. It’s not going to describe the territory in living detail – we can still trust the writing to do that – and it’s not going to predict the challenges and opportunities that will arise along the way. But it’s perfect for giving me the pointers I need to help me to get where I’m going.

This is the new me. I’m leaving behind the pantsers’ risky, garrulous leaps onto the blank page. And everyone probably knows I’ll never be a full-blown planner.  From this day forward, I solemnly swear to be a mapper. At least for now. Will keep you posted. Watch this space.

(c) Sarah Moore Fitzgerald

About All The Money In The World:

One day you’re broke. The next, you have all the money in the world. What would you do? A gripping, timely story about cold, hard cash and little white lies for fans of Jenny Valentine, Siobhan Dowd and Lara Williamson.

Fifteen-year-old Penny longs for something better. Better than a small, damp flat. Better than her bullying classmates and uninterested teachers. Better than misery and poverty day in day out.

An unlikely friendship and a huge sum of money promise a whole lot of new chances for Penny, and she realises that not only can she change her life, she can change herself.

But at what cost?

Perfect for readers of 10+.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Sarah Moore Fitzgerald is an award-winning teacher, researcher and novelist at the University of Limerick where she teaches creative writing (including story mapping) with colleagues, Joseph O’Connor and Donal Ryan. She was awarded a full professorship at UL in 2016 for her research and leadership in teaching and learning, and was Ireland’s inaugural chair of the board of the National Forum for the enhancement of teaching and learning. She’s founder of UL’s Creative Writing Winter School for mid-career writers and the author of six novels including The Apple Tart of Hope,  A Strange Kind of Brave and All The Money In The World. Her work has been adapted for the stage and translated into over eighteen different languages.

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