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Plotter v. Pantser: Avoiding the Locked Room by Andrea Mara

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Article by Andrea Mara ©.
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Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you plot your books carefully in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants? There’s no right or wrong answer, but of course, everyone secretly knows the cool kids are pantsers all the way. And I’m not one of the cool kids. Much as I’d love to just start writing and see where it takes me, I can’t. The very idea brings me out in a cold sweat.

I can certainly do it with blog posts – in fact, most of my blog posts are written without much thought at all as to where they’re going, and there’s joy in that freedom. But that defines the joy of blogging in itself – the freedom to write whatever pops into your head. No wordcount, no brief, no deadline. No need to stick to the plan – tangents are allowed, side stories are welcome, and if you don’t get to the point of the post, you can always do part two next week.

But fiction is different, and specifically crime fiction – at least for me. Plot comes first – an idea takes hold – a what if scenario that demands to be played out. What if I looked out the window one night and saw something strange in my neighbour’s garden? What would it mean – what would I do? What if I realised I hadn’t heard anything from next-door in quite some time – through the paper-thin dividing walls of our semi-detached bedrooms?

But I couldn’t start writing about a woman who saw a body in her neighbour’s garden without knowing why the body was there. I mean, what if I got to the end and the answer didn’t emerge – what if I wrote 100,000 words and still didn’t know why the body was there? That’s a whole other type of what if scenario, and not one I ever want to experience. I need to know the end, so that I can work backwards, reverse engineering, weaving it in throughout the book – dropping clues that mean very little in chapters 10 or 20 but provide an “Aha!” moment when the truth is revealed. As a life-long reader of crime, I crave the “Aha!” moment and now writing crime, that’s my end goal too.

So before I ever typed the first lines of The Other Side of the Wall, I plotted the entire book, including the ending. I knew why everyone did what they did, and how it would all be resolved. Only then could I begin writing the words.

Would it be different second time around I wondered? Maybe seasoned writers of second books could risk the fly-by-seat-of-pants approach? Maybe they can, but not me. I realised as soon as I started to think about One Click – a story of a woman who takes a photo of a stranger and shares it online – that nothing had changed.

I needed to know why the internet troll started messaging Lauren; was he targetting her, or the woman on the beach? And why? What back-story did each of them have? And once I knew the why, I needed to know how it would all be resolved in the end, down to the very last details. Otherwise there’s a chance that 100,00 words in, my characters would be locked in a room – literally and figuratively – with no way out.

Of course, the beauty of plotting is that once it’s done, you can deviate all you want from the plan. The core structure is there – like the scaffolding supporting the building. Which means it’s just fine to go to the room you planned to paint white, and go for black instead. Or find a secret door to an undiscovered stairwell, and go off the beaten track to explore.

Because sometimes half-way through a build, the right path is blindingly clear, even if it’s not what was originally intended. That character who was supposed to grow old in prison might end up dead at the bottom of that secret stairwell, and the one who was supposed to be drinking gin and tonic in the final chapter might end up bringing down the house.

Having said all that, there’s a point at which you have to stop plotting and just write. Otherwise it can become a way to put off writing – spending time working out where that minor character with the walk-on part ends up, or – my favourite procrastination tool – figuring out character names before starting to write. Just give them any names, and start writing. (This did come back to bite me when I called a character Jack then changed it to Alec, then notice people kept zipping up their Alecets.)

In fact, despite everything I’ve just said – if you’ve been dreaming and longing and hoping to write a book, the best thing you could do is just start writing. Break the ice, get those first words on a page so you realise it doesn’t hurt and isn’t as scary as it seems. Then plot if you’re a plotter, or fly by the seat of your pants – either way, just write the words.

(c) Andrea Mara

About One Click:

When Lauren takes a photo of a stranger on a beach and shares it online, she has no idea what will come of that single click.

Her daughters are surprised that she posted a photo without consent, but it’s only when she starts to get anonymous messages about the woman on the beach that she deletes the photo. It’s too little too late, and the messages escalate, prompting Lauren to confess to the woman. The woman has her own dark story, one that might explain the messages, but Lauren isn’t convinced. Then her ex-husband begins to harass her, telling her she shares too much online and brought this on herself.

She’s also dealing with other problems. A difficult client at work starts to show up in places he shouldn’t be. Her younger daughter is behaving out of character and Lauren can’t work out what’s wrong. And the cracks are literally beginning to show in her old South Dublin house, mirroring the cracks in her carefully curated life.

Meanwhile, the messages from the internet troll become more personal and more vindictive. Her friends feel she should stand up to her stalker, but Lauren isn’t so sure. And then she makes one small mistake that brings everything tumbling down.

Buy your copy online here.


Andrea Mara is a freelance writer, author, and blogger, who lives in Dublin with her husband and three young children. She writes lifestyle features for Irish newspapers and magazines, and has won a number of awards for blogging. She attempts – often badly - to balance work, family, and writing, then lets off steam on her blog, OfficeMum.ie. Her first book, a psychological thriller set in Dublin, called The Other Side of the Wall, and was published by Poolbeg Press in 2017 and shortlisted for the Kate O’Brien Award in 2018. Her new novel, One Click, is about a woman who posts a photo of a stranger online, and the unintended consequences this brings. Out now in bookshops and on Amazon.