When a story begins to bubble and brew, whether it’s a children’s book, a short story or a piece of flash fiction, I find myself drifting off as vivid images flash in my mind, sparks igniting. I’ll pause mid-sentence in conversation as an idea flutters and I try to grab it before it disappears, then apologise to whoever I’m talking to as I lose track of the thread of our chat. I might be washing up or sorting piles of washing and suddenly realise that minutes have lapsed as I’ve stared vacantly into space. I can’t schedule these flurries of inspiration, they strike when I’m least expecting.
When I started writing, I read a lot of discussions about whether it’s best to be a ‘plotter’ or a ‘pantser’. I guess I fall somewhere in the middle.
A story will come to me first in the shape of a character. Sometimes it’s a name, sometimes it’s an image. The first short story I wrote as an adult, Waiting for Light, is loosely based on my own childhood – images, feelings and snippets of conversation that were lurking in the recesses of my brain from years ago. I didn’t plot a story, it was just there, pieced together from fragments of memories, waiting to be told.
My debut children’s book came to me as the name of my main character, Grace-Ella. I had no idea who she was, other than she was 9 years old and lived at Number 32, Ty Mynydd Close. Once she made her appearance, her story grew and I began to write. I wasn’t completely directionless, but I did let the story flow by itself and take shape. This did mean a lot of sitting at the laptop and waiting to see what would come next. Thankfully, the waiting wasn’t too painful as I fell in love with Grace-Ella and the story flew fairly freely. When I’d sit at the laptop, I’d feel the excitement grow as I wrote. I didn’t think about what I would do with the story once it was finished, I just enjoyed writing it.
My current WIP also began life as the main character. I had a sketchy idea of the story and I knew how it was going to end, but I had no real notion of how that ending would be reached. I let my characters tell their own story. When they encounter a problem, I’m there right next to them. I don’t know how they’ll react to or overcome the problem until we’re there, in the moment. I can’t plan it for them until I’m feeling it with them, at that precise moment in time.
When I have tried to make notes and chapter outlines and story arcs and plotting post-its, I’ve found myself stumbling about, like I’m trying to get out of a murky mist. My characters don’t do what I planned for them to do and the story goes off on a completely different tangent, which makes me incredibly nervous and panicky and I start shouting, ‘No, that’s not what’s meant to happen. Look, post-it 37 says you do this.’
I used to worry that unless I was plotting, I wasn’t being a serious writer, but it just doesn’t work for me. And it’s been such a relief to read about other authors who also skip the plotting stage and dive right in. Perhaps it’s because in my everyday life I need order and routine, schedules and lists, to function. When things don’t go to plan, I get incredibly stressed out. So maybe that’s why, when I write, I don’t worry too much about what might happen. I don’t sit facing neat rows of colour co-coordinated post-its as I do with my teaching work. I allow myself to relax and let the words flow. I let my characters take me on their journey. That’s why I love writing. That’s what pulls me out of bed at 5am on a cold, dark winter morning. I want to know what happens next in my story. And if I want to know what happens next, hopefully someone else will too.
When a character comes knocking with a story to be told, I sit and wait patiently for the tale to unfold.
How about you? Are you a plotter or do you dive right in? I’d love to know.
Hwyl am y tro x