Before I became a novelist, I spent more than thirty years as a technical writer and editor, the last ten of which I was the Documentation Manager in a Multinational Software Company. During those thirty plus years — and especially the last ten — I designed libraries of supporting documentation for enterprise-level software applications. There was no room in that environment for meandering. But the world of creative writing is different. Or is it? Fundamentally, I would argue that it’s not. Whether you are writing a novel or a programming guide for a platform API, the key is accurate communication. Getting the message across. In the world of technical documentation failing to get the message across can be devastating.

While working for a well known Global Software company, a colleague badly worded an instruction for network administrators running a financial platform. The misinformation caused a global crash of a credit card company’s network, and ultimately cost the mother company millions in reparations. Not getting the message across in a novel would be far less devastating, but is still important. Why write if not to convey something accurately?

A key aspect of getting a message across is good structure and a key element of good structure is plotting. I like to use the analogy of driving on a country road at night with the headlights on. Driving with the headlights on means everything can be seen and crashing is less likely. I read a similar analogy in favour of pantsing, where driving without a map or GPS creates a much better adventure, but, of course, it also increases the chance of getting lost, or ending up in the backend of nowhere.

To Pants or not to Pants

Pantsers would say they prefer writing by the seat of their pants because it gives them more creative freedom than plotting allows. If a pantser has no idea where the story is going, they claim, then there is nothing holding them back. They can go where their creativity takes them. As far as it goes, this theory might be valid but for me, it has some serious flaws. Looking at Stephen King’s method of writing, that is, responding to “what if situations”, and following the pantsing logic, characters will end up breaking their own character traits, the plot will meander without a clear direction, and there is a very high risk of the author getting bogged down in writer’s block because they can’t work out where to go next: driving round and round spaghetti junction looking for the correct exit. Stephen King admits as much in On Writing, where he was blocked from writing The Stand (for several months) because he didn’t know how to go on.

As far as I am concerned, there is no such thing as pantsing. What I mean is, if someone starts to write in response to, for instance, what if a town is full of secret vampires, and then writes a series of scenes, the first draft becomes the plan. This is simply because all the issues an initial plan would have avoided, need to be fixed as part of the first rewrite, which in turn leads to at least another rewrite. Besides, what if a town is full of secret vampires, is already a plot, if at a very high level.

From What If to Plot

Using the example of The Alcoholic Mercenary (TAM) the “what if” situation came about because of an earlier novel — The Reticent Detective (2019) — where two of the main characters met in the backstory, that is, when investigating the murder of an American sailor. So, I developed that backstory into a novel: what if an American sailor was gunned down in Baia. I based the character of the sailor on a Petty Officer I knew who was directly involved with the Mafia, selling smoke rations to his local clan in Baia. He was not a nice person, so it was easy to imagine him with what was left of his face resting in a puddle of beer and blood. I had the premise and two of the main characters, all I needed was to pull together the elements of a story in a series of events that rise to a climax and then return to the original context.

Because I have adopted a technical approach to novel writing, I use a hybrid method, which is similar to the so-called Agile Development Process. Agile requires planning but only loosely. It is not the same as the old-fashioned waterfall development process, where everything is planned finitely before development begins. In agile development, a goal is set and then a series of Epics (requirements) are designed. In response to the epics, stories are developed, basically breaking each epic into bite-size chunks. Development can begin before planning is finished.

What crosses my mind after any “what if” moment — apart from story scene ideas — is what comprises a story and how each of my scenes might fit. In TAM, the first scene to mind was that of the sailor, shot dead outside a bar. It was not the beginning, so how did the story get to that point? This is where Stephen King would start to write. And this is where my bone of contention really lies, because this too is the point at which I start to write, only I write high-level scene reminders rather than a first draft. That is still a creative process. Basically, I write the first draft (the plan) in a few hours, which is far easier to correct and — for me — saves time in the overall writing process. Pantsers also write a plan, in much more detail, and over a much longer period, they just call it the first draft.

So, what does it entail:

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