Plotter or Pantser

When it came to my first book, I just wrote it, in complete ignorance of the “rules” of writing books.  The characters and the plot had been rattling around in my head for years and a fortuitous skiing accident left me alone with a notebook computer in a ski chalet. For the next few months I used every spare moment in getting that story down. It had a beginning a middle and an end and is now, after many, many rewrites, my award winning novel ‘BY THE SWORD”.

Once I had written that novel,  I started learning about the “craft of writing” and it seemed I had done it all wrong. Apparently I was supposed to plot my book in meticulous detail before I even considered starting writing. I went to writers’ conferences and sat through workshops on plotting, character arcs, hero’s journeys and my writing completely froze. My muse, fickle miss, deserted me completely as I agonized over synopsis cards and mind maps and time lines. None of those stories were ever written. I was bored with them before I even started to write. Where was the magic of creating my characters worlds, learning their motivations as I went along? The creative process that had led me to write that first book had been completely stifled.

It took a workshop given by NYT best selling author, Jo Beverley, to free me up.  In her workshop she talked about “Flying Into the Mist” which I discovered was the polite way of saying “pantser”.  She told us that she never plotted her books and I sat and stared at her as if she was some sort of second coming. She gave me permission to write books the way I wanted to write books.

So, I am a pantser, a flimmer… I start my books with a vague notion of characters, a rough idea of setting and a few, what I will call “lily pads” of plot ideas.  During Nanowrimo last year, in a departure from historical romance, I wrote a mystery novel. I knew the principle characters and the setting but, to be honest, I had no idea of who was going to be murdered or why or by whom.  With the imposed discipline of the 30 days, I let the characters lead me on their adventure.  I love this story and I can’t wait to get back into it and start the rewrite because I have decided that the first rough draft of my stories are MY version of plotting.

Whether you are a plotter or a pantser, don’t ever expect your first draft  to be of a “submissable” quality. Mine are as rough as guts with big holes and little asides such as or .  Since discovering Scrivener, my writing has freed up…as I learn a little more about the characters I jot it down in the character templates, likewise the settings (which are often characters in their own rights) but a discussion on Scrivener is for another post.

The real art of writing is in the rewrite and that is the bit I love with a passion. I liken it to being a painter, your first draft is your sketch, the rewrite is where you get to layer the paint on and that is where the joy of creation lies.

Every writer is different and it is presumptuous of one writer to say to another. “What you are doing is wrong… this is the right way of doing it”. There is no right way of doing it. If you are a new writer who is struggling to plot your work, let it go, just write. I give permission for you to fly into the mist, just sit down with your characters and let them lead you on the journey. It is OK to be a pantser.

Alison Stuart is an award winning Australian writer of historicals with heart.  Whether duelling with dashing cavaliers or waywards ghosts, her books provide a reader with a meaty plot and characters who have to strive against adversity, always with the promise of happiness together. Alison is a lapsed lawyer who has worked in the military and fire service, which may explain a predisposition to soldier heroes.  She lives with her own personal hero and two needy cats and likes nothing more than a stiff gin and tonic and a walk along the sea front of her home town.  She loves to hear from her readers and can be found at her website, facebook, twitter and Goodreads.

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Alison will be awarding ecopies of her two previously published books THE KING’S MAN and the award winning BY THE SWORD, which are set in the same period as this story, to a randomly drawn commenter during the tour, and a gift pack of Alison Stuart products to a randomly drawn host.
I encourage you to follow the tour and comment; the more you comment, the better your chances of winning. The tour dates can be found here:


  1. I'm a definite plotter, Alison. I have to be or my characters go wandering off on tangents and refuse to tow the plot line again. Not that they stick to my careful spreadsheet either - sometimes they complain about what I have in store for them and change direction as they go - but that's what makes writing so interesting. Nothing is that predictable!

  2. So that is what I am, a pantser. All this time I thought I was free-styling (or just chaotic). Thank you, Alison, for this article. It is a relief to find people who understand this type of writing and that rules or structure is not for everyone. I have been told that I can never be a successful writer because I don’t use structure or plotting and I don’t read or write every day and the blood in my veins is not the ink on the paper and every breath I draw is not consumed with the life of my characters. (Maybe I should follow some rules and shorten that sentence). ;) My question has always been, how do you put rules on artistic creativity? Guidelines…I like guidelines, though.

  3. FTD&#39S: Write the way you want to write! I can still feel the palpable sense of relief on being set free by Jo Beverley all those years ago. My only cautionary is that while rules are made to be broken but first you do need to understand the rules. Keep learning the "craft" of writing and take away from it what works for you. Good luck and above all...ENJOY your writing.

  4. Anita...I love it when my characters take control. My best writing is when they are dictating to me. I'm in the middle of a rewrite at the moment. I thought I had the plot down square, all my characters lined up with their scripts in hand but lo and behold, whole new relationships are springing up making for a much more interesting storyline and a minor tweak has gone to a major rewrite. I'm loving the journey!

  5. Wonderful post, Alison. I had the same paralysis experience when I tried rigid plotting. A friend suggesting just going where the ideas led was the best cure for that disease! Now I say the first draft belongs to the characters. Once the voices are there, I can "fix" anything else in a rewrite. Glad to see I'm not alone. :-)


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