“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” – E L Doctorow
Plotters vs pantsers
Common writing wisdom is that us writers are split into two distinctive groups: plotters and pantsers. Plotters, as the name suggests, like to plot. They have all the pieces of their novel – from scene cards to characters bios – laid out before they’ve written a single word. Pantsers, on the other hand, rarely even know their character’s names, let alone what their Midpoint will look like. They ‘fly by the seat of their pants’, enjoying the rollercoaster ride that is the first draft, learning about their story as they go.
The pantser life
I am a pantser. It is both a curse and blessing. A blessing, because I love the discovery and adventure when writing as a pantser. A curse because, well, I tend to end up tying myself into narrative knots that even Houdini would struggle to escape, and sometimes spend years pursuing the wrong subplot.
I speak from experience. My first novel, Winter’s Fire, took me six years to finish. Even though it remains unpublished, I was (and still am) hugely proud of the achievement. My only worry was that it took me six years to write. If I wanted to actually become a full time author, I knew I needed to produce novels a little quicker than that. Okay, much quicker than that.
The plotter life
As I embarked on a new novel, temporarily named Project Merla, I decided that to ensure I wrote the book in a decent amount of time: I’d need to become a plotter. Or, at least, move towards plotting territory – a ‘plantser’ if you will. So, I bought post-it notes and plotted out every beat of the story on my living room wall. I knew what would go down in Fun & Games, and carved out a heart-breaking Dark Night of the Soul.
It was a disaster. After weeks of intricate plotting, I sat down at my computer, ready to start. For the next three months, I wrote a total of 1,000 (one thousand) words.
In Project Merla, people with magic find themselves in danger of being captured and having their magic drained away for nefarious purposes. Exchange magic for creativity and that is exactly how I felt. Even though I was excited for the WIP and loved the characters, I felt drained, unable to write.
I was stumped. I had followed conventional wisdom, and dumped the unreliable pantsing for the far more results-driven plotting. This was supposed to speed up my process, so why was I struggling to write more than a few words at a time?
It was whilst talking to people in The Writer Community that I realised the deep truth: I cannot fight my writing personality. I am a pantser – it’s ridiculous to think that a method used by die-hard plotters would work for me.
This affirmation came with a tinge of despair, though. Was I doomed to only produce a novel every six years?
I knew there had to be another way – a way that would allow my pantser brain to thrive, whilst keeping me on the straight and narrow. Writers’ blinkers, if you will.
I started to experiment, mixing up bits from various craft books and dollops of common sense from writing friends, until I came upon a system that I thought might work. I started Project Merla in February 2021. Two months on, I’ve written 65,000 words.
So what is my new process?
This quote from E L Doctorow sums up the process nicely:
“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Simply put, I know my starting point and I know my destination. I might even have an idea of some of the lay-bys I’ll need to stop off in to grab a coffee along the way. But the details – the landscape and twisty-turning lanes, the other cars I’ll pass – they’re all still a mystery, and I’ll only know what they look like when they’re near enough for my headlights to catch them.
I’ve come to think of my process as The Headlight Method, and for me it’s become a perfect way to plot as a pantser.
How to use The Headlight Method
Just like you’re planning a car journey (yes, I’m continuing with the analogy because it’s just too perfect), you’ll need to do a little rough planning (not plotting, don’t worry!). The planning will help you to start and successfully complete your journey with as few hiccups as possible. To do this you’ll need to:
Know your starting point and destination
Know where you’ll need to rest and refuel
Knowing your starting point might seem like a very obvious statement, but I think the start is one of the hardest parts of a novel to get right. For me, it’s really helped to dig deep into my characters’ pasts. Knowing where they’ve come from and what events have led them to be the person they are now, has helped me choose where to start the story, and also gives me clues about how they might be at the end of the novel. Bonus: this delving into backstory also really helps with your characters’ development and provides loads of emotional ballast.
Knowing your destination might come especially hard to a pantser, but it’s of utmost importance to this method. I don’t mean knowing the end of your book in all it’s glory. Just like driving to a town you’ve never visited, you just need to know where you’re going, not exactly what the town centre looks like. In terms of story this could be: character Y overcomes her fear and usurps her evil aunt. Even this vague statement is enough. Try to keep your destination in mind – it’s a great way to keep your writing focussed.
Even as a pantser, I always have a notion of some the scenes my novel will cover. These might be the images that first inspired the work, or maybe snippets of dialogue I daydreamed about. These are your rest and refuel points. Note down every scene you think might end up in the story. Like the ending, these don’t have to be detailed – most of mine are barely even a full sentence!
Treat your rest and refuel scenes like miniature destinations. Just as you might break down a long journey, they act as ways to make the novel seem more manageable. They’ll also help drive you forward, keeping you going towards your destination, instead of veering off down a ponderous path.
Now switch on your headlights!
You know your destination, and you know your stop of points, but if you’re as pantser-y as me, you’ll have no bloody idea how you’ll get to any of them. The path ahead is dark and foggy and probably a bit scary, so switch on your headlights and shed some light on it.
In writing terms, this means feeling your way through the first few scenes – maybe five or so (and I mean actual scenes, not chapters). Use your first rest and refuel point as a goal, and ask yourself how will your character get to this point? One lesson I learnt from Story Genius is to always keep in mind the why of the scene. I tend to ask myself these questions to work out why the scene should exist:
How will this scene get me to my final destination?
How does this scene matter to my MC?
What change or action will this scene produce?
I usually write notes comprising of four or five sentences for each scene. Taking learning from Story Genius again, I split these into plot (what happens externally), emotional (what happens to the MC internally), and usually finish with a sentence for what transpires because the scene. Here’s what I wrote for one of the first scenes in Project Merla:
Merla is at the festivities with her friends. She lingers at the edge of the group, listening to them talk of about a den who was recently arrested. She decides she really should go home, despite her boyfriend trying to persuade her otherwise.
Although Merla lingers at the edge of the group, she wants to be a part of it. The conversation scares her. She thinks back to when she had such freedom with people and her memory rests on Eder – she then recalls why she can't have a close relationship with anyone. She has constant guilt about being away from home – what if her mother gets called out again?
Scared and guilt-ridden, Merla heads home
Once you have five scenes clear in your headlights, it’s time to get writing!
That’s really up to you. I tend to write the scenes I’ve planned, and then take a break to plan the next few scenes. Sometimes this might just one or two scenes, sometimes it might be ten. You might like to always be five scenes ahead of your writing, in which case you’ll be writing scenes cards at the same time as drafting.
The beauty of this method is that it is utterly flexible, whether you’re a full-blown pantser, or have more plotter-like tendencies. You might even be a plotter who wants to experiment with having a looser structure! The key is to just plot what is directly ahead of you – the details you can see – and let the rest unfurl from there.
What if I go off track?
If you’re a pantser this is going to happen, and I’d argue: it should happen. It’s called discovery writing for a reason. There will be little lanes lined with daisies that just look too pretty to ignore. You shouldn’t ignore them, either. But before you veer off-route, stop. Take a look at where you’ve come, and where you want to go. Look at your map (the series of vague scenes you had plotted out). Will this new pathway help you get to your destination, or will it irreversibly change that destination?
You might want to think on it for a few days. I often do free writing, to help me explore this new pathway. Handwriting my thoughts as they come really helps me to solidify my ideas and opinions on what is and isn’t right for the story.
If you decide that the new track really won’t help you get to your destination, but it’s still very intriguing, note it down. You never know, it might feed into a sequel or a new story altogether. This is how one of my MCs in Project Merla was created – he was a discarded character from Winter’s Fire who I just couldn’t give up.
What if I get stuck?
These things happen. Don’t panic, and don’t despair. Again, I’d really recommend free writing about your problem, whether this a character that doesn’t seem to behave, or a plot that has become knotted. Let your discovery-writer skills run free!
If you’re stuck about what comes next – perhaps your rest and refuel points were loaded towards the start of your story – then I’d recommend flipping through a plotting manual, like Save the Cat or The Hero’s Journey. These might provide you with a bit of a clue as to where you are in the plot, as well as inspiration for your next stop-off point (or beat).
And if you’re really, really stuck, I can’t recommend talking enough. Find a trusted writing buddy, preferably someone who writes in the same genre and age-group as you. Ask them if they’d like to read your piece so far, and provide some constructive feedback on what you’ve written, and how they see the story going. Critique partners are wizards, and they’ll invariably come up with something that you haven’t thought of.
In essence The Headlight Method is there to guide you through the dark, and stop you veering off the road. If there are few things to keep in mind, they are:
Know what the end looks like (even in the vaguest of terms)
Know what the start looks like (in far more detail than the end)
Fill in the gaps gradually, using key scenes as stop off points throughout, and filling in the other scenes as you write.
Don’t ignore diversions, just assess the road quality before you end up stuck in a bog!
If there is one learning I’ve taken away from creating this process it’s that every process is unique to the writer. I used to read craft books like bibles, even tried to follow their story beats and templates to the letter – as you’ve read, it didn’t get me far.
I’m sure there will be people for whom this process works pretty much to the letter, but you might be looking at it thinking, that’s far too much prep for me. That’s fine! Take away what will work, and sub out what won’t.
Talk things through
I’m always here to chat writing and all things bookish. Feel free to DM me on Instagram if you have any questions: @kntuckerwrites
You can also find more blog posts about my writing and books on my website: kntucker.com
Katharine Tucker is a fantasy author. She’s currently working on her witchy steampunk debut, which is due for release in 2022. When not writing she can be found enjoying a glass of red with a good novel and a cat on her lap.