Article published on January 25, 2016.
. . . says Laura Wilkinson.
It’s a question asked of authors frequently. Four and a bit years ago – when my debut was published – I’d have answered immediately: pantser, 100%. Now, four novels later (and two under a pseudonym) my answer would be much longer.
My process has altered over time and what I’ve discovered is that different novels require different approaches, for me at least; I cannot speak for other authors. And there’s the other point: no two writers work the same. There are overlaps, for sure, but that’s it.
If I were to draw a line graph plotting my process, the arc would be one of pantser to planner, with sharp peaks and troughs along the way. Again, broadly speaking, I tend to begin with a loose idea of character and theme, where the story kicks off and roughly where I see it ending, though I didn’t have a clue how Skin Deep (to be released in early 2017) was to end until I was past the 75,000 words mark and starting to panic a little. Ahem, a lot. But this imaginary line graph wouldn’t tell the whole story, so here’s a summary of how each novel panned out.
Bloodmining: It began with an image in my head of a middle-aged woman at her mother’s graveside, cradling a baby. The baby wasn’t hers; it was her mother’s. Inspiration came from a news report in 2006 about a 64-year-old Sussex woman who had given birth. I had little else when I started to write and each writing day brought new surprises and ideas. In the end, the story of the two characters outlined above began the middle section of the novel with the daughter’s story (the babe in arms) the main thrust of the narrative. I loved the excitement and thrill of pantsering, but my goodness, I redrafted that book more times than I care to recall. I learnt a valuable lesson: some planning would cut down redrafting.
Skin Deep: Yes, the novel that will see the light of day in 2017 was first written in 2010. I wrote the first draft as Bloodmining made its way to publication, and despite all I had learned, Skin Deep was mostly written flying by the seat of my pants. Draft two saw the introduction of a new point of view and thus required another massive restructure. I was OK with this because it was only after I’d completed the first draft that I knew I had to give Cal – the object of my protagonist Diana’s obsession – a voice. I did not have the requisite experience to know this at the outset. The tale of Skin Deep’s journey to publication is a lengthy (and fascinating) one, I think, so I will save it for another time. Suffice to say, it is possibly my best work [Ed: Surely this sentence should end “to date”?]. During the planning phase of Skin Deep I drew a massive colour-coded timeline on long strips of paper. With two first person points of view, a narrative spanning twenty years, with past and present tense, I do not believe I would have got a handle on the book without that serious investment of planning time. So this was a hybrid novel: part pantsered, part planned.
Public Battles, Private Wars: The research required to write a story of a young miner’s wife in 1984 meant that planning occurred quite organically – how’s that for a contradiction in terms. Mandy, my lead, came to me almost fully-formed; I knew her really quickly and she remains a personal favourite, but the story itself was plotted as I researched the era and the strike. I had begun with a number of possible outlines to drive the story: a love interest on the wrong side of the strike-tracks (a policeman or scab miner for example), and I before I even wrote the first sentence I had devised two alternative endings. Even now, there are readers who love the current ending and there are those who long for the other ending; the one that didn’t make it into print. And because Public Battles, Private Wars is told in classic narrative style: past tense chronological, it was straight forward to plan and didn’t require the (some would say) insane drawings and maps that I put together for Skin Deep. However, I did draw a street map of my fictional town: Fenley Down. So this novel was mostly planned.
Redemption Song: And so to my latest release. As ever, I began with an idea and three characters, a number of problems and desires. I knew where the story would start and where it would end; it was the middle that I was less sure of. After exploring how I might tell their story, I finally settled on close third person, past tense. But, I wanted each character to have a voice; there would be three points of view. I was nervous, and excited, by the challenge this would afford. Two of the three characters, Saffron and Joe, would need more page space than the third, Rain, and I had to ensure that each scene avoided repetition, revealed something new. After I had written a scene, I wrote a summary of it, colour-coded (WH Smith loves me).
This allowed me to see at a glance the landscape of the novel, the balance between the viewpoints and it also meant that I could chart the high and low points for my characters. Redemption Song required fewer drafts than my earlier novels and whether this was a result of more experience or more planning, I cannot say with any degree of certainty. My hunch is that it is a mixture of the two.
Whatever, it’s safe to say that I am neither a fully paid up member of the pantser nor planner clubs. And I’m happy with my pick and mix approach.
If you lost everything in one night, what would you do?
Saffron is studying for a promising career in medicine until a horrific accident changes her life for ever. Needing to escape London, she moves to the Welsh coast to live with her mother. Saffron hates the small town existence and feels trapped until she meets Joe, another outsider. Despite initial misgivings, they grow closer to each other as they realise they have a lot in common. Like Saffron, Joe has a complicated past…one that’s creeping up on his present. Can Joe escape his demons for long enough to live a normal life – and can Saffron reveal the truth about what really happened on that fateful night? Love is the one thing they need most, but will they – can they – risk it?
Redemption Song is a captivating, insightful look at what happens when everything goes wrong – and the process of putting the pieces back together again.
If you’d like more information about Laura and her work visit:
Facebook: Laura Wilkinson Author
The New Woman by Charity Norman