Kate Forsyth on planning stories.

Kate is a passionate believer in the power of stories to set us free… But how does she write those stories sooo well?

Kate Forsyth is the author of almost twenty books for both adults and children, including the fantasy series Rhiannon’s Ride and The Witches of Eileanan series (read more about Kate here). She’s also a planner, which means she plans her stories – including the who, what, where, when and why – in detail before she writes.

“In a novel,” she says, “the beginning, the middle and the end are the corners of the jigsaw.”

At the same time, Kate’s told me that the primary source of her stories are her dreams and daydreams…

“I love the feeling that the story is writing itself, that it somehow existed in the universe already and I am simply the chosen conduit to bring it to life.”

She also believes “much of the story can only be discovered by writing it”. But if that’s so, how much of a planner is Kate really? Perhaps she’s more of a pantser (someone who flies by the seat of their pants when writing) than she realises? Fascinated as I am by the different approaches and techniques writers use when creating stories, I devised a set of cunning questions to find out…

1. Do you know the ending of your stories before you write them?

Yes, I don’t begin writing until I have a clear end-point. I’ll think about the story and imagine it in my mind’s eye, and build a skeleton of a narrative arc, first in my mind and then in my notebook, and then when it seems strong and clear and logical, I’ll begin writing. I think about writing a novel as being like assembling a giant jigsaw. The first thing you do is find the corners. In a novel, the beginning, the middle and the end are the corners of the jigsaw.

2. Once you start writing, do you ever change your mind about where a story might be heading?

I never change my mind about where the story is headed. I do make lots of wonderful and surprising discoveries along the way … and sometimes a character will die unexpectedly … but because I have thought through the shape of the story before I start to write, I know what I want to have happen in the end and this never falters. I don’t always know HOW it’s going to happen, though.

3. What are some of the things you always plan before you write?

I always begin with the most basic planning tool of all –Who, What, Where, When and Why. Because most of my novels begin with a story idea – i.e. a girl who must find a broken puzzle ring – my next step is always assembling my characters and thinking about my setting. I spend a lot of time daydreaming, thinking and searching for serendipity in these early stages of the novel. Sometimes I need to wait for serendipity for a long time.

“I did not begin writing the book till I had a clear sense of the story.”

I had had the idea about the quest for a puzzle ring for at least a year before I found the next idea – I kept thinking who would search for a broken puzzle ring? Why? Then one day I was browsing in a second-hand shop and found an old tome entitled ‘The Book of Curses’.

Picking it up, the pages fell naturally open at a chapter about the Seaforth Doom, a curse cast by a warlock in 16th century Scotland against the Mackenzies of Seaforth. It’s a story about a curse that took generations to come to fruition, and I thought ‘what would it be like to be born into a family that has been cursed? Wouldn’t you try and break the curse?’ and at once, this idea seemed to fit with my idea of the broken puzzle ring. I had my Why, and because my own family heritage is Scottish, and the story that gave me the idea was Scottish, I set the story in Scotland.

All I had to do then was decide When, and so I began reading and researching, and slowly narrowed down the period to the final days of Mary, Queen of Scots’s rule. I did not begin writing the book till I had a clear sense of the story, though – about six months after having my epiphany in that old second-hand bookstore.

4. What are some of the things you always end up changing as you go?

Sometimes I’ll change a character’s name, sometimes several times until it starts to feel right. Finding the right name often slows me down for weeks. Otherwise each book is different! In general, much of the story can only be discovered by writing it, and so my early ideas and plans will change as I go deeper into the story.

5. Do you ever imagine your protagonist’s world so vividly you find it encroaching into daydreams, dreams or other random thoughts?

Always. My primary source of the story is my dreams and daydreams, and when I’m writing a story I think about it constantly. It becomes an obsession. I cannot read a book or watch a film or see a show that isn’t going to feed into the story somehow, and I find it very hard to concentrate on anything else. Every night I lie in bed and think about problems in the book, and trust to my dreams to deliver the answer by morning. Many of my best ideas have come while my conscious mind is sleeping.

“Many of my best ideas have come while my conscious mind is sleeping.”

6. When writing organically, what is it that you enjoy most about that process, and what is it you find most difficult?

I love the feeling that the story is writing itself, that it somehow existed in the universe already and I am simply the chosen conduit to bring it to life. When I feel this way, I do my best writing and love it the most. It’s not always that easy and natural, though. Often I have to fight my way towards that feeling of perfect flow – the more I write, though, the more easily I find that rhythm … and whenever I have a break from writing, I find it hard to get it back again. That is why I try and write every day.

7. Do you ever find your protagonist approaching an unplanned, but perfect pitfall? If so, how far back do you go back and foreshadow that pitfall (back to the beginning, a few chapters or you don’t go back)?

Yes, I love it when that happens. And I’ll always go back to the very beginning, and make sure that it makes sense in the story as a whole. I’m constantly reworking earlier chapters so that the story’s inherent chain of logic works.

Planner or Pantser?

How do YOU decide what to write next?

So what do you think? Does Kate sound more like a planner or a pantser? She prepares for stories in detail, yet trusts her dreams to deliver plot answers, waits for serendipity and epiphanies, and her ideas and plans change as she goes deeper into her stories…

Perhaps the division writers make between writing as a planner and as a pantser isn’t all that clear cut? To find out, next time I’m going to ask a pantser, Rowena Cory Daniells, the same exact questions. Then we’ll see just how different – or similar – the two approaches can be. We might even learn a thing or two about how we write stories ourselves…

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Zena Shapter

I write from a castle in a flying city hidden by a thundercloud. #Ditmar Award-winning author. Movie buff. Traveller. Wine lover. Story nerd. Book Creator & Mentor. Founder & leader of the award-winning Northern Beaches Writers' Group / ZF Kingbolt.

6 Comments:

  1. Fascinating. I’m very interested in reading the comparison with the pantser now. I’m a planner, too, but, like Kate, I also allow a lot of flexibility so that if something occurs in the story as I’m writing and leads to a change to the story I don’t immediately dismiss it because it doesn’t fit. If it’s a huge change I will stop and plan out two “pathways” – one following the track of the new change and one going in the other direction. If I’m happy that the change is going to improve the story then I go for it, and have my “pathway” to work from. If the change is minor, I can usually do that in my head and make a decision and keep writing. I do usually need to know a possible ending before I can start, but sometimes that can be nebulous and open to change. It depends on the story.

    • Hi Elle!

      It’s interesting that for you it depends on the story. I wonder why that is? For me it depends on the size of the project. For novels, I have to plan the whole thing – chapter arcs, emotional arcs, character timelines – I think I’m afraid of forgetting all that information. But for short stories, I usually plan in my head, thinking, thinking and then BAM it bursts straight onto the computer!

      Do you use different techniques for different length stories too?

  2. Yes, I probably do more planning for novels than short stories. I don’t often write shorts, though, so when I do it is usually something that brews in my head for a few days and then I either write an in-depth synopsis with the intention of filing it away and writing the story later, or I sketch an outline and start writing.

    Why does my need to know the ending depend on the story? I had a great idea for a novel that is a lot darker than what I’m currently writing, but I found the original ending I envisaged way too dark and awful to consider writing it. I almost decided to abandon it, but had a light-bulb moment and discovered a much more uplifting ending lurking behind the darkness – I’d just “ended” it too soon.

    In contrast the novel I’m currently writing is a very light and fluffy children’s fantasy and I’m just having fun with it. All I know about the ending for this one is that “somehow” all the pieces I’ve started with will tie together with the theme I’m aiming for. I planned the first few chapters heavily, but now that I’m in the middle I’m actually doing more “pantsing” than I’ve ever done on a book before. I’m letting my protagonist get herself into a tangle and seeing what happens.

    After I read On Writing by Stephen King I began to wonder if what pantsers call a “first draft” is actually very similar to what a planner calls a “synopsis” or “outline” – it’s just written in a different style. Some of my pre-writing synopses, including character profiles, can add up to several thousand words. But I don’t give my characters voices (no dialogue allowed) until I know where the story’s going.

    • That’s a fascinating idea! What pantsers call a first draft could be what planners call an outline. Rowena’s answers will be up in a few days. I’ll be interested to learn what you think after reading that post too…

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