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 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.
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?
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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