Rowena Cory Daniells on NOT planning stories. Plus, a fantastic giveaway…

Want to win one of the King Rolen’s Kin books*?

Rowena’s speculative fiction stories have won awards and appeared in magazines and anthologies… But how does she write them?

*Please note that this competition is now closed.

Rowena Cory Daniells is the author of ten books for adults, including the fantasy series King Rolen’s Kin trilogy (look out for the giveaway at the end!) and The Last T’En trilogy (read more about Rowena here). She’s also a pantser, which means she doesn’t plan her stories before she writes.

“When I start out to write a book,” she says, “I have an idea of the characters and what I want to put them through, as for the rest I wing it.”

At the same time, Rowena’s told me that she does plan “the main character/s, their preoccupations and that I’m going to test them, to explore some aspect of the human condition”.

“I think of the first draft as the right-brain creative draft. In further drafts, the left-brain logic side dominates.”

But if she plans some aspects of her work, how much of a pantser is Rowena really? Perhaps she’s more of a planner 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. When writing organically, what is it that you enjoy most about that process, and what is it you find most difficult?

Writing organically (being a pantser) is like taking a leap of faith, every time you start a story. In the early years I wrote the opening pages of many short stories that didn’t reach fruition.  After a while you learn how to write yourself out of a corner.

If I’m writing a book and I jam up, I know it is because something earlier on isn’t quite right and my story-writing instincts won’t let me build on a flawed foundation. I’ll have a feeling about where the flaw is – for instance, character A’s motivation 200 pages earlier wouldn’t drive him do what he wants to do now – so I go back and rewrite that scene. I slip the motivation in as a subtext so that it is foreshadowed and then, when he does react, it makes sense.

I think of this as working through the block, because the change will often have a ripple effect in the rest of the character’s interactions and I’ll read through the ms from that point, tweaking scenes as I go, until I get to the point where I jammed up and then the writing will flow.

The jamming up used to frustrate me, but now that I know it is because of a flaw in the foundation. I know to trust my story-writing instincts. Sometimes I have to let the ms sit for a day until my subconscious provides me with the insight to where the flaw is.

The part I enjoy most about writing organically is the excitement of going along for the ride with the characters. They react in unexpected ways. I’m currently writing the next King Rolen’s Kin trilogy and Piro keeps saying things that surprise me.

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

“The premise for the story will coalesce in my mind, sometimes in a dream…”


I find myself arriving somewhere with no idea how I got there because my head has been in my book. Sometimes, when my poor husband takes me out for a romantic dinner for two, he’ll sigh and look across at me and say – this table is very crowded – because he knows I’m off with my characters. It’s like they and their worlds are just one step away from me at all times and I can slip through without any trouble.

The most interesting part is how plot holes or twists will just come to me while I’m doing other things. Some things come to me in dreams. The premise for the Shallow Sea came to me in a dream while I was sharing a hotel room with Marianne de Pierres at World Con. I sat up and said I just had the most amazing dream and described it and since then I’ve built on it, writing half a dozen short stories and a duology about a tropical paradise filled with beauty and danger.

A lot of writing for me is intuitive, but there is also a large proportion that is craft. I think of the first draft as the right-brain creative draft. In further drafts, the left-brain logic side dominates. In these later drafts I weave more layers into the story, finding ways to emphasise the themes that I wrote about unconsciously.

I love this part of the writing as well, because the polishing and embedding of sub text is fascinating. While I say that first draft is right-brain and second draft is left-brain, in both processes there is a crossover. I make intuitive leaps in the later drafts, just as I make deliberate craft decisions in the first draft.

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

I don’t tend to plan very much. I’ll circle an idea, approaching it from different angles. The premise for the story will coalesce in my mind, sometimes in a dream, although sometimes I’ll be aware of the process. The premise will arise from things that worry me about the world, or evocative images or phrases that arouse an emotion and I’ll let them brew until I know what I want to say.

I’ll know the main character/s, their preoccupations and that I’m going to test them, to explore some aspect of the human condition. What I don’t know is the nitty gritty of what will happen from scene to scene or how they will react. The character will grow as the book grows.

Because I tend to read across a wide range of fiction and nonfiction, the sources for the ideas and world building are already in my mental filing system. I’ll be pulling together diverse information from things I read about last week to a National Geographic article I read 30 years ago.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t research. As I write I might need to know something specific. For instance, while writing the Shallow Sea I needed to know how far away the horizon line is if you are sitting in a rowboat and conversely, what if you were in the crow’s nest of a ship, how much further away is the horizon?

So, when I start out to write a book, I have an idea of the characters and what I want to put them through, as for the rest I wing it.

“I think I know the ending… but the characters often prove me wrong…”

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

I don’t know how to answer this one, as each book is different, having said that I find myself coming back to certain themes because these are the things that trouble me. For instance, after I’ve written the first draft of something I’ll realise that the theme I’m exploring is acceptance of people who are different from yourself (overcoming prejudice), or I’ll be exploring the divide between male and female.

In the later drafts I make very deliberate decisions to tighten the tension of the narrative. What do I reveal here? What does the reader need to know to worry about the character? What can I hide from the character but reveal to the reader? What can I plant within the character that the reader can perceive but the character can’t perceive as yet? All these things make the story more interesting.

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

I think I know the ending <grin> but the characters often prove me wrong and I’m happy to go with that. Alternatively, you could say my story-writing instincts prove more inventive.

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

The change will come as a realisation that the story has to go in a different direction. It is all about trusting to instinct. I think some people are born with a story telling gene. Actually, I woke up the other night with the realisation that there must be an evolutionary need for this.

“…we make sense of the world through story.”

After all, we make sense of the world through story. We embed narratives with morals and themes. Put it another way, by encoding information in a framework of character, cause and effect leading to a resolution, we make information memorable. Eg.The boy who cried wolf. That information at a very early stage of human development would have meant the difference between life and death for the members of the tribe. By threading it into a story about characters we cared about, the tribe’s story tellers ensured the information was remembered and passed on to later generations. It ensured the survival of all those who shared the information. This explains our love of story and why so many people feel the need to create stories and share them.

We still seek the reason behind events (character motivation – why did he bomb that building) and resolution (he’s been caught so he can’t do it again). We need closure. It doesn’t necessarily happen in real life. In a story, we see the motivation, the act, the consequences and the resolution which is very satisfying.

Wow, I went totally off topic there.

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)?

I think I answered this one earlier on (in question 1). When a pitfall arises, for instance in King Rolen’s Kin when Byren claims to be the owner of the pendant that really belongs to Orrade. He does it instinctively to protect his friend. He does it because he’s that sort of person. He can’t help himself. So the pitfall is embedded in his character. It makes him who he is and it makes us like him because his motivation comes from the goodness of his heart, even if the consequences of his action are dire and we might wish he’d acted otherwise.

Planner or Pantser?

So what do you think? Does Rowena sound more like a pantser or a planner to you? She doesn’t plan the nitty gritty of what will happen from scene to scene, yet she develops a mental filing system of ideas, uses it to pull together diverse information, and plans her characters and their preoccupations.

Well, okay – maybe not surprised. But perhaps pleasantly interested 🙂

Perhaps the division writers make between writing as a planner and as a pantser isn’t all that clear cut? Next time I’m going to test out my theory by comparing Rowena’s answers with those Kate Forsyth gave me in a previous post. You’ll be surprised what it shows… I certainly was!

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To win one of the King Rolen’s Kin books, simply use the comments section below to tell Rowena your favourite mythical beast and why. Please post before midnight on Friday 23rd September 2011.

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.


  1. Wonderful interview Rowena! For me its the Hippogryph. How can you not look at a picture or imagine them in your minds eye and be swept of on some fantastical daydream. Plus if you had one for a pet, noone would dare mess with you 🙂

  2. Zena,

    I also like to just sit and think or daydream about a plot and characters while my mind nuts out something that isn’t quite right. Sometimes I have to sit still and concentrate on it, but other times I find doing something active, like washing dishes or having a shower gets the cogs turning best. I’ve untangled plenty of plot knots that way. Also, some of my best ideas come to me in the shower for some reason.

    But I do feel I need to have a lot of the story worked out in advance in my head, then captured as a synopsis, and then only do I start the first draft. As I mentioned previously, this makes me wonder if pantsers use the page/screen to do the actual “nutting out” in the form of a first draft, while planners keep most of it in their heads or in outline form to begin with.


    My favourite mythical beast is the dragon. I love lizards and reptiles and find the dragon so elegant, yet powerful and dangerous.

  3. My favorite mythical beast is The Pegeasus a flying horse .I dreamed of having a flying horse as a childever since my Grandma read to me the chronicles of Narnia .
    I did dream of drangons the other night though.

    • Melissa, I love flying horses. Who wouldn’t?

      I used genetically modified bird/horses in a children’s story once. Ah, who knows, maybe one day we’ll have them as pets.

  4. Meant to say they were miniature horses about the size of a silky terrier.

  5. Great interview. I’m definitely a pantser – I have a character or few in mind, stick them in a situation and see how they get themselves out of it.
    And my favourite mythical beast is the griffin, so much so that I wrote it into a story even though it was scifi. 🙂

    • A griffin, in a sci fi story? Now that I gotta read! Is it published anywhere?

    • Pippa, good on you for sneaking a griffin into an SF story!

        • Pippa, I think blog tours are great. You can do them in your PJs. It just means contacting people, offering the book as a give-away, asking for reviews and offering to do posts.

          I did this with when King Rolen’s Kin was released. On one blog there were 75 entries to win a copy of the book. On some there were five, but I figured every book your give-away (if they like it) will get read by their friends, recommended and talked about.

          Can you organise a give-away of your e-book?

          • I’m kind of compiling a list of blogs that will host tours, and I have friends willing to host me too – my problem is thinking up posts to write!
            Yep, my publisher is quite generous – I think I get ten free copies, so there will definitely be give-aways. And I’m hoping to come up with a few things to give-away as swag too. I think word of mouth/reviews are probably worth the best form of promotion.

  6. Hi Rowena,
    It was lovely to share a seat opposite you and your lovely husband last week.

    “Sometimes, when my poor husband takes me out for a romantic dinner for two, he’ll sigh and look across at me and say – this table is very crowded – because he knows I’m off with my characters.”

    I know exactly what you mean. We have a young son so the opportunities for a quiet dinner together is as rare as hens teeth. I remember several years ago we were at the Tibetan restaurant at Mooloolabah and two characters decided to spark up an argument.I had to apologise – say my characters were having a rabid argument and I’d just take it downstairs to the toilet and would be back ASAP. The partners who share our lives and love us despite our writerly quirks deserve a medal… an award ceremony of their own!!

    The gorgons are my favourite mythical creatures (only just shoving out the Hydra – who my business partner and I name our to do list after!) I’m entranced by the idea of petrifying a person with a single look (and there’s been many a day when I’ve thought Medusa had it easy with her hair compared to mine!) How often I’ve wished I’d perfected a ‘If looks could kill’ glance.

    • Hmmm, I wish I could perfect an ‘if looks could electrocute’ glance…

    • Pity I didn’t have a chance to get a really good chat at dinner, Jodi. You came late and we left early.

      You understand what it is like to be ‘off with the fairies’ as my mother would say. She was always complaining and telling me I should keep my feet on the ground.

      Yes, a gorgon – if looks could kill.

  7. Hey Zena, feel some pity for Medusa (the Gorgon – she was a beautiful woman who somehow got offside with Athena – or maybe it was Juno) who charged her into the ‘always-a-bad-hair day gorgon. Seriously, though, how do people feel about mythical beings entering an other starightforward (historical, but not classical historical) story ? I’m thinking here of djinns, who are/were the traditional guardians of the city of Delhi, India ….

    • Tina, Djinns are interesting. One of the writers I mentored had a book about djinns but I don’t know if he ever got it published.


    Thanks for entering the give-away by answering the question: What is your favourite mythical beast and why?

    Cecilia caught my interest with the Hippogryph, which I hadn’t heard of for ages. Elle’s favourite was the Dragon. Who can’t love dragons? Mellissa loved the Pegeasus and I must admit I am partial to a flying horse. Pippa responded with a Griffin, another old favourite and Tina mentioned Djinns, one of the supernatural creatures who don’t get enough time on centre stage.. Choosing a winner was really hard.

    So I whimped out. A book for each of you. Let me know which book you want as you may already have read book one of King Rolen’s Kin. If you’ve read the whole trilogy I have the earlier trilogy as a possible give-away, too.

    Email me on: rowena(at)corydaniells(dot)com

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