Plotter vs Pantser

Friday, October 3, 2014
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​Graeme Simsion and Paddy O’Reilly interviewed by Kate Steele

on the left, Graeme Simsion; on the right, Paddy O'Reilly
Graeme Simsion and Paddy O'Reilly

Graeme Simsion and Paddy O’Reilly will be discussing their distinct approaches to writing at our inaugural Plotters Vs Pantsers debate.

They spoke to Program Intern Kate Steele about plotting and flying by the seat of your pants.

The Plotter – Graeme Simsion

You wrote your first novel ‘The Rosie Project’ in a unique way, having started it as a screenplay, then adapting it into a novel. Could you tell us a bit about this process?

I’m sure I’m not the first to work in this direction, and there’s even a book (which I haven’t got to reading) about how to do it. I was recently interviewed by someone doing a PhD on the process, so… not unique!

Broadly, what I took from the screenplay was character and plot. I began with the scene breakdown (list of scenes with summaries) and had to revise this to accommodate my decision to tell the story in first person – some of the scenes did not feature my narrator, so these had to go, which in turn affected plot logic.

Writing the draft, I stuck quite closely to this revised structure, focusing on incorporating description and the character’s inner world. I had decided that my protagonist would be an unreliable narrator, so ‘big print’ in the screenplay had to be re-imagined through his eyes.

The dominant comedic technique shifted from performance to observation.

In the second draft, I took the opportunity to add some complexity to the plot, and extend some scenes that I had kept as tight as possible in the screenplay – in a film you’re under time pressure to tell the story as concisely as possible.

And after that, it was just like writing a conventional novel.

You have a background in business – has that had any influence on you as a writer and if so, in what way? Do you identify with the character of Don in ‘The Rosie Project’ and his need for routine and structure?

I think the frequently proffered advice that ‘writing is a business’ comes from people who haven’t run a business. It’s more of a profession and I’ve been conscious of approaching it professionally: learn from experience, don’t be a prima donna, keep promises.

I don’t identify with Don’s psychological need for routine and structure: on the contrary my writing ‘schedule’ is opportunistic, I grab chances to do things differently and I cook whatever looks good at the market. That said, I keep a diary and a packing list for travel – the latter saves me a lot of time and screw-ups.

And (relevant to the upcoming seminar) my experience leads me to an organised approach to design and creative work – not rigid, but using structure to help plan, make sense, review and revise.

Can you give any advice to emerging and established writers on how to be a good plotter?

Read one of the classic books on screenwriting: Syd Field’s ‘Screenplay’ or Blake Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’. Then read Robert McKee’s ‘Story’. And Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’. Buy a few decks of index cards and/or a copy of Scrivener (I’m still playing with it).

The Pantser – Paddy O'Reilly

You have said recently in reference to your writing process that you “write in the dark” – when did you discover this works better for you?

Most writers I know have felt at some time that they were doing it “the wrong way”. You listen to stories of people writing novels in three weeks, or the opposite, people who claim they labour over a single sentence for days and days (I’m talking to you, Flaubert). You hear people say they can’t write a thing without the plot laid out on index cards, and others who insist that planning kills their creativity. I write in the dark because writing for me is a process of discovery and it has always been that way, so I suppose I should say I discovered that writing is discovery and I realised that from the very beginning. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t flogged myself about writing ‘the wrong way’.

‘‘If only I could plan a book it would take so much less time to write!’’

‘’Why can’t I write a thousand words a day every day like XXX?’’

These attempts to fit ourselves into the process of others are a self-punishing waste of time – yet most of us do it anyway. If I may quote Theodore Roosevelt as quoted on umpteen gazillion internet sites, ‘comparison is the thief of joy’. These days I worry less about process and try to allow process to do its work unmolested.

On a more prosaic note, I sometimes write in the dark to the point where in the daytime I pull down the blinds. I guess I’m making a cocoon, searching for the deep quiet, which does come from inside the mind, yet seems more difficult to locate when the sun is shining through the window and I can hear blades of grass growing in nanoscopic increments.

Are you surprised by what comes out on the page when you just sit down and let your imagination guide you?

Yes. If I wasn’t, I don’t think I’d be interested anymore. There’s a kind of imagination where you think, okay, now I have to create a town and a street and a house. That’s all good. The other kind, which is the kind that I think makes fiction work best, is when you find unexpected connections between things you are writing about. Those connections are the surprise and the mystery and the point of writing for me.

Do you write a set number of hours per day or write in fits and bursts when the mood takes you?

Somewhere in between. I am abysmal at routine. On the other hand, if I only wrote when the mood took me I’d never get a word down on paper.

I love a deadline. The external ones work well – I feel obliged so I produce. The internal deadlines I set are easily and often broken, but they do get me started. Then somehow things are written. I’m often not sure when I wrote them. Or how.

About Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion is the author of novel ‘The Rosie Project’, which has become an international bestseller. He has published numerous short stories, including the second-placed entry in the 2013 Age Short Story Awards, had short plays performed, and written/produced short films that have appeared in festivals and been broadcast in Australian and overseas.

About Paddy O'Reilly

Paddy O’Reilly has published two novels and a short story collection. Her latest novel will be published in 2014.

About Kate Steele

Kate is a Program Intern at Writers Victoria. She works as Programs Officer at Creative Partnerships Australia and is a keen hobby writer of short story memoirs.