Philippa Ballantine: Discovery Writing or How to Plot and Yet Not


When I set out writing, I was always the world’s worst plotter. I had characters well in hand, I had setting all lined up ready to go, but plotting would send me into panic.

For the longest time I felt like since I wasn’t plotting I wasn’t a real writer and I was doing it wrong. It was incredibly disheartening.

dawnsearlylightI got books written, completing my first real adult novel in 1998, but I had almost zero idea how I had got there. It took a lot of stumbling around, bumbling into things, and talking to people for me to work out what exactly I was doing, and that it wasn’t that I was doing it wrong. I was simply doing it differently.

It was a revelation when I was the local guest of Honor at a convention in Wellington, New Zealand, and Elizabeth Moon was the international Guest of Honor. The event organisers took us all out to dinner one night, and I got to have a lovely conversation with Elizabeth about her process.

I was a little shy at first, and didn’t reveal my process, yet my heart leapt a little when she told me about hers, and I heard the words ‘discovery writer’ for the first time. She described it as like knowing you are driving from New York to Washington DC, but not knowing exactly which roads you will travel to get there.

I later found out that pantser is another term for this method…I think I generally prefer the ‘discovery writer’.

When I set out to write a book I have the start mapped out, and I know the ending scene that I want to reach. I also have along the way plot points I know that I want to hit. I think of this as knowing the route, but also knowing the roadside attractions you need to visit.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both plotting and discovery methods, and some authors use different methods for different projects. Plotters have a much easier road to hoe in the editing rounds, but also they can miss out on some of the juicer and unexpected moments of discovery. For me those make writing worth while. The moment when the clouds part and everything suddenly makes sense, or when a character suddenly does something different that alters the journey of the book.

For me discovery writing allows the juice of the story to flow, while still maintaining some sense of vague direction. Yes, sometimes that means I have to hack and slash when I head back into round two with the book, but it also means there is room for flashes of inspiration and changes that might drive me crazy if I had everything strictly plotted out.

With anything writing related, it is up to the writer to figure out which method works best for them. So my advice to those just starting out, is try all things and all ways that pip_long hairothers have done it, and most definitely do not get all tied up in anxious knots as I did about ‘doing it the correct way’.

If discovery writing is your thing, then for absolutely certain you are not alone. Plot or pants, there is no one way to get a novel done. Just do it the way that fits best for you.

New Zealand born fantasy writer and podcaster Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the author of the Books of the Order and the Shifted World series. Pip is the co-author of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences with her husband, Tee Morris. Dawn’s Early Light is the newest book coming March 25th. Her awards include an Airship, a Parsec, the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice, and a Sir Julius Vogel. She currently resides in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, daughter, and a furry clowder of cats.


Twitter: PhilippaJane  BooksandBraun






3 comments to Philippa Ballantine: Discovery Writing or How to Plot and Yet Not

  • I like the term “discovery writer.” The expressions I generally use are “Architects” (for those who plot out everything beforehand) and “Gardeners” (for those who plant the seed and see what grows, plot-wise). I’m closer to the Gardener/Discovery writer end of the continuum myself. 🙂

  • Razziecat

    Ohmygosh, yes…that is me! I love the term ‘discovery writer’! It really describes what’s going on. To me, the best part of writing is being surprised by the characters; not only do I get my best ideas that way, but it’s how I know I’ve got what I call “live ones” – characters who aren’t cardboard cutouts. I still retain ultimate control over the story, but it’s like I’m working in a partnership with the characters to get them where I want them to go. Sometimes I’m just as surprised as they are at where they end up 😉

  • Razziecat I so agree with you! I love it when my characters surprise me! Maybe I’m a sad sort of person, but they’re as real to me as flesh and blood people. And because I can see and hear them in my head, they have the ability to behave with full human randomness! I’ve set out with the intention of a character being friends with one person and ended up with them being quite cool towards each other, yet friends with a more unlikely member of the cast. Isn’t it fun when that happens! 😉