Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m both. I like to have a general sense of where I’m going, but I also like to improvise. I find that I don’t really enjoy having the entire book planned out before I write it, because I like the sense of discovery as I write. On the other hand, if I really have no idea where I’m going, I am stuck and I have to spend some time brainstorming, mind-mapping, and planning what’s going to happen before I can start writing again. I generally follow a process of planning the first few chapters, winging it for a little while, then stopping and planning for a bit before winging it again. I find I need to stop and collect my thoughts and think the ending through before I actually write it.
Why do you prefer one to the other?
If I could write completely by the seat of my pants, I would, because it’s much more fun. On the other hand, there’s something very satisfying about watching a plan come together and I enjoy writing foreshadowing, dramatic irony, and setting up a good juicy plot point too.
Can you describe your outlining process?
Normally I scribble down lots of ideas on index cards or Post-Its; this means I can order and re-order events, and discard some and add others. I like to use different colored Post-Its for different story threads. Then I stick them down, on paper, sometimes on the wall, or on a calendar if dates are important. Normally, I do this for about a third of the book at a time, though sometimes I don’t bother to do it at all and once or twice, I’ve had to do it for the entire book beforehand. Every book is different, and I try to allow myself the flexibility to plan, or not plan, as much as I feel I need to.
Sometimes, I write myself a draft synopsis. Sometimes, I don’t. I do as much outlining as I think will be useful at the time, unless I have to produce a detailed outline in order to sell a story to my publisher.
What is the benefit of outlining your plot?
You know that it’s properly structured and that it will hang together. Also, agents and editors like it. Having a good synopsis means that they have a selling tool to produce for publishers and marketing.
Can writers be both a plotter and a pantser?
Definitely. I am. Having written novels from 30,000 to 160,000 words long, I find that with shorter books, I don’t need to plot anything out, but with longer books, I do. Anything longer than about 75,000 words will require me to do some plotting at some stage.
Do you consider yourself a Linear or Non-linear writer? And why?
Linear. I usually need to write chronologically or at least in the order that the story will be presented to the reader. However, in the revision stage I often chop and change events around.
What do you consider a downside of plot outlining?
The down side is that you can lose that exciting feeling of discovery, and feel that your writing isn’t being as flexible as it could be.
Do you do some “pantsing” for certain scenes and “plot” outlines for others?
Yes, definitely. Quite a bit of the time, I’ll just sail into a scene, discovering exactly what will happen as I go. I find this can be very rewarding because your mind and your characters come up with things you never thought of beforehand. However, with a very important scene, especially the ones with lots of characters or where several plot elements intersect; I’ll plan out the scene before I write it. Even the simplest scenes have an emotional momentum, though, and quite often, I’ll sketch out this momentum before I write the scene, just as a word or two.
How much time and research do you do before starting the actual writing of the novel?
It depends on the novel. I do need to have the concept and major themes very clear in my head before starting a book, and that can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to three months to figure out. Generally I’ll do adequate research so that I have a working knowledge of my subject, but I don’t like to do the bulk of my research before I start writing, because I don’t want to be distracted by unnecessary information.
What is your process for exploring your characters?
I do a lot of free-writing, and sometimes I fill out character questionnaires or biographies. Generally, I think a lot about them before writing and whilst writing, though I find that they evolve a lot once they’re on the page.
What is one writing book that you highly recommend?
On Writing by Stephen King
Do you write a synopsis for each book before you write it? Does your publisher/editor request a synopsis?
I’m very lucky in that my publishers have generally only wanted a blurb or a short spoken discussion about my novels before I start writing them. But because I was changing publishers, I did have to write a full synopsis and sample chapters for my latest novel, DEAR THING. This was quite difficult for me to do but in the end, it was time well spent because by the time I came to write the novel, I had a really good idea of its structure, tone, and characters.
Where during the writing process do you find your “voice” for that particular novel?
From the first sentence. That’s not to say it doesn’t have to be revised, mind you.
While you might start with an issue or theme in mind, themes will also develop or emerge as you write, so how important do you think “theme” is to your writing process?
I always, always identify my theme before I start to write. It keeps me focused and it helps me come up with plotlines, character arcs, settings, language—almost everything. I usually have one or two words as my theme, which I write somewhere prominent, so I can see them constantly as I write. They’re big, loose themes that give me a lot of room for exploration: for my next release, DEAR THING, the theme is ‘parenthood’, and for my current WIP, the theme is ‘What is love?’
Last question: In your opinion, does every story need a character ARC?
In the kind of fiction I write, character arc is the story. It’s all about how a person changes as they act and react to events. Although I might not know the plot of my story before I begin, I always know the character arc.
In other types or genres of fiction, character arc might be less important. Though I have to say that personally, I like it when characters grow and change. That’s why, for example, I’ve loved the latest Bond films and Nolan’s Batman trilogy, because these are films that could be thrill-seeking action adventures, but instead create compelling character arcs for their protagonists.
Fun Bonus Questions
What book are you currently reading?
I just finished Elijah’s Mermaid by Essie Fox, a lush, dark, twisty Victorian novel, and I’ve just started A Portrait of the Brain by Adam Zeman, which is a non-fiction popular science book.
What’s your favorite movie or TV show?
The Princess Bride is my favorite-ever movie. On TV right now I’m a big fan of The Hour, which is a 1950s-set BBC drama series.
Laptop or desktop?
I am a junkie for iMac desktops. I had one of the early orange ones, then a gorgeous white one, and I’ve got a 2011 silver and black one now.
Who is your fictional character crush? (Movie, TV show, literary)
My most long-running literary crush is Sherlock Holmes. I fell in love with him when I was eleven and I am still utterly, utterly obsessed. I belong to the Sherlock Holmes Society and I nourish a deep crush on both Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr.
Where can potential readers find you online?
Julie Cohen grew up in Maine and studied English at Brown University and Cambridge University. She moved to the UK to research fairies in Victorian children’s literature at the University of Reading and this was followed by a career teaching English at secondary level. She has written fourteen books under her own name and several more under pseudonyms, for a variety of publishers; they have been translated into fifteen languages and have sold three-quarter of a million copies worldwide. She now writes full time and is a popular speaker and teacher of creative writing. She lives with her husband and their son in Berkshire, England.