Are You a Plotter, a Pantser — or a Puzzler? By Ruth Nestvold

Most writers have heard the question before: “Are you a plotter, or are you a pantser?” In other words, do you do a lot of outlining and planning before you start writing (plotters), or do you dive into a project with little or no pre-writing and write “by the seat of your pants” (pantsers)?

longshot nestvoldI was never completely comfortable with either term. On the one hand, I always knew I was more of a plotter than a pantser. Some of my writer friends can take a couple of prompts and immediately start writing. Pantsers barrel into the story and go for it, letting plot and character unfold as they write. For many of them, part of the magic of writing is discovering the story as they go. My late friend Jay Lake was a master pantser, and it baffled me how he could whip up a story out of little more than thin air. I can write stories from prompts too, many of my stories have been written that way, but I just can’t do the “immediate” part. I have to brainstorm and play with ideas first. More than anything else, I need to know the ending before I start. If I don’t, I invariably get bogged down somewhere in the middle and don’t know how to get out of whatever corner I wrote myself into.

On the other hand, plotting out every single chapter and every single plot twist before I start writing is nearly as foreign to my nature as spontaneously writing a complete story from a single first line. There are a couple of short stories I’ve written that I plotted out almost completely before writing them, most notably “Mars: A Traveler’s Guide.” It was necessary for that story, because each of the disasters had to follow the one preceding it, and the whole arc had to have a very strong increasing sense of inevitability.

But plotting every single scene like that for a whole novel? It would drive me crazy. I’ve tried it a couple of times. Plotters have a good argument in their favor: if you can plot out the entire novel ahead of time, then the actual writing is a breeze. The plotter can write faster because she knows what’s going to come next, every step of the way. This is the main point of Libbie Hawker’s great writing book, Take off Your Pants. I’ve integrated a number of her techniques into my own pre-writing – but I still find myself flunking out when it comes to planning a novel scene by scene before I start writing.

I would love to be able to write faster, but when I try plotting all the way down to the chapter and scene level, I get just about as stuck as I do when I try to write without any outline at all. The smart plotting books tell me I’m supposed to have this kind of a scene here and there and elsewhere (pinch point, drive for goal, black moment, thwart, fun and games, or whatever the individual writer happens to call it), but while I’m in the pre-writing phase, for the life of me I don’t know what that scene will end up being. I have the basic structure, but the details defeat me.

Puzzle 1Then at some point, a stumbled across a term that immediately resonated with me, an alternative to the two writing poles of plotters and pantsers — the puzzler. And I realized that’s me.

I start with a whole bunch of pieces, but I don’t get them all lined up neatly in chronological order before I begin. My usual process starts with brainstorming basic plot, characters and setting, and doing the initial research. (I rarely write anything that doesn’t require research.) As I brainstorm, I jot down ideas for potential scenes, which I will do my best to organize in some kind of orderly fashion, often using ideas from various plotting books like Libbie Hawker’s, or Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, or Joseph Campbell’s quest structure.

But often before I fill out the main plot points between the beginning to the end, one or another of the scenes I’m brainstorming grabs me, and I have to start writing it. And then another, and another. While I’m writing these random scenes, I also start getting to know my characters better, which gives me a better idea of the kinds of complications that would fit their personalities. And so I start jumping backwards and forwards, filling in the blanks, puzzling out the plot as I go, working on this part and then that, finishing whatever works best first, and then using what I learned there to help me with other sections of the novel.

Puzzle 2And so it grows like a puzzle, from the edges and the center.

To a plotter, the process probably sounds very random. But neither am I writing by the seat of my pants. I can’t even start without a bunch of notes on characters and scenes and plot arc and usually a fair amount of research. But in the many years I’ve been writing, I have realized that I can’t seem to get a handle on my characters until I “see” them in action in a few scenes. So it isn’t until I’ve thrown them into their first conflicts and seen how they react that I can start fine-tuning the plot points that will get me from the beginning to the end.

I cannot claim to have come up with the term “puzzler,” but when I googled it to try to find the brilliant originator, all I found were other writers who also heard the term “puzzler” at some point or another and happily adopted it as their own.

Me too.

The original version of this post was published on the blog “Indie Adventures” as “By Popular Demand: Pantsers, Plotters, and — Puzzlers!” on September 16, 2012.


Ruth NestvoldRuth Nestvold recently puzzled her way to a new novel, Ygerna, a prequel to her Pendragon Chronicles series (consisting of Yseult and Shadow of Stone so far). Her short stories and novellas have appeared in such markets as Asimov’s, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and Year’s Best Science Fiction. Her work has been translated into German, Dutch, Italian, French, Spanish, and Hungarian, and been nominated for the Nebula, Sturgeon and Tiptree Awards. The Italian translation of Looking Through Lace won the Premio Italia speculative fiction award.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Book Release Blog Tours by Mark Iles

I’ve been involved in blog tours for a number of years and found that in many cases there’s a confusion between this and the press release. The simple differences are that in a blog tour each posting needs to be different from the others and run in succession, while with a press release the same information is given out to all and saundry and released at the same time.

The blog tour is exactly what it says, a tour of different blogs. Why, therefore, would anyone want to go from one blog to another if they all contain exactly the same information?

A Pride of LionsWhen hosting a tour I ask for the following:

  • Short author Biography
  • Pictures of author (jpegs only) 400kb or less
  • Book covers and/or other pertinent images – again around 400kb
  • Replies to my questions
  • Book buy links
  • Multimedia links
  • Blurb of novel
  • Short excerpt of novel which no-one else is using that ends in a hook
  • If part of a blog tour, date required of posting

I also ask that authors don’t send me formatted and framed ‘media kits’, nor have images that need to be downloaded from the internet. I’ve often received ‘kits’ with point 48 font splashed across them in different coloured texts, each of which I’ve returned. These ‘kits’ cause extra work for the host and can be irritating to say the least.

ROAR OF LIONS_eBook_optWhen I know the date that one of my books is due for release I approach a group of like-minded authors to see if they’d be interested in hosting me, and of course return the favour when they’re recruiting for their own tours. During the promotion I quite often see the ratings of my other books improve too.

Advertising the blog tour several days in advance on Twitter and FaceBook etc. is important, but don’t forget to include in each blog the link to the next host in line. This way readers can easily ‘follow the tour’.

On the subject of ‘following the tour’ it’s essential that different excerpts are used in each blog, ending in that all important hook. This way readers will want to know what happens next and find themselves caught up in the tour to find out what happens, and then hopefully they’ll purchase your  book by the end of the tour. Therefore the different content in each blog will be the excerpt and the host’s questions and answers.

Cull CoverWhile undergoing a course in Copywriting we were taught that a blog should be between 500 and 800 words in length, while some blogs I write have targets of around 300. It’s quite difficult to keep within these boundaries with book blogs (they can quite easily end up more like features) but I usually manage to keep it to around 1200 words.

Research shows that people will usually only remain on a webpage for 10-20 seconds, so you need to grab their attention and hold it. One way to do this is by using images, hence the book covers. It’s also been shown that readers browse webpages in an E or F figure – across the title, the middle and the end. Breaking the blog up into short paragraphs, or ‘bite-sized’ chunks helps readers easily digest the blog, rather than them be faced by an off-putting wall of words.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that if you add up the twitter followers of each member in the tour, and they retweet, you’ll be hitting a surprising amount of potential readers. On a recent blog tour our groups combined twitter followers exceeded 90k, a decent audience by anyone’s standards.


20150517_108 (2) - CopyMark Iles

Mark is the author of three novels, a short story collection, four novellas, a non-fiction book and an App. His short stories have been published in Back Brain Recluse, Dream, New Moon, Haunts, Kalkion, Screaming Dreams, and the anthologies Write to Fight, Escape Velocity, Auguries and Monk Punk. With over forty years’ experience in the martial arts and a 9th Degree Black Belt in Taekwondo, he’s written features for the magazines Combat, Taekwondo & Korean Martial Arts, Fighters, Junk, Martial Arts Illustrated, and He also runs a writer’s group for the British Science Fiction Association, along with The Scribe for Veterans with the help of The Royal British Legion.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Milford Writers’ Retreat Retrospective – by Jacey Bedford

Compare and contrast


First we had susnshine


And then like the rest of the country, we had snow.

In fact we were subjected to the storm that became known as The Beast From the East. Gale force winds combined with snow and below zero temperatures for three days in a row. What larks! Nantlle village was cut off for a time by fallen trees across the road, and Trigonos’ heating system was tested to the max. The folks at Trigonos told us it was the worst weather they’d had in thirty years. Some of their staff didn’t make it in to work, but a few dedicated souls who lived within walking distance kept us fed in fine style.

Writers retreat 2018

Milford Writers’ Retreat (L – R) Heather Lindsley, Rory Newman, Jacey Bedford (front), Nick Fowler (back), David Allen, Jackie Hatton.

We simply hunkered down and kept writing.

Though I was worried about the drive home and kept checking the AA website to see which Pennine roads were open (answer: none of them), I got a ton of work done. The advantage to sharing a writers’ retreat with other writers is that you don’t feel isolated. We all came together for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, fourses and dinner, and then after dinner gathered in the library with a lovely open fire. Conversation was all about writing, of course, which was perfect (the conversation, not necessarily the writing). Being amongst serious working writers is simply the best kind of boost to productivity. We all felt supported, while being able to socialise or retreat to our rooms as the mood took us. It also did us good to have those breaks mandated. Have breakfast. Write for two hours. Have coffee. Write for two hours. Have lunch. Write for two hours. HTypewriter 3ave tea/cake. Write for three hours. Have dinner. Spend an hour in company. Write for another two hours before bed. Five solid days of (close to) eleven hours a day of writing. Fifty five hours of moving our writing projects forward.

When I’m not an Milford I work from home. I have my own office and can schedule my day to suit myself. I live in a nice rural village with lovely views, so why would I need a writing retreat?

  • No pressure to break off from writing to see to the day job.
  • No phone calls from clients in the middle of their own emergencies which they want me to fix.
  • No breaking off to cook meals or do any of that domestic stuff which slurps up time.
  • No random visitors.
  • No need to take a foraging trip to the local supermarket
  • No requirement to answer emails
  • No distracting television

Could I achieve fifty five hours of writing if I stayed at home? I doubt it. I’m hard-wired not to ignore a ringing telephone, and to try and help someone out if they’re stuck, and to put dinner on the table, and take my mum to the supermarket, and – y’know – occasionally talk to my long-suffering and very patient spouse.

I’ve never been on a writing retreat before, but I’m totally sold on the idea. By the time we departed on Saturday morning, the AA website was telling me that the M62 had reopened (though the Snake Pass and the Woodhead Pass were still closed), so I could stop worrying about the journey home. The trains were running for those folks going south from Bangor station. And the planes were flying out of Manchester for those going back to Amsterdam. I’m pleased to report that everyone got home safely.

All things considered, we might arrange the next Milford Writers’ Retreat when the weather is a little kinder, but I think we’re all convinced that it’s been a very good thing.


jacey-novacon-2012-300pxsquJacey Bedford maintains this blog (weekly) and occasionally writes for it. She’s the British author of six novels published by DAW in the USA, the sixth, Rowankind, due out in November 2018. She writes both science fiction and fantasy and has had thirty-something short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic in anthologies and magazines. She’s the hon sec of Milford Writers and hosts the quarterly Northwrite writers’ group. When she’s not writing she runs a folk music artists’ booking agency and does immigration paperwork for visiting musicians. You can catch up with Jacey via her webpage at, or on facebook or twitter @jaceybedford.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Milford Writers’ Retreat 2018 – by Jacey Bedford

Laptop window sunshineThe Milford committee has kicked around the idea of a writers’ retreat before, but this year we finally got around to organising one when we received an email from Trigonos advertising their spare winter dates. There was an enticing six day period from Sunday 25th Feb to Saturday 3rd March, and we snapped it up.

Sunshine portrait

Trigonos is pretty well perfect for a retreat. It’s not just the setting, which is gorgeous, but also the ambiance. Ensuite rooms with writing tables, a lovely library (with an open fire) for communal chat, excellent food, and a ‘we’re here to help, but we’ll leave you alone if that’s what you want’ kind of attitude. After the evening meal the staff all go home and we’re left to our own devices, so it’s very homely.

Breakfast at eight, coffee and biscuits at eleven, lunch at one (with delicious home made soup). Four p.m. is cake o’clock, and then dinner is at seven. They cater for individual diets if anyone has allergies or intolerances. The kitchen has a vegetarian ethos and they’ve gradually been developing this, but because we’ve been holding Milfords here for twelve or thirteen years and because most of us are not vegetarian, they’ve agreed to cook meat or fish for us at the evening meal.

Laprop window snowsnow view portraitIt’s an ideal place to relax and let the words flow. We arrived in sunshine on Sunday but this morning, like the rest of the country, we were treated to snow, barely a couple of inches, but it made the view magical. Hopefully, by the time we leave next Saturday the roads will be passable.

So, who’s here? Me (obviously), David Allan, Heather Lindsley, Jackie Hatton and her husband Nick Fowler (both writing), and because we needed six to get the booking, Rory Newman, partner of Milford’s recently retired chair, Sue Thomason. Rory’s spending six days hill walking (or snow-walking today). We had hoped for more participants, but since this is a first attempt at running a retreat, we’re delighted to say that it’s working well for all of us.

The Milford Conference week normally runs with fifteen participants. I think that might be too many for a retreat. The ideal number is probably eight – which would fill the main house at Trigonos.

I’ve just delivered a novel (Rowankind) to my publisher (DAW) and I’m spending the week editing The Amber Crown to lick it into shape for submitting. It’s a fantasy set in an analogue of the Baltic States in 1650. I haven’t looked at it for about six months, so I’ve got more perspective now and I’m really enjoying reconnecting with my characters.

There will be a regular Milford (critiquing etc) in September. 2018 is fully booked, now, and we have a waiting list. September 2019 is booking already. Check out the Milford website for details:

jacey-novacon-2012-300pxsquJacey Bedford maintains this blog (weekly) and occasionally writes for it. She’s the British author of six novels published by DAW in the USA, the sixth, Rowankind, due out in November 2018. She writes both science fiction and fantasy and has had thirty-something short stories published on both sides of the Atlantic in anthologies and magazines. She’s the hon sec of Milford Writers and hosts the quarterly Northwrite writers’ group. When she’s not writing she runs a folk music artists’ booking agency and does immigration paperwork for visiting musicians. You can catch up with Jacey via her webpage at, or on facebook or twitter @jaceybedford.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ideas and where to find them – by Jaine Fenn

Earlier this week I was asked a question which may evoke a wry smile amongst fellow writers: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ I will be honest: my usual response to this old chestnut of a question tends towards glibness.

Sometimes I quote a response attributed to Asimov: ‘I just leave out milk and cookies overnight, and in the morning the milk and cookies are gone and there’s an idea there.’ Or, to put it another way, buggered if I know.

Sometimes I quote the late great Sir Terry Pratchett: ‘I don’t know where ideas come from but I know there they go: they go to my desk, and if I’m not there, they go away again.’ Or, to put it another way: what appears to have happened by magic to you, dear reader, is actually the product of a lot of hard work.

But this question was asked with the earnestness of someone beginning their ‘writer’s journey’ (naff phrase, but accurate). It was one of my students, arriving a few minutes early for class and brimming with enthusiasm. Unfortunately the Creative Writing sessions I teach are somewhat time-limited and focused as they’re run over the lunch hour at Creative Assembly, and as this current batch of students haven’t been the most talkative, I was a little thrown by the question. My answer was ‘Everywhere!’ which he didn’t find that helpful, understandably enough, so I expended it to say that the real trick isn’t coming up with ideas, it’s knowing which ones might form the basis for a story. But he wanted to go back to the seed, the germ. He wanted to know what Step Zero is in the magical process of making stories.

It is something the course covers later, though thanks to the aforementioned time constraints, we only touch on it. The proper, thought out answer – for me anyway – is another question. I use questions a lot in developing stories: who, what, where, when and most importantly WHY? But before we get to any of that, we need a starting point, and that is a two-word question, so obvious – to writers – that we often forget how miraculous it can be to people who don’t live for and through their stories.

The question to ask, the starting point for every story is simply : What If?’

  • Principles-of-Angels-300x360What if I woke up one morning unable to understand human speech?
  • What if a great and evil galactic empire existed in a galaxy far, far away … but so did a plucky rebellion?
  • What if benevolent aliens have always lived among us, but we only find out when the evil aliens who are their nemesis turn up here?
  • What if an assassin is put in a position where she has to kill the person she cares about most in the world?

Of the above questions two are ideas that came to me this week – no idea if they’re viable yet, that comes later – one is an idea that came to me nearly three decades ago and became my first novel and the other … well, you know what the other one is.

But regardless of where they ended up – or in the case of the two new What Ifs, where they might end up – every story starts like this. As writers, asking this question is second nature to us. But we forget that not everyone thinks this way. We’d be wise to remember how the genuine interest non-writers have in what we do. And we shouldn’t be afraid to tell them that every story starts with a simple, two-word question.


Jaine Novacon 2012 - credit to Al JohnstonJaine Fenn is the author of the Hidden Empire series, published by Gollancz, as well as numerous short stories, one of which won the 2016 BSFA Short Fiction award. To fund her fiction she writes content for video-games and teaches creative writing to games developers. Her most recent novella is The Martian Job, which is just what it sounds like: The Italian Job, on Mars.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Albedo One by Bob Neilson

AlbedoOne45-Cover-300x480I have said before that there are no friendly divorces, but I am currently observing one with no rancour (and very little expense). Unfortunately this is not mine. Mine is painful, expensive and hate-filled. It may sound like an exaggeration, and six years ago I would not have believed it possible, but it is the one sad fact of my life today. For the past five years the reality of divorce (or separation which comes first) has occupied a large part of my brain (there wasn’t all that much space in there to begin with) to the extent that I have written only two short stories in the past three years. If this is some weird sort of writers’ block I’ll accept that, but it also extends through my entire life stopping me from doing all sorts of stuff.

About the only productive/writing/SF thing that I’ve been able to keep together is Albedo One, which some of you may know. This has only been possible with the help of some generous souls in the broader SF community – some of whom are past attendees of Milford and who are still contributing their services. I have to say a heartfelt thank-you to them and the others around the world who have helped by generously donating their time and skills. I will be forever grateful.

On a more cheerful note, the magazine is approaching its fiftieth issue and we find ourselves with a few quid in the kitty, enough to make some sort of splash with a landmark issue. So I thought I would give a heads-up to Milford alumni: we’re looking for short stories and we’re prepared to pay you professional rates. Big deal, I hear you say. Well, it is a big deal for us. We will have struggled through 25 years at an average two issues per year (as of 2018) and we would love to mark the half-century of issues and the quarter-century of years with an outstanding collection of fiction.

Obviously we would love to see submissions for our anniversary issue from anyone who attended Milford. We would be grateful if those reading the blog could pass on the news to past attendees and suggest that they submit. I would really love to feature a story that was workshopped at Milford. If any one of you has a friend who attended Milford that you feel might be worthy of being interviewed for issue fifty, we’d be pleased to hear your proposal. We have featured interviews previously with Anne McCaffrey, Colin Harvey, Charles Stross, Robert Holdstock and Alastair Reynolds to name but a few. So, if your mate matches up to that lot give us a shout (even if they never attended), as we’d accept an interview conducted by a Milfordite.

Can you see a theme here? We really want to hear from you. We’ve also featured fiction from the likes of Anne McCaffrey, Liz Williams, Colin Harvey, Guy Martland and Dave Gullen. Funnily enough, only three of the names checked above were at Milford with me, and one of those had been published in Albedo One long before that. I would be honoured to add to that list. We will be annoying everyone whose email is in our possession and encouraging them to make this the best issue of the magazine ever. The way to do that is to send us your best work. There are at least six slots available at present. Submit early and submit often. Send submissions to and mark them Fiction Submission Milford in the subject line or Milford Enquiry for interview ideas or anything else you think we might be interested in.


Bob NeilsonBob Neilson has lived in his native Dublin, with a couple of short exceptions, for his entire life. His short fiction has appeared extensively in professional and small press markets and has had three radio plays performed in Ireland. He also presented a SF radio show for a year. He has had two short story collections published, Without Honour (1997, Aeon Press) and That’s Entertainment (2007, Elastic Press) as well as comics and a graphic novel. His non-fiction book on the properties of crystals is a best-seller in the UK and Ireland. He is the editor of Albedo One magazine. Visit his site at for more information.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Let no one else’s work evade your eyes by Ben Jeapes

There are writers, would-be writers and wannabe writers. (There are also don’t-wannabe writers, which is fine and a perfectly valid lifestyle choice and they play no further part in this post.)

Even though neither party has actually been published yet, the would-bes and wannabes are quite easy to distinguish. The would-bes put in the hours, learn, self-criticise and improve. Oh, and they write. Success can never be guaranteed but they’re in with as good a chance as any. The wannabes, on the other hand, just wannabe.

The strange thing is that the wannabes are much more precious about what little writing they get done than the would-bes. Another mark of the would-bes is professionalism, making the effort to learn the biz. The wannabes just wanna see their name in print, even if they have to pay for it themselves.

Lack of professionalism is just one of the many flaws revealed in this sad tale of sort-of-accidental plagiarism. In summary: archetypal fantasy writer wannabe, hereafter AFWW, actually hires a ghost writer to write her novel for her. To be fair, she seems to have a serious physical disability that makes it very hard to write coherently. She probably hired the ghost writer to tidy her drafts up. But also to be fair, cruelly and clinically, she doesn’t seem to have bothered reading what the ghost writer wrote for her. She doesn’t have to realise that he has simply copied out the first chapter of David Gemmell‘s Dark Prince, changing only the names. She should at least have just realised it wasn’t her writing.

Compare and contrast the two here.

11-00 thin iceIt gets worse. AFWW then gets the book, which she has clearly not bothered reading, self-published and then has the gall to announce proudly on her web site that “I feel each person has something unique to share with the world and writing is my gift to share”. She also goes on record that every word of her novel is entirely her own.

What is baffling to clearer minds is that she’s probably 100% genuine about this. She totally believes it. Writing is her gift to share, even if she has to hire someone else to do it. There’s no meaningful difference between this and any celebrity “novel” or “autobiography” you care to name, except that in the latter case we know the game. Does anyone really think Jade Goody wrote her autobiography? But this lady, by trying to break into a world that actually takes writing seriously and hold herself up as an equal there, just opens herself up to public crucifixion, which service the public is happy to provide.

Have I ever plagiarised? You could probably say I have. Technically. If for whatever reason I find myself writing something that reminds me of what someone else has done then I assume that other people will also spot the similarity, and try to make it clear that I see it too. Thus as just one example I can without trying too hard think of references to 2001 in His Majesty’s Starship (when someone is trying to coax a recalcitrant artificial intelligence) and The New World Order (the last few lines of part 1 are a pretty direct quote). The second vampire plagues novel is set in Paris, 1850, and is replete with references to The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Les Miserables (book, not musical, please) simply because I didn’t see how you could write a novel set in Paris in this period and not mention them.

Thieves steal, artists borrow, which a fancy bit of sophistry meaning that the above examples were to add layers of secondary detail to a primary narrative that was already good enough to stand on its own, and anyone else in the biz will know exactly what I did and why. And I doubt they made a penny’s difference to the money I received for this writing.

Professionalism, dear, professionalism.

bjeapes01Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 7 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher, and technical writer. His first Milford was at Margate in 1991, which shows (a) how far Milford has come in the past 26 years and (b) qualifies him as a Great Old One, in Milford terms at least.

Posted in fantasy, Milford, reading, science fiction, writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment