Posted by: Thomas Drinkard | January 3, 2012

Planner or Pantser?

I’ve been away from the blog for too long. I hope the following stories are fun and helpful.
A couple of thoughts on the process of writing fiction: Planner (outliner) or Pantser (seat of your pants).

I’ll refer to what I personally heard from two very different novelists on the subject.

Jeffery Deaver, addressing a large group at the Killer Nashville Writer’s Conference in ’10 said that he writes detailed outlines. He referred to his book, The Bone Collector, a novel  published in 2004. My notes indicate that Deaver said his outline was 184 pages. Detailed, indeed. I didn’t record how many pages he said appeared in the published book, but memory has it that the number was not quite double the outline.

In some ways I envy Deaver’s organizational abilities in writing. I’ve tried it. More on that, later.

The second novelist I’ll quote was a good friend and mentor, Anne Carroll George. She left us in March of 2001. I’d last seen her sometime before Christmas in 2000. We had lunch at Demitri’s in Homewoood, AL and she brought me signed copies of some of her books to give to friends/family. She was a friend and mentor. I still miss her.

When we talked about the writing process, she was definitely a “seat-of-the-pants” author. Two stories about the process stand out. Her first book, published as Murder on A Girl’s Night Out won her the Agatha Award. The original title was, she said, Line Dancing at The Book and Scoot. The publisher insisted that, in order to cue readers to the cozy mystery genre, the word “murder” had to be in the title.

I knew she was well into the second novel and asked what the title of the new one would be. She gave me one of those sparkly grins and said, “If they’ve got to have ‘murder’ in the title, I’m going to send it to them as Murder on A Bad Hair Day.” Of course, that’s how it was published in 1996.

When I asked her about her personal process of writing she told me a story about Murder on A Girl’s Night Out. She said that about three-quarters of the way through when,  “I thought I knew who the murderer was, but then he was driving through Shelby County and somebody shot him.” She went on to tell me about how her characters drove the story. Creating fictional people of such remarkable depth was part of her genius.

So, Planner or Pantser?

I tried, (really) to be more organized. I wrote up a puny, one-page outline for V Trooper –First Mission. The novella turned out to be a bit over 23,000 words or roughly 92 pages. When I look back I see that the outline was like looking at a road map. I may say; I’m going to drive from Atlanta, GA to Kansas City, MO. The outline said that I’d pass through Chattanooga, Nashville and St. Louis. All true, but there are so many cities and sights along the way.

Do we plan for an overnight stop? Where? How about fuel and potty time pauses? What weather changes to we encounter? Are the roads rough or smooth? Is the car running well? These are details that make the narrative unique.

Anne also called the process of getting from one place to another (between important scenes) “trudging.” She said that making that part of the journey fun and memorable was a major challenge for the writer.

Authors, which are you? Although I envy those who are disciplined and organized, I tend to work from a minimal outline, sometimes only in my head, and let the story, through its characters, tell itself.

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