20 August 2016

Outliners Take Note--Don't Call Me a Pantser!

NOTE: I'm pleased today to welcome Elizabeth Zelvin as a guest blogger. Liz is, she says, a semi-dormant SleuthSayer ("Like writers in general, we never retire"), and she's the author of the Bruce Kohler mystery series: five novels and five stories published, plus two additional stories accepted for publication. Her short stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer and three times for the Agatha Award. Other publications include two historical novels, two books of poetry, an album of original songs, and a book on gender and addictions. Liz lives in New York City and can be found online at http://elizabethzelvin.com, on Facebook at http://elizabethzelvin.com and on Amazon. Good to have you here, Liz!--John Floyd

Having completed the first draft of a new short story and feeling mighty good about it, I got to thinking about my personal creative process, with which I've become fairly well acquainted over the years. I call myself an into-the-mist writer, because when I sit down to tell a story--we're talking fiction here, whether long or short--I can see only a little way ahead of me. I have to peer into the dimness to see my way, and what comes beyond the limited compass of my headlights is a mystery. In fact, it's an act of faith to trust that there's something there, and believe me, I have many moments of doubt.

The image that comes to me when I say the words "into the mist" is a drive I once took along the Blue Ridge Parkway on a foggy summer morning. My husband was with me, but he is a New Yorker born and bred who came to cars late in life, and at the time, I was still the family's only driver. There was supposed to be a scenic view of mountains off to the side, but we literally saw only the gray wedge in our low beams, which revealed swirls of mist, a hint of the winding road, and once a doe escorting a couple of fawns.

That's what writing the first draft of a story or a novel is like for me. I can see a glimpse of where I need to go next. I have a few ideas--like notes in a guide book--of features that may show up along the way ahead. But I'm never sure that I'll get where I'm supposed to be until I get there. When I do, there's no mistaking it. It's my destination, all right. I heave a big sigh of relief--and buckle down to the much easier business of killing my darlings and cleaning up the mess.

I've tried to write the other way: planning in advance, laying it all out neatly. It doesn't work. My creative process starts with my characters talking in my head. (Well, my husband says it starts with "I can't"--but after that.) Anyhow, I can't plan the jabber of those unruly characters. I'm not in the driver's seat. Bruce's wisecracks and Barbara's enthusiasm are a gift from the muse or whatever you want to call it. It happens, and it's the best feeling in the world. All I can do is make a beeline for my laptop or my Post-its or the voice recorder on my iPhone, whatever's handy, and start writing down what they say.

Once my characters start talking to each other, their conversation shapes the course of the narrative, even if I know in a general way where the story is going to end up. My series characters all have strong personalities, and it doesn't take much for them to start talking and acting exactly like themselves. The secondary characters in a particular story spring up as needed. They become my suspects and witnesses and law enforcement folks with their own personalities and ways of reacting to the situations I put them in and the characters they meet. They only come to life because I don't try to stuff them into some preset mold.

One of my favorite true stories from my historical novel about Columbus's voyage in 1493 is how one of the Spanish priests who accompanied the expedition went around Hispaniola collecting what he called folktales from the Taino, the indigenous people. When he got back to Spain, he published a collection of these tales. Like most authors, he was very proud of his book. These simple people have such charming folktales, he said. What a pity that they have no religion! The point, of course, is that the Taino were telling him about their religion all along.

That's kind of the way I feel when writers whose creative process involves outlining call writers like me "pantsers," a term that I consider demeaning. Who are they to dismiss my creative process as "flying by the seat of my pants"? It's my process, and believe me, there are no pants involved--no recklessness or lack of thought, merely an equally valid and effective way of summoning creativity, however different from theirs. So don't call me a pantser!


  1. Hi, Liz--so good to see you! And I love the phrase "into-the-mist writer." I wouldn't have described it that way myself, but I often feel like that's what I'm doing in some of my own writing--writing as exploration, finding my way, trusting I'll get there (somewhere). In my case, it's not hardly efficient, but somehow it works. (Not all stories are that way, but many.)

    In any case, I enjoyed the essay here. Best wishes your way always!

  2. I always say if I had everything plotted out from the start, writing would be too boring to finish!

    Glad you are still spending time at the keyboard.

  3. Liz, I'm an outliner, but I certainly respect your process. (If I could do it that way, I would!)

    As Art said, it's great to have you here!

  4. Excellent message. Liz, thanks for sharing your method!

  5. Good morning, everyone, and thanks for your comments. John, I always marvel at how you can keep your tightly plotted stories in your head long enough to refine them before you write them down. Now, if you wanna try it with a novel... ;) Seriously, every writer's process is different, and my real message is, Don't mess with what works! Also, as they kept saying in that wonderful movie Shakespeare in Love, It's a mystery!

  6. I'm half way in between. In writing a crime book, I know where I'm going, but I may take a totally different trip to get there, part way through. Most of my stores (and all of my novels) have "twists/you won't guess the endings." It does require some planning.

    That's for crime novels. BUT - for my fantasy novels (I have four) I let it rip. Start with the characters and a problem, and watch where it goes. Such freedom with that! And interestingly, it's my fantasy books that are the international bestsellers. Must think about that...

  7. Welcome back, Liz!

    I’m more like John, a planner if not an actual outliner. As much as I love your description of peering through the mists, I like to see the end before I sail from port.

    If not a pantser, may we say you’re a knickerbocker? (ducking) Okay, okay, that was a horrible pun. I should drive a stake through it.

  8. I enjoyed your post, Liz. You don't like the term "pantser," and I don't much care for the term "plotter"--it has unsavory connotations, and it sounds too much like "plodder," as if those of us who plan and outline are simply following a blueprint, as if our writing processes are bereft of creativity, freedom, and surprise. I do a lot of planning and often draw up a rough outline, but the story I end up with is seldom an exact match for the one I had in mind when I started. New ideas occur to me as I write, I realize plot elements could fit together in ways I hadn't foreseen, and things take unexpected turns. I'd guess that for most of us, writing involves finding a balance between planning ahead and staying open to fresh possibilities.

  9. I, too, am an "into the mist writer" - half the time when I start, I have no idea how it's going to end. The other half of the time, I know how it ends, but I have no idea how to get there. And people wonder about my mental health...or at least, they should...

  10. Liz, I am both bare bones outliner and head in the clouds writer. Sometimes the outlined stories don't follow the original idea and thus end up elsewhere, which often surprises me when I go back and read the notes. And, sometimes the head in the clouds stories take years to finish because they have great starts (in my mind anyway), but then I don't know where to go next. Unfortunately, some of those stories are still waiting for endings. Guess they always give me a place to start writing again.

    It was good to see you again at the DELL Publishing Cocktail Reception in Manhattan last May.

  11. Thanks for your method. I'm currently looking for someone to write my essay. I have task for 5 papers, but I really have no time to do this by deadline. So if you have any contacts or links, I would be very grateful.


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