Wednesday, September 22, 2010

In My Next Life I Want to Come Back as a Pantser

Today I'm happy to welcome suspense author Lisa Black, whom I met at Thrillerfest this past July. Lisa spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue, working as a forensic scientist in the trace evidence lab. Eventually her husband dragged her to southwest Florida. Now she toils as a certified latent print analyst and CSI at the local police department by day and writes forensic suspense by night. Her books have also been published in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Spain and Japan.

Lately Lisa's been thinking about this whole seat-of-the-pants thing...
Having hung around authors for several years now, I have learned that they fall into two basic types: outliners and pantsers. Outliners plot the book (to varying degrees of detail) from beginning to end. They know who the killer is going to be. They know what major events are going to take place, they know most of the main character’s major attributes, and the location in which all this is going to occur. They’re comfortable with all this stuff in advance and less prone to writer’s block because they always know where they’re going.

Pantsers, called thus because they “fly by the seat of their pants”, sit down to write without any of these things decided. Their creative juices flow, their muse speaks, and they create.

This is not a red state/blue state thing; there’s no rivalry about this. Each group has nothing but admiration for the other. Pantsers wish they could be more organized about their process, more logical and avoid writing themselves into corners. Outliners wish they could be more flexible, always wondering that if they let the story take them where it would they might produce a great work of art, and not leave them (as they suspect it would) painted firmly into the farthest corner in the farthest room.

Whether you’re one or the other, of course, doesn’t matter. All that matters is that your technique works for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow what you’d like from your opposites’ habits. I am an outliner. I have to know the story from beginning to end. This isn’t even a choice, really, since I often start with the end. I can still change my mind about something, go back and change a location or a point of view. The consistency police will not fire a tear gas canister into my office and haul me off in plastic handcuffs.

But there are a lot of things about pantsing that I think would help me write richer and deeper stories. I should take the time to get to know my characters, see what they think and do when they’re not racing the clock to solve a crime. Because pantsers often don’t know who the killer is, they can’t give it away to their readers. They have to write as if any person could be the one. I’ll still have a plan in mind, I’ll just take each step of that unfolding a little slower, look around my imaginary scene, let my character poke into those nooks and crannies she usually rushes by carrying a clipboard and a fingerprint kit.

Yep, definitely going to give pantsing a try.

What do you think? Do you wish you wrote a different way than you do? Methinks the grass is always greener. I'm a plotter with room for discovery somewhere in the middle--and I actually don't like that at all. I wish I could plot out every detail in advance so I knew exactly where I was going. But I can't do that. Simply can't. And I suppose if I did, my characters wouldn't drive the story.

Check out Lisa's latest release, Trail of Blood, featuring forensic scientist Theresa MacLean.


Richard Mabry said...

Great post, Lisa. You make this struggling pantser feel good that you want to join our ranks.
When I wrote the novels that are now published I had the luxury of writing them, then developing the synopsis to fit what I'd written. Perfect for a pantser. But now I have to sketch out a synopsis as well as write the first several chapters as I seek a home for the next ones. Help, I'm developing into a plotter!
Either way, pantser or plotter, the desired result is a great story. Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your feelings, and to Brandilyn for bringing it to us.

Lisa Black said...

Okay, you can't do both, you'll disprove my theory that people are one or the other!! :)

Heather said...

Nice post! :0)

I'm with Richard--I used to be a pantser. But I've found it easier to do a very loose outline of main events before I start writing. That way, I'm never left going, "What? Where am I supposed to go next?"

But I try very hard to get to know my characters too.

Edwina said...

I've tried plotting which worked fine until my characters took over and ran with their own story. :) So now, I'm an "in-betweener." Somewhere in between plotting and panster.

Nicole said...

Pantsers Anonymous. Can't help it. Yes, you can, they shout. NO I CAN'T!

I get ideas where the story's going, but I have no idea how it's going to get there until the characters write it for me. They often sneak around and pop out with something brash when I least expect it. They use me and take advantage of my addiction.