Thursday, May 22, 2014

On Pantsers, Plotters and Pilots ... by David Freed

As a licensed pilot, this is why I appreciate maps: because flying without them, especially in unfamiliar skies, ups my stress level and increases my chances of crashing.

As the author of three traditionally published mystery-thrillers (now working on my fourth), I rely on maps of a sort for the same reason. The outline I’ve mapped out before sitting down to actually write each book has helped guide me plot-wise, minimizing the chances of my story taking a fatal nosedive somewhere along the way because of a literary obstacle I hadn’t anticipated at the outset. I’ve tried it both ways, writing by the seat of my pants and writing from predetermined waypoint-to-waypoint. For me, the latter method has always proven less frustrating and ultimately more productive.

Many of my more accomplished author friends might fervently disagree with my preferred modus operandi when it comes to outlining first. They contend that if they don’t know where the plot of their story is headed at any given moment, neither will readers. Thus, they say, the more enjoyable the book will be for their audience. I can’t argue with that kind of logic. Regardless of our respective methodologies as writers, the goal in crafting crime fiction is always to be believable yet unpredictable, to keep readers guessing until the final page is turned. But all I know is that when I’ve begun a novel with no real idea where it is headed, it’s not long before I become totally, head-swimmingly, what-planet-am-I-on, lost. I’ll easily write my way down blind alleys and into box canyons, only to spend days after the fact, staring vacantly at my laptop (when I’m not pounding my forehead on my desk) and yelling at my dog (not really) while trying to numb the anguish of my own incompetence with whatever fermented beverage might be in the house (the truth comes out!), all the while struggling to claw my way back to some semblance of plausible storyland. Ask my wife; it’s not a pretty picture.

Getting lost means more than having to backtrack and ultimately throw away pages. The worst part is becoming discouraged and losing that component essential to finishing any long-form writing project. I’m talking, of course, about momentum. Stuck in a rut, not sure where the plot needs to go, or how to get it there, we can easily find ourselves looking for excuses to do something, anything, less daunting than staring at a blank computer screen. Days turn into weeks, weeks to months. Pretty soon, that terrific idea you once had for The Greatest Book of All Time and dove into with such great vigor has become yet another casualty of inertia, an abandoned step-child, never to be revisited. It’s much less stressful, in my opinion, to know where you’re likely to encounter the thunderstorms of story-telling and plan ahead rather than launching blindly and running the risks of flying into weather that can kill you—or at least, your writing project.

That’s not to say I know the tale’s every detail before I embark on page one. Much of the pleasure of writing fiction comes when characters take on lives of their own and begin twisting the story in ways you never envisioned when starting out. But if you can skew those characters’ actions along a workable plotline that you’ve nailed down in advance, trust me, you’ll be well ahead of the game.

Plot points. Twists. Turns. The sinew of character development. The narrative connective tissue that binds one scene to the next. These are the elements that collectively compel your story to an ending that, by convention, must be logical and satisfying to the reader. If you can get there flying by the seat of your pants, the best of luck to you. You’re vastly more adventurous than me.

Pilots have an expression: “You don’t have to take off, but you do have to land.” I’d like to think the same notion applies to writers. Taking off is no sweat. Landing, though, can be plenty sweaty indeed if you have no idea where you’re landing, let alone how you’re going to get there. Better, I say, to map out a workable and, yes, flexible flight plan before taking to the sky. The last thing any of us wants to do is crash.


David Freed, who grew up in Denver, is an instrument-rated pilot, screenwriter and former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Los Angeles Times.

His debut Cordell Logan mystery-thriller, Flat Spin (Permanent Press) was hailed by the Associated Press as “one of the best debuts of 2012.” His second mystery-thriller, Fangs Out, received rave reviews from Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Library Journal, and the New York Journal of Books, among others. Voodoo Ridge is scheduled to release tomorrow, May 23rd. The advance reviews have been excellent.

David lives in Santa Barbara, California. Learn more about him and his books at his website. He can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for introducing us to David.

David - Thanks for sharing your perspective. I like to create a map for myself, too, when I write. It's not a detailed map, with every bush, tree and rock depicted. But I like a general outline of where a story will go.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I couldn't agree more! I have to have a detailed outline or my story would wander into the desert and never return.

Kenneth W Harmon said...

I really enjoyed your post and I agree with you, I don’t like to write without a plot outline. As for the argument that if a writer doesn’t use a plot outline, thus not knowing where they plot is heading, then neither will their readers, I say this: at the time the writer created the plot outline they also didn’t know where they were going with the story, in which case, a reader shouldn’t be able to tell if a plot outline was used by the author. I would also argue that using a plot outline allows a writer to fix problems before they become a part of their book and it helps to keep the plot original. Whenever I write an outline, I always go back over it and examine the scenes with an eye on making them better and more unique. I wish you continued success with your books. They sound very interesting.

Julie Luek said...

I recently was allowed to review the outline belonging to a writer friend for his current book. It was really good to see how he planned out his book, allowing for changes, but having an idea of specific plot mechanics that needed to be in place. I will have to try this if I ever go in that direction. Thanks for sharing your process too.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Am I the only pantser in this crowd? I tried a narrative outline, a chapter-by-chapter key event outline, and a chapter summary outline. I scrapped all of them about halfway into my manuscripts. Now I simply create a basic plot and throw in a few characters and let it flow. Then I fix mistakes later when I finally decide that first draft is worthy of more time. (I admit I have a couple of first drafts that may never get off my "resting" shelf.)

I don't think a writer has the luxury of doing that when he's writing a series, however. That's one of the reasons I switched to standalones.

RichardK said...

Pat, I'm part of the pantser crowd. I feel using an outline diminishes from the excitement of putting the story together. No matter how well your outline is thought out there's always something that pops in your mind halfway in writing that changes what happens to the character and the story. That's when I feel those who outline get lost.

Dean K Miller said...

As an air traffic controller, we, too, have a saying: "they can't hurt you when they are on the ground!"

I know all those pilot types have their routes planned, etc. but sometimes the puzzle doesn't fit, so we ATC'ers tend to work by the seat of our pants and make it up as we go. Sure we have a plan (outline) tools in our kit (vectors, altitudes, etc.) but it's moment to moment.

So it is with my writing. Mostly pantser, with a good idea of where, when, how everything will get to a safe and satisfying ending. (kind of like ATC)

LD Masterson said...

I'm with David. It I took off without a map, I'd fly around aimlessly until I ran out of gas - and that would be the end of that.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I used to write without an outline but I was very slow and had to make major revisions. And just like David said, sometimes I gave up on a novel. Now I do a rough outline and it works better and I write faster. Love his advice.

Stephanie Faris said...

I think many people think if you outline, you'll never hit a rut, but you do. Even the best planning can go astray once you start writing and realize your outline was all wrong. That said, I do find that it's best for me to get to know the characters organically at first, then outline later...even then, I'm still only outlining a little ahead. Sometimes I can go all the way to the end with my outline, but it rarely matches the finished product. Scratch that--it NEVER matches the finished product! My words have a mind of their own, apparently.

klahanie said...

Hi Patricia,

I'm hearing David on this. The analogies are spot on. Nice lateral thinking.

Heck, I don't even outline, I just write down totally disconnected gibberish and see what happens. Kinda' like this comment.

A thoughtful post and thanks for the awareness about David. I wonder if David might like to become a pilot on BlogAir, the blogger's favourite airline...

A good weekend to you, Patricia.


Eileen Goudge said...

I've done it both ways. I guess I did so many outlines in the early days, I can now pretty much plot out a novel in my head. On the other hand, it can be fun to take detours from a planned route; you can end up in some interesting places.