Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Perils of Being a Pantser

When I wrote my first mystery, A Matter of Taste, I had pretty much everything outlined. Even if I didn’t have certain plot points actually written down on paper, I at least had most of the story in my head before putting fingers to keyboard. Being new to the genre, I figured it would be best to have all my clues, suspects and red herrings organized and mapped out in advance.

 red, but not a herring

In writing circles, this is called being a “plotter.” The other alternative is a “pantser”—as in seat-of-the-pants—where you just sit down and write without much of an outline.

For the sequel, which I’m working on now, I tried to outline the story before starting, but became impatient, and began the book with only a bare-bones plot in my head. I’d been reading on the various mystery-writing blogs I follow about how so much more “freeing” it can be being a pantser rather than a plotter, so I decided to give it a try.

 starting the m.s. last spring in Fairbanks, Alaska

I got about five chapters into the draft, and then came to a standstill. What was going to happen next? Struggling on, I completed two more chapters. But then I started getting comments—from my mother (who is my primary beta reader) and from my Sisters-in-Crime critique group—that not much plot advancement seemed to be happening.

They were right.

Not having my story-line firmly fixed in advance, I was starting to ramble. Oh sure, there was character development, and lots of descriptive setting, and even some subplotting going on, but the murder wasn’t getting any closer to being solved. Very bad news indeed for a mystery novel.

So I’ve taken some time off from writing. It’s clear that I need to go back and rework some earlier parts of the book. And I need to get the story plotted out before I start back up with the m.s. again. Frustrated, I went online to read about brainstorming for plot ideas, and found a few good websites (here’s one in particular I liked).

So now, on my walks with Ziggy, when I’m working in the garden, and as I lie in bed at night, I ponder my suspects’ motives and what they might have to hide.

 in bed with Ziggy

How can I add suspense to the story? What clues are going to lead other clues? And how the heck is the murder ultimately going to be solved?

But it’s not just as easy as saying, “okay, I’m going to have a brainstorm session now, and come up with the answers to these questions.” It can be hard work, this plotting business; mere brainstorming doesn’t always work. Sometimes it takes serious concentration, reminding me of the days when I used to draft legal briefs for a living. But I am at least starting to get some concrete ideas now. Whereas before I felt like I’d hit a brick wall, now it seems as if bits of the mortar are beginning to crumble as I scrabble at the wall with my fingertips.

And I’m hoping that some day soon I’ll get that one epiphany which will cause the whole darn thing to come tumbling down in a heap, leaving me with a clear view of the other side.


  1. I think we must be completely opposite temperaments in this, Leslie, though I think it would be hard to write a mystery without plotting it. I am really a complete pantser. I have tried a few times to plot ahead, doing this thing called the Two Year Novel writing course, and though I think I learned some things by trying to plot ahead, in fact, some sort of rigor set in when I actually tried to write it that way--and not the good kind. And I think I actually killed both those novels by trying to do it that way, by researching ahead and all of that.

    Good luck with the brick wall!

  2. I am neither a plotter or a pantser when it comes to fiction, I am a broad-idea-dead-stopper. Therefore, of course, no fiction has ever come out of me... I admire anyone who can get past the broad idea. I hope that epiphany comes soon!

    I know you love writing so this must be frustrating. Maybe start sketching your third book, and the second one will show up sort of like the Pleiades does when you are looking at other things in the sky?

  3. Rigor--the quality of being extremely thorough, exhaustive, or accurate. You know, like when you wrote those law briefs...

  4. Ha! I've obviously blocked all that out, Seana.