January 8 – 14: “Plot, plan, or outline?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5We’re kicking off the 2018 with ITW Members Lynette Eason, Karen Ellis, Tim Waggoner, Susan Furlong, Marietta Miles, David Housewright, Thomas Perry, Kylie Brant, Sheila Lowe and Martin Roy Hill! Do you plot, plan, outline? Or, do you just go where your characters lead you? Why? Resolve to follow this thrilling discussion by scrolling down to the “comments” section to see what the authors have to say!


Lynette Eason is the best-selling, award-winning author of over forty books. She writes for Revell and Harlequin’s Love Inspired Suspense line. Her Stolen Past was recently made into an LMN movie and airs February 2, 2018. Lynette is a member of ACFW, RWA, MWA, ITW, FHL, and KOD. One of her crowning achievements entails placing in the top ten in the James Patterson 2016 co-writer contest.  Lynette can be found online on her website, on Facebook, and @lynetteeasonon on Twitter.


Karen Ellis is a pseudonym of long time crime fiction author Katia Lief, whose 2013 novel THE MONEY KILL was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her family.



Tim Waggoner has published close to forty novels and three collections of short stories. He writes original dark fantasy and horror, as well as media tie-ins, and his articles on writing have appeared in numerous publications. He’s won the Bram Stoker Award, been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the Scribe Award, his fiction has received numerous Honorable Mentions in volumes of Best Horror of the Year, and he’s twice had stories selected for inclusion in volumes of Year’s Best Hardcore Horror. He’s also a full-time tenured professor who teaches creative writing and composition at Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio.


Susan Furlong was introduced to the American Irish Traveller community when a family of Travellers worked on her home. After extensive research, her fascination with this itinerant subculture became the basis for her new suspense series. Susan contributes to the New York Times bestselling Novel Idea Mysteries, under the pen name Lucy Arlington, and is the author of other mysteries as well. Raised in North Dakota, she graduated from Montana State University. She and her family live in central Illinois.


Marietta Miles’ shorts and flash can be found in Thrills, Kills and Chaos, Flash Fiction Offensive, Yellow Mama, Hardboiled Wonderland and Revolt Daily. Her stories have been included in anthologies available through Static Movement Publishing and Horrified Press. She is rotating host for Noir on the Radio, Dames in the Dark and contributor to Do Some Damage Writer’s Blog. Her first book, ROUTE 12, was released February of 2016. Born in Alabama, raised in Louisiana, she currently resides in Virginia with her husband and two children.


A former president of the Private Eye Writer’s of America (2014-15), David Housewright has published 19 crime novels, including What the Dead Leave Behind (June 2017, St. Martin’s Minotaur). He has earned an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America (Penance) and three Minnesota Book Awards (Practice to Deceive, Jelly’s Gold and Curse of the Jade Lily). His 20th novel – DARKNESS, SING ME A SONG – will be published in January, 2018 (St. Martin’s Minotaur). His work has also been featured in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and True Romance Magazine as well as mystery anthologies including Silence of the Loons, Twin Cities Noir and Once Upon a Crime. Housewright has also published a collection of short stories entitled Full House (Down & Out Books). In addition, Housewright has taught novel-writing courses at the University of Minnesota and Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, MN.


Thomas Perry is the bestselling author of 25 novels, including the critically acclaimed Jane Whitefield series, Forty Thieves, The Old Man and The Butcher’s Boy, which won the Edgar Award.



Kylie Brant is a native Midwesterner and resides in Iowa. She has the distinction of selling the first book she ever wrote. That began a career that has spanned forty novels. She’s garnered numerous nominations and awards, including twice winning the overall Daphne du Maurier Award for excellence in mystery and suspense, and a Career Achievement Award from Romantic Times. Kylie is a three-time RITA nominee and has been nominated for five RT awards. Her recent novel, PRETTY GIRLS DANCING, was a #1 Amazon bestseller. She’s a mother of five, a former elementary special education teacher and an accomplished multi-tasker. Her books have been published in twenty-nine countries and translated into eighteen languages.


The mother of a tattoo artist and a former rock star, Sheila Lowe figures she’s a cool mom. She lives in Ventura with Lexie the Evil Cat, where she writes the award-winning Forensic Handwriting series. Like her fictional character Claudia Rose, she’s a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in court cases. Despite sharing living space with a cat, Sheila’s books are “medium boiled,” psychological suspense, definitely not cozy. She puts ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances and makes them squirm. Her non-fiction books about handwriting include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis, Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, and Handwriting Analyzer software.


Martin Roy Hill is the author of the Linus Schag, NCIS, thrillers, the Peter Brandt thrillers, and the award-winning short story collection DUTY, and EDEN: A Sci-Fi Novella. Martin’s short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History, Mystery Weekly Magazine, Crimson Streets, Nebula Rift, Devolution Z, and others. A former national award-winning investigative journalist, Martin is now a military analyst.



International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

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  1. Hi all, so glad to be here! I’m really looking forward to this discussion and seeing all of your answers. It’s always interesting to see how others write a book. 🙂 Here’s my answer to the question: Do you plot, plan, outline? Or just go where your characters lead you? (Also known as pantsing….I.e. writing by the seat of your pants.)

    I consider myself a “plantser”. You know, not really an all out plotter and not really a dedicated pantser. I’m somewhere in between. I start out with a character sketch and try to visualize the first scene of the book. I start with the character sketch because I can’t write about people I know nothing about. Once I have a pretty good handle on my characters, then I can “see” them in the first scene. I also have a good idea how the book is going to end. Once I have the beginning and the end figured out, I can pretty much get from Point A to Point B without too many rabbit trails distracting me from the goal. So, once I have the first chapter finished, I stop and write down a bunch of scene ideas (Scrivener is great for this type of brainstorming). Since I now have a bunch of “stuff” that I know needs to happen, I start writing again stringing the scenes together in a way that allows the story to unfold without being episodic. Each scene must serve a purpose, if it doesn’t have a reason to be there (needing to up your word count is not a good reason) then it gets deleted. I only stop to really plot when I get stuck. Getting stuck is a good sign I need to plot what comes next. LOL. Every day, I go back over what I wrote the day before and make sure it makes sense and needs to be in the story. Often, I cut, rewrite, rearrange, etc, before moving on to add new content. Of course, the farther I get into the story, the longer I can spend on editing! I try not to spend more than a couple of hours reworking previous “stuff” before moving on to the new “stuff”. But the good thing is, by the time I reach THE END, I only need to give a couple of more read-throughs before sending it off to my publisher.

  2. I do a combination of planning/plotting and improvising along the way. For short stories, I often write by instinct. They’re short (obviously), so if I take a “wrong turn,” while writing, it’s easy enough to fix. But the novel is a different beast. It’s big and multi-layered, so it helps me to know where I’m going. My initial outlines are usually between 10-20 typed double-space pages, but I use them more as a guide than as a blueprint. As I approach a scene, I’ll make notes and have a rough outline of how to flesh it out, and often I end up changing things. These changes usually don’t take the story off in a wildly different direction, though. In general, the original arc of the first outline remains more or less intact.

  3. As I’m constantly reminding myself after thirty-five years as a novelist, the most important part of the job is learning to be a better writer. Doing that means being able to use different methods of telling different stories. To date I’ve written books as though I were telling a story to a friend, used outlines to plan or to ensure that after I’ve written the book I’ve tied up all the loose ends, or devoted the right proportions to different parts of the story. I’ve started writing books when all I knew was one big, stark scene, written my way to it and then written my way away from it to the end. The important thing I’ve learned is that there is no single all-purpose method, any more than there is only one story. We reach for the tools we need as we build. If the right one is not already available, we invent a new one.

  4. Welcome, everyone! I’m looking forward to the discussion re the question “Do you plot, plan, outline or just go where the characters lead you, and why?”
    Honest admission–I’m a failed outliner from way back. When I started going to writing conferences, some of the workshops made me feel like if I wasn’t outlining/plotting, I was doing it wrong. So I tried to change my writing process. I wrote synopses of stuff that might happen. I filled out charts. I dutifully wrote character sketches. And then I wrote the book the way I wanted to . I wasn’t fooling anyone but myself! Truth is, I’m mentally incapable of outlining the book prior to writing it. My brain just doesn’t work that way. I call myself an organic writer. At the beginning I know the characters, the over-arching suspense plot, the conflict and the ending. I know how the story begins and I have ideas for a couple of scenes. And that’s about it. I have to actually start writing the book to see how I’m going to get from Point A to Point B. It’s a bit like writing in the mist…I have a good idea of where I’m going, but the signposts are a bit blurry. Oddly, my process rarely has me heading in the wrong direction, causing rewrites. I credit a sub-conscious zombie muse that helps me tie the threads together. The very low-tech writing tool I use is called pinup.com, which is an online bulletin board to which I can stick post-it notes to help me keep track of characters, research links and plot threads.

  5. What an interesting topic to kick off 2018. I just read a quote by a very well known writer someone posted on FB saying basically if you don’t plot forget being a good writer. That sort of dogmatic attitude isn’t very helpful when starting out, I’ve discovered. I’m like Kylie, I have an idea and jump in. Sometimes I know how it will end other times I don’t, not at the start. I have an overarching idea eg in Find Her, my recent release, I was inspired by a missing girl idea and what would happen if someone caught a glimpse of her 5 years later. Was it really her? The father is convinced it is and believed all along that she’d been abducted. Then I had to work out what had happened to her, where had she been and where was she now? And how to find her.

    After 17 published books I know my process although I do find suspense involves a bit more forward thinking than my early sweet romances. I often discover I’ve written something into a character early on that wasn’t particularly important at the time but went to character building, and that later becomes a useful motivation/ plot tool. Must be Kylie’s zombie muse!

  6. “Do you plot, plan, outline or just go where the characters lead you, and why?”

    My editor requires an outline, so I make one.

    I never follow it.

    Sort of like my family’s last cross-country road trip. I knew our destination, budgeted, planned and got the gear together but along the way one of the kids got the pukes, the Honda blew a tire, and I swooshed my cell phone in the Iowa 80 Truck Stop toilet. We eventually got there—and had a great time–just not the way we planned.

    My outlines are the same. Best laid-plans … and then things change. But I always think that the twists along the way make for a better story.

  7. Yes, yes, yes and yes. I plot, plan, outline and go where my characters lead me, not in that order.

    It begins with a thought that blossoms into an idea, and when that idea starts to root itself in my imagination and send out shoots of more ideas that themselves begin to propagate, well, that’s when I know I’m onto something. At this point, at least one character has come into existence in my mind, often more than one. I listen to their voices and watch their actions take shape. Then, and only then, do I start putting it down on paper and screen.

    I’ll write out a long, messy list of notes and ideas. When it feels chaotic, I’ll start to organize it all in terms of character, storyline and chronology. This is the fodder that evolves into the first draft of an outline. The outline is a framework that organizes all the now burgeoning characters and ideas into something like a map that I can follow without getting lost.

  8. Most of the time my stories are pretty character driven. While writing, I develop a strong relationship with them and I try to sincerely tell their story, complete with their lessons and failures. The nature of the character, their weaknesses and strengths and their state of mind forge the tale, driving it to the inevitable end. They definitely do as they please.

    I keep notes on dates, relationships, and details, but I have yet to fully plan or plot a story. Maybe next time.

  9. I’ve tried writing without an outline and ended up a couple months away from my deadline with only five chapters written. So, clearly, I need something that sounds a bit like discipline. What works best for me is to write a scene-by-scene skeleton outline that reminds me of what I want to cover. But I don’t feel compelled to stick to it. If a better idea comes along or a character wants to do something different, so be it. I’ve had the experience of coming to the middle of a book and realizing that what I had planned for the end needed to come there instead. I had to find another ending, but writing organically requires flexibility.

    For my last book I spent more time than ever before writing the back stories of the non-series characters. That helped me develop the plot and in the end I felt I’d produced some of my best work. For the story I’m just now outlining, I intend to focus a lot on the back story of the bad guy, exploring why he does what he does. None of that material may make it into the book, but it will have a definite effect on the story.

    1. You sound a lot like me. LOL. I have to know my characters in order to write about them. And like you, a lot of the backstory, etc may not make it into the final product, but the characters come across as real people with real struggles and real triumphs. 🙂

  10. I am always amused when I hear authors say things like “I wanted to take my story a certain direction but my characters wouldn’t let me.” First of all, who’s in charge here? Second, do you even know what your story is about?

    I outline. I outline for what it tells me about character development, the research I need to do, and because it allows me to focus the various elements of my book to create an ending with impact. Mostly though, I outline because it helps me examine the themes of the book.

    The best crime novels, the best thrillers are always about more than who killed Mr. Body in the library with a candlestick or if the rogue CIA/FBI/NSA/black ops agent who plays by this own rules stops the terrorist in time. It must have something to say about the truth of our existence. You can’t do that if you’re writing off the top of your head and hoping it will all work out at the end.

    1. I agree that I’m the one in charge of the story. LOL. I also agree that the story must have some deeper meaning, some theme that comes across to the reader. However, I don’t agree with the statement that “you can’t do that if you’re writing off the top of your head and hoping it will all work out at the end.” At least not for me. I’ve done this. Sometimes writing off the top of my head produces some of my best ideas. 🙂 Sometimes, by the end of the story, I look back and see a theme running through the whole book and then I can tweak it to make it less subtle and more obvious. Now, I’m NOT saying it’s an easier path. LOL. Outlining would definitely make the journey less painful, but I don’t think it’s right to make such a broad statement about what works and what doesn’t. Everyone is different. Different things work for different writers. I actually envy your ability to plot and outline like that. It sure would make my writing a lot less stressful if I could do that, I’m sure! 🙂

  11. I am definitely a plotter. I want to be certain I have a story before I start writing. I think that stems from my years as an investigative journalist. I always did extensive research before I even “officially” launched a project, and then outlined the article before writing. I wanted to make sure there was a story there before I invested the time in it.

    I learned to plot using 3×5-inch index cards, writing down plot points and scenes, then shuffling the cards around to organize them into a coherent plot. Today, I use Scrivener’s cork board app to do the same thing. I also find beat sheets like Blake Snyder recommends in “Save the Cat!” very helpful in making sure the story has the right crescendos.

    However, I like to compare plotting a novel to planning a road trip. You study a map, and decide where you’re going to and how you’ll get there. But once you start driving, you find yourself taking detours to see this sight or that sight. You get to your planned destination, just not by the exact route you expected.

    Plotting a novel is the same. You can establish all your scenes and plot points, but as the book develops you find the plot taking turns you didn’t expect. Again, you get where you’re going, but by a somewhat different route.

    Developing characters often presents surprises, too. As part of my plotting and outlining, I do character sketches. Often, however, I find my characters have minds of their own. In my latest novel, The Butcher’s Bill, I had intended a main character to die one way, but he refused to do so. He ended up dying in a totally different manner, and I think it made the book better. In my current work-in-progress, I sketched out all the main and secondary characters. But by the time I finished the first draft, several characters had developed differently than I expected.

  12. I don’t think my characters ‘lead me’ through the story, per se. It’s more that the story evolves with each scene, opening up avenues to explore that may not have been consciously intended when I started out. In education there’s a learning styles concept that differentiates part-to-whole and whole-to-part learners. Part-to-whole learners like to break things down into smaller concrete steps. They tend to be analytical and sequential. The overall concept may appear too abstract at the beginning, but as they nail each step in the process it becomes more and more clear. Whole-to-part learners are big picture people. They need to understand the concept before learning the steps involved in it. I think this particular learning style concept correlates well with plotters and non-plotters. I’m definitely a part-to-whole writer. I’m fitting the pieces together as I write to fit my overall mental image of the plot, which becomes clearer the further I get into the story.

    1. I agree, Kylie. When we say the characters “lead us” or “have a mind of their own,” it’s just an analogy for the creative process. The plot outline is like the wire skeleton in a clay statue; it shows us where we have to go. When you begin the actual writing process, you start adding layers of flesh to the story line and characters. The further you go, the more they take shape.

      Though I am a plotter, I think being a slave to the outline stifles creativity and can lead to formulaic writing. My characters “come alive” as things happen to them and I begin to think how that will affect their personality, adding more layers to the wire frame.

  13. It makes sense that most of us are neither complete pantsers nor obsessive, nth- degree plotters. For me, pantsing carries too much risk of starting a story that deadends in dullness, while complete plotting will waste my time and effort because I always get new ideas as I write the story.

    I like Sheila’s point regarding full development of the backstory of non-series characters, even if it is not written into the novel. I can appreciate that that would help to ensure the plausibility of the plot and to clarify the motivation of the characters – the antagonist in particular.

    One component of the plot that I do need to be compulsive about is the timeline. In my current work in progress, my series protagonist Kris Jensen, is investigating an ongoing outbreak of violence in a small town in Tennessee that she suspects is due to an insomnia-causing virus. The 6-month timeline of where and when the insomnia-fueled domestic violence, road rage, suicides, and general mayhem started and spread through this town is key to her proving that it is a virus and the discovery of its source. I hope to finish “Night Plague” in the next couple of months – unless I get a lot of new ideas in the last third of the book!

    1. Timelines are essential to keep, aren’t they? It’s so easy to lose track of what happened when and what I’ve said will happen when and what day of the week it is, especially if there are recurring things one of the characters does.

      I do write up character charts as I go, too, detailing physical characteristics as well as backstory, motivation, goals etc..

      I suppose the main difference between the pantser (me) and the plotter is that the pantser plots a few steps ahead rather than way in advance. I find at some point the remainder of the story will take shape in my mind and it’s a sprint to the finish.

      In evidence for the pantser, however, as a perfect example of not knowing the end until the writer is upon it, and coming up with a winner I give you– Casablanca.

        1. I use an Excel file to keep track of my timeline. The first column has the chapter number, the second the day (Day 1, Day 2), the third the time of day (morning, afternoon, night), and the fourth a brief description of the action in the chapter.

    2. Absolutely. Timeline is one thing that threatens to get away from me no matter how closely I’m keeping track of it. My other bugaboo is character names. I have to be diligent keeping track of both. I have a penchant for changing the names of secondary characters midway through the story 🙂

      1. Haha–I changed the spelling of a name mid story and neither my editor nor I noticed until, in her edits, she suggested changing the name for some reason. I did a search and replace using the spelling of that first instance of the name and thought it was odd when it said only 30 changes had been made. I continued reading and came across the other version. That’s when the penny dropped.

        I’ve also changed the name of minor characters completely without realizing. On rereading I think who on earth is that?

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