August 13 – 19: “How do you write, from the seat of your pants or are you a planner?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5Plotter or pantser? Since early man began scratching stories onto the walls of caves, the age-old question has been asked: How do you write, from the seat of your pants or are you a planner? This week ITW Members Ann Simas, James Hilton, Linda Bennett Pennell, Nick Kolakowski, Lynn Cahoon, Charles Salzberg, Kellye Garrett, Mysti Berry, Richard Mabry, David Bell, David Simms, Frank Zafiro, Ronie Kendig and Lane Stone will take a crack at it. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Lynn Cahoon is the author of the New York Times and USA Today best-selling Tourist Trap cozy mystery series. Guidebook to Murder, book 1 of the series, won the Reader’s Crown for Mystery Fiction in 2015. She also pens the Cat Latimer series available in mass market paperback. This year, she’s releasing Who Moved my Goat Cheese in March as part of the new Farm to Fork series. She also writes romance under Lynn Collins. She lives in a small town like the ones she loves to write about with her husband and two fur babies.


James Hilton lives in the rugged but beautiful North of England. He is currently working on the next book in the ‘Gunn Brothers Thriller’ series from Titan Books and also researching material for the first book in a new YA series. James trained in the martial arts since the age of 11. James is currently ranked as a 4th dan Blackbelt. His other passions include visiting Florida and the Caribbean, reading horror, suspense and action thrillers.


Mysti Berry has short fiction published in many anthologies including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and should be published again in 2019 in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, and just published a charity anthology Low Down Dirty Vote, with stories by Catriona McPherson, James W. Ziskin and many other talented writers. She lives in San Francisco with graphic novelist Dale Berry and three black rescue cats, and she’s looking forward to ThrillerFest 2019.


David Bell is a bestselling and award-winning author whose work has been translated into multiple foreign languages. He’s currently an associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where he directs the MFA program. He received an MA in creative writing from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a PhD in American literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. His previous novels are Bring Her Home, Since She Went Away, Somebody I Used to Know, The Forgotten Girl, Never Come Back, The Hiding Place, and Cemetery Girl.


David Simms lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia with his wife, son, and animals. He works as a teacher, counselor, music therapist, ghost tour guide, book reviewer, and founding guitarist in the Killer Thriller Band/Slushpile band. FEAR THE REAPER is his second novel.



Frank Zafiro was a police officer from 1993 to 2013. He is the author of more than 20 novels, mostly crime fiction, including the River City series and the Ania series. In addition to writing, Frank hosts the crime fiction podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime. He is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. He currently lives in Redmond, Oregon.



Nick Kolakowski is the author of “Boise Longpig Hunting Club” (Down & Out Books) and “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps” (Shotgun Honey). His crime fiction has appeared in Thuglit, Crime Syndicate Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Plots with Guns, and various anthologies. He lives and writes in New York City.


Lane Stone lives in Alexandria, Virginia and Lewes, Delaware. Her first series was the Tiara Investigations Mysteries and her current series is the Pet Palace Mysteries. When not writing she’s enjoying characteristic baby boomer pursuits: traveling and volunteering for good causes, like the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation. She’s on Georgia State’s Political Science Department Advisory Board. Last year she received her post-graduate certificate in Antiquities Theft and Art Crime.


Charles Salzberg is author of the Shamus Award nominated Swann’s Last Song, Swann Dives In, Swann’s Lake of Despair, Swann’s Way Out, Devil in the Hole, named one of the best crime novels of the year by Suspense magazine and Second Story Man. His novella, “The Maybrick Affair” is included in the anthology, Three Strikes. He teaches writing at the New York Writers Workshop where he is a Founding Member, and he is on the board of MWA-NY.


Ann Simas lives in Oregon, but she is a Colorado girl at heart, having grown up in the Rocky Mountains. The author of 23 novels, one novella, and one short-story collection, she particularly likes to write a mix of mystery/thriller/suspense, with a love story and paranormal or supernatural elements. Three of her books have been Romance Writers of America Golden Heart Finalists. Ann is also an award-winning watercolorist and budding photographer who enjoys needlework and gardening in her spare time. She is her family’s “genealogist” and has been blessed with the opportunity to conduct first-hand research in Italy for both her writing and her family tree. The genealogy research from centuries-old documents, written in Italian, has been a supreme but gratifying and exciting challenge for her.


Linda Bennett Pennell has been in love with the past for as long as she can remember. Anything with a history, whether shabby or majestic, recent or ancient, instantly draws her in. It probably comes from being part of a large extended family that spanned several generations. Long summer afternoons on her grandmother’s porch or winter evenings gathered around the fireplace were filled with stories both entertaining and poignant. Of course, being set in the American South, those stories were also peopled by some very interesting characters, some of whom have found their way into Linda’s work.


Kellye Garrett  writes the Detective by Day mysteries about a semi-famous, mega-broke black actress who takes on the deadliest role of her life: Homicide Detective.  The first, Hollywood Homicide, won the Agatha, Lefty and Independent Publisher “IPPY” awards for best first novel and is nominated for Anthony, Macavity, and Barry awards. The second, Hollywood Ending, will be released on August 8, 2018 from Midnight Ink. Prior to writing novels, Kellye spent eight years working in Hollywood, including a stint writing for Cold Case. She now works for a leading media company and serves on the Board of Directors for Sisters in Crime as the organization’s Publicity Liaison.  You can learn more at


Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician, now writing “medical mystery with heart.” His novels have garnered critical acclaim and been finalists for ACFW’s Carol Award, both the Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year and Reviewer’s Choice Awards, the Inspirational Readers Choice, and the Selah Award. He is a member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, the International Thriller Writers, the Christian Authors Network, and Novelists Inc.


Ronie Kendig is an award-winning, bestselling author of over twenty titles. She grew up an army brat, and now she and her army-veteran husband live a short train ride from New York City with their children and retired military working dog.



  1. Right now I’m imagining the authors answering this question as opposing attorneys. Or maybe we’re more like junior high debate teams, wearing ill-fitted blazers? Whatever we are, I’m on the planner team. Truth is, there are as many good reasons to write by the seat of your pants as there are to outline. But there’s also one bad reason to skip planning out your novel. If you’re a new author and you don’t outline, ask yourself why. Is it because you don’t know your story? (No judgement. We’ve all been there and probably will be again.)

    If you need to write fast because you have a day job, or to have more family time, or for the “play hard” part of the “work hard, play hard” equation, give outlining a try. I’m simply more productive when I work off of an outline. I can write less hours and still make deadlines because there are less words to throw away. My outlines are three to four pages, not sixty to seventy like Jeffery Deaver’s. They’re easily converted into a synopsis when my publisher needs it for the art department to begin work on the cover. And I can usually spot plotting problems right away.

    I rest my case.

    1. Good advice, Lane, even for us hybrid authors, or “Plantsters.” I mull a bit, throw myself into the story, get clearer ideas of who-what-why dunit as I develop characters and situations. Then I go,back and tweak, and write some more, slowing as the story is nearing mid-point or two-thirds.. Then I find myself writing out notes and then paragraphs of what to tweak more, but also how to lay out further action. The paragraphs and notes become a late outline, which I then mostly follow to the fabulous, twisty conclusion!

    2. Lane, I admire anyone who can sit down and create an outline for a book. I can write 8 hours a day with no problem, but I couldn’t face another 8 hours a day spent writing an outline. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about what’s coming next, but I just don’t want to have to look at an outline to find out. I guess you could say spontaneity is my friend.

    3. Lane, I think you’re right. Having an outline does all the things you point out. The problem for me is once I’ve written all that, I’ve lost the love of the story. It’s done in my head, so why would I write it. 🙂 But to have a ready to write synopsis? That would be heaven.

      1. I’ve heard other authors say that. That hasn’t been the case with me. I find myself getting more and more excited to write the story as I plan it. But we’re all different…

      2. Lynn, one of my critique partners has said the same thing. I read her your comment. She said, “Amen.” But, the way I see it, after you write the outline you are still sooooo far away from writing the book.

  2. I’m definitely a planner. I usually start with one key scene in my mind then slowly formulate a rough plan of how my characters got there. This can be a stand-alone image or a fluid situation. In my first novel, Search & Destroy, it all began with a bloody handprint on the window of an RV. In the second Gunn Brothers Thriller it was an image of a vehicle racing down an empty water slide in a waterpark! (I was chilling out on a lazy river in Florida at the time!)
    With the idea/scene in mind I then begin to storyboard each chapter out in the manner of a movie. Each chapter outline may only comprise of a couple of lines, but it keeps me on track and gives me something to refer back to as I progress in the real writing process.
    Just like in the movies, some of my chapter ideas end up on the (metaphorical) cutting room floor. Often the story or one of the characters leads me off in a new and unexpected direction and the pre-prepared scene doesn’t quite fit any longer. I never throw these scenes away, they just go into hiatus in my biscuit tin of ideas. (There’s quite a few of those scrapped scenes in there I can tell you!) The deleted scenes may well fit into a later book depending on the flow of the story. I never try to shoe horn extra scenes in…The Gunn Brothers wouldn’t stand for that.

      1. I have reused snippets here and there. I have two scenes that I am fond of but didn’t fit into my previous novels. They may well feature in my next thriller though.

  3. I’m sort of a “modified pantser,” I guess. I start with a premise. Then I add a rough story arc, and develop the characters I’ll want in the story. (There are always a few other characters that insinuate themselves as I go along). I rough out the plot by imagining the first scene, the conflict in the middle that keeps the reader interested, and an idea for the “knock-out ending” that Jim Bell describes in his book on plot and structure (the first book on writing that I read, and still one of the most helpful). Then I begin writing.

    Of course, there have been a couple of instances where I’ve written the first ten thousand words, only to have my first reader (my wife) suggest that I totally change the direction of my novel. After a couple of days of pouting, I take her advice…and it always turns out correct.

    1. I think regardless of where most authors start, they end up iterating or combining techniques depending on what stage of writing we’re at. I like your description!!!

    2. Richard, my husband in my first reader. When he tells me something doesn’t work or makes him uneasy, I listen. For one thing, he’s a smart man. For another, he reads books all the time. He’s never given me bum advice, so you’re smart to listen to your first reader!

      1. Ann, a spouse can be an excellent first reader, but it takes time for them to realize that what we want is the truth, not our egos spared. Once we find out our marriage will survive, we can plunge on.

    3. Richard, I started out a planner but as I wrote more, I began to be somewhere in between a plotter and a panster. So glad I don’t have to turn in a synopsis of my books before I write them! Great information here.

  4. Looks like I’m championing the pantser process. But actually, I like the term – gardener… I plant the seeds and see where the growing takes me. I am more like Richard in my process than James or Lane who seem to enjoy the planning stage.

    Why don’t I plan? I’m busy. I have a second job besides the writing gig. People would think the argument in support of outlining would work for me. But it doesn’t. If I pre-plan too much (on paper), I lose the love for the story. If I leave holes for the muse to step in, I’m always surprised at how on point the twists and turns of the story take my characters.

    When I start a book, I know the beginning, what characters (of my rapidly growing group of community players) I’m bring to the stage, and kind of where I want it to go. The elevator pitch. Then I set up a blank outline of 23-24 chapters, mark off my 25-50-75-90 percent points, and start writing out plot bullet points. When I have enough information for a few chapters, I start writing. I redo this chapter sheet whenever I lose the story or when it gets too messy. Sometimes, when lost in the middle of the writing, I do a separate page that lists out what needs to happen in each plot/subplot. Then those brainstorms go back on my list.

    Some would call this outlining. But it’s all on the fly.

    Keeping the girls in the basement working on the storyline while I craft the chapters lets me focus on the road while they read the roadmap.

  5. At heart, I’m a pantser–I strongly prefer new story smell and the first-draft writing of a story, exploring the arcs and trials together with the characters. However, my publisher requires that I turn in a synopsis beforehand, so I use that a skeletal map of main points to encounter in the story. That format has also transformed my methods for this type of story. Now, I plot out chunks of the story (maybe 6-8 chapters) at a time off that basic skeletal outline. It’s inevitable that I stumble upon some truth or some piece of knowledge or experience connected to my character that upends what I planned before I started journeying with them through the book. So, I stay flexible, begging my characters to give me a heads-up, but some are more obstinate than others and force me into a modified rewrite as I’m first-drafting. It’s like they forget who’s in charge or something.

    1. Ronie, even though we like to believe we are the ones in charge of the story, I really think a good character can take us down totally different paths, usually ones that are much more exciting and better than what we first envisioned. I suppose that’s one reason why I’m glad I don’t outline anymore. I like being able to deviate from what I thought I was going to write whenever I want to. As you said, flexibility is the key.

      1. LOL Yep, they are definitely in charge. 😛 My last line was said very tongue-in-cheek. If I couldn’t deviate from those skeletal outlines, I wouldn’t write!

  6. Like most fiction authors, I’ve taken how-to writing classes and consulted how-to books that claimed to possess all the secrets to writing and getting published: Have everything figured out before you actually start writing your book.

    Really? Following those pre-planning guidelines was not only agonizing, but frustrating. I tried every method and it all drove me crazy.

    From nothing more than an idea for the title, I sat down in 1993 and wrote a 25K-word novella without an outline or extensive character development. I sold that first book to Harlequin/WorldWide. It never occurred to me that I could write a longer book the same way because I’d been indoctrinated otherwise.

    After that, my writing came sporadically. I tried to follow the rules. I got discouraged, but I didn’t give up. I queried, I got rejections, I queried again…you get the picture. The rejections had a common theme: Too much mystery, not enough romance. How did I resolve that if the answer wasn’t in my outline? In 1997, I had a light bulb moment—write a mystery, leave out the romance! But again, I followed the rules and found myself in the same quandary. My writing took a backseat at that point, until finally, I wasn’t writing at all.

    By 2012, I decided to get serious about writing again. I made several important decisions simultaneously, the most important of which was to forget everything I’d learned about what you have to do before you ever start writing. I tackled the four unfinished manuscript files languishing inside my laptop from a new perspective.

    I ignored the old (and confusing) outlines and notes I’d accumulated on each book and instead, reexamined everything. I edited and rewrote, even though I loved a lot of what I removed. By the time I released the fourth of those books, I learned that a label had been attached to my newly adopted method of writing. I was a PANTSER (or as some call it, Panster). That meant I wasn’t alone in the world.

    Pantser isn’t a label I’m particularly fond of. I prefer to think of it simply as writing done my way. I get an idea for a book, or a title pops into my head, and I add it to my Word file, POSSIBLE BOOK IDEAS. When I sit down to write a book, I create a separate document, where I keep track of the characters, places, businesses, and any research I do as I go. I’ve settled into a routine that I’m comfortable with, and 22 books later, I’m not sorry I did.

    I wouldn’t give up my revised method of writing for anything. I know my way won’t work for everyone, but as a fiction writer, if things aren’t going well for you, you might want to try a less structured system, at least for one book, and see how it goes. When your brain is free of self-inflicted organizational restraints, you never know where it will go.

    1. Such a great idea to occasionally experiment with new processes & techniques! Thanks for the reminder!!!!

      1. Mysti, I feel like I’m still learning, especially when it comes to organizing my three series. All the characters and other elements are a challenge to keep track of. I recently changed my strategy for tracking everything, and I suppose down the road, I may have to do it again, but for now, it’s working.

    2. Hi Ann,
      I agree, it’s all about finding your own process. I know some writers who use programs when they’re outlining. That wouldn’t work for me because it would be just another toy – an excuse not to write. It works great for them, though.

      The outlining part of my process usually takes about a month. (My contract calls for a book every 9 months.)

      And it def changes as I go along.

  7. Everyone speaks as if there’s just one way to write – planning or pantsing. What many readers and authors miss is that don’t realize is that many times, stories happen in a mix of the two methods. I started out outlining – severely – noting everything from scene to scene, character traits, twists and turns, etc. I tend to write with a cinematic mind – I almost need to see things happening to get them from my mind to the page.
    I sold quite a few short stories using this method but had a couple of novel starts that fizzled. Then I tried NanoWrimo – writing an entire novel in one month (November) and yes, of course, it’s nearly impossible to pull off and what results is a definite first draft – full of warts and issues.
    I told myself I’d do it, no matter what, and went in with a strong idea of what I wanted to do, idea for the main character and plot points. Sitting on my porch every evening, I churned out 2-5K words until I fell asleep, sometimes while typing. I hit 60K for the month and didn’t finish the story but laid it aside for a month. When I returned to it, I realized how much the imagined, planned, story, deviated massively from what I imagined. And it worked. I allowed the characters to do what felt natural and said screw it.
    They frolicked and left the prison of the outline, which resulted in the easiest, most natural feeling story I’ve ever written.
    That novel right now is in the hands of agents, hopefully to be published soon.
    I’m not saying outlining is bad. FEAR THE REAPER took two years to research and plan but when writing it, things shifted left and right. I had historical events that needed to be kept straight, yet the characters took me into uncharted realms. It caused plenty of headaches, but I hope it turned out okay.
    If my muse is real, I know now she can’t be caged.

    1. David, I did NaNoWriMo three times and it really is a way to spur your writing on. I’ve gone on to publish all three books. I think the only thing wrong with NaNoWriMo is that it’s right before Thanksgiving, and I had to stop writing about 20 days in. I’m usually at about 57k words by then. The thing about the competition is that you are driven to produce. No matter what, you’re writing and that’s what it takes to finish the first draft of a book. Good luck with your book!

      1. Ann,
        Thanks! Yeah, happening during the holidays is NOT a good idea. I created my own Nano month last year after I missed the Juno one.
        It was fascinating to do but even then, I couldn’t until I digested what the book was all about and I knew the characters (or I thought I did!)

    2. I agree wholeheartedly–there isn’t just one way. We might have a way we prefer to write, but like you shared with your NaNo experience, I’ve found I can do it either way. I remember once telling my mentor when I first started out that I didn’t want a synopsis because I felt it trapped me in preplanned story. He told me to write the synopsis to get a feel for what might happen, then throw that synopsis away and write the story. It was brilliant advice!

      And then there was my serialized novel, a new concept my publisher asked me to attempt. But we had to write it 200k words in 120 days–and release the “episodes” as we went. So, I HAD to create a *very detailed outline in order for the story to have cohesion.

      Being flexible and trying new ways is not only a strong suit for a writer, it’s an adventure worth journeying on!

      It’s sort of like the saying–they aren’t rules, they’re more like guidelines. 😀

  8. Sounds like I’m right there with a lot of the others on this one.

    I used to be a proud pantser. Ask “What if?” or “Why would?” and dive in to see what happens. I thought strict, detailed outlining would destroy that first joy of experiencing the story for me.

    But as time has passed, I ended up collaborating with another author on around 40% of my novels. Obviously, you have to have a fair amount of planning during that process or there will just be too much wasted effort, miscues, and possibly some conflict (I don’t mean the good kind on the page, but the kind between collaborating authors…you know, the bad kind).

    I wouldn’t say the outlines that I’ve worked from with my collaborating authors (for the record, there’s been five different ones, all very different in style and personality) have been uber-detailed, but rather were more like solid bullet points. This way we both knew what was going to happen (and why), but there was still some room for discovery when you actually write (or read) the scene.

    On the solo front, my flagship RIVER CITY series and its spinoffs has gotten big enough (in terms of number of characters and events and interwoven stories) that outlining has become a necessity to keep things straight. And so, this method has invaded all of my solo work, which used to be much more pantser-ish. But as I saw how much quicker the process was in my collaborations and in my River City novels by using the loose, bullet point outline approach, I realized it’s the best way for me.

    But I will say this — whatever process works for you, that’s the write…er, RIGHT process.

    1. Frank, I see that you have seven books out in your River City series. Do you do anything besides bullet-point outlining to help keep your characters, events, subplots, etc. clear in your head?

    2. Frank, this has been my experience, too!! I was a die-hard pantser for the longest time, but then a serialized novel of 200K words being released every 30 days, required that I have a detailed outline. It was an insane adventure, but I sure learned a lot from it. And my attitude about the outline versus pantser thing changed a lot, too!

  9. I’m not just a plotter. I’m a hard-core plotter. My outline for Hollywood Ending came out to 25 pages. I’m a writer who hates to write so the blank page scares me!! When it comes to first figuring out the story, I break it down into three acts. Each act has a question that my main character, Dayna Anderson, is trying to answer.

    For example: The first book in the series, Hollywood Homicide, is about Day trying to solve a hit-and-run she witnessed. So the question of the first act is: What car hit the victim? She finally answers that question, but it only leads to a new one, which she investigates for the entire second act.

    For Hollywood Ending, which is about an Awards show publicist who is shot in a botched ATM robbery, the question is: Who shot the victim? She answers it and it only leads to another question.

    1. Kellye, your comment, “I’m a writer who hates to write,” has me curious. Once you get your 25-page outline completed, do you find that you then love to write your story?

  10. I never outline any of my books or short stories. Not only don’t I know the arc of the story before I begin, nor what’s going to happen in the next chapter, but I really don’t know what the next sentence is going to be. For me, this is the only way to write because it keeps things fresh…besides, if I don’t know what’s going to happen next, there’s a good chance the reader won’t either. It’s often worked to my advantage. For instance, my latest novel, Second Story Man, revolves around Francis Hoyt, a master burglar, pursued by two lawmen–Charlie Floyd and Manny Perez. At the point where Hoyt realizes the two men are after him, he begins to taunt them, even showing up at Floyd’s Connecticut house. I wrote the scene but when I got to the end of it something struck me. Hoyt is so arrogant, he wouldn’t just show up to taunt the two men pursuing him, he’d do something even more audacious and outrageous, something like stealing an item right out from under the noses of the two men. So, that’s exactly what I had him do: steal a valuable silver ashtray. I didn’t think this was in any way meaningful to the plot of the book, but as I reached the end I realized that this ashtray, an impulsive, unplanned act (both for Hoyt and me, the author) would prove to be his undoing.
    I’m not sure that if I actually plotted this out beforehand it would have worked as well.

    1. Charles, I like the way you describe the way you write! I, too, like the surprises that come and keep the story fresh. These days, I do most of my research as I write and I’m constantly amazed by unexpected discoveries and by how what I learn suggests new possibilities. I find myself going down unique paths that I might never have conceived before.

      1. That’s exactly what I mean, Ann. Somehow, the subconscious does its job and does, in fact, take us to places where we might not have gone had we outlined. But I think everyone should work the way that’s best for them. For instance, I’ve spent my life as a freelance writer, never knowing for sure where my next project would come from. Many people can’t live like that. They need structure. They need to know they have a weekly paycheck coming in. It’s not that my way is a better way, it’s just that it works for me…I hate structure, unless I’ve created it, and I don’t mind uncertainly–for a while, at least.

  11. For a long time, I was the very definition of a “by the seat of one’s pants” writer. Writing by gut, without an outline or structure, felt incredibly freeing. But it also meant that revisions and rewrites were extensive, as I had to go back to fix all kinds of plot, foreshadowing, and character issues. Now I tend to outline a bit more, which saves me a lot of time on subsequent drafts. If you’re writing a mystery or thriller that’s particularly intricate, plot-wise, I think having at least a generalized breakdown is essential, although I imagine there are writers out there who are spontaneous even when writing things that are hideously complex.

    1. Nick, have you thought about editing as you go, as a way of avoiding outlining? By that I mean, maybe reread what you wrote the day before and make any needed fixes then, to avoid having to do them later.

      1. I “micro-edit” throughout the process; just last night, with my current work-in-progress, I went back through 20 pages and revised a key character detail. But with “big” edits, such as plot twists or elements of the denouement, I’ve found it’s more of a time-saver to outline in the beginning than to try and edit in mid-stream; it’s easier to maintain details in my mind if everything has been mapped out and visualized beforehand.

        But that’s just my way of working; at this point, I feel like I’ve tried every permutation on laying out a story. I could see editing-as-one-goes working for folks with much better memories than me, who could hold all the necessary details in place in their minds. I’m also constantly paranoid that I’ll miss something during revisions and cause an inconsistency. 🙂

  12. I have always described myself as a “plotter” with “pantser” tendencies. When I begin a new project, I use both styles. I need the structure and framework of designing the basics of the plot and story arc up front because not doing so is a little too much spontaneity for my type A personality. I do not do a detailed outline because that would be way too much planning for my particular form of ADD! I enjoy having a little bit plotting and a little bit flying by the seat of my pants. It’s a fulfilling combination. The thrill of having some scenes and most details reveal themselves during the writing process within a predetermined framework is just right.

    Since I write historical suspense, I am often asked if I know how the mystery will be solved from the beginning. The beginning, middle, and end always form in my mind before the actual writing starts. As strange as this may seem, I write my novels the way I once wrote my college research papers: research, take a few notes, ponder, plan, plot, repeat, but never start on the actual manuscript until the framework is set. At that point, the words simply pour through my fingers onto the laptop screen. Of course, the agony of edits and revisions come next. Despite the hoary advise to just write and edit later, I simply am unable to go forward when I can see errors or a need for revisions right there on the page.

    I suspect that most writers have tales similar to mine. In my experience, it takes both the spontaneity of flying by the seat of one’s pants and the planning of plotting to produce one’s best work. Writing is a journey and I really do enjoy the best of both worlds!

    1. Linda,I’m with you on editing as you go. Every day when I sit down to write, I reread what I wrote the day before. This not only refreshes my memory, but it allows me to clean up my text. This is something I started to do when I abandoned outlines and took up plotting-as-I-go. It works for me and I find it results in less editing at the end.

      1. Very smart, Ann Simas. Read previous pages before writers no new so the flow is seamless, go back to plug holes or enrich or tighten scenes, the write forward! Hemingway is said to have written this way, and to have re-read the entire book each week!

        1. Carole, I didn’t used to do that because I’d always been taught to wait until the entire thing was done. Why? With the advent of computers, search-and-replace is a marvelous tool. If you have to fix something you wrote the day before, you can easily search for earlier places where it has to be fixed, as well. I didn’t know Hemmingway worked that way. I feel like I’m keeping good company, then!

      2. I do this, too…gets me in the right frame of mind for the session to come, fixes what I may have messed up before…I think it’s a great strategy!

        1. Frank, I’m so with you on this. Not only are you fixing, but it helps guide where your day’s writing will go. It really is a great strategy!

  13. That’s very much the way I write, Ann. I’ll write something and then, the next time I sit down to write again, I’ll go back to the beginning and reread it. It’s a way for me of getting into the rhythm of the character, the voices and the prose. Of course, once I get about half-way through the book, that’s pretty much set in my mind, so I don’t have to do that until I finish the whole thing. The result of this way of writing, I think, is that the first quarter to half of the novel is pretty well-edited, pretty smooth. The only flaw in this is that because I write without knowing exactly where I’m going, what happens in the novel sometimes necessitates changes in the beginning. But for me, that’s not all that much of a problem–in fact, I kind of like it. It gives me a feeling of the novel being organic and not forced.

    1. Charles, I agree, though I don’t think I would consider that a flaw in your method. I usually have in mind how I want a story to end, but sometimes, it goes entirely different. I don’t mind making changes to the earlier narrative to accommodate that difference. Call me crazy, but I actually like editing, though I find that the more books I write, the more polished they are by the end. When I write my long books (125-150K), I usually keep track of the days by inserting the day of the week in red. Sometimes, I get myself into trouble, but it’s always fixable. For instance, in my last book, I had two Thursdays in the week. That got a little complicated, because I needed the events of both days to happen, but I got it straightened out. I guess that’s the joy of being the writer–words can come and go and be rearranged until everything comes out right.

      1. That’s why I’m so glad we have copyeditors and editors who can pick up those things we inevitably miss, because we’re so close to things. And it’s good to have someone who’s a little OCD, like one of my editors at Down & Out, Lance Wright. He tends to pick up things I’d miss even if I reread something ten times.
        But like you, I actually like the rewriting/editing process. It’s a lot easier for me than actually staring at a blank page and hoping I can make it come alive.

  14. Here are some things I’ve observed over the years:

    1. There’s a strong correlation between being math phobic and hating outlines.
    2. All humans crave structure–but not all humans crave it on a conscious level in their work product. For example, human language is incredibly well-structured. Yet we never decided: “let’s distribute sounds evenly throughout the mouth; let’s agree on word order and whether or not a sentence needs an explicit subject,” yet all languages do follow a specific set of rules. That’s structure, like an outline. But not everybody loves studying syntax or using outlines.
    3. Pantser vs. plotting seems similar to “technique vs. method” for actors: whether you start on the inside and work out, or start on the outside and work in, you end up with a great performance. I truly believe the same is true for exploring first vs. structuring first.
    4. Many writers I know who have published 4 or more books iterate between exploring and structuring, depending on where they are.
    5. Plotting may save you from a sagging middle, but it can strangle your innovation if you stick to the outline even when everything says “reroute! reroute!” Pantsing may keep it fresh, but you can easily write 20k words that you will never use. There is no perfect solution, merely a choice of which dangers to avoid.

    I’m a hard-core structure-first person (with wee bits of exploring at very specific stages), but of course I am! I loved calculus class, spent all four years at Uni in one or another syntax class, and after that studied screenwriting, which is impossible without a deep commitment to consciously structuring your plot (for 90% of screenwriters, anyway). It doesn’t mean my way is better, or at all suited to any other writer. it’s just a reflection of who I am, and how I learned to write.

    There are no rules, merely guidelines. And whether your process is to sit in a bath, ride an elephant, or rent hotel rooms for 24-hour bursts, if it works for you, it’s the right process!

    1. Mysti,

      I envy you your love of math…or at least your skill at it. My son is a math whiz, but I am decidedly average at it, and most definitely not a lover of it!

      I think your correlation is bang on. My “English person, not a math person” (though I’ve always been a “history person,” too) definitely made me a pantser early on in my career. With short stories, it’s easier to get away with, too. But slowly, I’ve evolved to having a decent, bullet point outline. Probably nothing like Kellye’s 25 pages, but still a lot more than I used to do.

      You’re right, though — there are no rules, only what works for you.

    2. Mysti, all we can do as writers is share what works for us, but you and Frank are right. How we get those words down is not a methodology set in stone. We can share how we do it and someone else can come along and try all or part of how we do it, but in the end, they gotta do it their way. (It always reminds me of the Frank Sinatra song, “My Way.”) To each his or her own, and may the Word Fairy shine down on all of us.

      (P.S. I’m not a math whiz, either, but I’m always amazed at what I still remember from my Algebra and Stat classes when I need to use it.)

    3. I especially agree with number 5, Mysti. I think, at least for me, if I purposely leave “clues” that I’ve worked out beforehand, it’s going to be so obvious to the reader. But if I just “make things up” as I go along, and I’m surprised by them, or the direction the novel is taking, then there’s a good chance the reader will be, too. In my latest, that’s just what happened and readers refer to it as a surprise ending. I wasn’t trying to write a surprise ending, though–it just turned out that way because frankly, I was surprised, too.
      It also happened with my novel, Devil in the Hole (which was based on a true crime). When I got to the end I had no idea how I was going to resolve it, but it just came to me (not in a dream) and I think I avoided a stale, predictable ending by doing it that way. Often, the characters dictate where the story is going to go.

    4. Mysti – Very true!! And I love this part:

      There are no rules, merely guidelines. And whether your process is to sit in a bath, ride an elephant, or rent hotel rooms for 24-hour bursts, if it works for you, it’s the right process!

    5. Mysti, your comment about being math-phobic makes me wonder if Lee Child is a plotter or pantser, since the math certainly comes through in some of his Jack Reacher books. And thanks for mentioning riding an elephant–haven’t tried that one.

  15. After reading through the comments, it is clear that what I have always believed about writing is accurate. Each writer must find the system that works for them. I often told my middle school students that reading and writing are skills just like throwing a winning touchdown pass or playing a musical composition perfectly. They must be practiced in order to improve. I know my own system has modified as I have grown as an author through practicing the craft. I have moved a little more toward pantser than when I first began this journey. Has anyone experienced a dramatic change as they progressed as a writer?

    1. I gave up outlining, extensive character profiles, and researching ahead of time. Now when I’m ready to tackle one of my many book ideas, I sit down and start writing. The words come so much more easily for me now. I had no idea that abandoning one method of writing could be so freeing for me.

      1. That’s really interesting, Ann! It just goes to show how each of us must find our own winning combination! I still need the framework, but one day I may just give your method a try. As long as I write historical, I doubt I can ever give up research, however.

      2. That’s really interesting, Ann! I may move more toward pantsing, but as long as I write historical, I doubt I will ever give up doing some research before I begin.

      3. Ann,
        Though I’m a serious outliner, the very thought of a character profile makes me anxious. I never have nor ever will write down the details the writing books tell you to.

  16. I’m a planner. I make a very detailed outline/summary of the book, almost chapter by chapter. I’m not sure I could write a book without it now. In a way, the detailed outline of the book serves as a kind of first draft, a place where I try to answer as many of the tough questions as possible before I write the book. Inevitably, I can’t anticipate everything, but it does manage to save some time.

    I think of the outline as a roadmap. I wouldn’t start a long car trip without a sense of the route I was going to take. (Unless I had all the time in the world.) Same goes for writing a book.

    1. David, I am with you on the need for a framework. While I do not do a detailed outline, I do compose in Scrivener and take full advantage of the synopsis cards provided for each chapter and the cork board display to view them all at one time. Very helpful in keeping up with the plot points of each chapter and for making plot notes for to-be-written chapters.

      1. Interesting. I think I would get hopelessly lost without the outline. But then I’m always tempted to try without one and see what happened. It would be interesting to try and see the result…

  17. Question for pantser thriller authors: how do you deal with the twists and turns, tight plots, and overall structure?
    As someone who’s experimented with both, I love the impulsive nature of winging it but find the editing process afterwards much, much harder than with having any sense of a outline, however thin it may be, especially with historical or technical details.

    1. I think you get better answers when you don’t take the first one. I know I’ve taken a wrong turn when the book isn’t working. I think you have to follow your gut on how it works for you.

    2. I don’t really write thrillers, David, but my answer would be that somehow the story unfolds for me as I’m writing. It’s as if I’m seeing a movie in my head and I’m just following it along, transcribing what I see. This doesn’t happen all the time, because often intellect and experience kicks in. But when I see that I’m heading for something expected or stereotypical, I purposely throw a “grenade” into the scene, something unexpected, and it seems to work for me. Here’s an example. In my second Swann, Swann Dives In, I have him up at Syracuse University following a lead. He meets a beautiful professor. I thought, you know, the expected thing is that they’re going to flirt and probably wind up in bed. How do I avoid that? So, I made her a lesbian, which cut out the obvious and forced me into being creative in terms of how I dealt with their relationship in terms of the book.

    3. David, since I started “pantsing,” I primarily do my research as I write now. I often learn new things I can add to my stories, and usually those things are unusual and offer me a twist or a turn I hadn’t thought of before.

      I’m somewhat impulsive, too, so even if I have an idea in mind for how a story should go, I often change directions in midstream and find the new idea works much better. Sometimes, my character dialogue/interaction takes me in a new direction. There are even times when I’m not sure where I’m going. If that happens, sometimes it comes to me quickly if I think about. Other times, I deliverate for several days, and sometimes I just write anyway. I can always change it later, if need be.

      I guess one of the fun things about writing for me is all the surprises I encounter. I usually have some subplots going, and none of my thrillers are short, because they are complicated. Once in a while, my bad guy turns out not to be my bad guy, and once I killed off a bad guy just because he was annoying me. The advantage of being the writer is that I can do that. 🙂

      As far as overall structure, I usually mark the day of the week in red when the calendar day turns over for my characters. My books tend to cover fairly short periods of time, and characters have days off, or events, etc., so I want to be sure I’m not getting all that mixed up. I also keep a separate Word doc of all the characters, businesses, places, and so forth, along with my research finds. Since I’m on my laptop writing, it’s easy to add to and quick for verification, if I can’t remember something. I always reread what I wrote the day, which includes editing. Once my first draft is done, I find I have to do fewer edits, which also helps me concentrate on finding inconsistencies that might exist.

    4. David, I find that I often get ideas about twists and turns while writing. Sometimes I have to think about it for a while–let what Stephen King calls “the boys in the basement” work on it–but thus far it’s worked for me.

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