#Bloganuary Day 6

Who is someone who inspires you?

Many people inspire me for many reasons, but the one who comes to mind right now is Tony Hillerman.

When I began writing mystery and suspense fiction, I thought I had to know the whole story before I started. It’s like what they teach in English class–first you outline, then you write.*

Good mystery plots are tight. They’re puzzles; everything has to fit. Clues have to be planted in the right places. Events have to happen at the right time and in the right order. Red herrings have to be put in specific places. Advance plotting makes sense.

I admire Ruth Rendell, whose novels are, as far as I’m concerned, perfectly plotted. At the end, the puzzle has been solved. Then, in the last chapter, sometimes on the last page, she slides one more bolt into place. How could she do that without knowing everything from the beginning?

There are a zillion books on how to write, so I read several whose authors stated that plots have to be carefully thought out. One author said every scene must be sketched out in advance on a note card, and always in sequence–never jump ahead.

I was working on a novel. At the time, I knew only the first five or six scenes, and I believed note cards would help me progress. So I bought note cards–and more note cards–and sketched out the same scenes, over and over. Sounds stupid and it was.

I pretended to be writing a novel but my brain was empty. I met with my critique group every week but submitted nothing, and wondered when they were going to kick me out. The other members tolerated me because, first, they were nice people, and, I think, they liked my comments on their manuscripts. I can offer decent criticism. I drank a lot of coffee and enjoyed their company and read some great writing.

Then I came across an essay by Tony Hillerman describing his writing process. He would start a book with a vague idea of where he was going but no set plot. Once, he said, a dog appeared–he didn’t know why, but he wrote the dog into his draft; later, the dog played an important part in the story. He gave a number of similar examples. At the outset, Hillerman said, he didn’t know exactly where he was going, but he got there in the end.

In fact, he said the only book he plotted out in detail before writing turned out to be the worst book he ever published.

That essay gave me hope. I usually begin with a character and a line and a vague idea of what happens next–but not necessarily what happens after that. I’ve published short stories, and every one began that way.

I’m not a plotter. I’m a pantser. I write by the seat of my pants.

My novel is still in partial draft form (Hillerman’s essay didn’t inspire me to get down to business and finish the thing). But I have written a lot more than five or six scenes and have even jumped ahead and drafted the ending. I’ve figured out what characters will do, and when–maybe–but they sometimes surprise me. Their ideas are often better than mine, so I let them lead. I’ve relaxed. Mysteries do have to be tightly plotted, but not from page #1 of draft #1.

E. L. Doctorow, author of Ragtime, said “Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go …It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I don’t know whether Doctorow was talking about pantsing, but his definition of writing as exploration fits with Hillerman’s description of his process.

So. That’s how I learned I’m a pantser.

I learned something else, too: When authors say, “This is the only way you can write fiction”–what they’re really saying is, “This is the only way I can write fiction.”

We all have to find our own way.


*If they’re still teaching to outline in detail first, they shouldn’t be. If you can outline an essay, you’ve already written it in your head. Sometimes students’ heads are empty, and they have to start writing to find out what they know about the topic. Then, when they have some ideas on paper, they can organize them. In the words of E. M. Forster, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

Further note: I taught English and for the first years told students to outline before writing their essays. It had never worked for me, but that’s what I’d been taught, so I passed the word along. Participation in a seminar following guidelines of the Bay Area Writing Project gave me a new perspective, and I gave students a break–write first, outline later.


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I am a pantser.

I wish I could say that isn’t as bad as it sounds, but I can’t.

Pantser is one of the words I’ve learned since starting work on my novel. It means someone who writes by the seat of his pants, without an outline or other planning tools.

It’s the opposite of plotter. The plotter thinks things out before beginning. He may have a detailed outline, a timeline, character sketches, spreadsheets, charts, who knows what.

I certainly don’t know what. I’m a pantser. I start with a character, a setting, and a sentence, often a line of dialogue.

When I described my method, or lack of it, to a published writer, she was not amused.

Well, actually, she was. She laughed and told me I’d better get to outlining.

I tried. Outlining, as I’ve said before, gives me the fantods.

If I know what I’m going to write before I write it, outlining is no problem.

Some things must be planned. If I’d tried to write my master’s thesis without an outline, I’d still be sitting in front of that baby blue Smith-Corona electric typewriter, wondering where to start.

But I’d already gone through an entire year of reading, recording, scribbling, mulling over, talking to myself, boring my office mates, and engaging in various other obsessive-compulsive behaviors commonly known as pre-writing, before I typed the outline onto that official form and presented it for my adviser’s signature.

I have to approach fiction in a similar fashion. Until I know my characters–their names, their relationships, their backstories, their personalities, their likes and dislikes, their secrets, dreams, desires–I can’t outline the plot.

The only way I can know all those things is to let the characters tell me. And before they can talk to me, I have to write.

So. Knowing I’m a pantser (though the term yet), and being told I had to be a plotter, I gave plotting one more try. Then I slid into the Slough of Despond.

But for three things, I would be wallowing there still. First was an article in which mystery writer Tony Hillerman identified himself as a pantser and described how the process worked for him. It was slow, he said, but he eventually got there. If someone of Hillerman’s caliber could pants his way through novel after novel, perhaps there was hope that I could turn out one.

Second was a panelist at a meeting of the Writers’ League of Texas who said–and I quote–“I start with a character and a setting and a line of dialogue.” I was sitting in the front row that night, and when she came out with that confession, I wanted to run up and hug her.

(She also said she doesn’t plow through her first draft to the end, but periodically stops, goes back, and revises. “Sometimes,” she said, “when I get the language just right, that sparks a new idea, and I suddenly have a new path to explore.” Well, bless her heart. I do the same thing, and I’d thought that was wrong, too.)

The third thing that helped pull me from the mire was the fact that I do, in some circumstances, have the sense God promised a monkey. I knew there had to be more than one way to write a novel.

Still, the process–going where no woman has gone before without map or compass, making it up as you go along–is backward and contradictory and just plain scary. For control freaks, it can be paralyzing.

I’m a control freak. An impatient control freak. I want to do it right the first time, and I want to do it right now.

When I recently confessed to another writer that I’d been stalled for a while, she said, “Why?”

At least a half-dozen things have contributed to my inertia, but for the most part it comes down to the desire to control. And poor memory. And impatience. And lack of faith.

I forget that the surest way to get unstuck is to relax and let the story tell itself.

When I find myself so tangled up in words that all I can do is talk about how tangled up I am, I head for the bookstore. This time I came out with Jane Vandenburgh’s The Architecture of the Novel.

It’s a good book. It says, as I knew it would, to relax and let the story tell itself.

But Vandenburgh goes further. The story knows how to tell itself and it will find its own plot. First, write scenes–no backstory, no memory, no flashbacks, no thinking, no summary, no cause and effect, no consequences, no chapters, no sequencing, no beginning or ending. All those things belong to plot. Structure belongs to plot. No whywhy belongs to plot.

Just tell what happens, be a witness, a noticer, a sensate camera.

I spent over an hour today reading Chapter 2, slowly, taking notes. I wanted to rush–Confession: I’ve had the book for nearly a month, and I’ve rushed through it several times and come out with nothing. It’s not a book to be hurried. I made myself read, think, record. I made myself sit in a coffee shop for over an hour, reading,thinking, recording.

It was like being in school again.

Tomorrow I’ll type up my notes, read the chapter again, push away the compulsion to move on to Chapter 3.

Chapter 3 is about plot. I’m not ready for that yet.

First I have to go back to pantsing, this time bare bones, telling the story in scenes stripped of backstory and digression and what Vandenburgh calls beautiful language. I have to relax and let the story tell itself.

How will that work with my need to get the language just right in order to spark new ideas?

I have no idea. The question makes me, quite frankly, a little queasy.

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