Panster vs. Plotter: The Definitive Answer
“No one can write a book without an outline,” the New York Times #1 Bestselling author said to the assembled audience of mystery/thriller novelists, aspiring writers, and fans. There was not the slightest provisional hint in his tone. He was speaking ex cathedra. This was the first line of his papal encyclical on how to write a novel.
The interviewer tended to agree with him. Said that one could never get anywhere unless he (sic) knew his destination.
“And had a map to get there,” Mr. Smug Bestseller added.
I have 17 years of Catholic school education and an upbringing of excellent lessons in politeness from my parents and grandparents. I flew in the face of it all. I could not stay in my seat. From the last row in the auditorium, I stood, looking as good natured as ever, and striking a jocular, arms-akimbo pose, I called out the names E.L. Doctorow and John Fowles. And retook my seat.
Mr. Bestseller looked confused. Mr. Interviewer offered that E.L. Doctorow had said something about writing being like driving at night. I held my tongue while they continued to insist that no one could write a novel without a very detailed outline. They both accused “pantsers” of secretly writing outlines and just not admitting it.
How dare they accuse us pantsers of being either incapable or lying about not using outlines?
For those of you who don’t know the terms: In writing circles, a plotter is an author who writes an outline of the story before beginning to draft the scenes of the book. A pantser starts with a few ideas or characters and jumps right into telling the story without knowing exactly what is going to happen.
Outliners, not always with the above self-satisfied attitude, often say that their way is the right way. I have never heard a pantser say such a thing. At that conference, I did not shout out more than the two author names above. But I have been ruminating about this off and on ever since. Here is what I would have said had I been in a position to do so.
Okay, Mr. Interviewer and Mr. Smug Bestseller. You plotters need a map. We pantsers are the explorers, the mapmakers. We journey forth and draw the map as we go along. We trust that some of those dark alleys we wind up in have the potential of leading us to the most creative ideas we ever have.
Here is how I think we can put this subject to rest forever. The overriding most basic fact: Unless an author is telling the same old story, all novelists are pantsers when they start a book. How else could the plotters write an outline, except by pantsing their way to the end of the story? Answer me that!
Plotters begin by writing down, in shorthand, the story they are pantsing. When they are done, they use the result of their pantsing as an outline for fleshing out the story and making it into a book. Pansters do the same thing, except that we write in longhand from the beginning, so that when we are done, so is the book. One way is NOT better than the other. All writers have to find their own way to a process that yields a good book.
Originally published on Murder Is Everywhere.
MWA-NY Chapter President Emerita Annamaria Alfieri’s first novel, City of Silver, was named one of the best debut mysteries of the year by Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine. Her short stories have been published in Queens Noir and Sunshine Noir. She is the author of Blood Tango and two other historical mysteries set in South America as well as a new series set in East Africa in the early 20th century, beginning with Strange Gods. Its sequel, The Idol of Mombasa, was published this fall.
NEXT WEEK, BECOME A PITCHER WHO CLOSES
John Grisham is a believer in the Elevator Pitch. You know, the one where you get on a lift with an editor or agent and hook the unsuspecting soul with a summary of your story that makes the "This is my floor" ding coincide with the light bulb appearing over his or her head. Assuming we all might learn something from a Southern ex-lawyer who’s sold a book or two, Grisham told Writer’s Digest, “If you can’t describe what a book is about in one or two sentences, you don’t have a story worth telling.”
Here’s our pitch to you: In just 90 minutes next week, Pitch Perfect, our MWA-NY panel event, which includes an agent, an editor, and two bestselling authors, will make you better at pitching, regardless of whether you are a hopeful, a beginner, or a published writer. Ding?
Why is pitching such a big deal? It isn't just because it is the key portal between you and a sale; it’s more than that. Pitching’s a big deal because it scares the crap out of most writers. That’s, in part, because the stakes are so high. But what makes it even more daunting is this: Selling simply isn’t where most of us feel comfortable. William Butler Yeats understated things when he said that “a work of art is the social act of a solitary man.” Or woman, of course. So many of us are wired to be introverts. It’s what made us writers to begin with. But what we conceive and dream alone, huddled over our glowing screens or inky notebooks, grappling privately with our hopes and insecurities, must eventually be brought Out There to that scary place—to be pitched. And there’s plenty to scare us.
Nightmare Pitch. I was a brand new story editor on the NBC series Night Court. Story pitch day, and I was up. Not to be intimidated or anything, but I was in a room full of seven fellow writers, pitching to the series creator/executive producer/uber-curmudgeon, Reinhold Weege. I pitched my lips off for five minutes, weaving my story idea, including dialogue snippets, sample jokes, the works. When I was done, Reiny took a deep drag off his cigarette, squinted at me through the smoke, and leveled me with a single word. " . . . And?"
Nightmare Pitch. Friends of mine, a writing team, had just enjoyed the thrill of a major studio producing one of their scripts as a movie. Riding that success, they met with a big producer to pitch him their next project. Finished after 20 minutes. The producer paused and said, “Why would you bother?” He swiveled his chair to show them his back, and they were ushered out by an assistant. They took that as a pass.
Dream Pitch. Of course, there’s the flip side. My agent had booked me for a meet-and-greet with a TV producer. He was running late, so, as I waited, a film producer who was also waiting introduced himself, and small talk led him to ask what I’d been working on. I told him I’d just finished a spec screenplay. He asked what it was about. Mindful of my impending meeting, I made it brief. When I finished he said, “I want to option that.” Don’t hate me, but he actually did, and contacted my agent that afternoon. To this day, I wonder, if I’d had the time to really prepare a formalized pitch, would it have sold?
What are the common elements? We take weeks, months, sometimes years of work, and pin everything on a paragraph. Unless the elevator is to the top floor of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, that need to be pithy, to get it said in 25 words or fewer, is like trying to stuff a booming Fourth of July fireworks finale into a Ziploc. It’s sweet when it sells. When it doesn’t, not so much. But the thing is, with all that’s on the line and with the investment of time, sweat, sacrifice, and soul you have put into your darling, why wouldn’t you do something to overcome the hurdle and get better at pitching?
And everyone can. Aspirant or veteran.
Of the myriad obstacles to completing and selling your book or story, pitching should not be one of them. If you take an objective view, a pitch should not be an obstacle, but an opportunity. Come on, it's a chance to sell your work! Grab it! Easier said? Let’s unpack things:
What's your obstacle? Is it the pitch itself? Really? Or is it within you? Things like:
• Lack of preparation
• Stage fright
• Low self-esteem (and all its bastard cousins)
Those internals — the psychological aspects — those are real, aren’t they? You bet. And not to be ignored. Nor should they be sources of shame. But there must be some way to manage them, right? A few weeks after my Night Court nightmare, I attended a Writers Guild of America retreat at Lake Arrowhead, and one of the speakers was a psychologist who worked with creative people. Later, at the cocktail reception, I told her about my pitch anxiety, and she gave me the best advice I have ever gotten. Happy to share.
The psychologist said that in pitch situations most of us are geared to be worried about being judged personally. How am I sounding? How are they liking me so far? Should I make more eye contact? Am I smiling enough? Should I have gone with the corduroy pants? Did they notice my voice crack? Did that line just fall flat? (Sound familiar?) The life-changing advice she gave me was to forget about my performance–to forget about myself–and to focus solely on whether I am clearly conveying information to them. Period. Full stop.
All right, so that helped me, and I hope it is of use to you. But I am still—and always—on the hunt to find ways to get better at pitching. Which is why the MWA-NY Pitch Perfect event coming up next week is so essential. To me. To anyone who has to pitch. Which is most of us. Here’s an authoritative way of looking at it from mega-selling author (and member of our New York Chapter), Nelson DeMille, in a Chicago Tribune interview. “It's not good if you don't know what to do with a manuscript once you've finished with it. A lot of young writers don't have a clue about that. You've got to do your industry homework. If you're writing just for yourself, fine. But if you want to be published by a major publisher and have people read what you write, you really need to know how the business works. I think that's one of the saddest things I can think of: a good manuscript that goes nowhere because it's been written by someone who doesn't know what to do with it.”
And that means pitch it.
Your opportunity is waiting for you Monday, December 12, 5:30 – 7 p.m., at the NYPL’s Bloomingdale Library, 150 West 100th Street (between Columbus and Amsterdam).
We have assembled an all-star panel: Amy Stapp, a leading New York book editor at Tor/Forge (Macmillan), Paul Stevens, a top agent with the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and Jason Starr, an international bestselling author of suspense novels (as well as comics and graphic novels), all of whom will be there with one goal: to talk you through the harrowing process of pitching your project. The panel with be moderated by New York Times bestselling author David Grann. Note: There will be an expanded Q&A session to allow audience members to question the experts—and to try out their pitches and get feedback on the spot.
This event also marks the annual kick-off of the MWA Mentor Program. If you are interested in finding a mentor, information and applications will be available. Admission is free and open to all. Seating is limited and filling fast, so click here to register.
Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under a pseudonym, he has authored seven New York Times Bestsellers. He currently serves as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter.
A few years back, an acquaintance confessed to me that he was a closet poet. Since I had spent some of my youth nursing dreams of being the next e.e. cummings, Dorothy Parker, or Ogden Nash, I asked him who his influences were. “The only person I read is Charles Bukowski,” he said.
After reading his work I understood — it was the same prosaic, she-done-me-wrong boozy confessional style as Bukowski, intercut with the same kind of tiny slices of mundane revelation like so many rays of late afternoon sun cutting through a basement barroom’s shades. In other words, dreary, clichéd stuff. I implored him to consider, at the very least, reading Bukowski’s contemporaries and influences in both poetry and prose: Robinson Jeffers, William Saroyan, d.a. levy, John Fante, Corso, Ginsberg, and so on. He looked at me like I was crazy.
Sometimes, we in the genre world can suffer from a similarly myopic view of what constitutes literature — this gets even worse when you consider the various sub-genres, like my beloved traditional mysteries. Can you imagine telling someone, “Sorry, I only read cupcake cozies”?
For my own Bert Shambles series, I was influenced by many characters and writers: yes, there was Bernie Rhodenbarr and Stephanie Plum; of course I channeled Philip Marlowe and Nick and Nora and Bertie Wooster — but there is just as much of Robert Walser’s “Little man behind a desk” stories as any mystery, crime, or detective fiction. I leaned on Dawn Powell and Villiers; both J.K. Rowling and J.K. Huysmans; Ernest Hemingway and The Importance of Being Earnest. In other words, I will use everything and anything in my writing — nothing is ever off-limits.
That doesn’t make me immune to weak writing, clichés or other pitfalls, of course. But expanding your reading list will give you many more raw materials to work with, and give you the courage to try new things. I know that I’m not here to regurgitate the past masters and try to be like them; the challenge is to find my own authentic voice, using the tools and techniques already discovered by greater talents than myself, in whatever genre or style they perfected.
T.S. Eliot — a guy who knew something about poetry — once wrote: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Which kind of poet do you want to be?
Tim Hall had a long and colorful career as a journalist, musician, bike messenger and moving man–experiences that help shape his fiction and give his characters the humanity, humor and empathy. His crime fiction has appeared in Thuglit, BIGnews, and Chicago Reader, and a story with S.A. Solomon will be featured in the upcoming Cannibal Cookbook anthology. He is the author of the Bert Shambles Mysteries, a New Adult mystery series published by Cozy Cat Press. The first installment, Dead Stock, was called “one of the best novels of 2013" by Splice Today. The second in the series, Tie Died, was published in 2015. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.
WRITER, ARTISTS, OR OTHERWISE: HERE’S WHY TALENT ISN’T ENOUGH
A now a word from the Guest of Honor at our Revels on December 7. Click here for more information and to register.
For years I've gotten into hot water with my peers and aspiring writers at “how to” conferences and workshops for my liberal use of an apparently taboo word: talent. It took me a while to figure out why that word elicited such ire. Depending upon your worldview, talent is either a gift from God or a matter of genetic serendipity. But regardless of whether you believe it comes in on little cats' feet or is a result of great grandma marrying the wine merchant instead of the tailor, one thing is true about talent: It can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t. You can have all the panels you want on how to build a better website, how to create a foolproof marketing plan, how to write a great first sentence, or how to outline a dynamic plot. None of it will matter if you don’t have writing talent.
What my detractors often fail to hear above the din of their booing is that talent isn’t enough. As a philosophy professor might say, talent is requisite, not sufficient. And what else no one seems to hear is that you only need a little bit of it. Do I have writing talent? Yes. Either that or a lot of publishers have lost their collective minds. But I can’t tell you how much talent I have. And it’s not my talent alone that’s gotten twenty-five of my novels published. Here’s a secret: it’s not Lee Child’s talent or Janet Evanovich’s or Daniel Woodrell’s talent either. It’s what they do with what they’ve got. Does luck play a role? Of course it does. Luck and chance play a role in every aspect of life.
In Brooklyn, I grew up playing ball with a kid, Lee Mazzilli, who was a gifted athlete. He was just better than the rest of us at everything athletic. He was the first round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1973. The thing is, when he got to the minors, everyone else on the field was also the best kid among their friends, the best in their town, the most talented. But only a small percentage of the people in the minors ever sniff the major leagues. Lee made it to the majors, hit a home run in an All-Star game, won a world championship with the Mets in '86, and even managed the Orioles for a few months. Was he talented? Yes. How talented? I don’t know, but I bet he worked really hard at his craft.
There's yet another thing no one seems to hear. There is only one way to find out if you’ve got that requisite amount of talent: to try. And by trying, I don’t mean writing one novel or short story and endlessly tinkering with it. I once told an editor that I have my writing and I have my children, but I never get them confused. If you want to be a writer, write. Don’t be stingy. Write a lot. Write every day. There is no such thing as wasted writing. A few years ago when I was still teaching at Hofstra University, I wanted to make a point of this to my class. So I went back and did a rough calculation of how many words I’d written in my lifetime. The number I came up with was four million. Okay, I confess, some of those words were grocery lists, but mostly not. I’ve added about four or five hundred thousand to the total since then.
Lastly, I try to make the point that writing and publishing aren’t the same thing. Writing is art and publishing is commerce. There’s a fuzzy, wavy, constantly moving point at which they intersect and there is very little a writer can do to control where that point is or will be. In fact, there is little a writer can do to control anything beyond the words he or she put down on the page or screen. This is something else that gets me in trouble. Because I am always telling aspiring writers to focus only on their writing. In a way, it’s me getting back to my original point. A writer can only discover his or her talent in their work and their work is the key to their success or failure. Websites, marketing plans, finding an agent are things that should come after the work, not before it.
—Reed Farrel Coleman
This essay was previously published in Signature. Photo by Paula Lanier.
A New York Times bestselling author called a hard-boiled poet by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan and the “noir poet laureate” in the Huffington Post, Reed Farrel Coleman is the author of novels, including Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone series, the acclaimed Moe Prager series, short stories, and poetry. Coleman is a three-time Edgar Award nominee in three different categories—Best Novel, Best Paperback Original, Best Short Story—and a three-time recipient of the Shamus Award for Best PI Novel of the Year. He has also won the Audie, Macavity, Barry, and Anthony Awards. A former executive vice president of Mystery Writers of America, he is an adjunct instructor of English at Hofstra University and a founding member of MWA University.