Plotters and Pantsers

A Christian novelists group I belong to recently had a discussion about how to write a novel—which essentially boiled down to a debate between plotters and pantsers. Plotters outline the full book before starting to write. Pantsers write “by the seat of their pants”—they start writing with no clear idea of where their book is headed. Many writers use a combination of the two approaches. The discussion stimulated me to write down how I do it. Here is the result.

I could probably be categorized as an informal plotter.

For me, it all starts with a big idea. Sometimes a setting and a big idea. The big idea might be an issue I want to explore or an insight I want to share. For a murder mystery, the big idea is usually who killed whom and how and why. If I don’t have a big idea, there is no point writing anything.

Then I let the idea percolate for months or years. Over time, more details are added and filed away in my mind, a Word document, a file folder filled with scraps of paper, or all three. The additions will include characters, subplots, an opening and ending, key words or phrases, connections, timelines, sequences of events, descriptions, bits of dialogue, or even whole pages of description or dialogue.

When the time is ripe (when I have some spare time or when the idea grows too big and powerful to ignore), I start writing. I start at the beginning and write until I reach the end, more or less. The story is filled out with new details, new plot nuances, and even new characters, but the basic outline of the book usually does not change.  Some new details emerge that I file away for inclusion later in the book or that I go back and insert into the already written parts of the book. At this stage, I will also establish a formal written stylesheet containing a detailed timeline, character descriptions, and other details that I need to keep straight. The writing process can go quickly. I have said I could write a novel in a month of hard work, 1,500-2,000 words a day (although that never happens)—as long as that month was preceded by months or years of pondering and percolating the plot and other details.   

During the writing process, at night I will often think through the next section of the book as I lie in bed waiting to go to sleep. The next morning, I get up and write down what my conscious and unconscious mind has produced. (The one danger in this approach is that sometimes the ideas that come are so clear and fresh that I just have to get up in the middle of the night and write them down before they are lost.) If I get struck in the writing, I may let the book lie fallow for a few days or weeks while my mind gradually works through where the story should go from here. Obviously, I let the story dictate when I finish, not a publisher’s deadline.

Every writer has his or her own way of writing. Writing is a creative process and cannot be reduced to following a set of rules or a standard technique. And some approaches work better than others for specific genres.

For romance novels, the ending is to be taken for granted (they live happily ever after), so a pantser can start out on the writing journey without working out the plot in advance and let the plot and the characters develop along the way. That makes sense because that is how romantic relationships develop—neither person knows at the beginning where the relationship will lead or how it will develop.

On the other hand, I write murder mysteries, and that approach does not work so well for my genre. As a READER of mysteries, I find a lot of the enjoyment is trying to figure out whodunit before the author reveals it. That means that at the end of the book, I should say, “That is the only solution that makes sense in terms of the characters and plot, and all the clues were there, so I should have figured it out but didn’t (or I did figure it out).” So, when a pantser writes a murder mystery with no clear ending in mind, it does not work as well. The pantser often presents several red herrings (suspects) and then at the end picks one to be the killer. When I read such a book, I feel cheated because it could equally have been any one of several other suspects and I had no real chance of figuring it out. Therefore, as a WRITER of mysteries, I have to have the solution (the beginning and ending) worked out from the start. Like God, I have to know the end from the beginning (Isaiah 46:10).

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Springtime in Winnipeg, the fourth John Smyth mystery, intertwines two elements–a murder mystery and an academic discussion of the nature of the mystery novel. When John Smyth, the diminutive editor of Grace magazine, returns to school part-time to obtain a journalism degree, he once again encounters murder. Each year, as spring returns to the snow-bound capital of Manitoba, the lifeless bodies of young women are discovered lying along the wooded paths next to Assiniboine University. At the same time, Smyth runs up against a combative professor who lectures on what makes a good mystery novel while also challenging Smyth’s Christian faith.

About jrcoggins

James R. Coggins is a professional writer and editor based in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada. He wrote his first novel in high school, but, fortunately for his later reputation as a writer, it was never published. He briefly served as a Christian magazine editor (for just over 20 years). He has written everything from scholarly and encyclopedia articles to jokes in Reader’s Digest (the jokes paid better). His six and a half published books include four John Smyth murder mysteries and one other, stand-alone novel. In his spare time, he operates Mill Lake Books, a small publishing imprint. His website is www.coggins.ca
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