Some crime writers are planners. Some are pantsers (so called because they fly by the seat of their pants). Neither is better than the other. What matters is that the method you choose to write your story works for you and results in a tale well told.
Being either a planner or a pantser won’t determine whether you sell lots of books. A story that makes sense – one that reads as if you had carefully planned it – is what’s key to creating an experience that readers will relish.
So what do some of the big-name crime writers have to say on the matter?
What’s right for you?
‘The more I talk to other crime writers the more I start to become fairly sure that for each writer there is an ideal way, but there isn’t one ideal way,’ says Sophie Hannah.
I think I’ve read everything Harlan Coben’s ever written. If I haven’t, it’s waiting in the pile or on the Kindle. If you’d asked me, I’d have marked him as a planner. His stories hang together so well; he ties up every loose end. And I always have that ‘Ah, that’s what happened’ moment. But in fact, Coben’s a pantser:
'I don’t outline. I usually know the ending before I start. I know very little about what happens in between. It’s like driving from New Jersey to California. I may go Route 80, I may go via the Straits of Magellan or stopover in Tokyo … but I’ll end up in California.'
Maybe you’re like him or Julia Heaberlin:
‘I start with just a fragment of a thought in my head. I don’t outline at all. I have no idea where the book is going.'
Or perhaps you’re like Susan Spann:
‘My novels start with an outline, and that outline starts with the murder – even when the killing happens before the start of the book.'
‘When I start writing chapter 1, I have a 90–100-page plan … kind of like a list of ingredients of what needs to happen in each chapter. And I don’t write it well. I don’t write it elegantly. It could be written by a robot […] but everything necessary for that chapter, whether it’s a murder or a snide glance, is included in that plan.'
To help you decide whether to plan or pants, consider the following:
Planning and creativity
Some writers fear that planning will mute their creativity and the process of discovery. The following excerpt is from an article from the NY Book Editors blog:
‘For writers striving to create something unique and surprising, the kind of work that will grab the attention of agents and editors, the thorough plotting and planning can be a matter of life and death. By that, I mean that planning your novel ahead of time increases its likelihood of being dead on arrival. […] When writers engage in extensive pre-writing in the form of outlines and character sketches, we change the job of the writing we’re preparing to do. All of a sudden our role becomes that of the translator.'
Heaberlin feels that surrendering control to her characters is essential to the creative unfolding of her stories:
‘I let the characters kind of take me wherever they want me to go. It sounds a little precious but that’s what happens. The plot evolves through the characters telling me what’s going to happen next.'
However, passionate planners feel differently. Their plans are as much a form of artistry as the actual writing. Here’s Hannah on how a plan needn’t thwart spontaneity:
‘Plot and character are not rivals – they’re co-conspirators […] The biggest lie uttered by writers about planning is that it somehow limits or stifles creativity. This is absolutely untrue. Planners simply divide their writing process into two equally important and creative stages: story architecture, and actual writing. Both are fun. And yes, of course you can make as many changes as you want when you come to write the book – I’ve changed characters, endings, plot strands, everything very spontaneously, even with my plan at my side, when it’s felt like the right thing to do.'
Time frame and process
Some authors write multiple drafts to ensure the book’s plot works. That slows down the process. Hannah’s detailed planning approach means her first draft works; she’s already identified where the problems are before she gets started on the actual writing process.
‘A lot of the thriller-writers I know who turn up their noses at planning end up writing four or five drafts of their novel before they’re happy with it. You might want to do that – in which case, you should do it! – but if you’d like to spend one year writing a book rather than five, planning is the way forward.'
Jeffery Deaver concurs:
‘I plan everything out ahead of time. I work very hard to do that. Part of that is planning each subplot – I call it choreographing the plots. I start with a post-it note. I put it in the upper left-hand corner [of my whiteboard] and that’s my opening scene. And then I start to fill in post-it notes throughout the whiteboard. Then I come up with a big idea for the twist, and that goes in the lower right-hand corner. And if that’s going to be a legitimate twist, that means planting clues.'
He then walks around talking to himself, deciding where on the whiteboard the clues need to go so that the main plot and various subplots will work. And if he finds that a clue won’t work in a particular place because, say, character X doesn’t know Y yet, he moves the post-it note. It’s an eight-month process but once it’s done, ‘writing comes quickly’.
Still, don’t get too comfy! Andy Martin spent the best part of 12 months in the company of Lee Child as he wrote Make Me:
‘Even before he had written the first sentence, he turned to me and said: “This is not the first draft, you know.” “Oh – what is it then?” I asked naively. “It’s the ONLY DRAFT!” he replied.'
Which just goes to show that being a pantser doesn’t necessarily mean being a slow writer.
Does the plot work?
If you’re a pantser, the idea of finding yourself stuck in a hole after months of writing might not terrify you. Lee Child doesn’t let it stop him.
Says Henry Sutton, ‘When, for instance, [Child] hits a cul-de-sac, say his character – Reacher – might be at the point of an impossible situation to get out of, rather than go back and think, “Right, I’ve written too far. I need to delete that chapter or even the chapter before that”, he will think of a way of him actually surmounting that obstacle and then push him on.'
In an interview with Harry Brett, Heaberlin acknowledges the need for third-party assistance to fill in the gaps and polish her stories:
‘In Black-Eyed Susans I did know I wanted to write about mitochondrial DNA but it wasn’t actually until two thirds of the way through that book that I knew I wanted to write about the death penalty! […] At the end, my book is not perfect, not well-crafted. Mine have all these loose ends and so I work with an editor to kind of tidy up. But I also don’t like everything to be answered always, kind of like in real life.'
Contrast that approach with those of these two planners:
Deaver: ‘I know what I’m going to write. In the case of The Cutting Edge, … I knew where all of the subplots went, I knew where the clues were introduced, I knew where the characters entered the book and when they left. […] When I do the outline, I can see whether the book is going to work or not. And if it isn’t going to work then I can just line up the post-it notes and start over [whereas] it can be a very difficult process to start writing and come to page 200 and not know where that book’s going to go.’
Hannah: ‘Without a start-to-finish plan of what’s going to happen in my novel, I don’t know for certain that the idea is viable. It’s by writing a chapter-by-chapter, scene-by-scene synopsis that I put this to the test. I’d hate to invest years or even months in an idea I suspected was great, and then get to where the denouement should be and find myself thinking, “Yikes! I can’t think of a decent ending!”’
What kind of writer are you?
In an interview with Henry Sutton in May 2018, Deaver discussed how planning can help the non-linear writer:
‘Writing for me can be very difficult at times. And I have found that doing the outline allows me, since I know the entire schematic of the book, to write the beginning at the end, or the end at the beginning […] So I go to the outline and think: Today I’m supposed to be writing a vicious murder scene but the sun’s out, the birds are singing, and I don’t feel like it. I save it for those days when the cable guy who’s supposed to be coming at 8 in the morning doesn’t show up until 4 and I’m in a bad mood! I can jump around a bit.'
So Deaver’s method allows him to concentrate on telling the part of the story he wants to tell when he wants to tell it.
For every writer who frets at the thought of not knowing where they’re going, there’s another for whom that’s a thrill. Child is a linear writer, and Zachary Petit thinks that ‘very well may be the key to his sharp, bestselling prose’.
'When he’s crafting his books, Child doesn’t know the answer to his question, and he writes scene by scene – he’s just trying to answer the question as he goes through, and he keeps throwing different complications in that he’ll figure out later.’
If you too enjoy sharing the rollercoaster ride with your protagonist, pantsing could be the best way for you to tell your story. If not, detailed planning might suit you better.
Spann has a two-handed strategy for planning. And it’s all to do with the clues.
The first outline – the one that will determine what she writes – needn’t be particularly detailed. It’s a map of each scene, and each clue, that enables her to keep her sleuth on track.
Just as important, however, is the other outline:
‘A secret outline, for your eyes alone. This one tracks the offstage action – what those lying suspects were really doing, and when, and why. The “secret outline” lets you know which clues to plant, and where, and keeps the lies from jamming up the story’s moving parts.'
I like her on- and offstage approach, and I think it’s particularly worth bearing in mind if you’re a self-publisher who’s not going to be commissioning developmental or structural editing.
What you don’t want is to go straight to working with a line or copyeditor and have them tell you your clues don’t make sense, because you’d be paying them to paint your walls even though there are still large cracks in the plasterwork.
That offstage outline could help you to complete the build before you start tidying up.
The importance of structure
One thing’s for sure: whether you choose to plan or pants your way through the process, put structure front and centre. Recall my comment above about how Coben always leaves me feeling like he must have had everything worked out from the outset. That’s because however he gets from A to B, he understands structure.
Pantsing isn’t about ignoring structure, but about shifting the order of play. Says Deaver:
‘[Lee Child and I] both structure our books. I just do it first. I run into those same roadblocks. And maybe for me it’s a little post-it note […] But the work has to be done somewhere. Any book should be about structure as much as fine stylistic prose.'
And here’s domestic noir author Julia Crouch to wrap things up for us:
‘There is a reason that screenwriting gurus bang on about the three-act structure – setup, confrontation and resolution – and that’s because it works. If you have any storytelling bones in you at all, you will more than likely, even subconsciously, end up with a structure like this. But it’s helpful to bear it in mind and, whether you structure beforehand (as a plotter), or after (as a pantser), run your plot through that mill.'
Good luck with your planning or pantsing!
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with crime, mystery, suspense and thriller writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and co-hosts The Editing Podcast.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Fiction Editor & Proofreader, say hello on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, connect via Facebook and LinkedIn, and check out her books and courses.
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