Plotter or Pantser


I’m often asked by other writers whether I am a plotter or a pantser. For those of you unfamiliar with this jargon, plotting is exactly what it sounds like, the act of plotting out a novel or story before writing it. Pantsing, on the other hand, is flying entirely by the seat of your pants. Throwing caution to the wind as your fingers dance across the keyboard leading you into the great unknown. The answer is, I’m more of a hybrid. I’m both.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking. Nice try, Coffin. Keeping those writerly secrets all to yourself. But I’m in earnest. Every novel is different. I find the longer I carry an idea around in my head, before putting it to paper, the more storyline I’ll have worked out. But sometimes the ideas are so fresh I really can only picture the beginning, ending, and a rough idea of what I want the story to be about.

I tend to be somewhat pragmatic in my approach to writing, in that there are things I have planned well in advance. The character arcs in my Detective Byron series are a good example of this. When I began writing Among the Shadows, the first book in the series, I already knew where I wanted Byron to be emotionally and personally by the third book.

Still, there are plenty of things that I leave to chance. I may have a general idea of the route I plan to take to get from the beginning to the end of the novel, but I don’t always take that route. Writing a book is like taking a trip to somewhere you’ve never been but always wanted to visit. You can plan your trip right down to the very last detail, maybe even haul out the GPS or the old travel atlas (you young ’uns might need to Google that), but inevitably plans go awry. Flights get delayed or canceled, road detours due to construction, bad weather, any number of things can happen that necessitate changing the route we take to our destination. Not all that much fun in the travel sense, but for writers it can be a blast. People tend to forget that all writers are readers first. We love to be entertained. We can’t wait to find out what is going to happen next. Frankly, if I knew every conceivable thing that was going to occur, and when, I would be bored out of my mind writing the actual story. Sometimes the characters will drive the story in a direction I hadn’t planned. Hey, the characters live this imaginary world. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that they might know better than I?

When we begin to write a novel, we may already have a few thoughts about how we plan to get from one point to another, but that doesn’t mean we won’t discover better ways of doing it. I’m confident that even the most rigid plotter would tell you that the muse occasionally throws them a curve.

What kind of writer are you?

About Bruce Robert Coffin

Bruce is a retired detective sergeant with more than twenty-seven years in law enforcement. At the time of his retirement, from the Portland, Maine police department, he supervised all homicide and violent crime investigations for Maine's largest city. Bruce also spent four years working counter-terrorism with the FBI, where he earned the Director's Award, the highest honor a non-agent can receive. He is the bestselling author of the Detective Byron Mystery Series from HarperCollins. His short stories appear in a number of anthologies including The Best American Mystery Stories 2016. Bruce lives and writes in Maine.
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2 Responses to Plotter or Pantser

  1. Lea Wait says:

    Good post — and thoughts, Bruce. I used to be a definite plotter … but as I’ve written more books (with shorter deadlines) I find myself flying a bit by the seat of my pants. I remember telling people I spent about 3 months researching a book and planning it, and then 3 months writing it — and then edited. Wow. That would be nice. These days, writing about 3 books a year — I’m lucky if I have 3 months for the whole process. (I do have a life outside pages – sometimes!) So … we live and adjust. But I do think most writers tend in one of the two directions.

  2. Probably, given the nature of what I write, technical non-fiction, I’m more of a plotter. However, I’ve been known to throw something together quickly when someone drops the hammer!

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