Plotter to Pantser to Driving Through the Dark

If the pandemic and quarantining have done anything for me, it’s forced me into some long-term organization I might not have gotten to otherwise. In the first month of lockdown, I organized my book by major topic categories, then alphabetically by author. The next day, I got stuck into some boxes of old papers and journal that hadn’t seen the light of day since the beginning of the century. I was hoping to be able to throw some things out. At a certain point, you have to start thinking about deaccessioning, rather than accumulating.

Included in the box were some long forgotten planning documents from my first published crime novel, Solo Act, reproduced below.

I was shocked to see in these, and fourteen more pages like them, that I’d spent a considerable amount of time laying out character, motivation, scene movement, action, questions and answers, and so on. At that point, apparently, I’d been what we politely refer to as a plotter.

I suppose, as a floundering newbie, I was trying to find some way to control the process of writing a novel, something I knew nothing about at the time. I am afraid to take these pages back and compare them against the published book, though, since even a quick look tells me many of the ideas never made it. The voluminous background work of 2000 and 2001 did not do much for the novel that came out in 2015.

Here’s what the plan for Elder 6, tentatively titled Mickey’s Monkey, looks like from a notebook this summer. 

I’d like to think the attitude I’ve developed toward plotting—I started calling myself a pantser with the third book in the series, came from the great skill I’d developed in working out the stories in my head in advance, knowing where those half-dozen structural members would connect to make a book. But, in fact, I realized that I’d gone beyond flying by the seat of my pants to a much slower and more deliberate way of working, albeit one that doesn’t require much advance thinking.

The original idea comes from E. L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

And it is the perfect description of how my working style has evolved. Every morning now, when I sit down with my Pilot G2 and white pad, I only know where I’ve been. A few words from the day before get the story rolling again and once more, I’m driving down a pitch-black road, enticing alleys on either side, only aware of what I can see coming in the next sentence or two.

My journey from plotter to pantser to driver through the night is, for me, a belief in confidence. Those old notebook pages from 2001 are an expression of how little confidence I had in what I was doing. They represent a desparate attempt to control what I had to learn I had only minimal control over. The page from this year’s journal shows me, not that I know where the story is going, but that I have the confidence there is a story there and that I’ll arrive at its destination eventually.

It feels odd sometimes that I find more confidence in less groundwork, but if a writer knows anything, it’s that his, her, or their means of working is as unique as a sunset and hard-learned as humility. I would never prescribe for another writer. The only thing any of us can be certain of is that there is no certainty at all.

About Richard Cass

Dick is the author of the Elder Darrow Jazz Mystery series, the story of an alcoholic who walks into a dive bar in Boston . . . and buys it. Solo Act was a Finalist for the Maine Literary Award in Crime Fiction in 2017 and In Solo Time won the award in 2018. The third book in the series, Burton's Solo, came out in 2018 and Last Call at the Esposito in 2019. Sweetie Bogan's Sorrow was published in 2020, to thunderous pandemic acclaim. The sixth book in the series, Mickey's Mayhem, will come out in 2021. Dick lives and writes in Cape Elizabeth.
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6 Responses to Plotter to Pantser to Driving Through the Dark

  1. Interesting take. I tend to write short stuff, so I’m almost always heading into the fog from a snippet of an idea, as much to entertain myself as to do so for the reader.

  2. Amber Foxx says:

    I drive in the fog, too. Great post.

  3. Kate Flora says:

    I don’t plot, I cook. I carry the bits of the story around in my head while I work on the questions about who the story is about, why they were killed, how they were killed, who did it, and who else might have wanted them dead. Then I play around with clues, like what I will leave at the crime scene that will have significance later for the book and the detective who will be sorting things out. It’s only after a few months of cooking that I am ready to start writing. In my first published book, Chosen for Death, I knew who the killer was and I turned out to be wrong. In one of the books that still lives in a drawer, I did have an outline, but a character not meant to be in the story barged her way into the opening chapter and the whole book took a sharp right turn. I find that every book is a little different and sometimes demands its own process.

  4. Sandra Neily says:

    Dick! This was great. Just LOVED all your notes from the first novel. I think this post gives me courage to work less that way, this third time around. Except, I know I need to insert red herrings and edit backward to make sure the clues are there, but not toooo there. I know I need to get ‘filled up’ some how, so that the story pours out. Not there yet….have snippets of notes….like how porcupines eat the salt out below outhouse seats. (Readers will just have to wait for that bit to appear.) And since I am working with lots of ground truth items (like wildlife facts and so on) my research has to be tight. That said, I think I will try and just pants it more. Much appreciated.

  5. Julianne Spreng says:

    Enjoyed your post tremendously. It shows how as you grow more confident things change. Not just in writing, but through out life. I savored your Elder Darrow novels. Am so glad to see that you plan another…hug smile!

  6. Lois Bartholomew says:

    Enjoyed your post and the comments from other writers. I tend to write the beginning, then skip to the end, and after that fill in the middle to connect the two. I’m finding on my current novel, though that I’m driving through the fog.

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