Friday, February 20, 2015

Pantser? Plotter? Agatha Short Story Finalists Weigh In On This Week's Question

By Art Taylor


I'm pleased to welcome a distinguished group of writers to help round out this week's discussion on the question "Are you an outliner or a seat-of-the-pantser? Have you ever tried to do it the other way? What happened?" Barb Goffman, Edith Maxwell, Kathy Lynn Emerson, and I all have stories which have been named finalists for this year's Agatha Award for Best Short Story, to be presented at Malice Domestic the first weekend in May. Soon after the finalists were announced, Edith invited us all to join in a big group post at Wicked Cozy Authors, which will appear on Friday, March 6— and Kathy also offered to host another post at Maine Crime Writers in April as well. Stay tuned for all of that!

In the meantime, I thought that this week's question here at Criminal Minds offered a good chance for each of us to talk about our nominated stories, what method we used in writing them, and whether that was the approach we normally took—or a step in a new direction. I'll kick things off, and then include each author's response below—along with a link to each story (embedded in the story's title in the heading for each section). Thanks again to Edith for suggesting this blog hop in general!

Art Taylor on "The Odds Are Against Us" and "Premonition"

I'm fortunate to have two stories named as finalists for the Agatha this year: "The Odds Are Against Us," which was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (cover right), and "Premonition," which appeared in the anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Homicidal Holidays, published by Wildside Press in conjunction with the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. What's funny is that the two stories couldn't be more different in my mind, both in the final product and in the process behind them. "Premonition" was a story that I started several years ago almost purely as an exercise in style: writing from the "you" perspective like in those old Choose Your Own Adventure Books and trying to layer dreams, imagination, and reality in such a way that it was tough for the "you" to see where one began and the other ended. While the story was sparked by one of my own nightmares, and I soon had a sense of where the story should end, the rest of it was written just to see where it went—and then revised with an extra layer of menace, thanks to a Halloween theme for the anthology submission.

"The Odds Are Against Us," on the other hand, was pretty carefully plotted from start to finish before I started writing it—all of it focused around a choice that the narrator needs to make, the consequences that follow that choice, and the way that the past both determines and then complicates both the choice and the aftermath. Because of what I saw as the greater thematic heft of this story, I felt like it really needed to be calibrated pretty carefully each step of the way, and I'd laid out each of the scenes and their purpose in advance to determine the movement of all the parts.

So which do I usually do? My writing generally follows a wide range of approaches. Some stories build in unexpected directions, some are planned out firmly, and sometimes it's a combination of approaches—surprises for me that I hope surprise the reader too. 

Barb Goffman on "The Shadow Knows" 

I’m a plantser. I plot at a high level before I start writing (I know the beginning and generally where I’m going), but I don’t know the exact route I’ll take to get to the end.

For “The Shadow Knows,” I wanted to write about a superstitious man, Gus, who believes his town groundhog, Moe, actually controls the weather. Gus decides to get rid of Moe so his town could finally have an early spring. I wanted Gus to be injured while trying to nab Moe, but it took a while to figure out how to make that funny, which was my goal. (In the end, it’s all in the voice. If the same scenario had happened to a less grouchy person, it wouldn’t have been funny.)

I tried to write a story by the seat of my pants once. In the end, that was way too much work. I ended up writing a lot of things that ultimately didn’t serve the story’s purpose and had to be deleted, and I still haven’t sold that story. So while I tip my hat at pantsers, I am firmly and happily a plantser.

Edith Maxwell on "Just Desserts for Johnny"

I am by nature a pantser, and I particularly am with short stories. For "Just Desserts for Johnny," the first sentence popped into my head: She hadn’t planned on killing Johnny Sorbetto that winter. He had promised her so much. And I went from there. All I had to do was keep writing, follow the story, and figure out how to make it end.

Sometimes an entire story will pop up while I'm out walking, and all I have to do is fill in the details, but it’s not like I plotted it. It just appeared in my brain, and those are the stories that seem to write themselves.

Novels are a bit different, especially since my publisher at Kensington asks for a three-to-four page synopsis before I write the book. But I still pretty much pantser it, as long as I update the synopsis when the book is finished. The most plotting I do is three or four scenes ahead.

Kathy Lynn Emerson on "The Blessing Witch"

I write by applying fingers to keyboard and hoping that whatever oozes down from my brain is still intelligible when it shows up on the screen. I can’t visualize far enough ahead to outline anything, whether it’s a short story or a novel. In fact, I don’t always know which length will ultimately work for an idea. I’ve written more than one short story only to discover that it needed to be a novel and “The Blessing Witch” and another short story titled “The Cunning Woman” (in AHMM later this year) started life as scenes in a novel I’ve since abandoned as unworkable. This is not the most efficient way to write. I wish I could outline. On the other hand, whatever it is I’m doing has led to over fifty traditionally published books and more than twenty short stories in anthologies and magazines, so I must be doing something right.     

31 comments:

Kathy Lynn Emerson said...

Thanks so much for inviting us to chime in on this topic today.

Kathy/Kaitlyn

Art Taylor said...

You beat me to it, Kathy! I just logged in myself to share this on FB and Twitter.

Thanks again for participating!
Art

Edith Maxwell said...

So fun to see how others do it! Thanks for the invite, Art.

Art Taylor said...

My pleasure, Edith! Thanks so much for joining us here! :-)

Barb Goffman said...

I, too, thank you, Art, for inviting us to chime in on this interesting topic today. I'm amazed, Edith and Kathy Lynn, at your ability to pants it. That tool is not in my wheelhouse. I wish it were.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Barb -- and yeah, like you, I can't just start writing and see where it goes most times. I usually have to have some rough sense of what might happen, where it might go. (Do like your term plantser!)
Art

Meredith Cole said...

Good luck to you all at Malice! So awesome to see such a diversity in approaches to short stories. I'm definitely more of a pantser when it comes to short stories--and a plotter when it comes to novels, too...

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Meredith! And yes, it's a thrill to see the diversity here--not just in process but in final product. A wide range of plots, tones, and everything in this year's finalists--proof that the short story is alive and kicking! :-)

Barb Ross said...

Good luck to all! The fun of writing short stories is you can use every kind of approach because if it doesn't work you've wasted weeks, not years.

That being said, I think, like Barb Goffman, I may generally be a plantser. In fact, I think I am adopting that.

Especially proud to be Kathy Lynn Emerson's publisher this year--via Level Best Books.

Alan Orloff said...

Outliners, pantsers, and plantsers, oh my! Great post--I always enjoy reading about how other writers get their stories out of their heads onto paper (or screens, as the case may be). Good luck to all!

RJ Harlick said...

Great post, Art. Love the idea of soliciting input from the other nominees. Good luck to all of you. And I'm glad to see I'm not the only pantser around. :)

Susan C Shea said...

This is all encouraging on one level - I am not alone in my moments of insanity. It is discouraging in another ,because I always hope someone has discovered the Secret to Plotting and is about to share it, saving me from those moments of insanity.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, RJ and Susan!
And yeah, I wish I knew the secret too...
Art

Paula Gail Benson said...

I'm so happy to read this post and am looking forward to the others. Best wishes to you all!

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Paula!
Art

Jan Christensen said...

Great idea for a post, Art, and great to learn how other writers wrote particular stories. I'm a panster. Writing for me is about my only creative outlet, and I don't like to plan it too much. On the other hand, the rest of my life is pretty well plotted out. Works for me. Congrats to all the nominees.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Jan! And you make a good point here. While sometimes I end up planning out stories, I don't ever want to take the fun or the creativity out of it. I keep telling students in my writing classes at George Mason to remember to keep the "play" in all this, to let their imaginations run a little bit, to have fun with it all. In my case, that's ALWAYS the first step, even if I end up doing most of it in my head before sitting down to gather those thoughts in some format.
Thanks for chiming in here!
Art

Maryann Corrigan said...

I enjoyed reading the nominated stories and, in this blog, how they came about. "Plantser" is a good term I hadn't heard before. Now I have an alternative to pantser or plotter.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Maryann! And yeah, don't you just love Barb's term? She oughta trademark that one....
Art

Barb Goffman said...

:)

Pat Marinelli said...

Great post and congratulations to your all.

Interesting to see how you all write to get a story down. I do all of the above but not with the same story. Some ideas come to me from start to finish, sometimes I have a spark and no clue where I'm going until I get there, sometimes a character appears and says, "Write my story," and I do.

This is a crazy, awesome world we writers live in.

Art, you are one of the short story writers I follow now.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks so much, Pat! And yes, isn't that great when a story just presents itself? I haven't had that often, but when it does, I sure feel lucky.
:-)
Art

Judy Penz Sheluk said...

I've bookmarked this to read all the stories. What a wonderful idea for a post! Thank you for sharing. As a pantser, it's nice to know I'm in such esteemed company. Congrats to you all on your Agatha noms.

Will share on FB, Twitter and Pinterest!

Susan O'Brien said...

Congratulations to all the finalists! I'm a plantser, too. I agree with Mary Ann; it's great to have an alternative term!

Maddi Davidson said...

Art:
Thanks for sharing. I've felt guilty because of the time wasted by being a pantster. It's nice to see that there are pantsters who are successful writers.
Diane (1/2 of Maddi)

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Judy, Susan, and Diane! And Judy, all credit here should go to Edith Maxwell, who first came up with the idea of doing a group blog post--which then grew into a series. (...though I think Edith said she got the idea from Sherry Harris--so credit in that direction too!)
Art

Anonymous said...

Love Barb's word, plantser. It fits perfectly for the way I want it all to work. And, twice I've had a story knocking on the back of my brain, wanting to be written seemingly without much input from me. Both times it was when I was really struggling with a new type of story for me. It felt like such a nice gift when it finally gleamed at me from paper. Thanks, Art, for posting news of this blog on SMFS. It was a nice gift, too.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I did not realize it would not automatically print my name. Anonymous me aka JoAnne Lucas, Clovis, Ca

Art Taylor said...

Hi, JoAnne --
Thanks for responding here--and for sharing your own writing experiences! (Not sure why it posted as anonymous; I often struggle with logging in to comments sections like this on other blogs--so I empathize.)
:-)
Art

KM Rockwood said...

Fascinating! And it just goes to prove that one person's meat is another person's poison.

Barb Goffman said...

Plantsers unite!