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"
"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"
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"
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.