For a long time, I believed that there were only two kinds of writers. Plotters! And Pantsers! But now I’ve learned that there are also hybrids.
The first book I ever wrote was a free-for-all. I had no idea what I was doing, actually, except picking up the writing bug where I’d left off when I started my family and got too busy to write. I had a high school teacher whose very first assignment was to write 500 words on something I could smell. I’ll admit, my first thought was I’m DOOMED! I am sooo going to fail this class in creative writing. But I’d never deliberately skipped a homework assignment so I sat myself down and started writing. It’s probably a lucky thing that my mom had asked me to go take the sheets off the clothesline (See how old I am? We didn’t have dryers back when I was in high school.) Anyway, with the scent of freshly washed sheets strong in my nostrils, that’s what I wrote 520 words on. To my utter amazement, I got an A+ for the assignment.
That entire exercise had been written entirely by the seat of my pants – no plotting, or even outlining. Just sat down and wrote. So it stands to reason that for several years in between that and my first attempt at a novel, everything I wrote was freestyle. I still have that first mostly written novel in a file somewhere. Written in pencil on yellow lined paper since I didn’t even own a typewriter and personal computers didn’t exist yet. Since that time, I’ve attended many workshops and a lot of conferences where I’ve been faced with other options.
But I was still a die-hard pantser. Worry Stone, which later became part of my romance series, was written pretty much by the seat of my pants, but it wasn’t entirely freestyle like my essay on the scent of freshly laundered sheets. I created my characters first. I even knew my main character’s entire life story pretty much. Since it involved some real places and the background of a war, I did a lot of research as well. My hero was a Marine in Vietnam and came home to cope with his own demons as well as the heap of guilt our country loaded on every returning soldier, so I consulted my brother among others – a man who had been there, done that and was generous enough to relive some of his heartbreak and memories with me. Of all the ten books I now have in print (or ebook) I still think it’s my best. (BTW, Worry Stone won Silver in the Royal Palm Literary Awards in 2019 and I think it’s the best I’ve written so far.)
My second-best book (IMHO,) and my first to be published, The Candidate, was written very much the same way. The Candidate is a main stream novel set in today’s world, but the protagonist was another Marine who had fought in Vietnam and is now running for president when he is handed a photo that brings back memories he never wanted to revisit and emotions he wasn’t ready to cope with, especially not in the midst of a run for the White House. I had done most of the research so again, it was just a matter of creating believable, compelling characters and letting them run with the story. I was as entertained by the unfolding story as my readers and I enjoyed writing that way.
The first full length novel I completed was inspired by an exploration of a long-abandoned island off the coast of Maine with a lot of history. As I stood on the edge of a larger than usual cellar hole, the granite I was perched on moved alarmingly and I jumped free, not wishing to fall in. But I have a writer’s brain that finds stories everywhere and on my way home it occurred to me to wonder what if I had fallen in and hit my head and then woken in another century? So, of course, Dani, my heroine in Iain’s Plaid does just that and wakes up in 1775 in the basement of a warehouse whose owner has a ship loaded with contraband headed to Boston and he thinks she’s a spy. It’s a time travel and a romance but I did a ton of research, walking the streets of Boston, reading journals and letters from the period. But aside from that, the book was written entirely by the seat of my pants. The ONLY guiding star for that book was that I knew before I started writing it, how it would end. In fact, I wrote the last chapter first. I traveled that journey, knowing where I was going but with no road map.
After that my romance series began. By then I’d been presented with all the plusses for outlining before writing, or plotting the story first. I even have several books on my shelf presenting different ways to go about plotting. But it never seemed to work. I had more fun creating my hero and heroine, giving them a setting and a problem and then letting them sort it out. One of the books in the Camerons of Tide’s Way series, Healing A Hero, also won Silver in the Royal Palm Literary Awards two years before Worry Stone did. It appeared, in spite of my efforts to plot or plan ahead, I was doing okay with my pantser method of writing.
But then I decided to write a mystery. Did my research: Attended the local Citizens Law Enforcement Academy, interviewed the only female detective on the major crimes squad at the time, and set it in my hometown so I could visit anything or place I needed to in the course of writing it. I liked my heroine, Jesse Quinn. And I had a pretty good idea how the story would end, but what I’d failed to realize is that a good mystery can’t suddenly fling things at a reader that come out of nowhere. The writer has to know who did it, why they did it, how? And all the red herrings have to make sense. Which meant PLOTTING. Bullseye has done pretty well and I’m part way through the second book in that series which I hope to have out next fall, but plotting still does not come naturally to me. I’ve got yet another trade book, Take Your Pants Off at hand and have been trying to follow the very sound and proven advice that it isn’t plotting so much as outlining. Understanding what events have to happen and the sequence they have to happen in to make sense and give the reader a satisfying ending.
That makes me a hybrid. But all in all, I prefer the pantser method. I urge you now, to hop on over and check out how my fellow Round Robin Authors write their stories.
Dr Bob Rich