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By Nick Taylor

A Pantser Brought to Heel

Uploaded: Jan 13, 2016

A few weeks after my novel The Setup Man was published in March 2014, I got a call from my agent, who reported that the publishers were asking when they were going to pages of a sequel. This shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did -- just as everything about writing a detective series has surprised me. I replied that I had a few chapters (not a lie!) but that I’d need a few weeks to hammer out the plot outline they were requesting as part of a proposal. “Two weeks should give you plenty of time,” my agent said. “We can’t wait longer than that.”

Two weeks was plenty of time? To fumble around, maybe. I had never written a novel from an outline, much less from an outline inspected by a renowned New York publisher. The fact that the publisher wanted to see a proposal was a good problem to have, as they say, but it was an unfamiliar one. I took the thirty meandering pages I had drafted so far (I had at least considered the possibility of a sequel!) and attempted to extrapolate where the story “wanted” to go. There’s a line of thinking among fiction writers that plot comes from character, and that to find the plot of a novel in progress you must “listen” to what the characters “tell” you. I’ve always thought this was the worst kind of bullshit, but I never really learned how to make a plot any other way. So I was stuck staring at a blank page, wondering how I could determine the further adventures of Johnny Adcock, relief pitcher PI, if I couldn’t follow him through the scenes as they occurred.

Like a lot of obstacles, this one was mostly mental. I retrained my brain to conceive of the story in the language of summary (think movie synopsis) rather than scene. And I met my two-week deadline with a cleanly-edited, forty-page proposal. My agent and editor suggested changes, which I implemented, and the proposal went upstairs, to the decision makers. They offered a few more plot notes but blessed the thing with a modest deal.

Now I just had to write it.

Again: nice problem to have. In fact, I felt pretty confident as I started drafting the book. Writing from an outline was pretty cool, I discovered. I always knew what was going to happen on the next page. No more agonizing! No writer’s block! The writing went smoothly, and I submitted the first draft on schedule about six months later. It wasn’t my favorite work to date, but it was faithful to the outline, and best of all, it was on time.

My editor took a few weeks to read the draft, then called and asked if we could talk. His tone wasn’t ominous (I’m not sure he’s capable of ominous) but it wasn’t upbeat, either. “So,” he began, “I’m seeing lots of good things in this draft...”

Some writers complain that outlines cramp their style, and they refuse to use them. “Pantsers,” they call themselves -- as in “by the seat of their pants,” which is how they plot their books. A surprising percentage of crime writers are pantsers, along with nearly all literary novelists. I myself had been a pantser right up until the opportunity came to switch over to Team Outline. I too had believed that writing from an outline was confining -- and I’d been right, but not in the way I expected. The real problem with writing from an outline is that it locks you into bad choices. All those “pantsy” plot points I came up with during that two-week sprint to the proposal deadline? They were now fleshed out in my manuscript. No surprise, the ones that seemed flimsy in the outline were even flimsier in scene. The editor was right -- there were lots of good things in the first draft of Double Switch. The problem was that as a novel, it sucked.

Next time: What to do when half your book is dead.

Nick Taylor (as T.T. Monday) will appear in conversation with author Kris Calvin on Tuesday, March 1, at 7:30pm at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park. The event is free and open to the public.

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