Planner or Pantser?


One of the questions I pose to writers when they’re interviewed on my blog is whether they write from an outline or by the “seat of their pants.”

Some are strict outliners. These are people whose minds are so orderly that they can create a detailed outline and work a novel from it. Following is an example of one extreme of the method.

I attended a writer’s conference in Nashville, Killer Nashville, in August of 2010. The Guest of Honor was the internationally acclaimed author, Jeffery  Deaver.

In his address, Mr. Deaver said that he was an outliner.  As a matter of fact, he stated that his outline for The Bone Collector was 184 pages. The book has (on Amazon) 423 pages. My calculator shows that his outline was a little more than 43% as long as the published book.

That’s a detailed outline.

Most of the writers I interview say they work from a skeletal framework and allow the story to fill in the missing pieces. One person said that it was like using a map (yes, those paper things still exist!) to plot out a long journey.  The traveler knows starting and ending points and notes the major cities along the way. Noting the distance between the principal towns accommodates planning for overnight stays and stops for meals.

A writer using that method is employing a fusion of the planner and pantser methods.

The most memorable example of writing by the seat of the author’s pants came when my dear, departed friend, Anne Carroll George who passed away in 2001 told me her stories. We were sitting at her kitchen table with her husband, Earl, enjoying her marvelous Fifteen-Bean soup with cornbread.

She told me the tale of how the title of her first book, the Agatha Award winning, Murder on a Girl’s Night Out came to be.

“I’d sent it to my agent with the title, “Line Dancing at The Boot and Scoot. The publisher said that, for a cozy mystery, I had to have ‘murder’ in the title, so we settled on the final title as it was printed,” she said.

“So what are you using as a working title for the second one,” I said.

“Well, I thought that, since they want ‘murder’ in the title, I’d see what they said if I proposed, Murder on A Bad Hair day,”

Her eyes sparkled as she flashed her wonderful mischievous smile.

And, of course, that’s how the book was published.

Anne was a “pantser.”   When I was working on Piety and Murder she helped in innumerable ways. I asked her if I should be working from an outline. She said she’d tried it, but it didn’t work well. I remember her story as something like this:

“When I was writing Murder on A Girl’ s Night Out, I thought I knew who the murderer was, then he was driving along in Shelby County and somebody shot him. Now, I wondered, just who is the killer?”

Anne created such vivid, memorable characters that she let the people in her story drive the narrative. She asked her characters to solve the mystery.

She once said that she knew what the major points in each book were before she started writing.  She called the process of filling in the voids between major story markers, “trudging.”  Obviously, she loved the process and could barely wait until her people and keyboard took her to the next tale-telling juncture.

What do the two polar extreme examples tell the writer?

When writing a novel, the author should have a pattern, at least a simple outline in mind before activating the word processor. This may be a simple framework (maybe not even written) delineating major points in the book.  From there, the novelist should create characters; people he/she knows well, and let them propel the story between highlights.

Writer’s Block shouldn’t, ideally, happen during the writing of a story. The term is well named. It is a block from the writer. If the person clicking keys, knows the people he/she has created, then the author should ask them the telling question, “What happens now?”




About the author, Thomas Rowe Drinkard

Thomas Drinkard

Thomas Drinkard

Thomas Rowe Drinkard was born and reared in Alabama.  He graduated from the University of North Alabama with a degree in English.  At graduation, he was commissioned an Army second lieutenant. Within two years he completed parachute school and was selected for the U.S. Army Special Forces (the Green Berets).

After his active duty, he found his way into teaching and writing in the securities exam preparation business. Many of his articles and texts are currently in use.

Tom is now a full-time writer/ part-time editor. He is the author of Piety and Murder, Where There Were No Innocents and the novella, V Trooper – First Mission.  He is also the author of a chapbook of Vietnam poetry, Finding the Way Home.

A sequel novella, V Trooper – Second Mission – The Demon and a new novel, Overload will be published by the end of April, 2012. Two additional novels are works in progress.

For an earlier interview with Drinkard by Sirius Press, click here.

Audio clip of Drinkard and his wife, Marjorie Hatfield Drinkard, on Piety and Murder.

Piety and Murder

Piety and Murder

Where There Were No Innocents

Where There Were No Innocents


Please join the discussion below

9 thoughts on “Planner or Pantser?

  1. Tom, what an honor to finally have you on Creative Flux. As always, your writing is brilliant and I love your anecdotes. And so true, when you know the characters thoroughly they do write themselves. The phenomenon is the sister of Magic, I’m sure.

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  3. Dear Tom,
    This is such a thought-provoking post! I am fascinated by the individual approaches to writing. I tend to sit down to a blank screen and let my story reveal itself. Once I start, people and events I hadn’t even thought of kind of pop into the scene. I have a general framework in mind but I tend to look at an outline as restrictive. For me, my themes have unfolded through “butt in the chair” writing. I enjoyed your post and the links very much. Thank you for sharing and thank you Terre for featuring Tom! Love your phrase “the sister of Magic.”

  4. I happened upon this site through a Tweet and am very glad!! As a pantser who is attempting a bit more planning, I find it an encouragement to continue learning what works best for me. Thanks for the Tips!!

  5. I attended DFW Writer’s Conference two weeks ago, and this was the subject of one of the classes. I fall somewhere in between. I start off as a pantser, but usually somewhere in the middle of the book, my characters turn to me and say, “We’ve done all the work, so far. It’s time for you to direct.” When that happens, I outline the rest, and we get to work.

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