David B. Coe: The Plotter Pantses


200CoeJacksonI’m a plotter, and I have been for most of my career. I don’t outline every detail of my books. Far from it. I tend to write loose outlines that touch on the significant plot points of my narratives but leave the details — dialog, specific action, descriptions, etc. — to the moment when I’m actually writing. In other words, I’m a hybrid, as so many of us are: I plot a bit, but I also allow much of my writing to happen organically.

I think that my penchant for doing at least some outlining is, at least in part, an outgrowth of the kind of books I’ve written through my career. I started with big epic fantasies — multi-book story arcs, lots of sub-plots, lots of point of view characters. If I hadn’t outlined, I would have gone crazy trying to keep track of it all. And then I moved to the Thieftaker books, which demanded that I blend my fictional narratives with an established historical timeline. There was no way I could navigate through my story elements and that history without a roadmap to guide me.

Starting with Spell Blind, the books of my new series, The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, are somewhat different from my other novels. They’re set in our world and time, so there is no historical element to deal with. They have (essentially) only one point of view character, and because they’re mysteries, their plots are fairly streamlined. And so with the third Fearsson book (book 2, His Father’s Eyes, is already written, edited, and in production) which I have just finished drafting, I didn’t write it with an outline.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. I started an outline, but I really wasn’t sure what to do with the book, and so I plotted out the first ten chapters or so before stalling. And rather than delay starting the book, I jumped into the writing, figuring the plot would come to me eventually. I was right; it did. To a point. I deviated from that early incomplete outline almost immediately, blew past the ten chapter mark, and quickly found myself in uncharted waters.

SpellBlind250At that point, though, I had figured out where the story was going — mostly — and I managed to get a lot written. I wanted the book, like the other Fearsson novels (and the Thieftaker books) to come out at about 100,000 to 110,000 words. And before long I was closing in on 80,000.

The problem was, I realized that the scene I was writing at that moment was the climax of the story. 20,000 words too soon. I needed to build a whole new subplot into the book in order to make my narrative work with the ending I had in mind and in order to make it come out to the proper length. As it turned out, that new subplot was just what the book needed. It pulled together all of my narrative elements,  added dimension to a story that was a bit flat, and smoothed out the pacing of the book by adding several key plot points at crucial moments. Just as important, I was able to layer the new plot line into the rest of the story seamlessly; I doubt very much that anyone reading the story would know what was added and what was already there. And, of course, the addition filled out the novel so that it ended up the proper length.

But those three weeks I spent coming up with the subplot and working it into the novel were no picnic. I was a bit panicked at first, wondering if I had written myself into a corner. I actually had known as I was writing that the novel needed something more, but I didn’t know if I would find what it was missing. For the first time in six or seven novels, I wasn’t sure I had a novel. I had stalled and until I figured out the subplot, I didn’t know if I could get the process started again.

It would be very easy for me to conclude that my failure to plot the novel led to the problems I had. I didn’t plan things the way I usually do, I started writing without a complete outline, and as a result I didn’t identify a key narrative thread until the novel was almost complete.

The problem with that analysis is, it’s simply not accurate. True, I didn’t have an outline, and true, I didn’t find that key subplot until way too late in the process. But I could have spent weeks outlining the novel and I still wouldn’t have found that plot thread. Some books present themselves completely as the creative process begins, and some emerge more gradually. Some stories can be realized linearly and some can’t. This novel needed time to develop, its plot revealed itself in stages. It wasn’t a failure of preparation, but rather was just a function of the particular story I was trying to tell.

This is hard for me to admit. I’m a committed plotter, and I’ve written about that commitment here at MW on many occasions. But this book, as difficult as it was to write, could not have been helped by a detailed outline. I would have strayed from any such outline in a chapter or two; I’m sure of it.

All things considered, I prefer to plot out my novels ahead of time, at least in that loose manner I described earlier in this post. But plotting doesn’t work for every book, any more than it does for every writer. I don’t know what approach I’ll take to my next book; in large part the decision will depend on the story itself. Writing demands patience and perseverance, imagination and discipline. And, as I’ve recently been reminded, sometimes it also demands a bit of improvisation.

How about you? What approach do you take? Does it change from project to project?


David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than fifteen fantasy novels. His newest series, a contemporary urban fantasy called The Case Files of Justis Fearsson, debuts with the January 2015 release from Baen Books of Spell Blind. The second book, His Father’s Eyes, will be out in the summer of 2015. Writing as D.B. Jackson, he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy from Tor Books that includes Thieftaker, Thieves’ Quarry, A Plunder of Souls, and Dead Man’s Reach (also coming in the summer of 2015). He lives on the Cumberland Plateau with his wife and two teenaged daughters. They’re all smarter and prettier than he is, but they keep him around because he makes a mean vegetarian fajita. When he’s not writing he likes to hike, play guitar, and stalk the perfect image with his camera.



10 comments to David B. Coe: The Plotter Pantses

  • […] and wanting to let our narratives flow “organically” in the moment of creation. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy […]

  • […] and wanting to let our narratives flow “organically” in the moment of creation. You can find the post here. I hope you enjoy […]

  • Razziecat

    Cool post, David. I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets stuck about 75% of the way through. “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.” – Gene Wolfe, I believe. 😀

    BTW, I read SPELL BLIND in a little over a day and enjoyed it immensely. Tight story, great characters, surprisingly dry wit in places 😉 Gives new meaning to the term “lunacy,” doesn’t it? 😉 Looking forward to the next book!

    As for plotting, I’ve said before, I mostly wing it. I make a document called “Notes on [name of story]” and therein post my thoughts, which can be very random–names, worldbuilding stuff, ideas about magic or science depending on the genre, bits of backstory and dialog. It builds over time to include a rough timeline, plot points and so on. Sometimes I just spend hours reading over the notes, adding bits of research, and writing bits of scenes, looking for that one big spark (usually a major plot point) that means it’s time to start the actual story.

    I check off the plot points as I write (when I remember 😀 ) and just like a battle strategy, a lot of it gets tossed when I hit the field, so to speak. But that’s the best part: Once I begin writing, surprising things happen, and if I didn’t leave room for those surprises, I wouldn’t keep writing at all.

  • Razz, first of all, thanks for the kind words about SPELL BLIND. Very glad you enjoyed it. And yes, I love that quote, though I don’t remember if it’s Wolfe. I totally agree about those surprises you mention. The key for me in a planning a book is finding the balance between knowing where I’m headed and leaving room for my characters and plot to assert themselves. Great comment. Thank you.

  • Ken

    I’m a hybrid. I’ve got to have at least a skeletal framework to start with. I need to know the beginning, middle and end in a (more or less) general sense. It’s also pretty linear. I start at the beginning, work my way through what happens next, and what happens after that until I get to the end. During this process, I’m also asking myself “Why did “Character X” do “Y”? Why not just do “Z”? Interestingly, I’ve got a 50% track record with writing those answers down, because I chip away at those questions all the time in my head (Driving, at work, etc) and the good answers just stick…

    Once I’ve got the framework in place, I can get get started. I will usually waver in places, so it’s to my advantage to have the skeletal framework because it’s easier to knock down than a brick and mortar Outline.

  • quillet

    I’m a plotter, but never a slave to my outlines. If my characters start to “refuse” to do the things I’d planned out, I know it’s time to make some changes. Always gotta listen to my characters. 😉 Which, I guess, makes me another hybrid. Plotster? Plantser? ……Sounds like names for reindeers. 😀

  • I’m kind of with Ken on this. The skeletal framework is my basic need, too. But this time around, while finally working on a base outline, I kept hitting walls until I let myself pants the dang thing and just explore. I needed to remove the constraints. That led to cascading epiphanies that are leading to a functional first draft. I love having a road map most of the time, but sometimes it functions like an out-of-date GPS and I just have to wing it. 😉

  • I’m becoming more of a plotter as I go, but I’m also a constant plot reviser. A major reason is that I find I can’t plot and write scenes at the same time – the less I know about WHY I’m writing a scene the harder and slower it is to get the scene written. If I know what the point of the scene is, I can actually concentrate on getting the details of the scene right and making it interesting. I used to think that took the fun of discover and “creation” out of the process, but now I think plotting is more fun because it takes the stress/writer’s block out of writing – there’s a lot less staring at a blank screen this way. It also lets me have the fun of discovery twice – the first time is discovering the big picture of the plot and the second time is discovering the details of a particular scene. Every time I write a new scene it either confirms that the plot is going in the right direction or sends up a warning signal that I’ve got something awry with the plot itself and need to rethink.

  • Ken, that makes a lot of sense, and is actually quite similar to the type of outline I use on most projects (the Thieftaker outlines tend to be a bit more substantial, since I’m trying to keep track of historical and fictional events at the same time). Thanks!

    Quillet, yeah, it does sound like reindeer. I’ll have to do something with that . . . Thanks for the comment. A lot of us seem to work with a hybrid approach.

    Laura, that’s almost exactly what wound up happening to me with this last Fearsson book. I just had to write the thing and so finally gave up trying to write an outline. And I think it worked.

    Sarah, I love that notion of the two sets of discoveries. Very nice image, and one that I can relate to. And yes, as we write, we are constantly testing the continued viability of our plotting. Great comment. Thanks.

  • […] blogsite, which I helped found so many years ago with Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, and C.E Murphy, I posted about plotting versus pantsing. For those not in the writing profession, plotting refers to setting out an outline at the […]