Five Authors + Five Questions : You Pantser

Writers write. It’s what we do. To go above and beyond that, by answering interview questions they receive in email, is astounding indeed! For this round of Five Authors/Five Questions, I’ve barged into the workdays of Louise Marley, Lavie Tidhar, Lisa Mantchev, E.C. Myers, and Jay Lake.


Question three: Do you outline or are you a “pantser”? How much planning and prep goes into any given project, and is the process any different for novels vs. short stories?

Louise Marley: I write very little short work, and I would say I never outline those pieces.  It doesn’t hurt to be a pantser with short fiction, because the commitment is so much shorter.  I do, however, have a quite specific process with novels.

I’m a hybrid!  I’m a pantser in the main, but I always have an outline to help keep me organized.  What I like about the outline is not straying off in too many directions, spinning my wheels writing something that doesn’t belong in the story.  What I like about simply setting off on a scene, without knowing precisely where it’s going, is the voyage of discovery, the surprises and revelations that come about.  My process, invariably, is to write three chapters, letting my imagination guide me, and then stop to outline the whole novel.  Much more fun writing the chapters!  Outlining is hard, but I think it’s a necessary exercise.

As it happens, I’ve just begun a series of blogs called “How I Write a Novel” (I blog at Red Room).  This is a question a writer is often asked, and I thought it would be fun to write about my process at the same time I’m actually employing it.

Lavie Tidhar: I prefer to just go at it, without any forward planning, but that can have serious drawbacks. These days I tend to plan more but over-planning will kill any pleasure I take from it (after all, if I already know what’s going to happen, why would I want to write the thing in the first place?). So it’s a mix for me. The best is still when a story idea pops up and then just gets written. But, particularly with longer projects, I often have to stop and plan ahead and then keep going. And of course, occasionally I take the wrong turning and have to delete big chunks of dead-ends… not the happiest thing in the world, but all part of the work!

Lisa Mantchev: No matter how long the piece, I do a skeleton outline and then allow for movement and wiggling as I work my way through it. On any given novel project, I have six or seven versions of the outline that I’ve revised as necessary.

E.C. Myers: Most of the time I’m a pantser. I usually have a clear beginning, middle, and end in mind, and many scenes in between, but I’m “discovering” the story as I write it. I’ve disdained outlines in the past, but on my third novel, which I’m still revising, I was wasting a lot of my morning writing time trying to figure out where the story was going, so early on I stopped and outlined the whole thing. I found that it helped me make more efficient use of my time, because when I opened the day’s file, I knew exactly what scenes I was going to write next, and it didn’t make the process any less organic, as I’d feared; the outline simply changed as I got deeper into the book. The more complicated the world building, the more research and planning has to go into it, as in that novel that I ended up outlining. Every project is different, and what worked for one might not work again. I haven’t noticed any big differences in how I tackle a short story vs. a novel, but I’ve never outlined a short story. The length and scope is usually small enough that I can keep it all in my head more easily, while a novel can be a messy, sprawling thing that represents months of drafting instead of days or weeks.

Jay Lake: For short stories, I am a total “pantser.” I write by following the headlights, in reading order. This is true even when writing nonlinear fiction. That method works up to about 50-60,000 words, then it falls apart.

For novels, I outline. As I’ve progressed through my career, my outlines have grown more elaborate. I had no outline for Rocket Science, a five paragraph outline for Trial of Flowers, a thirteen page outline for Mainspring. The outline for Sunspin (admittedly a trilogy rather than a standalone) is currently 140 pages, and I keep periodically adding to it. That represents months of thinking, planning and prep. So for me the processes are very different depending on the nature of the manuscript.


How do you plan a project? Leave us a comment! Next Wednesday, we talk about what a successful year of writing looks like.

One thought on “Five Authors + Five Questions : You Pantser”

  1. I’m a pantser. I can’t outline — as in, I tried them at one point to try to help a major story problem and discovered instead that I can’t connect my creativity to one. For the more sequential ones, I can’t get past the first three chapters. For the more holistic ones, I can finish them, but I might as well toss them into the trash once I’m done. They simply don’t work for me.

    I do a short summary initially. I rewrite it over and and over until I start getting a feel for where the story might go. Then off for some research on a few topics like setting. I might get some additional ideas from this.

    After that, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about where the story will start. I tend to start too late, so I have to back up where I think I want to story, then back it up again. Then I start writing and follow the direction of the story. I put it all again, regardless of whether I use it. Some of the greatest parts of the story result from doing this.

    I’m also going to be doing something new this go-round, goals for scenes. A scene may have anywhere from 1-3 goals. I come up with a single one right before I start writing that scene. This one resulted because I’m such a big picture thinker that I can jump ahead to the bigger goal — the end of the scene — without doing the necessary development.

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