Monday, June 05, 2006

The Pantzer Syndrome

By Patricia Smiley

As I mentioned in last Monday’s post, I recently signed books with Denise Hamilton and Susan McBride at Lee Booksellers in Lincoln, Nebraska. The three of us regaled the audience with our wit and wisdom and answered questions. Somebody asked if we outlined our books.

My dirty little secret was about to be exposed.

We looked at each other to see who would comment first. After a long pause, I finally confessed that I’d written several pithy outlines that could have been turned into brilliant novels by somebody, just not me. As it turned out, Susan and Denise don’t outline, either. Ms. McB calls us “pantzers,” which I believe is loosely defined as authors who write by the seat of their pants and without a parachute.

When I began writing, I listened to authors talk about their “process.” There seemed to be a sharp division between those who outlined and those who wrote “organically.” At the time, I didn’t know under which category I fell, but I made a faulty assumption that outliners were more organized and perhaps more serious writers. I wanted to be a serious writer, too. I thought about all those things-to-do lists I compulsively filled out each day and my hard-and-fast Wednesday-is-laundry-day rule and decided that I was an organized person. I must be an outliner.

Writing outlines is easy. Following them is hard.

Let’s face it. In writing as in life detours happen. Here’s a mundane example. Let’s say your character is going to Westwood Village to see a movie. From where she is, driving north on Westwood Boulevard is the most direct route. But what if Caltrans is still doing roadwork on Santa Monica Boulevard? Nobody in her right mind would go that way. She’d have to wait through at least five red lights. Your character is a reasonable person. She says no to the intersection of Santa Monica and Westwood Boulevards. Instead she races down Veteran like she’s running with the bulls of Pamplona. What now? She’ll get to the movie, but she’s totally screwed up your outline. You fume and think about adding a scene with a sniper and a Kalashnikov rifle.

The first time a character ruined a perfectly good outline, I rewrote the bloody thing, but it only happened again. How many times do you have to bang your head against the proverbial brick wall before you realize that it’s not for you?

Outlining is not for me.

Here’s what I know when I start a novel: who the victim is, how he/she was killed and by whom. I also have an idea where I want my subplots to go. Before I start writing I create detailed back-stories for all of my characters, so I know in advance if they like movies and under what circumstances they could be persuaded to see one. Once I've established that information, sketchy ideas for scenes begin to emerge. That’s it, folks. Then I start writing.

If any of you out there can actually write an outline and make it work, I’d like to know how you do it. Until then...

I remain a Pantzer.


  1. I was on a panel once with Elmore Leonard who was asked the same "do you outline" question. His reply: "Hell, no. If I knew how the story was gonna turn out, I wouldn't write the damn thing." I do mini-outlines, comparable to beat sheets in episodic television. It lets me know where I think I'm going but gives me room to take Patty's detour off Santa Monica Blvd, which has indeed been dug up for the past half-dozen years.
    Paul L.

  2. Count me in among those non-outliners. I start with a dead body and see what happens from there. I usually don't know whodunnit until about 100 pages in. I think this makes it far more fun to write.

  3. We blog to know that we are not alone. Glad I'm in such illustrious literary company.

  4. Dear Ms. Fellow-Pantzer:

    I tried to outline once, and wound up with the flattest, most boring prose anyone could have written outside of a Dick-and-Jane primer.

    I'll take seat of the pants any day. And I ususally don't know who the killer is until more than halfway through the first draft. It's not the tidiest way to write, but it's fun.

  5. I'm with you. Death to outlines.

    ...that said, I've got to get cracking. My outline is do later this month...

  6. Yeah, Brett, it's interesting how publishers often require us to submit an outline. I wonder if our editors care when the book takes a sharp turn in a different direction?

  7. Yay to fellow Pantsers! Sometimes I feel like I'm surrounded by outliners, and I'm always so relieved to find another comrade who "writes by the seat of her pants," as Cathie Linz puts it (she's the one I stole "pantsers/pantzers" from, Patty--yes, I'm a thief). I was on a panel with two outliners earlier this year, and they kept insisting I must outline somehow, if even in my head. Which I don't...but if it makes them feel better. I like the term "organic" writing as well, 'cuz it's such a gut thing with me. If my editor ever decides she needs an outline (which, thank God, she hasn't yet), I'll just make up something fast...then write as I always have. Love that Elmore Leonard quote, Paul! So glad to be in such good company, too. Very nice blog, Patty!

  8. Susan, it was sooooo great taking that Midwest road trip with with and Denise. You rock, girl!