I swear I see this quote at least once a year. It soothes my raggedy soul every time. Quiets the voice that plagues my writing hours. Well, technically, all my hours. The one that says, “You really don’t know where this is going, do you?” AKA “You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you?” Unsettling either way. There’s no point lying to that voice. It knows what I’m thinking. It is what I’m thinking.
The other thing this quote tells me is that E.L. Doctorow was a Pantser, i.e., he wrote by the seat of his pants. Us Pantsers are all driving home more or less down the same dark road. In an uncontrolled manner that would probably get us pulled over by officers of the law.
People who don’t write, or writers who don’t write this way—the “Plotters,” whom I admire, envy, and sort of pity, all at the same time—no doubt regard seat-of-the pants writing as horrifying. The mark of an undisciplined mind. Perhaps an unstable mind. I’ve seen how people look at the person who claims Pantserhood.
Here’s an example: Readers occasionally ask me how come I made Tom Bennington, the co-protagonist of my mystery series, blind. The simple truth is, “I didn’t make Tom blind. He was blind when I got him.” I can tell by their expressions that they find this pretty…odd.
Odd but true. My entire series was sparked by a scene that unfolded in front of me on the street one morning. Some thoughtless person beeped—in a careless, “C’mon, hustle-up” way—at a blind man crossing the street. And I said to myself, “’Wow. You know you live in a rough neighborhood when somebody honks at a blind man in the crosswalk.”
Fifteen minutes later I was home at my desk. Asking myself—or Whomever-or-Whatever watches over a writer of mysteries who doesn’t have a clue, a crime, or a protagonist—Who said that?”
At that moment all I had was a blind man frozen in a crosswalk in a—let’s just say, unruly—part of Cleveland and a woman’s voice. Over the next four or five hours, Allie Harper told me her name and that she was lonely and broke. She also said this particular blind man was the great, smart—also handsome and hot—guy she’d been waiting forever to meet, and it made absolutely no difference to her that he was blind.
Then I realized, as we went along in the first chapter on that first day, that the winning $550 million MondoMegaJackpot ticket in Tom Bennington’s grocery bag—the one he bought to prove to a kid that gambling doesn’t pay—would provide the motive, means, and opportunity for murder and mayhem in my story. It was the best writing day for me. Magical. Mystical. Hair-raising. Fun.
Too bad it’s not always like that. Writing happens many different ways. Sometimes it’s ugly and slow. Sometimes nobody shows up. Or they speak only in stupidities. Sometimes at the end of the day I roll down my Pantser-car window and fling a few pages back into the night.
As I progress to the third book in my series and deadlines are more inexorable, I notice I’m exploring the “Plotter Dark Side.” Maybe there’s a hybrid for my road trips. Maybe it would be more…economical. So every now and then I give the possibility a test drive. I have always written a final scene for whatever story I’m working on, usually in the first couple of weeks. I don’t have a map, but I have a destination. It beckons to me, like my mother’s phone calls used to, “When will you get here? Where are you now?” I experiment with lists. I make more notes. I had a flirtation with 3x5 cards. (Nonstarter.) I listen to my characters and if they give me clues, I write them down.
It’s always a journey, isn’t it? We do it like we do it.
For the record, I’m painfully aware the road E.L. Doctorow was driving down was a better quality road than mine. I read Ragtime and I’ve listened to him talk. Also, Doctorow’s literary car was equipped with strong batteries and excellent headlights. I’ve got the penlight they give out for free as swag at conferences. Good to have, but it’s not going to show me the way to Ragtime. I imagine, though, that E.L Doctorow, Pantser Extraordinaire, occasionally discarded a couple pages of a story on the road behind his car.
I bet he looked back for a moment, until the darkness swallowed them. Then drove on.
Readers: Are you a Pantser? A Plotter? Or a Pantser/Plotter Hybrid? How come?
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Annie Hogsett has a master’s degree in English literature and spent her first career writing advertising copy—a combination which, in Annie’s opinion, qualifies her for making a bunch of stuff up. Her first published novel, Too Lucky to Live, #1 of her “Somebody’s Bound to Wind Up Dead Mysteries,” was released by Poisoned Pen Press in May 2017. Second in her series, Murder to the Metal, is out now! Annie lives ten yards from Lake Erie in the City of Cleveland with her husband, Bill, and their delinquent cat, Cujo. She has never won a 550-million-dollar lottery jackpot.
“Murder. Mayhem. Romance. Cleveland.” Last summer an accidental MondoMegaJackpot stirred up major murder and mayhem for Allie Harper and Tom Bennington. This summer? Nothing’s changed. Sure, Allie and Tom now reside in a 9,000-square-foot lakeside mansion with a sky-lit shower and breathtakingly high-thread-count sheets. Yes, Otis Johnson is now their live-in bodyguard and gourmet chef. True, Allie’s dream of a T&A Detective Agency to solve “mysteries of the heart,” using Tom’s money, Otis’ P.I. credentials, and Allie’s intrepid…intrepidness now has its first case. That’s where the real trouble kicks in: Allie and Tom are in a high-speed race against danger and death. Again. It’s Murder to the Metal.