Plotting vs.Pantsing 3: Rebecca Cantrell

February 2nd, 2010


Rebecca Cantrell writes the critically-acclaimed Hannah Vogel mystery series set in 1930s Berlin, including “A Trace of Smoke” and “A Night of Long Knives” (due out June 22, 2010). Her screenplays “A Taste For Blood” and “The Humanitarian” have been finalists at Shriekfest: The Los Angeles Horror/Sci-fi Film Festival. Her short stories are included the “Missing” and “First Thrills” anthologies. Currently, she lives in Hawaii with her husband, her son, and too many geckoes to count.


Pantser or plotter?

Don’t tell my editor, but I write the first 50 pages blind. I have no idea who the characters are or what they will do. This is in spite of the fact that I had to turn in a synopsis of the book to sell it. I figure nobody read the synopsis and, if they did, they won’t remember the details a year later or bust me for it. So far, this has worked. Don’t spill the beans.

Because I write historical fiction, I do know when the action takes place and where the characters will be. In fact, I will have researched the era and place for hours and hours and hours and…you get the picture. I have a notebook full of trivia I gleaned from reference books, diaries, newspapers of the era, movies, and pictures I found on the Internet (not that kind of pictures). From that I extract some ideas of cool or truly awful historical events, characters, and facts I might want to put in a book. But that’s all.

I sit down with all that background and write 50 pages. I fuel it with soy chais and a soundtrack whose sole purpose is to shut out the noises of everyone in the coffee shop or house around me. I try not to think about what I’m writing or even re-read it at this point. It might never make the final cut, and I don’t want to get too attached to it.

I also have a writing journal that I start at about this time. Into it I put:

  • All my whining: why did I pick 1930s Berlin? What kind of underpants did they even wear?

  • My insecurity: What made me think I could be a writer? I have no idea where I’m going with this and it’s all going to collapse in a big stinking pile and I’ll have to give back the advance or even worse it’ll get published and I’ll be thrashed by reviewers and Amazon readers and some old lady will make her dog pee on my shoe, it’s so bad.

  • Plot ideas: what if I have that zeppelin get jeppelin-jacked? Do you think that means I’ll be able to convince some zeppelin company to give me a free zeppelin ride? How explosive were those things? If you shot a gun inside, what would happen?

  • To do lists: must fold the laundry so that we can find the living room again. Mail off those books. Buy vegetables, and not broccoli again.

After I finish those 50 pages I read them to see if they might actually be part of a novel. If not, I throw them out and write another 50 pages. If so, I start to outline. I outline the whole book, beginning to end. I use index cards that I stick to a board and they fall down and I lose them and also step on the pushpins if I get really lucky.

Then I write another 50 pages. At the end of those I discover that my outline is wrong. The outline is wrong both going forward (i.e., things I haven’t written yet) and going backward (i.e., things I have written that weren’t in the original outline). More outlining. I write another 50 pages and…you get the idea.

Looking at it put down here, it seems totally crazy, but it is my process. After having sat through many classes on “the writing process” I’ve discovered only one truth: Your process is your own. Figure out what your process is and honor it.

If you think outlining sucks all the fun out of writing, don’t make yourself do it. And remember, they don’t really read that synopsis, so don’t work yourself up into a frothing frenzy writing it either. If the thought of embarking on a year long journey of novel writing without any damn idea of what you’re doing gives you hives, by all means write an outline. Neither approach is wrong, despite what you may hear.

When I’m all done I match up the outline to the book I wrote so I can keep track of what actually happened. By this point it’s all in a calendar. Despite being in a calendar, my timeline invariably gets screwed up and a meticulous member of my writing group always gleefully catches it (thanks, Karen!). Writing groups are a big part of my process. Without my group of trusted readers, who knows if anyone could understand what comes out of my head.

After I get to the end of the book I start rewriting. I rewrite tons as I’m one of those weird writers who writes too little and always has to add new scenes (as opposed to the writers who write too much and have to delete scenes).

Once I have all the scenes I need in the correct order, then I go in and polish my language, my dialogue, my characterization, and my shoes (just checking to see if you finished the sentence). This is painstaking work and not for the faint of heart, but it is absolutely necessary as I don’t put down one golden word after another. Maybe someday.

There it is: the good, the bad, and the ugly. My process. And remember, don’t tell my editor.

22 Responses to “Plotting vs.Pantsing 3: Rebecca Cantrell”

  1. Bill Crider Says:

    Now that’s what I’d call an unusual process. But I agree entirely. People have to write the way that works best for them. Never try to write the way someone else does. Unless it works for you, of course. And by the way, how much will you pay me not to call your editor?

  2. Suzanna Says:

    Thank you for writing about your process. I found nothing ugly or bad about what you do. On the contrary it sounds like you are very careful to keep your writing process well supported. You posed a question in your journal that I am curious about: What drew you to 1930s Berlin? Thanks again.

  3. Philip Coggan Says:

    Synopses: it would be interesting to ask your agent or editor just what does happen to the synopsis. I think they do get read, but I don’t think anyone really expects them to result in a book exactly like the one described.

  4. Jeremy Duns Says:

    I found this very interesting, Rebecca. Reading Bill and Stephen’s pieces, it seems almost as if you combine both approaches: pants and the plot a bit, and then repeat and rinse. So: just like the laundry. I’m more of a pantser, but I think that while I don’t do it quite as systematically as you seem to, I also have moments where I shape it all up and try to get it in more of an order, and then start again. Otherwise you really are writing yourself into a corner. And the process seems to change a lot as the book progresses. I have an irrational fear of index cards, I think linked to exam revision, but now that I’ve written a large chunk of words for my current novel I find that I have a basic outline I will follow, even if it’s not on a card. Then again, perhaps it’ll all change next week.

    Thank for sharing how you do it – all of these have really made me think.

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    Rebecca…good to see you here! I did not know you would be contributing.
    I love your process. Sounds like a headache, but what isn’t?
    I’m going nuts right now because I’m right at the beginning again – trying to decide what my new standalone will look like. It’s an exciting place to be, but I feel so insecure. And I have to write a friggin’ book proposal, with chapters and everything. Now, that ain’t right.
    I do the fifty pages thing, but then I go back and rewrite that fifty pages, and then I go back and rewrite that fifty pages, and then I go back…
    I don’t feel comfortable until I have a rock-solid foundation. Then I go on to the next 50 pages. This, of course, after I’ve already outlined and 3X5ed and written a few versions of the treatment. God, does it ever get easier? But all I really want to do is research. To me, that’s the best part. Of course, I don’t have to transport myself back to 1930s Germany, and I always know what kind of underwear my characters are wearing (if they’re wearing any at all…)

  6. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Bill: Realizing that someone would in fact tell my editor instantly after this was posted, I sent her the URL. You’ll have to work your author blackmail schemes on another topic. 🙂

    Suzanna: 1931 Berlin was the moment that world was lost to the Nazis and the entire 20th century was slammed into another direction. It’s a fascinating time of transition that defines us all today.

    Philip: I hate to think what happens to my synopses. I like to think they get read, but I’ve seen little evidence.

    Jeremy: Embrace the index card. They’re lovely. You’ll see. Right now mine are making a beautiful mosaic in the corner of my bedroom on the floor.

  7. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Hey Stephen! Books could be written about your characters and their underwear. So, really we’re researching the same thing, just in different ways.

    I don’t know if it ever gets any easier. I’m only 4 books in. So far,the process isn’t easier, but now I actually trust that it will work in the end, so the stress level is lower and I think I move through the stages a little faster (that sound in background is my husband laughing at my denial).

  8. Annelie Says:

    Rebecca, I love the way you work. It sounds really interesting and definitely worth a try. I don’t know if it will work for me, but it will be fun finding out.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I love this thread. I could read all day about the way writers work, especially as an alternative to doing any actual writing myself.

    Rebecca, for those of you who haven’t read A TRACE OF SMOKE (which I finished last night) is prodigiously good. If she’d said she writes hanging by her knees from a gravity bar or backing up her car at high speed on a winding road, I’d be tempted to give it a try.

    I love diving in with those first 50 pages, and I love the fearlessness of tossing them later if they don’t work. So many of us treat what we’ve managed to get down as though we’d had to cut the words in stone and would need a chisel to delete them. All this reluctance does is protect our bad writing and, possibly, weaken what’s to come. But to have this discard process actually built into her writing routine — well, I learned something.

    Actually, I learned a lot, as I have from all three pieces thus far. By the way, Jeremy Duns, whose response is up there somewhere, is another terrific writer, and in fact is our next contributor. (Hi, Jeremy!)

    I’m curious, Rebecca, about what you’re looking for in those first 50 pages. Is that the work from which your central situation/characters/the mood of the book/ emerges? Since, as you say, you write short, how much will you expand on the 50 pages you actually keep — in other words, how condensed are they? Do you write whole scenes on that first pass or start and then condense them so you can move on?

    And today’s Captcha is too good to pass up. Those of us who pants, or who, like Rebecca, just dive in and write to get started, should recognize this as an integral part of our process:

    from puree

  10. Usman Says:

    Rebecca, really interesting the 50/50 idea. I’m tempted to give it a try next time around.
    Tim, your image of chiseled tablets works well to highlight a big challenge of the writer: Loving to death his work.

  11. Gary Says:

    “Your process is your own. Figure out what your process is and honor it.”

    Thank God someone has said it at last!

    I SO hate those writing courses which attempt to prescribe exactly how you’re supposed to do it. And then aspiring authors try to do it exactly like that and it doesn’t work for them, and then they get completely discouraged and never try to write again.

    And that’s so sad.

  12. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Gary, I agree totally. I think a good writing course can help you to find your own process or show you a variety of different ones so that you feel comfortable trying out your own. But if you look at the amazing books produced by people who rigorously outline and the amazing books produced by people who fly completely by the seat of their pants, you eventually have to realize that there is no size fits all.

  13. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Tim, did we lose a comment?

    Here’s what I said, approximately, but it was obviously much more brilliant in the lost version. 🙂

    Annelie:Thanks! it’s amazing the crazy processes one has to try on to find one that works. Good luck!

    Tim: glad you liked SMOKE. As for how much I keep, it depends on the 50 pages. Sometimes most. Sometimes now. For SMOKE Hannah was a male detective in those first 50 pages. Clearly that’s not how she ended up and I had to scrap almost all of it (including a scene where her brother got that tattoo that I quite liked but could never work in). I work hard not to fall so much in love with my words that I can’t see through them to the story. If it doesn’t support the story, it has to go. Period. My writing group calls me “The Slasher” because I am ruthless about that.

    Usman: Hope it helps!

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Rebecca, I’ve looked through the unapproved comments, which this software thoughtfully and uselessly saves, and there isn’t one from you in there. Sometimes the Captcha mechanism screws up, and when that happens the comment doesn’t get stored anywhere.

    And I’m not worried about your not having brilliance at your fingertips. You’re a prodigious writer.

    And I more than liked SMOKE. I ate it in about four bites and hand-carried it down the block to a guy who’s 84 and an amateur expert in the Berlin of the 1930s. He’s turned me on to a bunch of good writers, including Alan Furst, John Lawton, and David Downing, and it was my pleasure to return the favor with your book.

    Great advice, by the way: “I work hard not to fall so much in love with my words that I can’t see through them to the story.”

    Hannah was a male? This is sort of a fundamental change. What brought you to it?

  15. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Hey, the whole book is about gender ambiguity, so why shouldn’t she have started out as a guy? 🙂

    Seriously, originally Hannah was a male detective investigating the case when no one wanted him to because the victim was gay. But then I realized that I wanted it to be very personal, personal in a way I couldn’t get with a cop doing a job. So, I made Hannah his sister (brother didn’t work right, somehow) who helped to raise him.

    “Ate it in four bites” is MY favorite sentence so far. But I think that’s just author ego. 🙂 Lovely to hear, thanks for telling me.

  16. Marilyn aka; M.E. Kemp Says:

    Rebecca’s advice to find your own method is “write-on.” I’m a real pantser but I’m lucky in that i’m writing a series (historical mysteries featuring two nosy Puritans,) so I may not have my plot or most of my characters, but I do have my two main characters down cold. I’ve lived with Creasy and Hetty so long I pretty much know how they are going to react to a situation. That’s the big advantage of a series. Marilyn aka: M. E. Kemp

  17. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Hi Marilyn! It is easier when you know your characters well in advance, isn’t it? I’m just finishing book3 of the Hannah Vogel series and I do have a much better idea of what she’ll do now, although the minor characters keep surprising me. And she keeps changing so she’s harder to pin down than I would have expected.

    I wonder what Jeremy’s process is going to be. I’m guessing pantser.

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, all –

    I hate to barge in here, but I have to.

    Rebecca, you’ve been great, and let me once again URGE everyone to read A TRACE OF SMOKE. And I can’t wait for A NIGHT OF LONG KNIVES.

    Please don’t feel this conversation needs to be cut short, but I’ve got to start saying things about Jeremy Duns, our next brave blogger.

    These pieces so far have gone up one week apart, and it feels like that’s a reasonable interval. Does anyone think they should go up more or less frequently, and if so, why?

  19. minervaK Says:

    Wow, fascinating. I did the 50/50 thing (write some, outline some, write some more, outline some more) on one of my drafts and enjoyed it. If only it had resulted in a readable book. Sob.

  20. Suzanna Says:

    Here’s my penny’s worth: I think that the frequency of the blog posts is perfect. The one week turnaround leaves enough time to start a good back and forth and by the end of a week I’m eager for the next installment.

  21. Sylvia Says:

    I rewrite tons as I’m one of those weird writers who writes too little and always has to add new scenes (as opposed to the writers who write too much and have to delete scenes).

    I do this! I write lots, throw away half and end up with a really short draft. I get so upset at all the advice to ruthlessly cut because I’d end up with no manuscript at all!

    I definitely need more index cards to keep up with this series.

    Personally, having fallen behind, I like the week gap as it means I have a chance of catching up – if they were more frequent, it would be overwhelming.

  22. Rebecca Cantrell | Romance Author Hotspot Says:

    […] I’m a weird combination. I write the first 50 pages blind, then outline, then write, then re-outline. I think it has to be the most inefficient way to write a book, so I don’t recommend it to anyone. After having sat through many classes on “the writing process” I’ve discovered only one truth: Your process is your own. Figure out what your process is and honor it. If you’re interested in details, I wrote my most coherent thoughts on my process over on the very talented Timothy Hallinan’s blog (link: […]

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