Plotting vs. Pantsing 4: Jeremy Duns

February 10th, 2010

Free agent.finalJeremy Duns hit the ground running with his first novel.  FREE AGENT.  The espionage thriller has been called “terrific,” “wholly engrossing,” “superior,” and electrifying” by critics and by writers as diverse as William Boyd and Christopher Reich.  Duns was born in 1973 and grew up mainly in Africa and Asia. He read English literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, after which he worked as a journalist. His work has been published by The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, Mojo and Time Out.  FREE AGENT is the first in a trilogy of Cold War-set spy thrillers featuring Paul Dark.  Duns lives in Stockholm, Sweden.

JeremyDuns pic

Get there

I’ve written two novels and am now writing my third, and each time it’s been different, but generally speaking I’m a ‘pantser’, ie I write by the seat of my pants. I usually write a synopsis that takes me through each chapter, but I don’t go into too much detail and it changes a lot as I go along. Writing the novel is my outline. I wrote my first book in a more linear way, and got into problems as a result. Now I start by writing tons of notes, ideas, fragments of scenes, snatches of dialogue, and when I’ve built up a large body of words, 40,000 or so, the structure starts to solidify.

At this point I tend to lose a lot of material as I realize that some scenes weren’t as exciting plot developments as I thought they would be, or simply don’t fit with other developments that I prefer. That can be frustrating, but I console myself with the thought that if I had prepared a very detailed plot outline in advance I’d have made the same or similar mistakes, but with heavier consequences: I usually cut material that is still only partially formed, so it’s less of a sacrifice. One of the reasons I don’t writer very detailed outlines is because I’m worried I’ll change my mind later. Something might seem perfect right now but in three months I might wake up in the middle of the night with the realization that it’s completely wrong. Or perhaps not even wrong: perhaps I’ll just be bored of the idea by then.

I want to write the kind of books I like to read, and they involve suspense. I’m writing a trilogy in the first person, and my character is a secret agent in trouble: so to a certain extent I also have to be in trouble. I like twists, but I find they’re often most effective if, like my narrator, I don’t see them coming. I want to know my protagonist, inside and out, but then to throw him into impossible situations and see how he gets out of them. I find plotting out too much in advance can suck the spontaneity and intensity from my writing, and I value both of those features above most others.

That said, I usually have a few plot points or scenes I want to include going in. With my first novel, Free Agent, I knew before I started writing that it would be set in the Biafran War and told from the perspective of a double agent. I also knew roughly how it began and ended, and had an idea of what kind of novel I wanted it to be. I nearly wrote ‘clear idea’, but it wasn’t really clear. It was strong. Just as you can wake with a very vague or even no memory of the dream you just had, but nevertheless have a very powerful sense of the mood of it, I had known in my gut what I wanted to write. I can articulate it now as, roughly, something that had the following elements and tones:

Taut

Lean

Gripping

Spy thriller

Set in the late 60s

Cold War tensions to the fore

In Africa – feel the heat and the culture

Suspenseful action scenes that can match Bourne and Bond

But also character studies that are more like Greene or le Carre

So no silly gadgets or explosions

Dark, gritty and bleak

Conflicted and trapped first-person narrator

Laconic humour laced in

Real Cold War and espionage history integrated and revealed

Real history of this forgotten civil war

Unusual love story/obsession

Along with a few specific plot and character ideas and sense-memories from my childhood in Nigeria, I carried most of the above with me the whole time I wrote Free Agent – without ever writing them down as I just have. But when my drafts were nowhere near reaching the above, my instincts pushed me to make it happen. I felt that as long as I kept writing I would be able to fill in all the gaps and make the impression I had of the novel a reality.

With my second and third books, I wrote down a lot more about what kind of novels I wanted them to be before I started writing. But I still wanted to keep something of the feel I was looking for unarticulated, held back in my subconscious. With the second, Free Country, my thoughts about setting changed early on, which entailed a lot more research. But in each case I’ve had clear ideas about the beginning and end, some strong impressions of the tone of the books, of the mood of my protagonist and what’s at stake for him and those around him.

My methodology changed somewhat between writing my first and second novels: it became less structured. I wrote Free Agent in the evenings and weekends, handing in new chapters to a writing group as I went along. I wrote my second as a full-time author in a year. I was naturally worried that it wouldn’t be as good as my first, which took me seven years to write (albeit with a full-time job and no external deadline). So I attacked the second in a very different way: I thought a lot and researched a lot, then worked out a very rough synopsis and started writing, 1,000 words a day, throwing anything and everything down. It helped that I felt I had succeeded in my goals with Free Agent. Not only had it been accepted by a publisher, who had then shown faith in me by buying the next two books in the trilogy, but I felt that I had written the book I had wanted to. So I had a lot more faith in myself that I would get where I wanted, eventually. This helped when I became blocked or encountered problems.

Not having a very detailed outline means you will encounter problems, but I don’t think you can necessarily work your way out of them with outlines. At least, I don’t think I can. I think in drafting a novel it may be that there comes a point where structure, character and plot are almost irrelevant, or rather that they are no longer concrete or tangible to the writer. You can prepare very carefully and research and plot everything out, but at some point your instinct comes into play. For want of a better word, you feel the book. You realise what it needs, what it’s missing, and you set to work giving it that. You’re not really thinking about why a certain idea or scene or even line will make sense. You just feel that it will. Sometimes I can be blocked for weeks, and wish I had been more organized at the outset and had done a ‘proper’ outline of the book, scene by scene. But then I can make enormous strides in minutes, changing the book with very radical decisions that months earlier I would have been terrified of making, but which now, somehow, I now know will work. This isn’t something you can put on index cards. It’s about living the book, with all its problems and setbacks. Index cards and detailed outlining work fantastically well for some writers, but they’re not for me, and there’s no shame in it. All writers are working around a group of ideas until they manage to craft a piece they are proud of and prepared to send out into the world – it doesn’t really matter how we get there, as long as we do.

Lean
Gripping
Spy thriller
Set in the late 60s
Cold War tensions to the fore
In Africa – feel the heat and the culture
Suspenseful action scenes that can match Bourne and Bond
But also character studies that are more like Greene or le Carre
So no silly gadgets or explosions
Dark, gritty and bleak
Conflicted and trapped first-person narrator
Laconic humour laced in
Real Cold War and espionage history integrated and revealed
Real history of this forgotten civil war
Unusual love story/Taut
Lean
Gripping
Spy thriller
Set in the late 60s
Cold War tensions to the fore
In Africa – feel the heat and the culture
Suspenseful action scenes that can match Bourne and Bond
But also character studies that are more like Greene or le Carre
So no silly gadgets or explosions
Dark, gritty and bleak
Conflicted and trapped first-person narrator
Laconic humour laced in
Real Cold War and espionage history integrated and revealed
Real history of this forgotten civil war
Unusual love story/obsession

21 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 4: Jeremy Duns”

  1. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Hi Jeremy!

    I knew you’d be a pantser! Although I’m not sure why, since it all looks the same in the end, if done well.

    Isn’t it nice to reach the stage where you trust your own process, for better or worse? It isn’t any easier, mind you, but I have more of a belief that I’ll get through it. My husband runs Ironmen races and I think it’s like that: the race is still very hard, but once you’ve done a few you’re confident you will probably finish (although you don’t always).

    (my captcha was cited matured, which does some up the explaining of process and its development nicely)

  2. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Thanks for sharing your process with us, Jeremy. I can’t wait to read your work! I admire writers who can explain their creative process in a lucid and coherent manner. My own process resembles laundry (dump stuff into the machine, add goop, press some buttons and hope a red sock didn’t sneak in…and when I discover the darn red sock amongst a load of pinks…I cry and rail and rage and rewrite to work it in.

  3. Vincent Eaton Says:

    Can’t recall the author, another pantser, who said, in writing his fiction, “If I don’t surprise myself, how can I expect to surprise the reader?” Yet Nabokov, a very non-pantser, said, “All my characters a gallery slaves.” Which, when I read him now, I have lots of nice images and noticing of things, but no surprises. And these days I go to art (or entertainment) to be surprised.

  4. Andy Duggan Says:

    I want to have my cake and eat it with the novel I’m working on. Want to be surprised by unexpected developments, but want to feel completely in control as well. ‘Pantsing’ – great word! Saw a Harold Pinter talk the other night – said he usually started stories with nameless charcaters A and B, they have an exchange and then his job as a storyteller is to make sense of that exchange.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Jeremy — I love the idea of listing the qualities you want the book to embody. I’ve learned from every one of these pieces, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that most writers won’t feel the same way. And the idea of “feeling” the book expresses exactly the sensation I have (rarely, I’m afraid) when I know the writing is in the zone. I’ve thought of it in musical terms — as though I’d been singing out of tune and now had found the key — but feeling it is better because feeling encompasses all the components of a novel. If character, story, setting, structure, narrative, language, etc. don’t add up to a feeling in the reader, we’ve failed.

    And Andy, I love the Pinter quote. That’s a great description of a certain kind of creative process.

    Vincent, in line with the Nabokov remark,Raymond Chandler said that the best way to keep the reader from knowing whodunnit was for the writer not to know, either.

  6. Jeremy Duns Says:

    Had some problems with captcha! Thanks for the comments, everyone. Vincent, I can never remember who that quote is from but I nearly included it in the piece because it is how I feel. No surprise in the author, no surprise in the reader.

    Rebecca, how did you guess?

    Cynthia, I’m not too far away from that, but I try not to dwell on the rage. In fact, I try as much as I can to hold all my anxieties about the book at bay and plough on regardless, feeling my way. It’s not always easy to do, but I found with my first novel that too much fretting or looking back was killing the book. So I try to stop myself from doing that until I get to the end of it. Then I have a pretty bad spy thriller. So I read it again a hundred times and make it, hopefully, a decent one.

    Thanks very much for having me, Tim! I’ve also learned a lot from the contributions.

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    Wow. What a beautifully written blog, Jeremy. I’m a plotter, but you’re enticing me to go the other way. I love how you define the mood and tone of your book before you write it…I’m in that process right now, as I toy with ideas for my third book, which will be a standalone. I think I’m going to use your words as a guide.
    However, I still have to write a proposal and a few chapters to get the next deal. How do you balance your panster style with the required eight-page book proposal?
    I can’t wait to read “Free Agent.”

  8. Jeremy Duns Says:

    That’s extremely kind of you to say, Stephen.

    I’ve never done an eight-page book proposal, so perhaps when I have to I’ll have to rethink! I sold the trilogy on the basis of the first book and half-page synopses of the second and third. And those weren’t all that accurate, either.

    The funny thing is, your post made me want to try to be a bit more structured beforehand next time around. 🙂 I wonder if it makes all that much difference, in a way. It’s like some people start with a very strong structure and then play around with it; others play around until they create that structure. Those are the two extremes, but between them there’s a lot of blurring. I sometimes plot scenes very meticulously in my head, for instance.

    Anyway, thanks very much for your comments.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    I do agree that we all come to the same place eventually. I do feel more secure with a map, but maybe that’s because I haven’t come to fully trust my inner story-teller. When I look at the most effective, visually stimulating scenes in Boulevard I realize that these were the ones where I was “pantsing.”
    I printed out your blog yesterday and, last night, my wife and I read it over again and thought about ways to apply it to my process. So, it’s been a good tool for me. This, being my third book and the first standalone since my debut, is giving me the opportunity to grow. I want to allow my style to evolve. It can be anything, which is both exciting and frightening. I’m even considering writing it in the Present Tense — the way Tim does. By the way – I’ve been meaning to ask Tim about that…why do you write in the Present Tense? Does it come from writing screenplays, which are always in the present, or is it a nod to the Thai language, which, as your latest book informs, has no Past Tense?
    Thanks again for your post, Jeremy, it’s been extremely helpful.

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Stephen, I think BOULEVARD reads as though it was burned into the page, one line at a time. The mechanics are invisible, as they should be, and the characters completely drive the story. Your approach obviously works great for you.

    What I like best about this thread is that I’m learning not only from the posts but also from the comments. It’s having a sort of aerating effect on my own process, which at the moment is being tested by writing not one but two proposals.

    Stephen, when I sat down to write the first Bangkok book (one that I never submitted to anyone — it was just to explore the landscape and characters) it just arrived in the present tense. I realized when I read it over that I liked it for two reasons. First is that past tense carries with it a sort of assumption that somebody survived to write things down, and second was that action scenes and emotional confrontations seem more immediate in the present tense.

    You’re right, it’s filmic, but that hadn’t actually occurred to me.

  11. Jeremy Duns Says:

    I’m glad it helped, Stephen – it’s helped me a little as well, because I think I can see more clearly now why I do it this way, and how to adapt to it.

    I’m interested that you feel you haven’t come to fully trust your inner story-teller. In your post, my mind sort of jumped when you said you got into a mess, and so you sat down and wrote a treatment. I don’t have an inner story-teller that can do that. Short synopses, sure. But detailed scene-by-scene stuff? I don’t think I can do it. I’d just be staring a the walls going crazy, not having a clue where to take the story. I find plotting very hard work indeed, and can’t seem to reach the part of my brain to think it all through very logically in the kind of bite sizes a detailed treatment would require. So that’s the part of my inner story-teller I just can’t access. I plunge in, and I also get into a mess, as you did. But it’s in the digging myself out of the mess/block/frustration that I eventually (hopefully) manage to see the way through.

    But perhaps it is just the order in which we do certain tasks, and there’s not *that* much difference in the end between the two. To have a satisfying finished novel, you probably have to have both plotted and pantsed at certain stages.

  12. Sylvia Says:

    Now I start by writing tons of notes, ideas, fragments of scenes, snatches of dialogue, and when I’ve built up a large body of words, 40,000 or so, the structure starts to solidify.

    That’s interesting. I have a premise that I don’t have time to work on (yet) so I’ve got a file where I’m just writing bits in as I think of them, so that they are there for me later. It’s about 4k words now and I wondered if I was really going to regret it when I came to try to make sense of it all. But it sounds like that can work in my favour. 🙂

    I wrote down a lot more about what kind of novels I wanted them to be before I started writing.

    This is really fitting for me, right now. I’ve been struggling with focus and sitting down to get a handle on what I want my book to be, in a general sense, strikes me as what I’ve been missing.

    One thing I really don’t understand:

    if you are writing without an outline, how can you hand over chapters as you go without lots of “actually, when you read this chapter, I need you to forget that John killed the hedgehog in Chapter 7, because I’ve realised that hasn’t happened yet.”

    I just can’t imagine anyone making sense of my plot before *I* know the whole story. I’m quite happy with the first draft of my novel being a crazily extensive outline (or zero draft, as I recently heard it referred to) but I can’t see how anyone could make any sense of it. Although maybe having that 40k of notes is what makes the difference?

  13. Jeremy Says:

    Hi Sylvia,

    Do you mean handing stuff to a writing group? I’m not in one anymore, and it’s partly for the reason you bring up – it now strikes me as absurd to ask people to comment meaningfully on my work before I’ve even written a proper draft. Once I have a more or less coherent draft, I do show it to people, but not in a group like that, and certainly not chapter by chapter.

    With my first novel, Free Agent, I did hand chapters to a writers’ group. As I wrote in my post, I was much more linear in my approach with that book, but it did get me intro trouble, because I did indeed have to tell people to disregard earlier occurrences. But because of the gap between everyone submitting work, which was six weeks I think, by the time I was submitting Chapter 18, people had usually long forgotten the contradiction in the scene in Chapter 9 anyway – they had pretty much forgotten Chapter 9 in its entirety, and so I also had to explain backstory sometimes. It became much more about people commenting on each chapter as though it were a self-contained story, and in fact I started to write it in that way, so that in each chapter my protagonist had a goal for just that chapter, and he might make it or not.

    There were disadvantages to being in a group that mean I won’t do it again, but at that point it helped my writing in other ways. One was that I met published writers for the first time, and realized they weren’t mythical creatures – and that it wasn’t silly to think there was a chance I could join them. The other, perhaps more important, was the stuff that Tim has devoted a portion of this excellent site to, namely finishing the novel. Having a deadline to submit chapters, and knowing that a group of people I respected would be irritated if I didn’t make it, was a great incentive for simply writing the stuff. So I sometimes sat in the sessions listening to criticisms of my submission and feeling they were valid, but not really minding: much more importantly, I had a working skeleton of another chapter. I’m not sure I would ever have completed a novel if I hadn’t been in a writers’ group. But… I’m not sure I’d complete another one if I did it again!

  14. Bill Crider Says:

    Free Agent is working its way to the top of my TBR pile, and I’m eager to read it. You may be a pantser, but you’re a lot more organized and have a lot more material when you begin than I do.

  15. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks, Bill – I hope you enjoy it. I’m a mix of organized and chaotic, I think. Perhaps you have to be to write novels.

  16. Sylvia Says:

    Right, that makes sense. Thank you!

    I’m not sure I would ever have completed a novel if I hadn’t been in a writers’ group. But… I’m not sure I’d complete another one if I did it again!

    This made me grin. 🙂

  17. Jeff Abbott Says:

    I will so be pointing people to this blog when I get asked about outlining vs not outlining, these are great articles. I was lucky enough to read Free Agent before it came out and very much enjoyed it, and was interested in read about Jeremy’s process.

  18. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Jeremy, thanks for the compliment about the site. Writing groups work, I think, mainly because they require actual writing. Same with writing classes. I’d hate to think anyone who was in any of my classes lived or died by anything I said to them, but for ten weeks they had to produce something new every week, and lots of them actually managed to finish a book. (In fact, one of them had her first novel published on the same day as one of mine.)

    Sylvia, for what it’s worth, I think that kind of bucket file, into which you throw everything you think of about a new project is invaluable, and I think it should also be used for the kind of list of attributes Jeremy identified for FREE AGENT. That was a great insight for me.

    Jeff, glad you’re liking the conversation. For those of you who haven’t read Jeff Abbott, what are you waiting for? TRUST ME, CUT AND RUN, A KISS GONE BAD, the Jordan Poteet books — Jeff’s great.

    Coming up this Wednesday, we’ll have the extraordinary Gar Anthony Haywood. You won’t want to miss him, and you really NEED to buy his newest book, CEMETERY ROAD.

  19. Jeremy Says:

    Thanks very much, Jeff (and thanks again for giving me that killer quote for Free Agent before it was published).

    And thank you for having me, Tim! It’s been a pleasure, and very interesting. I’m looking forward to reading Gar’s contribution on Wednesday.

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    Jeremy – thanks for being here! I hope to meet you soon.

  21. Beth Terrell Says:

    Jeremy,

    I enjoyed reading about your process. One thing I’ve been fascinated by is how self-aware everyone in this series has been about his or her creative process. I feel like I’m a plotter, but there are so many things in the panster posts that strike a chord.

    I think you nailed it when you said a successful book is written with a blend of pantsing and plotting.

    I especially liked the way you listed the traits you wanted the book to have, including more abstract elements like the tone and feel of the book.

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