Plotting vs. Pantsing 5: Gar Anthony Haywood

February 16th, 2010


Gar Anthony Haywood is, for my money, one of the best. But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s Booklist in their starred review of his absolutely killer new novel, CEMETERY ROAD: “It’s been too long between books for a writer who has always belonged in the upper echelon of American crime fiction.”  No argument from me. Haywood’s six Aaron Gunner novels (the first, FEAR OF THE DARK, won the Mystery Writers of America’s Shamus Award for Best First Novel, and Booklist named the sixth, ALL THE GOOD ONES ARE DEAD, as one of the year’s ten best mystery novels) are gritty thrillers that read like they’ve been written with flint.  His two much (much) lighter Lou and Dottie Loudermilk mysteries make “empty nest syndrome” an active verb as the Loudermilks push their Airstream trailer to the limit to stay in front of their five pestiferous kids.  He also wrote two standalone thrillers as Ray Shannon. Along the way, he won an Anthony Award and write for television.  And until now, I’ve had no idea how he did it.


One of the most amazing things about becoming a published author is how instantaneously you transition in the eyes of some from know-nothing wannabe to Professional Literary Figure. One minute you’re reading Lawrence Block, wondering if you’ll ever live long enough to write a sentence as well as he writes an entire book, and the next you’re trading emails with the man and calling him “Larry.” That check somebody made out in your name for the honor of publishing your next novel or short story has suddenly made your opinions about the act of writing worth paying attention to, even though they’re the same opinions you had the day before, when no one would have given a rat’s rear end about what you have to say on that or any other subject.

So it is that at times like this, when I’ve been asked to write something smart and pithy on the “creative process” as if I’m some kind of expert, I agree to do so with some degree of trepidation, because I’m still not sure—even eleven published novels in—that I have any real wisdom to impart. I know what the creative process is like for me; that’s about it If a hundred aspiring authors followed my method of writing to the letter, like the proverbial “infinite number of monkeys” in a room full of typewriters and bond paper, eventually one of them would write a salable manuscript and become a professional author. But that wouldn’t be my method proving its worth—that would just be the law of averages doing its thing.

Still. Tim’s asked me to write this guest blog and he’s a relatively smart man, so what the hell—here goes.

Where I Get My Ideas

Every published writer I know has at least one snide and thoroughly useless answer to this question because we hear it so often it’s impossible to take seriously anymore. It’s like asking a composer where he finds all those great melodies. But it’s a fair question to ask, obvious or no; an idea is where all creative endeavors begin, so why wouldn’t any investigation into the process start there?

Most people, I think, ask the question hoping to find out where writers look for inspiration; newspapers, movies, craigslist personals? But some are really asking another question altogether, which is: How in God’s name do we find the needle of a great story idea in the mountainous haystack of sight and sound that is everyday experience?

And my answer to that question is, “We just do.”

It’s like this:

A Non-Writer and a Writer are walking down the street.  Both take note of a mismatched pair of running shoes dangling from their bound laces over the back of a vacant bus bench.

The Non-Writer thinks:

“Hmm. That’s funny. I wonder what that’s about?”

The writer thinks:

“An all-clear sign left by one criminal conspirator for another.”

“A poor man training for his last marathon before cancer takes his life has just boarded a bus and left his only pair of running shoes behind.”

“A grifter’s wife is throwing his worthless ass out again, tossing his clothes out a window of their fourth-floor apartment, starting with shoes she’s been careful to tie up in mismatched pairs just to twist the knife.”

You see? And none of this is particularly deliberate. It just happens. It’s how our minds work. We see or read something that piques our curiosity and runaway extrapolation occurs. Mind you, it isn’t always great extrapolation (as the three examples above probably indicate), but every now and then, something genuinely wonderful results from it.

So where do I get my ideas? Everywhere. The thing is, they’re only “ideas” because, as a writer, I’m able to perceive them as such; what the Non-Writer dismisses as mere oddities I latch onto as seedlings that could grow stories in a hundred different directions.

Go figure.

My Writing Process

Once I have an idea that so excites me I can’t do anything but develop it into a novel, I usually just jump in, sans outline, and let the writing take me where it will. Characters and plot lines fall naturally into place as I go, everything in perfect order…until I’m inevitably forced to stop, step away from the laptop, and admit that I’ll never escape the impenetrable gulag I’ve imprisoned myself in if I don’t draw myself a little map, showing the way out. So I do.

This last part can be fun, but it generally isn’t. In fact, I’d compare it to putting a puzzle together without the aid of the picture on the box. Patience and a lot of trial and error are most definitely required.

And there you have it. Gar Anthony Haywood’s unique take on the creative process. I could go on and on describing it, laying it all out for you like the blueprints to the Kingdom of Heaven, but Tim’s not paying me a dime for this post and there might be a bestselling e-book in the material somewhere down the line. So I’ll just sign off for now and leave you wanting more.

I believe that’s the “Dan Brown” version of the creative process.

14 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 5: Gar Anthony Haywood”

  1. Bill Crider Says:

    Great stuff, Gar. I look forward to that e-book.

  2. Dana King Says:

    That’s as good an answer as I’ve read for “Where do you get your ideas?” Even the most innocuous actions can have sinister or strange causes if we think about it a bit. The stories I like best aren’t the thrillers that grab you by the throat on page One, but those that grow of out of things that seem like no big deal at the time.

  3. Rachel Brady Says:

    “I’d compare it to putting a puzzle together without the aid of the picture on the box.” Exactly!

    I liked it too, Gar. Thanks.

  4. Jeremy Says:

    Excellent – a man after my own heart. I love the description of drawing yourself a little map to get out of the prison you’ve written yourself into.

    I haven’t been asked where I get my ideas yet, but I already have my snarky answer prepared. ‘In the shower.’

  5. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    Gar, great to meet you at last, though I’m still waiting to see you in person. Which I’ll do at Left Coast Crime.
    I’m lost in the moment you described, looking around at my environment for those little tid-bits of visual information that might lead to the idea that might lead to the theme of my next novel. Even driving on the way to work today I wrote a sentence in my head that would be a very fine first sentence for a novel, and that might be the thing that creates the entire thing. It wasn’t where I thought I was going, but it felt right and it might be the catalyst that starts the process. Then again, maybe it won’t hold up when I revisit it tomorrow. Or, maybe I’ll spend the next year writing a book based on the momentum of that first sentence, and then change the sentence before it goes to the copyeditor. Who knows.
    Thanks for your post. It got me thinking.

  6. Gar Says:

    Thanks, Bill.

    Dana, I actually love it when a book grabs me by the throat on Page One. But those “slow burners” can sometimes be even more suspenseful, if they give you just enough on Page One to know that something wicked this way comes (if you’ll just keep reading).

    You’re welcome, Rachel.

    Jeremy, haven’t gotten a usable idea in the shower yet. But the bath

    Stephen, I look forward to hooking up at LCC. Your Murderati posts are great reads. And yeah, it’s a killer searching high and low for the stuff we gather to ultimately make a novel out of. The killer for me is when I have the perfect character to center a book around…but I don’t have the story to tell about him!


  7. Usman Says:

    Hi Gar, thanks for the advice.
    My question : what do you do when the story gets stalled, and yet the bones are rattling their crazy heads off in your brain.

    Captcha: wooden fumbler.
    Apt, since I’m stalled.

  8. Rachel Brady Says:

    Gar and Stephen,

    Glad to see that you guys will be at Left Coast Crime. It’s always nice to finally say hello in person. I’m looking forward to meeting you and, Tim, to seeing you again. 🙂

  9. Sharai Says:

    Tim, I love this series, thanks so much to all the great authors for participating. Every one of them have been new to me and I look forward to reading them. I really liked the way Mr. Anthony used the qualifier ‘relatively’!

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Thanks, Gar — I’ve read all your books except the two Ray Shannons (I didn’t know he was you) and I wouldn’t have bet a nickel either way on on which approach you took to plotting. Your stories have two qualities I try to imitate, which is that while I’m reading them I have no idea what’s coming, but afterwards it all feels inevitable, as though each turning point were the only possible development.

    And I should point out that I DID pay Gar, and I have the canceled check for $3.75 to prove it. I want a piece of that e-book.

    Sharai, glad to hear from you and happy you’re liking the series. I love it, too, and I don’t even have to do any work.

    Usman, just write it wrong. You’ll have gotten past one bad way to do it, and something else will present itself. Gar may come in with completely conflicting advice, but that’s what I do. Oh, and I think about it in the shower.

    My captcha is WAKE NOT. Ummmmm . . . .

  11. Gar Says:


    I find that if a story get stalled for too long, it’s probably for a reason, Something’s broke, and I’m just spinning my wheels unless I bite the bullet and go back and fix it. Tim’s right that you can push ahead anyway, and sometimes that works, but in my experience, if I can’t find a comfortable way out of the rut I’m in, it’s because I took a wrong turn somewhere to get there and a little backtracking is, much to my regret, necessary.

    I very much look forward to meeting you at LCC, as well. Please don’t let the convention come and go without stopping me to say hello.

    Thanks for all the kinds words, Tim. Making your plot turns seem inevitable is always the goal, because that means they make perfect sense. It’s a tough trick to pull off, though. It’s also one of the ways we get a big kick out of our own writing, when a twist or turn we didn’t see coming suddenly dawns upon us and we realize that it makes all that’s gone before more logical and credible than ever.

  12. Usman Says:

    Thanks Gar and Tim,
    Showers…I take them power style, quickies. The toilet seat does come to mind.
    Tim, I leave for Chiang Mai tonight. Are you by any chance in the neighborhood? Would love to meet you. I sent you an email about my visit, didn’t get a reply. Hence the mention here.

  13. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Usman, I never got that e-mail or I would have told you that I’m staying in the US for the foreseeable future because of a project here.

    Don’t know when/whether I’ll be in Asia this year — if not, it’ll be the first year since 1981.

    Sorry to have missed you.

  14. Beth Terrell Says:

    Gar, I love your description of where ideas come from. That’s exactly the way it works. My husband and I went to the Aquarium Restaurant, and of course, the first thing that popped into my mind was, “What if the person who takes care of the aquarium came in one morning and found a body floating in it, half-eaten by sharks?”

    I suspect every mystery writer who ever went into that restaurant had the same thought.

    Thanks for the insights.

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