Plotting vs. Pantsing 7: Leighton Gage

March 3rd, 2010


Leighton Gage lives in Brazil and writes crime novels set in that country.  That’s all he put in his bio, but I’ll go all editorial here and tell you he’s really good and that his books feature an absolutely great Inspector named Mario Silva and they’re published by Soho Press, which is itself a kind of endorsement.  Go to Amazon and check out Blood of the Wicked, Buried Strangers, and Dying Gasp. You can get more information about Leighton and his books at

Q, The world is divided (roughly) between pantsers, who make it up as they go along, and plotters, who plot, or even outline, in advance. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

A: I fall all over it. It’s a consequence of stumbling. And what I generally stumble over is first drafts. My first novel (deservedly unpublished) was created without forethought to plot and without any kind of an outline. That was back in my who needs a freakin’ outline stage.

Uh, maybe I did. The only good thing about that book was the title. (Amazon Snow. Catchy, huh?) Well, hell, I thought it was catchy.

The second book ultimately became Blood of the Wicked. Why “ultimately”? Because, again, I didn’t do any plotting, I didn’t outline, and the first draft wound-up being one long outline. As an outline, it was pretty good. As a book, it sucked.

Check out this speech from Churchill, the one he gave on the occasion of his very first entrance into the House of Commons as Britain’s new Prime Minister on May 13, 1940.

“Blood, toil, tears and sweat,” the man said. What an inspiration! I already had the blood. It was in the title, and there were gallons more between the pages. All I had to do, I figured, was to add the toil, tears and sweat. So I toiled. And toiled. And used up lots of handkerchiefs and cans of deodorant spray. Revision followed revision, rewrite followed rewrite. At last it was good enough to publish, was published and, mirabile dictu, got a favorable mention in the New York Times.

The experience taught me two things, one of them about publicity, the other about writing:

1.Not plotting, or outlining, can snag you a mention in the New York Times.

2.Not plotting or outlining, can waste you a hell of a lot of time.

Confusing, huh? Well, crap, it was for me too.

Confession time: I am, by nature, lazy and loath to put any more effort into anything than I absolutely have to.

Fact: I am a perfectionist; averse to turning in any manuscript that isn’t as good as I can get it.

Mutually exclusive? Um, not really. But confusing for some, my wife for starters.

I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw in The New Yorker:

A sculptor is up on a ladder, hammer and chisel in hand. The huge statue in front of him is split right down the middle. His wife is looking up at him. Her line: “You never learn, do you, Pierre? You and your ‘one more tap’.”

Can you “improve” a book to death? Some people think so. My wife sure as hell thinks so. I don’t.

But maybe, just maybe, (Thought I to myself upon concluding book #1) there’s a way to maintain quality and save myself some work.

Enter the outline. I decided to give it a try. And it works for me.

Q Why does it work for you?

Because I have learned, the hard way, not to show my outlines to anyone. Maybe you, dear fellow writers, have a different experience. But mine has been that people, certain people, certain important-in-the-process people (not just wives) often start putting in their two cents on the outline. Yeah, on the outline; saves them the trouble of having to wait and read the book.

Does me no good to explain that I never follow an outline exactly, that I keep changing the story as I go along. They’re going to put in their two cents anyway.

Advice to newbies: outline, but tell people you don’t.

Q. How do you actually approach it?

Unlike the venerable, very professional, illustrious and highly-experienced owner of this blog (grovel, grovel, pulling of forelock, rending of garments) I’m still a newbie myself, still developing my technique.

One thing that seems to be working at the moment, at least it has with my last two books, is to begin with the end and outline backward. Does that make sense to you?

If it doesn’t, I’m not gonna bother to explain it. Reading my explanation would be a waste of your time because, if you don’t get it straightaway, you’re not likely to even after I’ve thrown a lot of words at it.

Q. Where do you think your stories come from?

I’m fortunate to be living in a country where a lot of weird stuff happens. My first book, for example, deals with liberation theology and land reform. You got liberation and land reform at work in your country?

Ha! I didn’t think so.

Here’s how the story came about: One starry Brazilian night, I was sharing some wine with a friend of mine, a defrocked priest, also a committed liberation theologian. As the evening progressed, and a long evening it was, he told me many stories of his experiences during Brazil’s most recent dictatorship. Hey, I thought, those stories would make a great book. About a week after that, a relative of my wife’s, and I, were splitting a few bottles of Argentinean red while he told me how his ranch was invaded by a group of landless workers. Hey, I thought, that story make another great book. Still another week went by. My wife went out with a few girlfriends and left me alone with a book about Bishop Oscar Romero and a full magnum of Chilean cabernet. I finished the book, made good progress on the wine, and, for some inexplicable reason, found that all the stories were getting mixed up in my head.

That’s when the epiphany occurred: Why bother to try to sort the freakin’ things out. Everything together is gonna make a great book.

Three weeks, two conversations, one book, a half-dozen bottles of wine. It was as simple as that. But I should have outlined.

My second opus, Buried Strangers, had its origins in a conversation I had in the kitchen of our home. I heard this story about organ theft from Geralda, one of our maids. As I recall, she was washing dishes and I…hey, that’s right, I was drinking a caipirinha.

Maybe it isn’t outlining that’s the writer’s best friend.

Maybe it’s booze.

13 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 7: Leighton Gage”

  1. Sylvia Says:

    I fall all over it. It’s a consequence of stumbling. And what I generally stumble over is first drafts.

    I want this as a plaque on my wall.

    There’s a nice Tempranillo for sale at our local shop at the moment, I shall try that theory first.

  2. Dana King Says:

    Thanks for the lazy/perfectionist comment; my wife can sympathize/empathize with yours.

    That’s exactly why I outline. I’m too lazy to go back and fix all the stuff I’d foul up if I made it all up as I go along, but I still want it to be as perfect as I can make it.

    So I plan it out first. The finished product looks little like the original outline, but it got me where I needed to go.

  3. Beth, MA Says:

    The connection to Oscar Romero occurred to me the first time I read BLOOD OF THE WICKED. Romero was appointed archbishop of San Salvador as a harmless place keeper until a better(Vatican supporter) candidate came along. That was the same thinking that got John XXIII elected; the Vatican apparently didn’t learn anything from that experience.

    It is unfortunate that the liberation theology movement was labeled as Marxist. Marxism equals communism. A pope who spent his life in a country first occupied by the Nazis and then under a Soviet-controlled communist government was not a man to see beyond the Marxist label. The church should be deeply ashamed of its support of governments that deny the poor, the landless, basic human dignity.

    BURIED STRANGERS speaks to the very real fear of people being hurried to premature deaths so that organs can be supplied to the highest bidder. I have an organ donor sticker on my driver’s license but I wonder what I would decide if I had to make a decision about life support for my children?

    My middle child lost a kidney after a skiing accident. The oldest maintains that she ruined the plan. The two younger were supposed to keep themselves healthy so they could pass on organs to her. It is ok to be facetious as long as a decision about organ donation isn’t required in the now.

  4. Chester Campbell Says:

    I’m a confirmed pantser. Always have been. Sometimes when I get into the story, I think ahead a chapter or so to where it’s going, but I don’t write anything down. With my current book, I’m like Rebecca Cantrell, who said she writes too little and has to add scenes. I’ve reached the end of the book and am about 15,000 words short. So I’m back to beefing up scenes and looking for spots to add new plot quirks.

    This is a great series, Tim. I wasn’t aware of it until this morning and spent the last few hours reading all the posts and comments. Hopefully, it will help chart my way to finishing this fifth Greg McKenzie tale. One of my problems is I’ve never been able to sit down and pound out an uninterrupted first draft. I’m a constant edit/revise freak. When I’m through with it, I’ll let some colleagues read it and head back for one last rewrite.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, I envy both Leighton, who knows how to outline, and Chester, whose books (like Rebecca’s) come in short. I can’t outline to save my soul and my basic method is to paint the basic idea on a wall and throw absolutely everything at it until it’s done. Which is why my last one, the as-yet-untitled one, came in at 155,000 words. So I cut 35,000 of the worst words and turned it in.

    Reading Leighton’s work, it seems extremely spontaneous, which is a compliment and which (I think) makes it even more clear that you can’t tell which approach a good writer takes, although you can usually make an educated guess with a bad writer.

    And Leighton’s whole thing about pulling his forelock and how cool I am is poppycock. He hasn’t got a forelock.

  6. Leighton Gage Says:

    I do. I do have a forelock.
    It’s just very small.
    I tug it with tweezers.

  7. Bill Crider Says:

    Enjoyed the post, and it almost makes me want to learn how to do an outline. But it’s probably too late to change now.

    I used to have a forelock, but something happened to it.

  8. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    I loved the description of mentally mashing unrelated stories together and receiving an epiphany.

    And I haven’t heard the term “liberation theology” since my college days in the late 80s. I’m a former Army intelligence analyst who sat through a sociology class on Nicaragua. Ooooh the debates that sparked in that class! I have to admit I’ve complete changed my opinion of the American government’s policies pertaining to South America as I’ve grown older.

    Thanks for sharing. I look forward to reading your work.

    captcha: sincerer agreement (I wonder if this applies to my change of opinion regarding SA politics?)

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    I’m fortunate enough to have forelocks, sidelocks and backlocks. It’s the locks coming out of my ears that disturb me.

    Great post, Leighton. Are you from Brazil? Did you grow up there? If not, how did you come to be there? I think it’s fascinating to have such vibrant experiences surrounding you – dictatorships, land reform, organ-stealing…all we have in the U.S. is milktoast sex scandals.

    Interesting comment about “improving a book to death”. Makes me think of Jack Kerouac’s comment, “First thought best thought.” The Beat writers generally published their first drafts, or so the mythology goes. I tend to agree with you – I’ll futz with a story until the day the copyeditor says “fuck off already.”

  10. Leighton Gage Says:

    Thank you, Sylvia, Dana, Beth, Chester, Bill, Cynthia and Stephen for taking the time to comment. It’s nice to know that I’m not just talking to myself.

    Thank you, Tim, for providing me with a soapbox. And for hosting the other people who have made such interesting and readable contributions to this series.
    I have delighted in their posts, every one of them.

    Lastly, thank you, Stephen, for your questions.

    Nope, I’m not from Brazil, nor did I grow up there. I first visited the country in 1973, having been transferred to São Paulo by the multinational company I’d been working for in Europe.

    I met a Brazilian girl, fell in love with her and the place, and have been living there happily, on and off, ever since.

    My wife, Eide, and I have now been married for thirty-three years and she I and our offspring have become not quite Brazilian, not quite Europeans not quite Americans. But we usually manage to fake it when we’re in any one of those three environments.

    The language of our nuclear household is Portuguese. I speak Dutch to my grandchildren. These days, I try to spend at least four of five months a year in Paris – because that’s where the little ones are.

    My kids all have at least two passports. One daughter, and my three (soon to be four) grandchildren have three.

    But, if there’s any place that I truly feel at home it’s Brazil. I never fell out of love with the girl or the place.

    You might get a different impression from my books, but, heck, I write crime novels.

    For a more positive take on the country and it’s people, please check out some of the posts I’ve done on the blog that I do with Tim and four other writers who set their books outside the United States.

    That blog is my home in cyberspace.
    And I’m in such good company.
    You can find it here:

    Cheers All,

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Vot a bunch — I like everybody.

    I’ve been thinking for months (ever since I first read Leighton’s post) about starting with the ending and outlining backwards. It makes perfect sense to me on one level but on another I know I could never do it. I’ll confess, though, that as I blunder, um pants, my way through a story, a future scene sometimes comes to me that’s too good to forget, and I’ll figure out how to get there from here, so to speak. So that’s sort of the same thing.

    By the way, I shortchanged Chester in not mentioning that he writes terrific mysteries and that I’m hoping he’ll be one of the writers in the next thread of guest posts, THE BOOK THAT ALMOST KILLED ME, in which writers will describe the worst trouble they ever got into on a book, how they got there, and how they worked their way out of it.

    Should be interesting.

  12. Rebecca Cantrell Says:

    Clearly I am not drinking enough. I bet my first drafts would come in longer if I just had more wine. And more tipsy people in my kitchen too.

    Thanks, Leighton, for another brilliant take on plotting vs. pantsing, and thanks, Tim, for giving us all a forum to discuss it!

    (my captcha is: their emergining which seems like a captcha for a panster)

  13. Beth Terrell Says:

    More wine, yes. Ice wine. The ambrosia of the gods. I wonder if I can write it off on my taxes.

    And I do have a forelock; my mother used to quote that nursery rhyme about the “little girl who had the little curl” all the time.

    I love your line about stumbling over first drafts. I’m primarily an outliner, but I do my share of stumbling too.

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