Plotting vs. Pantsing 8: Jamie Freveletti

March 18th, 2010


Jamie Freveletti is a trial attorney, martial artist, and runner. She has crewed for an elite ultra-marathon runner at 100 mile and twenty-four hour races across the country, and holds a black belt in Aikido, a Japanese martial art. After law school she lived in Geneva, Switzerland while obtaining a diploma in International Studies. Back in Chicago, she represented clients in areas ranging from class actions for mass salmonella poisoning to securities fraud. Her debut thriller, Running from the Devil, was released in May, 2009, and her second, Running Dark, will be released in June, 2010. She lives in Chicago.


That’s a question I ask myself just about every day.  I write without benefit of an outline, a full understanding of the plot, or even a list of characters.  What I do have is a premise.  It’s the premise that excites me, and the rest starts from there.

When you’re a “pantser,” the idea is everything.  It needs to excite you enough to sustain you through the long slog of creating that lies ahead.  The premise is also the key to getting published in today’s market.  If you have a premise that takes an idea and gives it a unique twist, it will propel you over the many hurdles that your manuscript will need to jump to become a book.  I suspect that most published writers start out as pantsers, whether they still are or not, because it’s the concept that sells the book initially, not the writing.  Which is not to say that the writing doesn’t count; it does, but but there are a lot of good writers creating interesting stories that aren’t getting the attention they merit.  Often, it’s the premise that kicks open the doors.

Where do I find the premise? In the world.  I read the papers, surf the Internet, and watch television news programs, documentaries, and informational shows.  I keep active.  I have a file of newspaper and magazine clippings.  Whenever I see something that ignites my interest, I clip it out and shove it into the stack.

The premise for my first novel, Running from the Devil, came from an incident in my life.  I was crewing for an elite ultra-marathoner at an event called “The Centurion.”  In this event, one must racewalk 100 miles in twenty-four hours.  The event started at one o’clock on a rainy September day in Golden, Colorado, and within eight hours the temperature plunged and the rain became driving snow.  One of the walkers, an excellent athlete, passed out on the side of the trail.  By the time the organizers got to him he was suffering from hypothermia and disoriented. As I sat with him in the ER later, I got the idea for my novel.  Emma Caldridge is an ultra runner, and when her plane is downed in the Colombian jungle she’s thrown free, and watches as the guerillas that downed the plane take the other passengers hostage.  Without a compass and in an area littered with land mines, she decides to track the guerillas through the jungle to disrupt their plans.

The idea for my second, due to launch on June 29th and titled Running Dark, came from a newspaper story that I’d read back in 2005.  A group of Somali pirates fired on a cruise liner in an attempt to hijack it.  At the time, such an attack was so rare as to be an anomaly, but it fascinated me and I clipped the story.  I pulled the clipping out in 2008 and began writing my second.  When I pitched the premise to HarperCollins they responded with a bemused, “Pirates?  Like Jack Sparrow?” but gave me free rein to write what I wanted.  Fast forward one and one half years later, the second is written, and I no longer have to explain the concept of Somali pirates.

Once I get the premise I launch into the story.  I have a slight idea for the story arc: for my first I knew I needed to get my ultra runner into an area where if she ended up disoriented on a trail she would not find help easily.  I started writing the hijacking.  Once that was done I had her land in the jungle.  As each chapter unfolded, I embellished my protagonist, the guerillas, and what type of dangers my character would encounter in an area as dangerous as Colombia.

For the second, my prescient idea came back to bite me.  All the while I was writing, the pirates were escalating their attacks.  Suddenly, the people who had scoffed at the idea of a cruise ship being taken (mostly those I’d contacted in the cruise ship industry) were clamming up.  I couldn’t get anyone to talk to me, and, even worse, the maritime rules for the Gulf of Aden region were in a state of flux as the United Nations scrambled to create new ones.  By last August, I found myself in Italy on a family vacation, scrambling myself to remove the reference to the old laws and the commercial flights that no longer existed, and writing like mad to make Emma’s run, this time toward trouble, work.

But the joy of being a pantser is that such an event only gives you greater freedom, and since I don’t outline, I didn’t lose valuable time creating a new one.  I found another, unique way to get Emma to Somalia, and the new laws created even more obstacles for the characters.  In one month, I deleted 3,000 words, added 10,000 new ones, and created a new character that my agent loved.  My editor called back to rave about the rewrite.  We stayed on schedule.

The only real issue I’ve encountered as a pantser involves writing the synopsis required for a book proposal.  I’m now on my third, and this time I’ve been asked to create four chapters and a synopsis.  The synopsis required that I tell the entire story before it’s written.  Talk about an anxiety-producing event!  For a pantser, the idea of telling a story before it’s written takes a bit of the magic out of it.

I already had the premise, this time derived from my research into failing nations, and creating the first four chapters was a breeze.  I hit the wall on the synopsis. Instead of having a general idea of the story’s arc, this time I buckled down and forced myself to follow Emma to the end.  I wrote a two-page synopsis that hit the high points and hinted at the ending.  And you know what?  I really liked doing it.  It feels a bit like an outline to me, or at least as much of one a pantser like me will ever hope to create, and the hint of an ending leaves me free to continue forward without knowing what happens next.

Exactly the way I like it.

10 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 8: Jamie Freveletti”

  1. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Oooh….I got so breathless just reading this post that I can hardly wait to read your books. And with Tim’s description of all your activities, I can’t believe you have any time to write. Thanks for sharing your description of the hazards of writing a novel while the events are unfolding on the evening news (and the international laws are a half step behind you).

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  2. Rachel Brady Says:

    Hi Jamie,

    Great to see you out here at Tim’s blog. Loved the piece. I relate to what you said about how it’s uncomfortable to be a pantser asked to turn in a synopsis for the next project. Same problem here. I’d rather just be writing, already!

    CONGRATS on the upcoming release! I’ll watch for it. 🙂


  3. Bill Crider Says:

    I wrote a truly brilliant comment that never appeared because of the crash. Too bad I’ve forgotten it. I think I even included the winning lottery numbers for the week. Anyway, two pages is about enough of a synopsis for me, and I’d still count that as pantsing. Who’s winning, by the way? Pantsers or outliners? I haven’t been counting.

  4. Sylvia Says:

    Hi Jamie,

    I love your descriptions of finding things from the events happening around you and letting your imagination run away with it. You say that you start with the premise and I’m thinking that to keep you pushing forward, it must be a fairly detailed premise? I guess it must be coherent enough that you can see the unexpected twist.

    “Emma Caldridge is an ultra runner, and when her plane is downed in the Colombian jungle she’s thrown free, and watches as the guerillas that downed the plane take the other passengers hostage. Without a compass and in an area littered with land mines, she decides to track the guerillas through the jungle to disrupt their plans.”

    How much of that was in your head when you started? Clearly you started with the glimmer of Emma, an ultra runner ending up in trouble.

  5. Jamie Freveletti Says:

    Ahh-the joys of website crashes! I am interested to see that Rachel is a pantster and I am not sure who is winning-but I bet Tim knows.
    Sylvia: the premise is never involved–I know, sounds weird doesn’t it? It’s literally one line: “A cruise ship carrying an unknown chemical weapon is fired on by Somali pirates set on hijacking it.”
    That’s all. Then I just start. I learned a while ago that if I couldn’t describe the premise in a one or two sentence pitch I was going to run into real trouble writing the book.
    As for the synopsis–is 2 pages double spaced–I know, weak, huh?
    Thanks for the nice comment Cynthia!

    🙂 Jamie Freveletti

  6. Dana King Says:

    not unlike Bill, I had a detailed and witty comment that was eaten, and my memory and current supply of pharmaceuticals prohibit a accurate reproduction.

    What I’m getting from the Jamie’s post and the comments is that I may be more of a pantser than I thought. The outline for the current WIP is only a few pages of Word table, each with a sentence or two of what happens in each chapter. How that happens is up to me a the time. So I guess I’m a macro-plotter, and micro-pantser, or a strategic plotter and tactical pantser. (Yeah, “tactical pantser” sounds a lot more manly than “micro-pantser.” I’m going with that.)

  7. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, Dana — “Tactical Pantser” is Washington-worthy — as in “The Administration had no Iraqi exit strategy because they’re tactical pantsers.”

    By the way the pantsers STRONGLY outnumber the plotters, but if this were a screenwriting site, there’d be no pantsers at all.

    Thanks for a great piece, Jamie. Looking forward to the new book, RUNNING DARK, at the end of June.

  8. Bill Crider Says:

    I had a feeling the pantsers might be running ahead of the pack. Too bad about screenwriting. I guess I’ll never do a screenplay. No wonder I’m not rich.

  9. Stevie Poskus Says:

    Hi, are you having problems with your blog? I made a comment on another one of your posts twice but your blog “ate it” and it vanished so I figured I ask on this one in case it happened again.

  10. Beth Terrell Says:

    Yet another fascinating post on the creative process. Jamie, your books sound intriguing–and your life sounds exhausting!

    Tim, thank you for this series. I have learned something from every one of the posts.

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