Plotting vs. Pantsing 10: Jeffrey Cohen

April 21st, 2010

smalloperationJeffrey Cohen writes two series, but the one I’m most familiar with are the Double Feature Mysteries starring Elliot Freed, mensch, divorced man, movie theater entrepreneur and classic movie addict.  The books are expertly plotted, pin-you-to-the-wall mysteries that are also loving homages to those glorious days of yesteryear when motion picture comedies were actually — dare I say it? — funny.  In all three of the Freed books — It Happened One Knife, Some Like It Hot Buttered, and A Night at the Operation, Cohen works his unique alchemy, and often making me laugh out loud in the process.  Oh, and if Bruce Springsteen weren’t already the poet laureate of New Jersey, Jeff could qualify for that, too.  As if  that weren’t enough, he’s also the author of the Aaron Tucker mysteries and has worked as a freelance reporter and writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, TV Guide, USA Weekend, Premiere, American Baby (!) and The Newark Star-Ledger, among many others.

jeff cohen

I love to paint myself into a corner.

I don’t like to call myself a “pantser,” mostly because it brings up unpleasant memories of junior high school, but given the choice between identifying myself that way and saying that I carefully and meticulously outline every move I’m going to make in a new book, I have to go with the colloquial. I “pants.”

See, every writer has a style of working. I’m not talking about the words we choose or the artistry of our construction. I mean the thing that gets us going in the morning (or in my case, the late afternoon) and forces us to continue through the spots when we really haven’t a clue what the next word is supposed to be. it’s not so much the muse–I think you can write whenever you need to, and don’t believe in “Writer’s Block”–as it is the motivator, something that keeps you going when there’s a ballgame on TV and a bag of Cheetos in the kitchen cabinet.

For me, it wouldn’t work if I knew everything that was going to happen in my story before I wrote it. I’d feel like that story had been told. There would be no surprises for me in the process, and no surprises would mean no enjoyment. I might just as well be punching a time clock and working for Da Man instead of this cushy life of skimpy advances and the constant threat of unemployment.

I came from screenwriter’s training; I started by writing a truckload of screenplays and trying for years to sell them, with varying degrees of no success. But what I was unable to obtain in monetary compensation I more than made up for with the storytelling technique and confidence I found in endless rewrites and repetition. I found out about the three-act structure, what a midpoint was and why it was important, the absolute need for character, and how to write dialogue that didn’t sound like people making speeches and more important, didn’t always sound like me talking. I’m grateful for everything I learned writing screenplays. Someday, I might try it again, just to see how not selling one feels at this age.

What I found out is that there’s no right way to write. There’s no wrong way, either. There’s only your way. I found mine by doing it–I started with a story idea, a premise, and worked from there once I got the process going. I generally wrote in the late afternoon because when I tried to do it earlier in the day, I’d procrastinate until the late afternoon, and then get all my work in from four to six. So now I work on my “day job,” newspaper articles, teaching and like that, until four, and then get to writing the novel. Because there’s no sense in wasting all that time when I could be trying to make tuition money for my kids.

Now, I know what I need to start a story–a premise, a character I understand, and a few scenes that I know I want to write. I have an idea where they’ll fit in the structure of the story, but not what will connect them to each other. So when I’m writing, if a character does or says something unexpected, I can run with it, rather than trying to cut out something that could be interesting just because it doesn’t fit the preset outline I would have concocted before starting in to work.

For example: My second novel, the Aaron Tucker mystery A FAREWELL TO LEGS, involved our intrepid hero, a freelance reporter and family man trying his best not to investigate crimes, investigating a crime that took place in Washington, DC. Specifically, the murder of a sleazy lobbyist found in his mistress’ bed with a kitchen knife sticking out of his chest. And Aaron, who lived in New Jersey, had to go to Our Nation’s Capital to investigate. He started by contacting the local police detective working the case, and got remarkably little information, mostly because the cop didn’t want to tell him anything.

But Aaron had somewhat acerbic nature (imagine!) and liked to irritate people to get what he needed. He needled the cop about a high profile case like this being too much for the police to handle, and how he was sure they were behind the times in crime investigation. At one point, Aaron suggested the police had not even collected any DNA samples to help identify the killer. And sure enough, the cop was rankled enough to respond.

Now, keep in mind: I really am just looking for a plot point to end the chapter here. Something that will keep the pages turning. And I have not planned ahead, so I don’t really know where this is going, but I figure if I keep it going long enough, it’ll get somewhere.

The cop told Aaron that they had, too, gotten DNA samples, and one of them had paid off: A hair belonging to a man convicted of a series of murders in Texas some years before. Terrific, Aaron said, you’ve got your man. So go arrest him.

We can’t, the cop answered. The guy was executed by the Texas State Troopers seven years ago.

And I got finished typing that, read it, and honest to goodness, said aloud, “What?”

But here’s the thing: I decided I liked that bit. So now I had to figure out how it made sense in the context of my story. And while I’m not going to tell you how I resolved it (go ahead and buy the damn book; I’ve got kids to send to college), I will tell you that I’m pretty proud of how it came out.

It wouldn’t have happened if I’d outlined meticulously ahead of time and slavishly stuck to the outline. I’m not suggesting that all those who write outlines do that; some are quite flexible, and can change the outline when necessary. They are using one just because they like to have a road map, and I respect that.

But for me, the thrill of the hunt isn’t as much fun if the fox and the dogs have worked out the capture among themselves ahead of time. I thrive on the discovery process. As I write, I find out things about my characters that can have an impact on the plot. That helps me keep the characters front and center, and have the plot serve them, rather than the other way around.

That’s just my process. Yours is yours. You should do what works for you.

Jeffrey Cohen is the author of the Double Feature Mystery series, most recently with A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, and the Aaron Tucker mystery series, most recently with AS DOG IS MY WITNESS.

I love to paint myself into a corner.
I don’t like to call myself a “pantser,” mostly because it brings up unpleasant memories of junior high school, but given the choice between identifying myself that way and saying that I carefully and meticulously outline every move I’m going to make in a new book, I have to go with the colloquial. I “pants.”
See, every writer has a style of working. I’m not talking about the words we choose or the artistry of our construction. I mean the thing that gets us going in the morning (or in my case, the late afternoon) and forces us to continue through the spots when we really haven’t a clue what the next word is supposed to be. it’s not so much the muse–I think you can write whenever you need to, and don’t believe in “Writer’s Block”–as it is the motivator, something that keeps you going when there’s a ballgame on TV and a bag of Cheetos in the kitchen cabinet.
For me, it wouldn’t work if I knew everything that was going to happen in my story before I wrote it. I’d feel like that story had been told. There would be no surprises for me in the process, and no surprises would mean no enjoyment. I might just as well be punching a time clock and working for Da Man instead of this cushy life of skimpy advances and the constant threat of unemployment.
I came from screenwriter’s training; I started by writing a truckload of screenplays and trying for years to sell them, with varying degrees of no success. But what I was unable to obtain in monetary compensation I more than made up for with the storytelling technique and confidence I found in endless rewrites and repetition. I found out about the three-act structure, what a midpoint was and why it was important, the absolute need for character, and how to write dialogue that didn’t sound like people making speeches and more important, didn’t always sound like me talking. I’m grateful for everything I learned writing screenplays. Someday, I might try it again, just to see how not selling one feels at this age.
What I found out is that there’s no right way to write. There’s no wrong way, either. There’s only your way. I found mine by doing it–I started with a story idea, a premise, and worked from there once I got the process going. I generally wrote in the late afternoon because when I tried to do it earlier in the day, I’d procrastinate until the late afternoon, and then get all my work in from four to six. So now I work on my “day job,” newspaper articles, teaching and like that, until four, and then get to writing the novel. Because there’s no sense in wasting all that time when I could be trying to make tuition money for my kids.
Now, I know what I need to start a story–a premise, a character I understand, and a few scenes that I know I want to write. I have an idea where they’ll fit in the structure of the story, but not what will connect them to each other. So when I’m writing, if a character does or says something unexpected, I can run with it, rather than trying to cut out something that could be interesting just because it doesn’t fit the preset outline I would have concocted before starting in to work.
For example: My second novel, the Aaron Tucker mystery A FAREWELL TO LEGS, involved our intrepid hero, a freelance reporter and family man trying his best not to investigate crimes, investigating a crime that took place in Washington, DC. Specifically, the murder of a sleazy lobbyist found in his mistress’ bed with a kitchen knife sticking out of his chest. And Aaron, who lived in New Jersey, had to go to Our Nation’s Capital to investigate. He started by contacting the local police detective working the case, and got remarkably little information, mostly because the cop didn’t want to tell him anything.
But Aaron had somewhat acerbic nature (imagine!) and liked to irritate people to get what he needed. He needled the cop about a high profile case like this being too much for the police to handle, and how he was sure they were behind the times in crime investigation. At one point, Aaron suggested the police had not even collected any DNA samples to help identify the killer. And sure enough, the cop was rankled enough to respond.
Now, keep in mind: I really am just looking for a plot point to end the chapter here. Something that will keep the pages turning. And I have not planned ahead, so I don’t really know where this is going, but I figure if I keep it going long enough, it’ll get somewhere.
The cop told Aaron that they had, too, gotten DNA samples, and one of them had paid off: A hair belonging to a man convicted of a series of murders in Texas some years before. Terrific, Aaron said, you’ve got your man. So go arrest him.
We can’t, the cop answered. The guy was executed by the Texas State Troopers seven years ago.
And I got finished typing that, read it, and honest to goodness, said aloud, “What?”
But here’s the thing: I decided I liked that bit. So now I had to figure out how it made sense in the context of my story. And while I’m not going to tell you how I resolved it (go ahead and buy the damn book; I’ve got kids to send to college), I will tell you that I’m pretty proud of how it came out.
It wouldn’t have happened if I’d outlined meticulously ahead of time and slavishly stuck to the outline. I’m not suggesting that all those who write outlines do that; some are quite flexible, and can change the outline when necessary. They are using one just because they like to have a road map, and I respect that.
But for me, the thrill of the hunt isn’t as much fun if the fox and the dogs have worked out the capture among themselves ahead of time. I thrive on the discovery process. As I write, I find out things about my characters that can have an impact on the plot. That helps me keep the characters front and center, and have the plot serve them, rather than the other way around.
That’s just my process. Yours is yours. You should do what works for you.
Jeffrey Cohen is the author of the Double Feature Mystery series, most recently with A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, and the Aaron Tucker mystery series, most recently with AS DOG IS MY WITNESSI love to paint myself into a corner.
I don’t like to call myself a “pantser,” mostly because it brings up unpleasant memories of junior high school, but given the choice between identifying myself that way and saying that I carefully and meticulously outline every move I’m going to make in a new book, I have to go with the colloquial. I “pants.”
See, every writer has a style of working. I’m not talking about the words we choose or the artistry of our construction. I mean the thing that gets us going in the morning (or in my case, the late afternoon) and forces us to continue through the spots when we really haven’t a clue what the next word is supposed to be. it’s not so much the muse–I think you can write whenever you need to, and don’t believe in “Writer’s Block”–as it is the motivator, something that keeps you going when there’s a ballgame on TV and a bag of Cheetos in the kitchen cabinet.
For me, it wouldn’t work if I knew everything that was going to happen in my story before I wrote it. I’d feel like that story had been told. There would be no surprises for me in the process, and no surprises would mean no enjoyment. I might just as well be punching a time clock and working for Da Man instead of this cushy life of skimpy advances and the constant threat of unemployment.
I came from screenwriter’s training; I started by writing a truckload of screenplays and trying for years to sell them, with varying degrees of no success. But what I was unable to obtain in monetary compensation I more than made up for with the storytelling technique and confidence I found in endless rewrites and repetition. I found out about the three-act structure, what a midpoint was and why it was important, the absolute need for character, and how to write dialogue that didn’t sound like people making speeches and more important, didn’t always sound like me talking. I’m grateful for everything I learned writing screenplays. Someday, I might try it again, just to see how not selling one feels at this age.
What I found out is that there’s no right way to write. There’s no wrong way, either. There’s only your way. I found mine by doing it–I started with a story idea, a premise, and worked from there once I got the process going. I generally wrote in the late afternoon because when I tried to do it earlier in the day, I’d procrastinate until the late afternoon, and then get all my work in from four to six. So now I work on my “day job,” newspaper articles, teaching and like that, until four, and then get to writing the novel. Because there’s no sense in wasting all that time when I could be trying to make tuition money for my kids.
Now, I know what I need to start a story–a premise, a character I understand, and a few scenes that I know I want to write. I have an idea where they’ll fit in the structure of the story, but not what will connect them to each other. So when I’m writing, if a character does or says something unexpected, I can run with it, rather than trying to cut out something that could be interesting just because it doesn’t fit the preset outline I would have concocted before starting in to work.
For example: My second novel, the Aaron Tucker mystery A FAREWELL TO LEGS, involved our intrepid hero, a freelance reporter and family man trying his best not to investigate crimes, investigating a crime that took place in Washington, DC. Specifically, the murder of a sleazy lobbyist found in his mistress’ bed with a kitchen knife sticking out of his chest. And Aaron, who lived in New Jersey, had to go to Our Nation’s Capital to investigate. He started by contacting the local police detective working the case, and got remarkably little information, mostly because the cop didn’t want to tell him anything.
But Aaron had somewhat acerbic nature (imagine!) and liked to irritate people to get what he needed. He needled the cop about a high profile case like this being too much for the police to handle, and how he was sure they were behind the times in crime investigation. At one point, Aaron suggested the police had not even collected any DNA samples to help identify the killer. And sure enough, the cop was rankled enough to respond.
Now, keep in mind: I really am just looking for a plot point to end the chapter here. Something that will keep the pages turning. And I have not planned ahead, so I don’t really know where this is going, but I figure if I keep it going long enough, it’ll get somewhere.
The cop told Aaron that they had, too, gotten DNA samples, and one of them had paid off: A hair belonging to a man convicted of a series of murders in Texas some years before. Terrific, Aaron said, you’ve got your man. So go arrest him.
We can’t, the cop answered. The guy was executed by the Texas State Troopers seven years ago.
And I got finished typing that, read it, and honest to goodness, said aloud, “What?”
But here’s the thing: I decided I liked that bit. So now I had to figure out how it made sense in the context of my story. And while I’m not going to tell you how I resolved it (go ahead and buy the damn book; I’ve got kids to send to college), I will tell you that I’m pretty proud of how it came out.
It wouldn’t have happened if I’d outlined meticulously ahead of time and slavishly stuck to the outline. I’m not suggesting that all those who write outlines do that; some are quite flexible, and can change the outline when necessary. They are using one just because they like to have a road map, and I respect that.
But for me, the thrill of the hunt isn’t as much fun if the fox and the dogs have worked out the capture among themselves ahead of time. I thrive on the discovery process. As I write, I find out things about my characters that can have an impact on the plot. That helps me keep the characters front and center, and have the plot serve them, rather than the other way around.
That’s just my process. Yours is yours. You should do what works for you.
Jeffrey Cohen is the author of the Double Feature Mystery series, most recently with A NIGHT AT THE OPERATION, and the Aaron Tucker mystery series, most recently with AS DOG IS MY WITNESS.

13 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 10: Jeffrey Cohen”

  1. Loren Eaton Says:

    I think you can write whenever you need to, and don’t believe in “Writer’s Block.”

    Glad to know there’s someone else who doesn’t buy into the inspiration-doesn’t-need-to-fall-from-the-sky-like-a-lightning-bolt idea. I dumped my muse in a lake one day and have been much happier ever since.

  2. Sylvia Says:

    I think this makes a lot of sense except that I am not sure how you paint yourself out of the corner once in there. Sometimes something can come out of the blue (I almost drowned once when I was swimming laps and realised that my main character was going to die in chapter one but it was the right thing to happen for the story) but sometimes, don’t you just heap on the action and end up standing on a pile of manure?

    …or is that just me?

  3. Jeff Cohen Says:

    Loren, I do believe in bolts of inspiration, although I think that’s just your mind coming up with something because you’re not trying desperately to do so. I DON’T believe there’s a special disease called Writer’s Block. If I have a newspaper article due Thursday, and I call my editor and tell him I’m just not feelin’ it today, he’s going to find someone who is.

    Sylvia, that ties in with something you said. If you paint yourself into a corner you can’t get out of? You delete that section and start over. The great thing about writing on a computer is that you don’t need Wite Out, which is a bummer for Michael Nesmith but a boon to the rest of us.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Anthony Trollope, who wrote more than 45 novels, many of them masterpieces, said, “If our bootmakers waited for inspiration, we should all go barefoot.”

    And Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

  5. Kathy Waller Says:

    I’m a newbie. I’ve written over 100,000 words of a rough draft, and most of it isn’t usable. However, I got to know my characters, watched them interact, learned things about their relationships and backstories, and generated ideas I’d never have had if I’d tried to plot at the outset. (Actually, I did try to outline. It drove me up the wall.) Perhaps what surprised me will surprise my readers (speaking optimistically here) as well.

  6. Beth Terrell Says:

    Jeff, I’ve bought and enjoyed the Aaron Tucker books (loved ’em, by the way), but haven’t yet started the next series. My apologies to your kids and their college tuition fund; I’ll remedy my omission ASAP.

    I love my muse. He comes and goes as he pleases, and I write whether he’s there or not (I’m mostly a plotter). Occasionally he comes in and gets an imaginary beer out of the imaginary fridge and says something like, “Hey, what if that guy who runs the martial arts school keeps venomous snakes? And what if he hid one under the front seat of our dauntless hero’s truck?”

  7. Gary Says:

    Jefffrey, isn’t it great when you have all those disparate threads and crazy happenings, and suddenly you see how to bring them all together and you say, “Yes! That works!” Who’d be a plotter when pantsing can give you a buzz like that?

    Which keeps bringing me back to the same old theme – repeated ad nauseum as friends will tell you – that the story was resident in your subconscious the whole time. And, as Tim tells us about Ingmar Bergman, you just have to carefully tease out the threads without breaking them.

  8. val dave Says:

    An enchanting interview. M. Cohen
    validates every writer who cannot write before four pm in the afternoon and there are more than several of us!

  9. Jeff Cohen Says:

    Not to worry, Beth–there’s still time! Four more years of college tuition to pay! Feel free to contribute!

    Gary, I’m not sure the story was in my head the whole time–sounds like that discounts the hard work that goes consciously into it while I”m writing. But I do believe in writing every day, as long as you have something worthwhile to work on.

    Thank you, val. I don’t want to backtrack on what I said–I really do work after four pretty much every day–BUT when I’m nearing the end and can see the light at the end of the tunnel, I can write pretty much anytime.

    Thanks to everyone for chiming in. Glad you enjoyed it!

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Kathy — 100,000 words is a lot of words even if most of them are the wrong words. I always figure I’ll write about 300,000 words to get a 120,000-word book (I write long). Some of this is just what I call circling the drain — writing to figure out what I’m writing about, and it all (or most of it) gets tossed when I see where I’m actually going. Some of it is just blind alleys, plot lines that go all stale. I figure that’s why the little scissors are up on the task bar. But you should be terrifically proud: 100,000 words. 90% of novels go unfinished because the writer can’t stay on task long enough to solve the problems and finish the story. That doesn’t seem to be your problem. And remember that you can fix a bad page, but there’s not much you can do with an empty page.

    Oh, and I’m with Jeff — I can’t even find the keyboard in the morning, but when I’m on that long downhill glide toward the ending, I’ll turn the computer on while the coffee drips.

  11. Chester Campbell Says:

    Good discussion. As a pantser, I agree with just about everything Jeff says (being perverse, I don’t agree with “everything” anybody says). I find it fascinating when a character suddenly pops in just when I need him. I never know where a story is going, but somehow it always comes together at the end.

  12. jenny milchman Says:

    I agree with you and your pants, although this method (or lack thereof) has me writing 13 + drafts of any given story. Since I find revising, um, challenging, this can be a drag. But I just can’t give up the wholesale excitement of not knowing what happens till I fill a page…

    I think I have faithfully paid my share of your kids’ tuition so do let me know where they end up 😉

  13. Larissa Says:

    Great post and great comments. I appreciate that I can sense the relaxation coming from this post-it’s not a long diatribe about process and it sounds like it’s coming from someone who really enjoys writing. Good stuff. I also really appreciate the “If I have a newspaper article due Thursday, and I call my editor and tell him I’m just not feelin’ it today, he’s going to find someone who is.” comment. I take a lot from that because on one hand it shows that you’re not the end-all out there and that you write because you choose to keep doing so-not because you have to or because you’re the only one out there who can do it. And, it says to me that while you have to make a habit for yourself to write daily and things like that, if you don’t or if “you’re not feelin’ it” one day, that’s ok too. It’s not the end of the world.

    Anyway-great posts and hopefully some of this will stick the next time I write myself into a corner and decide that all of the pressure and torment I put myself through is actually necessary. 😀

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