Plotting vs. Pantsing 12: Meredith Cole

May 8th, 2010


Meredith Cole started her career as a screenwriter and filmmaker. She was the winner of the St. Martin’s Press/Malice Domestic competition, and her book Posed for Murder was published by St. Martin’s Minotaur in 2009.  She was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her second book, Dead In the Water, is due for release on May 11, 2010. She teaches mystery writing and screenwriting.


To Outline or Not to Outline

When I had the opportunity last fall to teach mystery writing to fledgling writers, I encouraged all of my students to make an outline.  I think it’s easy for a first-timer to get so enthusiastic that they plunge immediately into their story, and then at the first sign of trouble they stop.  And don’t start again.  An outline is a great way for them to find their way through the dark.  They know where they’re headed, so they can start figuring out how to get from here to there.

I am, without a doubt, an outliner.  It very likely originates from my tendency to make lists.  I like to know where I’m going and what I need to do to get there in my day-to-day life and in my fiction.  That certainly doesn’t mean I can’t deviate a bit on my way.  I’m open to bursts of creativity, brand new ideas and exciting twists and turns.  But first I like to start with a rough road map.

When I say outline, please don’t imagine some sort of list with Roman numerals.  I think I had to do outlines like that in 6th grade.  My outlines are really a collection of thoughts that grow from a central idea.  I continue to expand on my outline in a Word document.  I add to it as new plot points occur to me, and write little snippets of description and dialogue when they come to me.  Eventually this collection of thoughts begins to get long enough to start to divide it into chapters.  I start to see where I need to expand my story and what pieces of the plot I need to connect.  I look over the whole picture, and fix story problems before I become attached to the carefully crafted words on the page.

Even as I start to write my book, I keep my outline at the end of the manuscript so I can consult it as needed.  This helps when I have to stop writing and then start again (interrupted by my family, galleys for my previous book, or any number of things).  I continue to add to the end of it as I go, writing short notes for myself to look at later about inconsistencies or ideas to add in on the second draft.

I know lots of writers say they don’t outline, and some of them probably actually do write by the seat of their pants (and consequently admit to doing a lot of revising). I admire their ability to keep a whole novel in their head.  I just can’t do it.  And I’ve heard a few writers say that outlining makes writing the book itself boring.  But I keep getting surprised by my story, even when I’m revising, so I don’t get that at all.

Interestingly enough, quite a few non-outliners I’ve spoken to admit to doing something similar to my process.  They just don’t call it outlining for some reason.  Perhaps they think that outlining involves those dreaded Roman numerals, and is less organic and creative.

I recently started a new book that borrows the basic plot line from one of my abandoned novels.  I began to write the book without outlining.  I knew the story well, so at first it seemed as if it would be no problem.  But quickly I write myself into a couple of dead ends, got my timeline all messed up and had to start tweaking at the midway point.  So now I’m back to my original method.  It keeps me writing until it’s time to type “the end,” and that’s what’s most important.

14 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 12: Meredith Cole”

  1. Pat Brown Says:

    I have to say I vary between not outlining at all to jotting down ideas and brief sketches like you describe. The one book, Geography of Murder, was written entirely on the fly. I had nothing but a single scene in my head when I started it. A man waking up beside a dead man he’s never met. I had no idea who the dead man was, who the guy was who found him, who the cop was who arrested him. I didn’t even know why the dead man was dead or who killed him. All of that came as I wrote.

    I can’t even say I had the whole book in my head because I didn’t. It grew as I wrote. Which I did in almost one continuous session of just over 3 weeks. Yes there was some rewriting, but for me there always is. Even the books that have more of an outline, there is a lot of revision. Geography of Murder had surprisingly little revision given how fast I wrote it.

    I can’t say I recommend that method to anyone. But it was an interesting experience.

  2. Loren Eaton Says:

    I’m a list user, too, which may explain my need for outlining. What gets me are the spaces between the points on the outline, those little things I didn’t think up beforehand.

  3. Meredith Cole Says:

    It sounds like you alternate being a pantser and plotter. I fantasize occasionally about sitting down and writing a whole book out of my head, but so far it hasn’t happened yet. As long as the outlining experience is a creative one for me, I don’t mind my process at all.

  4. Grace Topping Says:

    Hi, Meredith–
    Probably because of my years as a technical writer, I am an outliner as well. One of the classes I took talked about the nine checkpoints of a mystery.
    These checkpoints help me outline–sort of like a prompt or a roadmap if I get stuck and don’t know where to go next. Others may find them helpful.

  5. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This is a great piece, Meredith. I know it’s going to provoke a lot of interest.

    My experience of pantsing is like Pat’s — at no point was I aware of carrying the whole book in my head. Rather, it was like a journey of discovery, writing to the limits of my foreknowledge and then suddenly seeing where it went on from there, even if only for a few scenes.

    The kind of rewriting I do (other than to improve the quality of the prose, and my guess is that everyone does that) consists of going back once I’m finished and (a) pruning the material, so promising at the time, that ended up going nowhere, and (b) planting seeds in the early parts of the story for the stuff that manifested itself later.

    It’s not all that onerous a task.

    By the way, I love the idea of putting new ideas at the end of the manuscript so you can glance down at them from time to time. I keep a second document open at all times and throw everything into that, but I think your approach might be better.

  6. Polly Iyer Says:

    I am a pure pantster. I have written all my books without an outline, but I have a vague idea where I’m going. I do write scenes out of sequence when I see them clearly and know where they’re going. Just today, I came up with a terrific plot twist that I don’t think I would have thought of if I’d outlined. But then again, I’m not published, so maybe that says something. By the way, I do make lists if I have more than three things to do or buy. I’ve decided I have a split personality.

  7. Meredith Cole Says:

    Thanks for that list Grace! I may have to steal, er borrow, it for my class.

    The end of the manuscript list is a great dumping place, Tim. When I put something in another document, I always seem to lose it.

  8. Meredith Cole Says:

    If you’ve got a system that works for you, then don’t change! I think the most important thing when you’re writing is to be flexible, so that you’re open to new ideas and inspiration.

    It’s funny that you write lists, though. There’s that great Frog and Toad story where he loses his list of things to do and becomes unable to do anything. But I think once I write a list I somehow etch it into my brain, and it’s probably the same process with the outline for me.

  9. Dana King Says:

    I do it almost exactly the way you do, and I agree, I’m often surprised where things take me, even though the general direction of the story has already been defined.

    It also proves the process is less important than the talent of the author.

  10. Meredith Cole Says:

    Great point, Dana! I like to think of my outlining process as a gathering of ideas that might be useful. But in the end, the book is only going to work if I am a good writer. You can certainly spend way too much time outlining and never get the book written at all.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    This has been a great discussion, and I hope anyone who drops by in the next few days will leave a comment. On Friday we’ll pass the baton to Brett Battles, one of the today’s hottest thriller writers.

  12. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    SYLVIA WROTE (and WordPress ate) the following:

    I’m obsessive about lists; I never thought of the two as being connected before.

    My current work, I wrote 5k of “notes” which probably is outlining but it’s not in a coherent order and there’s huge chunks missing. I’m halfway through now and although I know where I’m heading, I’m not quite sure of the steps from here to the climax (and am in fact fairly convinced that the climax is not how I originally envisioned it).

    Is that what you mean by exciting twists and turns? I’m feeling more nervous than excited but that’s par for the course for me, I think 🙂

    Grace’s list looks great, I’m just sitting down to see how the pieces I have fit the categories.

  13. Philip Coggan Says:

    Grace: Thanks for this plan or whatever you call it, I think I’m going to find it useful – I’ll paste it here again in case anyone else wants to see:

  14. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Great thread, all — I learn every time one of these pieces goes up.

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