Plotting vs. Pantsing 2: Bill Crider

January 26th, 2010

Murder in Four Parts

Bill Crider is one of the most prolific writers I know of — an inspiration to anyone who, like me, agonizes over each book and thinks more or less continually of doing something safer — white-water rafting or sky-diving, for example.  If Bill has his demons, he knows how to manage them: he’s written seventy-five or so novels in several genres, plus dozens and dozens of articles and stories.

Bill lives and writes in Alvin, Texas, where he was once the Chair of the Division of English and Fine Arts at Alvin Community College.   He’s been nominated for an Edgar and a Shamus, and he’s won a couple of Anthony awards and a Derringer. He’s best known for the Sheriff Dan Rhodes series, but he’s had several other series and written a number of standalone books. His books, he says, “have sold tens of copies in a couple of countries. Maybe if he’d learn to outline, he’d do better.”


When it comes to writing, I’m a seat-of-the-pants kind of a guy. Here’s why. When I started writing, I didn’t know any better. I thought writing was like telling a story, and I thought that when you told a story, you just started telling it and found out what happened as you went along. That’s they way I told stories when I was a kid. It was the way my aunt told stories to me and my brother and my sister when she visited at our grandmother’s house in the summers. I had no idea that anybody would actually sit down and plan a story before it was told.

Even after I started writing and selling, I didn’t know any better. The world was different in those days. No Internet, no e-mail, no writing conferences. Those things were in their infancy, and before too long they’d be accessible to everyone, but I was just a guy living in Alvin, Texas, teaching college during the daytime and writing books at night. What did I know? Nothing much, except that when I was in college student myself, there was a reading room in The University of Texas library with lovely decorated rafters. Besides being decorated, the rafters had quotations on them, and one of them was this, from Alice in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” It seemed like great advice to me, and I thought it applied to storytelling, no matter what its context in Lewis Carroll’s book.

That’s not to say I’ve never used an outline. I have. When writing under house names for a certain fiction factory, I was supposed to provide a lengthy outline for the books I turned in. I believe that thirty pages was the required amount. As I recall, I always came up a little short, and that was in spite of my taking up at least three pages with a cast of characters.

Around that same time, I wrote a few novels in the M.I.A. Hunter series. Steve Mertz, the originator of the series, always provided an outline for me. The outlines were only a couple of pages long, though, which seemed perfect to me. They allowed me plenty of room to tell things my own way.

For that matter, so did the thirty-page outlines. After they were approved, I hardly ever looked at them again. I just started at the beginning and kept on going.

It doesn’t take much to get me started. When I wrote Dead on the Island, the first novel in my series about a private-eye named Truman Smith. All I had was the opening line: “There was no one on the seawall except for me and the rat.” I’d been inspired by my young niece who’d spent some time in Galveston, staying the oldest and grandest hotel on the island, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, and playing on the beach. When I saw her, she didn’t want to talk about any of that. The thing that had impressed her was the rat she’d seen on the seawall. I told my wife that someday I’d use that rat in a book, and a couple of years later I sat down and wrote that first line.

And that was all I had. That line, and the idea that I was going to write a first-person private-eye novel. I typed the line, and then I kept on going until I came to the end.

The same thing happened with another book, Murder Most Fowl. One day I jogged past and nursing home and a little old guy yelled at me from the porch: “Somebody stole my teef!” A good many years later, I sat down to write a Sheriff Dan Rhodes book. I typed that line, and, well, you know the rest.

Is it scary to begin with only a single line and nothing more? You’re durned tootin’, but sometimes that’s the way it works for me. Sometimes I have a little more. I have a situation that I want to write about or I have a crime that I think would make an interesting starting point. Sometimes I even think I know how the book will develop and what the ending will be. Usually when I think that, I’m wrong.

There are times when I really wish I were an outliner, a meticulous planner who’s always in control of a book’s direction. But I’m not. I seldom even know what characters will turn up from page to page. They just appear and start acting or talking, and I try to keep up with them. Usually by the time I’m about halfway through the book, I do know pretty well what’s going on and what’s going to happen, but even that’s not a sure thing.

So if I just start with a line or a vague idea, where do the books come from? Am I drawing from some deep well of the unconscious? And if I am, should I start paying my unconscious 10% of the take? I honestly have no idea how to answer those questions. Sometimes I think that if I could answer them, I’d have to stop writing. That might prove to be easier than I think. If I never wrote that first line, I’d likely never think of the rest of it.

By the way, in case you were wondering, I wrote this little essay the same way I do everything else. As an old English teacher, I should probably be ashamed.

23 Responses to “Plotting vs. Pantsing 2: Bill Crider”

  1. Suzanna Says:

    You make it seem so fun and easy. If you’re not careful you’re gonna inspire many more writers to take a crack at this book business. Enjoyed your post a lot. Thanks, Bill.

    Side note: my captcha phrase could not be more fitting: story about

  2. Benjie Says:

    Best advice I got about my writing came from Bill–and I passed it on to my students later: “Keep writing!”

    Thanks again, Bill.

  3. Usman Says:

    Thanks Bill.

    What’s the trick to your free-writing? And how much anguish, if any, does this cost you when editing?

  4. Philip Coggan Says:

    This pretty much what I do too. What I’m really not sure of how it starts – for sure with real-life situations, incidents and people. More than one of each, too – the thing is that they get recombined to make something new. Or they don’t, and you get a libel case.

    Just a question: How long does it take to turn out a novel this way, from first word on paper to the moment when the publisher says it’s ok?

  5. Dana King Says:

    I don’t know you, Bill, never met you, but I have an idea of how you speak and what you sound like just from reading this. I suspect that is not unrelated to making things up as you go. I can do this for short stories–and, now that I think about it, the voices in my short stories vary more than those in my longer stuff–though I need the net for longer things.

    Good food for thought. Thanks for provoking me.

  6. Rachel Brady Says:

    Great post, Bill. It left me wondering . . . where is my next rat?

    I thought I was a pantser until I read this. The idea of basing a novel on one opening line is incredible to me. That is true pantsing!

  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    Great perspective on the craft. I guess another thing that concerns me about the pantsing process is that great, silent wall of editors and agents waiting, waiting, waiting to see the book when it comes due. I somehow want to assure them that I have a workable story. I guess I want to assure myself the same thing. It’s scary to wait until the very end of the process to find this out.

  8. Bill Crider Says:

    Thanks for all the comments, folks. Let me see if I can answer a few of the questions.

    Philip, I never know how long it’s going to take me to write a book. I once wrote one in 17 days, but that one was based on a two-page outline provided by someone else. Other books have taken much longer. Sometimes it depends on the deadline.

    Usman, I’ve never experienced any anguish. Usually everything falls into place for me about halfway through the book. If that didn’t happen, THEN I’d experience anguish.

    Suzanna: Fun, yes. Easy? Maybe not as easy as I made it sound. I try to make it as easy on myself as I can, though. I don’t need anguish. (See above.)

    Stephen, you’ve probably sold a lot more books than I have. At my level of the biz (lowlist is the way I describe it), editors and agents don’t worry so much. I’ve been very lucky to be able to write a lot of books doing pretty much whatever I wanted to do.

    That being said, I wouldn’t advise anybody to write like I do. I figure people are all different, and we have to find our own ways of getting it done. To quote Robert Frost, “Some have relied on what they knew;/ Others on simply being true./ What worked for them might work for you.” Or, to quote me, “it might not.”

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz Says:

    Ohhh…no, I don’t think so, I know you’ve sold many more than the two I’ve sold. I think perhaps I’ll relax my style a bit after I realize I can deliver consistantly.
    Thanks for your great blog. Very happy to see you here!

  10. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Bill, this is pretty much my process, too, although the book always threatens to collapse on me about 40% of the way through and then it threatens to explode, and then it threatens to engulf and vaporize me. And then, most of the time, I finish it, but it’s like getting dental implants from a Nazi dentist.

    What I want to know is how you keep things so blithe. This line: “Sometimes I even think I know how the book will develop and what the ending will be. Usually when I think that, I’m wrong” describes an experience I have multiple times in each of my books, but to me it’s sort of threatening, at least when it’s not being terrifying. The only way I know how to deal with it is to do what Benjie says — keep writing. Eventually, if I do, the mists clear and I see where it’s all really going, and it’s usually better than what I had in mind.

    I mean, seriously, don’t you ever feel like the whole book is about to crash and burn? And if you do, how do you deal with it?

    Another pertinent captcha: avidly leader

  11. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the process of writing. I sometimes think I’m more fascinated in reading/talking about the process than in actually writing. But then I realize I’m just procrastinating–again.

    captcha: careful mokellar (Now there’s the start of a description of a next door neighbor.)

  12. Annelie Says:

    I enjoyed reading, not just this article, but this blog (and website) and I’ve found it all very helpful.

    I tried to write without an outline and it’s turned into a disaster, which I am now trying to fix.

    I can safely say that I need an outline that I am sticking to. If I make a small change that’s not a problem, but if I make a big change I need to go back to the beginning and start again.

    I learnt this the hard way.

  13. Rachel Brady Says:

    Cynthia: “I sometimes think I’m more fascinated in reading/talking about the process than in actually writing. But then I realize I’m just procrastinating–again.”

    I feel exactly this way. Exactly!

  14. Bill Crider Says:

    Cynthia, I’m a world-class procrastinator. I’d rather procrastinate than do anything.

    Tim, I’m not always so blithe, but I’ve never felt that the book might explode. I just keep on writing. After having written so many books, I figure everything will work itself out eventually, and so far it always has.

  15. Cynthia Mueller Says:

    Just checking in to see the recent comments, an dnoticed the Captcha: from totality. That pretty much sums up your blog, Tim!

  16. Bill Crider Says:

    This will probably close things out, and it’s a final example of the weird way I work. Two weeks ago exactly, I turned in a book to my agent and publisher. Last night I sat down at the computer and wrote a title and the words “Chapter One.” So far that’s all I have on the proposal for my next book. It just happens that this time a title came to me. Whether a book will ever be attached to it is another question, but I’m sure that at least a proposal will. Ask me in another year, and we’ll see about the rest.

  17. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Not so fast, Bill.

    But this is a good time to say thanks for going so far beyond just writing the blog, and jumping into the conversation on a regular basis. I think it makes a huge difference when the blog is essentially an invitation to a conversation rather than a speech. You’ve been terrifically generous with your time.

    I should also say here that Bill’s books are as delightful as his presence here would suggest. They’re warm, often funny, meticulously observed and reported — to the point where I have to believe the entire world, especially of the Dan Rhodes books, must exist in its completion in Bill’s head somewhere.

    I think pantsers like Bill (not that there are many pantsers as carefree as Bill) can serve as a valuable example to writers of something I know to be true, no matter how often I forget it when I’m writing: If you keep writing and remain true to your idea and characters, the book will emerge. This is something that those of us who have heebie-jeebies about writing, or whose personal demons are especially efficient, should say aloud eight or nine times a day. The book IS there, but not if you don’t keep writing it.

    Bill, have you ever trashed a manuscript, either partway through or when it was finished? Just looked at it and decided, “Ummmm . . . nahhhh.” Or, in your world, is that just a prompt to improve things?

  18. Bill Crider Says:

    I have to admit that I’ve never trashed a manuscript. Even if I stop writing on one (extremely rare), I save it for later. The first rule is “Always finish what you start.” The second rule is “Never throw anything away.”

    Thanks again for inviting me to do this, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

  19. minervaK Says:

    I’ve never experienced any anguish. Usually everything falls into place for me about halfway through the book.

    I officially hate (envy) you, Bill Crider.

  20. Sylvia Says:

    I am sorry I’m late to the party but I have questions too!

    never trashed a manuscript
    So what do you find you’ve written your way into a dead end? Or maybe you never have. 🙂 If you have, do you back track and try to find the wrong turn or find a way for what you have so far? Have you ever ended up having to put a draft on ice before the halfway point because the plot just didn’t come together?

    Also: It seems to me like its hard to write a short premise or “log line” writing this way – whereas the people with the really sharp ones seem to know what the story is ahead of time. How do you take the finish book and describe it with a simple declaration?

  21. Bill Crider Says:

    I’ve never put aside a manuscript unfinished. Usually these days I’m writing on contract, so I’m pretty much required to finish. Someone (E. L. Doctorow) said writing is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as the headlights extend, but you can make the whole trip that way. That pretty much covers it.

    As for those “log lines,” you’re right. I can’t write one of those things to save my life, and I can’t do synopses worth a darn, either. Just ask my agent.

  22. Sylvia Says:

    It sounds like a great leap of faith but it’s interesting to hear your process is such that it gets you there in the end!

    *mutters unhappily about synopses*

    I was hoping for a new trick 🙂

  23. Bill Crider Says:

    One last word. I saw this today in an article about Dick Francis. It sounds as if I said it. No wonder I like his books so much. Here it is:

    Sometimes Francis claimed that he would begin a book with no preconceived plans at all: “I just start with a first line. With Enquiry (1969) we said ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen to a jockey?’ and I wrote down: ‘Yesterday, I lost my licence.’ The rest of the book just followed from that. There is no going back. I start on page one and go straight on to the end. I never scrap a chapter or change my mind halfway.”

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