Planner or Pantser?

pantser, writing, author


This will make sense to the dwindling number of people who remember taking photographs with a Polaroid camera, when, as Anne Lamott says, “the film emerges from the camera with a grayish green murkiness that gradually becomes clearer and clearer.” She compares writing early drafts to watching a Polaroid develop, an inchoate beginning—often a vague mess, in fact—and an almost imperceptible sharpening, a coming into focus, with the people, the setting, everything as the writer sees it.

The question I’m most often asked about my writing is, do I plan the whole book out or do I let it develop as I go along? In writing circles, this distinction is between a “planner” and a “pantser”—a slightly snide reference to people who write “by the seat of their pants.” Most writers use one approach or the other. I use both, depending.

In the opening chapters of the mystery novel I’m finishing now (Sins of Omission), I throw in a lot of unexpected information—scars on a corpse’s wrists suggesting a serious suicide attempt, a snatch of overheard conversation—thinking it may be useful down the road. I also established the chief emotional conflicts for the main character (pride versus shame; bravery versus cowardice; and success versus fear of failing). I wrote about 20,000 words. I had a soup of messy situations, clues and maybe-clues, and a couple of dead bodies. I was at a stopping place, where the characters and plot needed to be reined in so that my eye was on the prize—the solution to the mystery—some 60,000 words ahead. And it would take that many words to get there and plausibly explain everything, consistent with the characters’ personalities and the difficult situations I’ve put them in.

At that 20,000 word mark, when I wasn’t quite sure where to go next, pantsing along, I took a big sheet of paper, wrote down each character’s name, scattered about, and listed every question I could think of relevant to that person. Mind, at that point, I could not answer these questions. But connections started to appear. Arrows. The next place the plot needed to develop was suddenly obvious. For a while, I unfolded that big sheet every morning and organized the plot around the actions needed to address the key questions. Not in 1, 2, 3 order, but in the order enabled by each new event or piece of information.  Some could be answered with a single toxicology report from the police lab, some required several chapters of set-up and resolution. Ultimately, I had 36 of these questions. Here are a few:

  1. Who was Hawk’s father?
  2. Where did Hawk get the drugs?
  3. Why did he confess to murder?
  4. What is Charleston hiding?
  5. What was Charleston’s relationship with Julia?
  6. Who killed Julia?

Even this sample reveals the extent of what I did not know as I was writing! Julia dies in Chapter 1, but we aren’t positive who killed her until Chapter 47 (of 52). Every 10,000 words or so, I reviewed the list. Is this question answered satisfactorily for the reader? If not, am I on a path to answering it? Is the Polaroid coming into focus?

Lately, I’ve started describing this process as “solving the mystery along with the reader.” That’s what it feels like and why I can get up every morning at 5 a.m. to write.

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29 Ways to Boost Your Creativity

coffee, creativity


My blog readers liked the infographic on becoming more productive. Well, before you get all Type A on us, kick back and enjoy this short video on increasing creativity. No problem for me with #8 – COFFEE!  And #11 is easy, too: Surround yourself with creative people.  That’s why you’re reading this, right? You’re one of them for me. This is a great reminder to nurture your creative spirit, wherever it appears—in art, writing, photography, social change—whatever!  You CAN do it.

The key to creativity, I think, is not to try to do all 29 at once—that’s a recipe for disappointment. Watch the video and do one or two. Get some good habits going. Then in a month or two, watch again, and do one or two more. It will get easier. Me? I plan to start by straightening up my office, the floor of which is only rumored to exist.


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Tim’s Vermeer

The Music Lesson, Johannes Vermeer, camera obscura, optics, Tim's Vermeer, Tim Jenison

Watching the meticulous recreation of Vermeer’s painting, “The Music Lesson,” by inventor Tim Jenison practically gave me hand-cramps. And the result? I urge you to watch this documentary (trailer) produced  by Penn Gillette, Tim’s friend, and see for yourself. The saga started when Tim read how optics technology—lenses and the camera obscura—may have been used in producing some of the great works of 17th century art.

As an inventor, not an artist, Tim attempts to replicate such a method and comes up with, or rediscovers, inventions of his own. In the film, he interviews British artist David Hockney and architect Philip Steadman who believe optics help explain Vermeer’s genius, but warn Jenison the art historians and critics don’t want to hear it. Tim even persuades Buckingham Palace officials to let him see the original painting.

Fascinating character, process, and insights. You’ll go away appreciating the “fathomable genius” of Vermeer more than ever, guaranteed. Great links here.

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Finding the Soul of the City

“The soul of a city can be found by talking a walk”—the premise and inspiration for generations of street photographers. In the February 2014 Metropolis, Jeff Speck, city planner, architect, and sustainable growth advocate writes about his book, Walkable City, claiming such visually rich environments are “better for your soul.”

Every Picture Tells a Story

Walking is certainly a better way to get a closeup look at the life going on around you. He illustrates that point with scenes of timeless urbanism captured by some of the giants of the street photography genre—Gary Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Vivian Maier, and others. The daily activities that animate city streets produce layered insights about both places and people. In a vital urban scene, “the presence of difference”—in ethnicity, race, class, income level, occupation—suggest endless story possibilities.

These images may require a second, even a third look, but it is clear why such photographs are often used as writing prompts.  What’s going on between those two? What are they looking at? What are they thinking? Why did he wear that?


Walkable ≠ Happy

Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Though Urban Design, agrees that walkability may be a component of a healthy city, but alone it cannot make a city a happy one. A more complex set of elements contributes to people’s assessment of their own well-being. Photographers have captured these factors, too:

  1. elbow room (“People like their space”)—think about how kids tag every graffiti-friendly surface, it’s a way of claiming something distinctly, if momentarily, theirs; or consider the “reserved” parking place
  2. green space—and not just the occasional pocket park, but big swaths of it worthy of Frederick Law Olmsted, connected in continuous corridors, perhaps helping to explain the runaway popularity of the High Line, and
  3. economic justice. In other words, a city cannot be happy when a large segment of its population is much poorer than the rest.

Quality of life may be high in great, high-status cities, but that “does not translate into feelings of well-being . . . where social stratification creates a culture of status anxiety.”  Those tensions, too, are evident in photographs of many urban streetscapes.

walkability, streetscapes, urban life, High LineMore:

  • Jeff Speck’s TED talk on the walkable city.
  • The 10 U.S. cities having the most people who walk to work.
  • How cities are trying to become more walkable.
  • What’s the “Walk Score” for your address (U.S., Canada, and Australia)? Moving? Find walkable places to live.  My neighborhood’s Walk Score is 35, compared to New York City’s 88.
  • Many of Vivian Maier’s works can be seen on the Artsy website’s Vivian Maier page.

***** Life After Life

By Kate Atkinson – Narrated by Fenella Woolgar – This much-praised 2013 novel by English writer Atkinson allows her main character, Ursula Todd, to live her life again and again “until she gets it right.” It begins in 1911, with Ursula’s birth and almost immediate death and takes the character through multiple lives in which her and her family’s fates play out in different ways. Reviewers have different interpretations of Atkinson’s intent, but my interpretation is how near we skate to disaster simply living day to day. Insignificant decisions–whether to walk home with childhood friend Nancy–have significant consequences. It’s well worth a read (or a listen), as the themes of Ursula’s life and the events in it carry increasing resonance. Ursula’s World War II experiences are riveting. (2/19)

Wars and Conquests

IMG_0073The fertile territory within the Balkan States and the Great Plain of Hungary have been attractive targets for invasion and conquest for millennia.

First recorded: the Romans (who built an early road along the Danube), then the Magyars in 896. Their leader Arpad is considered the great founder of Hungary and he and the leaders of the other six founding tribes are commemorated in Budapest’s Millennium Monument—erected for the country’s 1000th birthday. Sturdy guys, these. Love the faces!

The influence of the Romans is still felt in the Balkans more than 2000 years later. The Romanian language is one of the romance languages—most akin to Italian—though it is more easily understood in its written rather than spoken form to people who know those languages. The Hungarian parliament, which wanted to emphasize its links to the Holy Roman Empire, used Latin as its official language until the 1840s.

IMG_0091In the 13th century, Eastern Europe was overrun by the Mongols—the Golden Horde—who swept westward from Central Asia almost as far Vienna. (This genetic infusion may explain the extra root on one of my wisdom teeth, which my endodontist says occurs most often among Asian people.) I see an echo of this influence in the costumes of the men in the horsemanship demonstration pictured above, which took place near Kalocsa, Hungary. As a few men in the distance herded sheep, the vision of ancient warriors thundering across the plain was vivid.

Starting in the 16th century, Hungary came under the influence of the Austrian Habsburgs, becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the losing side of World War I, Hungary was stripped of more than seventy percent of its territory—including Transylvania, which went to Romania, and northern areas that went to Slovakia. The Transylvanian village Fiatfalva (now Filias) and northern town Dobsina (at the edge of the Slovak Paradise National Park) were, as best I can reconstruct, the birthplaces of my paternal grandfather and grandmother, respectively.

Fall 2013 - Danube Trip 065Other countries in the region—Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Croatia—were subjected to repeated assaults by the Ottoman Turks, and many hilltop forts and fortifications remain that take advantage of natural rock formations—like Belogradchik in Bulgaria, pictured here. Built by the Romans and added to by the Bulgarians, the Byzantines, and the Turks, it covers many acres.

Fall 2013 - Danube Trip 023In World War II came the Nazi occupation, promptly followed by the Soviets, whose heavy hand is everywhere evident. Shortly after their withdrawal almost 25 years ago, came the Yugoslav civil war. National Geographic (I think) published a version of this exact scene of hope and rebirth, which I photographed in heavily damaged Vukovar, Croatia.


The fall 2013 issue of Glimmer Train includes an interview with short story writer and novelist Peter LaSalle, based at the U of Texas, Austin.   LaSalle talks about his new book, Mariposa’s Song—the story of a 20-year-old Honduran immigrant girl working in a rough Austin nightclub. The story itself unwinds like a song, one very long song, in one very very long sentence.

Experimental fiction has always had its devotees and its detractors. One reader’s bold innovation is another’s annoying gimmick. The ultimate test, of course, is, does it work? Ten, twenty years on, when the glare of newness no longer blinds us, do people still read it? You’ll think of examples of successful experiments immediately (and will have forgotten the others, perhaps):

  • Benjy’s stream-of-consciousness story in Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury
  • The discovery of magical realism in Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude
  • David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which starts six stories across time in forward chronology, one through six, then finishes them, six through one, ending up where they began
  • A Visit from the Good Squad, by Jennifer Egan, creative in so many ways,  including a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation.

The staying-power of the last two is as yet unproved Cloud Atlas was much-praised upon publication, won several awards, was short-listed for the Booker Prize and made into a difficult movie; A Visit from the Goon Squad won a Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and is being turned into a tv series. [!]

Succesfu experiments–and even some of the marginally successful ones present readers with new tools for discovery, new ways to understand the author’s fictional world and the characters in it.

A 17-year-old boy recommended Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000) to me. You could see in his eyes the delight of the new and, he hoped, iconoclastic. The book is presented variously in typewriter script across the page, in regular type in columns up, down, around and diagonally across the page, as poems, photos, letters, straight text, and it contains a 42-page index containing a great many entries for “more” and not so many for “less.” When Danielewski wants the reader to speed up the pace, there is a single word on the page. A lot of impenetrable analysis has been done on this book; I’m inclined to think the author was having fun. He just has a complicated brain. And he succeeded in something Faulkner was unable to do. He convinced his publisher to publish some words and sections in color.

Similarly, Night Film by Marisha Pessl is currently receiving much publicity. It’s a suspense novel that includes scraps of movie script, newspaper clippings, photos, website screenshots, police reports. Most intriguing, it’s available as an audio book, for which, though I love audio, this book seems particularly ill-suited.

Books in their digitized forms open up new possibilities for integrating bits of film, photos, audio, alternative paths, puzzles. They have the potential to burst open like a piñata. Authors already are creating vines and mini-movies as promotion for their books; integrating them is the obvious next step that some already are taking. I’m reading the New York Times’s non-fiction The Jockey on line. Audio, video, straight text. I would say “can’t put it down,” but I’m not holding it, I’m watching it unfold before me.

I don’t know about Mariposa’s Song, though. One long sentence. Other new forms, jangled and multimedia as they may be, are perhaps a better fit with our modern attention span.

An Author’s Handshake

When you crack open a novel, you’ve already committed to read at least a few chapters. Rarely would you abandon it after the first few paragraphs. Not so a short story. Its opening—even its first sentence—is crucial. First sentences “establish the authorial confidence that is absolutely necessary for successful fiction. If a reader is going to follow you, it’s important that they know from the very first line that they can trust the story.” It’s the literary equivalent of “You had me from ‘hello,’” the journalist’s hook.

The above quote is from an interview with author Josh Rolnick in the spring 2013 issue of Glimmer Train. He and the interviewer talk about the importance of “opening narrative space,” which is an arty way of saying making the reader believe “anything can happen.” One of the most memorable opening lines is, and we all know this one, whether we’ve read Kafka’s novella or not, “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin,” although I’m positive that in the translation I read an astonishing number of decades ago, those last two words were “giant cockroach.” Kafka never exactly says. Whatever. You absolutely can’t stop there.

Examples of short story first lines I think compel further reading:

  • “The Potts girl walked into the café preceded by her reputation so that everyone was obliged to stare.” – “Sundowners,” by Monica Ali
  • In his first dreamy meditations over the case, Mr. Fortune remarked that it suggested one answer to the hard question why boys should be boys.” – “The Dead Leaves,” by H.C. Bailey
  • “In the autumn of 1971 a man used to come to our house, bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family.” – “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” by Jhumpa Lahiri

The first line of Rolnick’s own short story, “Funnyboy,” like the three above, is filled with plot possibilities: “I glanced out the window as my train pulled into the station and saw the girl who killed my son.” From that point, this story could travel anywhere, though you sense not anywhere particularly good.

But the opener needn’t so effectively forecast the coming drama, like the examples above. It can draw you in through its description of a particular time and place or the mood it sets, like Lauren Groff’s opener for “Delicate Edible Birds”: “Because it had rained and the rain had caught the black soot of the factories as they burned, Paris in the dark seemed covered by a dusky skin, almost as though it were living.” You want to take her hand and go there with her.

Writing the first few sentences of a short story is laying down a marker. “I promise to show you this,” the author says. They create a door you must open, a street you must walk down. The page you must turn.

Embroidering the Tale

The two books I’ve finished most recently couldn’t be more different. One was the 2012 Pulitzer-nominated Swamplandia!, about a 13-year-old girl who lives on an island in the Everglades and whose family earns its living by alligator wrestling and other dubious pursuits; the other was Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue, which takes place in Oakland, California, separated from Florida by three thousand miles and cavernous cultural divides. Yet Chabon’s book and Karen Russell’s have a striking similarity in the way they are written, a process I think of as embroidery. They both use unexpected and vivid images to snare the reader, creating a rich, colorful, multilayered text. Russell isn’t quite up to Chabon’s skill as yet, and some of her efforts fall flat, but then she will pick up again, writing, “With a grim, spiderlike lacemaking Kiwi’s brain knit his surprise into a dull and terrible knowledge,” followed a few lines later by “A pat of sun slid down the doctor’s biscuit-white face.” I didn’t mark up either book, thought I’d illustrate just by picking a page at random, which I just did with Telegraph Avenue and found “For years he had been on and off various medications whose names sounded like the code names of sorceresses or ninja assassins. . . . each wore out its welcome in his father’s bloodstream without ever managing to lay an insulating glove on the glowing wire inside him.” He could have said, “For years, he’d tried numerous mood-controlling drugs to no avail.” Thank goodness, he didn’t. Nor did he say “The old man stood up”; instead, he wrote, “The old man was up and on his feet like an umbrella opening.” What both books require is the reader’s attention. The images are so startling, so unusual, every page holds a revelation. In an era when writing is often stripped down and fast-paced, these authors’ art demands that readers slow down and luxuriate in the fresh ways they use words to stitch the hues and patterns of the worlds they have created.

Chichi’s Magic and the Books of Childhood

My namesake’s third birthday is coming up on Valentine’s Day, and when thinking about a gift, I thought back to the presents I enjoyed as a child. Books, same as now. First to come to mind was Chichi’s Magic, about a mischievous monkey (is there any other kind?) in the Central American jungle who finds a mirror—the magic. My uncle worked for The Steck Company, a commercial printing firm that served banks, schools, and the like, but also published a series of children’s books called “Woodland Frolics,” and Chichi’s Magic was one of them. Part of the joy of the book was that it came from him. Possessed by nostalgia, I ordered the book from ALibris. It arrived. I flipped through it, loving the pictures, but hesitated to read it again. Maybe it wouldn’t be as charming as I remembered. What I do remember now seems so fragmentary and idiosyncratic. Chichi wanders the countries of Central America. I learned their names. Chichi encounters ancient Mayan ruins, which laid the foundation for a lifelong fascination with pre-Columbian civilizations. Chichi encounters a beautiful green quetzal—a strange word for a fourth-grader—and I recall its extravagant tail. But the book is clearly too advanced for the birthday girl, so will be lovingly saved until she’s older. Another book I hope to share with her is one I read many times, Heidi. I associate her with delicious goat’s milk cheese and the sweet aroma of spring flowers in alpine meadows. Still today it’s hard to resist a charming round cheese in the dairy case. I remember Heidi as the first time I was bothered by having pictures in a storybook, because the artist’s drawings did not match the vision in my head. Reading their books repeatedly, children acquire images and associations that in later life may take some digging to uncover. Hidden threads woven into the mental fabric.

Exploring Further: A blog post by another person who fell under the spell of Chichi’s Magic

Scholastic’s “Celebrity Bookprints,” where some 300 celebrities–from Bill Clinton to Mehmet Oz to R.L. Stine—describe the five books that have been most important to them.