Pants-er or Recipe-er?

Authors are often asked whether we’re plotters or pantsers—do we plan out our story lines in advance and outline them in detail, or merely start writing and just see what happens?

I’ve been a devout plotter for all my fiction writing career. And for my legal writing career, as well. Though truly, I can’t fathom how anyone could draft a legal brief without doing at least a little outlining. (Oh wait, come to think of it, I do believe some of those sloppy motions I received from opposing counsel over the years might well have been written without a whole lot of advance planning…)


I have to admit that even the thought of sitting down with only a vague idea and then simply writing a mystery novel scares the heck out of me. You have to plant clues, after all, and red herrings, and suspects. How could you do that just willy-nilly? (Asks the list-making, check-everything-three-times, Virgo Chick.)

But what’s interesting is that when it comes to cooking, I’m the exact opposite. Sure, I love to read cookbooks. And my favorite day of the week for the newspaper is when the food section comes out, so I can peruse the recipes, maybe learn a new technique for rolling out pasta, and drool over all the seasonal ingredients highlighted that time of year. (These days it’s lots of root vegetables, hearty stews, and ways to use up all that leftover turkey in your freezer.)

But I don’t tend to use recipes when I prepare food. In this area of my life I am a full-on pantser, tasting my sauce, adding a dash of this or that, then tasting it again. I don’t worry about messing it up, because I have a solid understanding of the chemistry of cooking, so I know instinctively what will work and what won’t.

mise en place

which isn’t to say I’m not organized when I cook…

Okay, so here’s the thing. About a month ago I had the opportunity to sit on a panel with several other mystery authors, including the talented Laurie R. King. We were asked about this plotter/pantser thing, and Laurie talked about how she’d been a complete plotter for her first four books, but then switched to the seat-of-your-pants method for number five. “By then I’d figured out how to do it, how to write a mystery novel,” she explained, “so I thought, why not try it the other way? And it worked.” She’s been a devout seat-of-the-pantser ever since.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Laurie said that night. I, too, am now embarking on my fifth mystery novel, and am seriously considering throwing caution to the wind and going at it without a fully fleshed-out plot (though I do have a very short synopsis).

Hey, if I can do it with cooking, why not writing?

Readers: Is there anything you do in your life that you’re tempted to have a go at without some sort of crutch or back-up you generally rely on?

32 thoughts on “Pants-er or Recipe-er?

  1. I think the novels that strike me as most vibrant were pantsed. The authors probably had an idea of what would happen and then just let it rip. I’d like to do that someday. As for legal briefs, I have a template that I purloined. Comforting to me but it would make a tiresome novel. As for cooking, I follow the recipe once and then play around with it. I have learned there is no satisfactory substitute for butter.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Ha! I had a template for summary judgment motions, which I passed along to many other attorneys over the years. And yes, talk about a a boring story line–ugh!

      Butter is always great in most dishes, I’ve found.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Keenan, I’m often in the middle of a recipe and realize I don’t have one (or two) of the ingredients. Recently, it was butter. I looked up baking substitutes for butter online and one of the suggestions was prune puree! (As if I’d be out of butter but have prunes in the pantry) 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hahaha, Leslie! Won’t try to imagine how that would taste. But, even more problematic, you might have to miss the end of the movie for a trip to the facilities. 🙂 #prunesarenotbutter

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m a kind-of-pantser and it seems to be working for me. I have a few key ideas, but they are more like “places I need to go/see” on a map than a real outline.

    But cooking? I need to do it once from the recipe before I can start ad-libbing.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I haven’t baked anything in a while, but I follow those recipes to the T.

    On the other hand, I don’t have notes or outlines when writing my reviews. I mentally know what I want to say, and I just follow the flow that developes as I write it.

    If I were to try to write a mystery, you can bet I’d outline it. Like you, I’d want to know the clues etc. ahead of time.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. One of the reasons I’m not a fan of baking is because you have to follow the recipe to a T or the chemistry doesn’t work. (In culinary arts school, we referred to them as “formulae,” not recipes, for baked goods.)

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Outlining, for me, is less about the outline, and more about my stress level. I need to feel in control of the process and speed of my writing. Pulling plot threads kills me. Cooking, however, is less stressful for me, but I still want to get it done and get it done fast.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I certainly get stressed while plotting my books–for me that’s the hardest part. Which is one reason I’m tempted to try the pantser method for number five.

      (And indeed there will be time
      To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh man, you pushed a button for me! I’m an outliner, born of my years in television, where you can’t go to script until an outline has been signed off on by the showrunner, the studio, and the network. But I feel like I’m constantly on the defensive against the mindset Keenan mentions – that somehow pantsed books are more “vibrant,” i.e., better. I hear “if I’m not surprised, my readers won’t be” a lot. When I’m writing, I get surprised, too – but in the outline process, as well as the draft.

    I’m with Becky – outlining gives me control. That doesn’t mean I don’t make exciting discoveries along the way, which is why I call my outline a fluid outline. But I’d say my drafts are probably 80% of what I came up with in the outline.

    I often tell the story of going to a lecture by the legendary James Ellroy. He said his outlines were often longer than his books. The one he was working on at the time was 720 pages!! I’d lose my mind if I had to do that – I don’t enjoy writing TV outlines, BTW, it’s the most laborious part of the job – but for me, plotting blends the comfort of control and speed with the joy of revelations and moments you didn’t see coming.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I hear ya, Ellen. I get very excited as I plot and outline, and my books have often changed dramatically from what I originally imagined. But I feel most comfortable with the control that the outline provides. (And when I do change up my plot mid-draft, I go back and change my outline, too, lol. It’s a little like doing a chore that’s not on your list, then writing it down so you can immediately crossit off.)

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I am a total pantser, but that’s only because I couldn’t outline if my life depended on it. I have tried to outline, which usually means staring at a blank computer screen with nary an idea in my head. I have since learned I just have to start writing and hope for the best. That means tons of time spent deleting, revising, and going back to add in those clues you mention. I always envy those who can outline before they start, and I have no idea why someone with the capability to outline would want to pants a novel. Or is this one of those cases where the grass always seems greener on the other side?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I was thinking exactly that as I read your post, Marla–that here I was, feeling jealous that I wasn’t a pantser–ha! I wonder if there any writing duos out there who are one pantser and one plotter. Anyone know?

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m the complete opposite–I’m a panster when writing and follow a recipe to the T. I think you’ll enjoy pantsing–it’s exciting and fun to see the story unfold as you write page by page!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Leslie, I’d invite you to dive in and give pantsing a shot. (I’ve tried to start with an outline, truly!) But your desk is so tidy, it suggests you may be too organized for pantsing.:)

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I plant my flag in the land of Plotters (I’m so much more comfortable there!), but for my last book, I took a detour through PantsLandia. I found it more than a little terrifying, but also kind of thrilling–so much so that I want to see if I can manage the whole Plantser thing. I’m curious to see if a best-of-both-worlds will work for me. We’ll seeeeeeeeeee.

    As for cooking, I’m all recipes, all the time. Unfortunately, the results don’t seem to suggest there was any recipe, plan or intention at all!

    Can’t wait to see what you do with book five!! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I really enjoyed your post. Outside of recipes for baking, I often will personalize a recipe with more garlic or whatever, or only use the recipe as a general guide (with a decent success rate.) As a newbie writer, however, pantsing has yet to produce a finished story for me. Writing may be like baking (at first) for me to finish a first book.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s