Pantsers Anonymous

Hi, my name is Jo and I’m a Pantser.

I’ve been a Pantser for as long as I can remember. When I have an idea for a new story, I just sit down and write. Sometimes I know a little about the world I’m creating or the main character or the plot. But not often. I just figure it out as I go.

By the time I’m finished the first chapter, I’ve usually got a handle on the main characters. By the time I’ve hit the first conflict, I’ve generally figured out how the book will end. By the time I’m a third of the way through, I need to stop and write a brief outline for the rest of the book.

I’ve tried outlining before I start. I’ve tried creating files on characters and settings and plot points. But it just doesn’t work for me. It robs me of inspiration and makes me feel empty inside. So I long ago resigned myself to being a Pantser.

There’s plenty of us around. All of us writing by the seat of our pants and discovering the plot twists and turns as they happen. It’s exciting, really.

Most of the time.

Usually.

But sometimes…

Sometimes it’s frustrating.

I recently had the opportunity to have the first three chapters of my WIP (Work in Progress) read by a published author whom I greatly respect. She offered to read my pages and send me some notes with her thoughts and feedback. Of course, I took her up on the offer. (Who wouldn’t?)

After a couple of weeks, I got her feedback. I read it several times. I went away and thought about it. Then I read it again.

I’m incredibly grateful to her for taking the time out of her schedule to read my still-in-its-early-stages draft and send me her thoughts. Incredibly grateful.

Especially because she complimented me on the scene I felt was strongest.

And also because she pointed out the flaws that I secretly feared (but knew) were on the page.

Her feedback went something like this:

  • I like the world you’ve created.
  • The sidekick character is terrific.
  • The protagonist is too bland.
  • It’s a very long run-up before it gets interesting. [Jo’s favourite scene]  is terrific and unusual. I don’t think the stuff up to then earns its place and it’s very explainy.

Now, I already pretty much knew that the first couple of chapters would be shortened and turned into a single chapter during revisions. So no problem there. As a pantser, the first couple of chapters of a first draft are really more about me getting into the story than anything else.

But the point about my protagonist being bland… Well.

Well, I really knew that already.

I started thinking more about him, and about how to bring his personality on to the page in a bigger way,. And I had a sudden realisation. An epiphany, if you will. I knew nothing about my protagonist.

Apparently he sprung into being, fully formed, at about the same time he developed magic powers. I had no clue who he was, deep down, what his values were, or what motivated him. So I’ve put my writing on pause to concentrate on developing my protagonist. And that, in turn, has led me to finally decide on the setting for my story.

Right now, I’m researching a setting, exploring the backstory of my main character, and immersing myself more fully into the world of my imagination. I’ve got notes galore on things I’ll have to change during revisions (which I’m really looking forward to). But first, I need to finish the research and write the remainder of my first draft.

Like I said, sometimes it’s frustrating to be a pantser. It’s crazy to write 60% of a novel without knowing where it’s set, or having any idea of the main character’s motivations.

But…

But on the other hand…

I kind of like this kind of crazy.

Do you plot your novels first, or are you a member of Pantsers Anonymous? Have you been in a similar situation?

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37 Comments

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37 responses to “Pantsers Anonymous

  1. MerylF

    I plot my whole story before I write. I usually have character goals and motivations. Then I write.

    When I’m finished, I know more about my characters and the story and the world. Then I rewrite. The whole thing. From the beginning I usually keep about 10% of the original words.

    I don’t recommend this technique to anyone, but it works for me.

    • There are at least as many ways to write a novel as there are grains of sand on a beach. I can’t imagine doing it that way, but then there are a lot of people who can’t imagine starting to write a novel when you have no idea what it’s going to be about.

      The “keep about 10% of the original words” thing is kind of terrifying, though.

      • MerylF

        It’s very freeing, actually. I throw away all the words and just carry the story with me. The second draft is always miles ahead of the first, and writes a lot faster.

      • It’s sounds kind of nice… Out of curiosity, do you prefer drafting or revising? I ask because I’d much rather revise than write new material, so I wonder if that’s why I dislike the idea of throwing away 90% of your words.

      • MerylF

        I love both, but in different ways. I love the crazy creative buzz of drafting. It messes with my head. I love being so consumed by the story that my brain just throws inspiration at me.

        However, once the draft is done I usually hate it with a passion, and I like nothing better than taking it apart and making it better. And for me, that usually means rewriting. But rewriting doesn’t feel like drafting to me. Then it gets a final polish, which I really like, because it’s simple and fast and it means OMG ALMOST THERE.

        You should try it sometime. When you have to do a big revision on one of your scenes, open a new document and just write the whole scene new, without looking at your old stuff or trying to remember it. You’ll be amazed what comes out 🙂

      • Once I’ve got a draft, I like nothing better than printing it out and scribbling all over it in bright red pen. I love physically cutting the paper into pieces and reattaching it in new and interesting ways. I like scrawling notes across pages that say things like, “WTF does this even mean?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?” I love that part of writing, when the words are on the page and I just have to rearrange and interpret them to let the ideas out.

        When I’m drafting, I often have to trick myself into thinking I’m revising just so I can get words on the paper/screen. Because, to me, drafting doesn’t so much feel like a buzz as an overwhelming cacophony of noise that I’m trying to recreate with a thimble and a child’s xylophone.

        That being said, I did have my computer crash while I was writing one day, and I lost 12,000 words of my novel. I rewrote it much faster the second time than I had the first — although it went in an entirely new direction. So perhaps I will try your method next time and see how it goes.

      • MerylF

        You’re a much more physical reviser than I am. I do pretty much everything in Scrivener these days. I just use Word for the final slash-and-burn of weak words.

        The second rewrite often goes in another direction, a better, less cliched direction I find. It’s like taking a step up in the process.

      • Ah, Scrivener. It seems to be the tool of choice for writers these days. I looked at it, and my head almost exploded. I tried yWriter with the same effect. As someone who is incredibly non-visual and terrible at writing notes and pre-planning, it’s all a bit much for me. I just use Word, and print stuff out to read it — because I also hate reading on a screen.

      • MerylF

        Well, if you are a linear writer, then Word is perfect. I use it for shorts, and there’s nothing simpler. yWriter didn’t work for me, but Scrivener does as I am a die-hard index card plotter 🙂

  2. I’m a plotter.

    And, I still spend the whole second draft defining the main character. I don’t really think you can ‘know’ them until you start to write them.

  3. I’ve always been a pantser, more or less. My first novel, A Sane Woman, had a little bit of a plan. With the mysteries I usually have a little bit of a plan — usually a general idea of what the crime will be.

    My second novel, U-town, had no plan at all. It basically started with “a teenage girl walks into a bar.” Well, it was originally a coffee shop (it became a bar in rewrites). Then, much later, I took this scene from the middle of the book and put it at the beginning: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=1642 (showing what happened right before the teenage girl walked into the bar). I thought it was a better hook. But I had no plan at all (and I was posting it online as I wrote it).

    U-town ended up being around 170,000 words. I think it’s really good, but it’s also really big, so since then I’ve worked on having a little bit of a plan, mostly to keep the word count under control. When I wrote Stevie One I was aiming for around 45,000 words (the length of A Sane Woman) and I ended up with 30,000 words. I was very pleased. I think the advantage I had there was that I did know the characters in advance, and parts of the plot were based on an idea I’d been working on for a while.

    With the story I’m thinking about now, I kind of know the story (well, very vaguely — I think somebody will die, but I’m not sure who), but I’m still trying to figure out point of view.

    • I love that your plan is that somebody will probably die, but you don’t know who. That’s exactly the kind of plans that I have going into writing.

      • Well, when you’re writing mysteries, there is often a dead body, so that gives you a framework. (I’ve done a couple of blog posts about how helpful genre restrictions can be.)

        Oh, and Dan’s “Austin to NYC” analogy is very much how I work, too. Truman Capote said that it’s always good to write the last chapter first, so you know where you’re going. (Of course, he said that about Answered Prayers, which he never finished…. 🙂 )

  4. I’d say I’m mostly a pantser, but after five novels I’ve noticed a pattern. I usually have the climax scene in my head before I write page one, and at least as I’m writing page one, I know where the story starts. I usually don’t have any of this written down, but it’s clear in my head.

    The rest is figuring out how to get from point A to point B, and I prefer to do that as I go. I liken it to taking a road trip, and here I dive into American geography. I start off in Austin, Texas, and I know I’m heading to New York City. I start off driving north. Before long, I’ve decide to route through Dallas, but don’t know where I’ll go afterwards. By the time I get there, I’ve decided to take a northern route, and I take off towards Chicago. By the time I get to Chicago, I’ve decided to route through Philadelphia, and by the time I get there, I can usually see my whole way right into New York.

    This gives me the freedom not only to discover my route along the way, but it also lets me spot all the little side attractions. I can see the world’s largest thimble in Kansas. I can stop by the National Football Hall of Fame in Canton. And so on.

    In writing terms, this lets me feel my way towards the climax, but I still do it with a fair amount of foresight. It’s not planned so much as it’s envisioned. And all those little details that make for intriguing characters and living worlds are the things I simply discover as I go. I’m not too good at teasing this stuff out ahead of time, so I have to wait until I’m there in the moment to see it.

    Yes, it makes for a bloodier edit, but I’m not sure I’d be able to write it any other way.

    • “Yes, it makes for a bloodier edit, but I’m not sure I’d be able to write it any other way.”

      I love this. I’m much the same. I’d rather a more intense edit and lots of revisions than a fully planned out novel in advance. I’ve read your ‘driving from Austin to NYC’ analogy before (You must have blogged about it at some point? Maybe?) and I like it. I often think about it when I’m embarking on the next part of my story.

      • I don’t think I’ve blogged about it yet (perhaps next week!), but I find I keep talking about it in comments, possibly even here. Though I can’t take full credit for it. I heard it on a panel on outlines vs. pantsing.

      • Maybe you commented about it here before, then. You should definitely blog about it. It’s such a great analogy.

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  6. This is precisely why I haven’t started yet. Well, I have, in my mind, but not on paper.

  7. Yeah, this is the kind of stuff I try to do as part of preparation for a story. One of my big tools is to write character bios in first person from the character’s perspective: what the characters say about themselves to themselves. It helps me feel like I write them better, as actual people rather than bland cut-outs. That’s only one aspect of my planning, but it’s one that I think is easier for pantsers to appreciate.

    • Stephen, I always think of you as the consummate Plotter. Every time I read about how much work you do before you start writing, I feel overwhelmed and just a teensy bit terrified. (And, deep down, profoundly jealous. But let’s not get into that.) But, in saying that, I do like the idea of character bios. I write that type of thing when I’m playing a new roleplaying character, just to get a feel for them in my mind. So perhaps I should just bite the bullet and do the same for my novel characters.

      Thanks for the great suggestion.

      • Well, yes, I probably am a “consummate Plotter”. 😉 That’s why I don’t recommend to everyone that they need to write out a 30,000-word history of their world before writing, or a 20,000-word “outline”, or a detailed description of the magic system, or a… well… you get the idea. (And don’t be jealous: that’s a lot of wordcount that I probably could’ve had devoted to my draft and probably could’ve figured out while writing if I was any good at pantsing.)

        Character backgrounds, though? I figure that’s something a lot more writers can get behind. And they don’t tend to be super-long. Just a few hundred words for each major character is usually enough to help me get the feel for them when it’s first person.

  8. changeforbetterme

    Hi, my name is Jackie and I’m a Pantser. Through and through. Now granted I”m not published. Yet! But I have several pieces in the works not to mention my main WIP, and they are all “as I go” pieces. I have tried plotting things out in the beginning and I just can’t do it. Like you, it sucks the life out of the writing. And I never seem to stay to the plot. With me the characters take over and pretty much write it themselves. I”m just there for the ride.

    • I love it when that happens, Jackie. On my good writing days, I can just relax and the words seem to flow through me as the characters take action. On the bad writing days…. well, let’s not talk about those.

  9. Oh, I like Stephen’s idea of the first person bio. I’m going to talk to Arnold tonight. He’s the main dude in my very first piece of fiction. I can’t figure him out,and he’s just up & moved to New York, which is unfortunate because I know nothing about NY, and all the agents and publishers say, “For God’s sake, don’t write about New York because we all live here, and we’ll catch you if you screw it up.” (This is why I usually stick to non-fiction. Fiction’s hard! But my first short story needs to turn into something longer, according to everyone who read it.) Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one who’s a pantser!

    • You’re very welcome, Melanie! It was actually a great releif to me when I read Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ and discovered that he’s a pantser. So is Peter Temple. And any number of other well-established authors. I also like Stephen’s idea, and am going to give it a go as well. Best of luck talking to Arnold!

  10. My approach to prose is similar to making a sandwich: I have a beginning and ending in some detail then fill in the middle. Depending on how long a work it is I might write an outline or not.

    Interestingly (to me) I almost always write poetry by sitting down with an idea and just writing a poem.

    • I find that interesting as well. I wonder if it’s because your poems are shorter than your prose, or because you’re more confident with a poetic medium.

      • My prose generally receives wider approbation, so I should be more confident in that; however it might receive wider approbation because I edit it more. Possibly a chicken and egg….

        Another possibility is the structure of poetry: as only a certain number of words will fit the metre I choose the words more before I commit them to the page, so am less likely to think one could be better as soon as I write it.

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