Friday, October 19, 2012

Writing a Novel YOUR Way: Part 1 - The Pantser

Earlier in the week we discussed how I go about planning a novel. I referred to my approach as the explorer. I have a very brief outline that sets forth destination points along the way, but it is not a scene by scene outline. There are many unplanned twists and turns in the final writing. We will talk about this in more detail later.

Today, though, we will begin with the most maligned of all techniques known as the "Write by the Seat of My Pants" approach or "The Pantser." I've read many writing books on all types of writing and have never seen one good word written about this technique.

I think I understand that. After all, if I am trying to sell a book on how to write, part of that book is going to have to do with planning my writing projects. Several dozen pages will deal with that subject. Yet, if someone is not planning, what will I put in those pages?

Indeed, if you look at most well-known writing instructors' signature approach to writing, it is rarely about characterization, editing, language usage or any of those essential elements of a novel. The core of The _____ Approach to the Novel is usually a plotting technique.

It is easy to dismiss the pantser. Many of us follow that old adage which says "Plan your work, then work your plan." The problem with that is that I'm not sure the pantser sees writing as work.

While not a pure pantser, I think I understand that mindset. Fiction writing for me is like interactive entertainment. As I write, I become part of the story. Writing fiction is not a "job" for me. The "job" appears when I have to edit and revise what I've written, but the writing itself is a vicarious adventure. If I know what stands behind every bush before my characters pass that bush, it spoils the fun.

Now, I like a bit more structure than the pantser. We will talk about that approach in a couple of days. But I understand the pantser excitement with discovering the novel through the writing. In essence the first draft of the novel for the pantser IS his or her plot outline.

The Pantser's Strengths

The main strength of the pantser is spontaneity. Sometimes writing down a plot outline can limit your creativity. You get a better idea when you are writing, but that means changing the plot outline and shifting around your carefully outlined scenes, so you stay with the original idea and ignore what might be a better approach. Even for explorers, this can be the case. I know where my plot has to get to in a few pages and this would throw off that plan.

Another strength is character-driven fiction. Frequently, "well plotted" novels focus on the action over the character. By that I mean, that the author is thinking mostly about what the characters need to do to make the story work out. The story can easily be forced down the throats of the characters.

The Pantser's characters are driving the story. Mostly the pantser puts characters in a setting with a problem and let's them figure it out as s/he tags along. If the pantser has a well developed set of characters what they do will usually be in character because he is not trying to force a direction on them. (Of course, that can lead to other problems, but we'll discuss them in a moment.)

The pantser can also bring a joyful passion to the story which can show through the way s/he tells the story. Often in the first draft, the pantser gives the impression of "being there" which those of us who have more complete plans may need to create during our revision and editing stages.

The Pantser's Dangers

If you are a pantser, life is a wonderful adventure, but we all know adventures also have some dangers.

One of the biggest dangers for the Pantser is getting off track of the story. This means you will have to spend a lot more time in editing removing irrelevant scenes. It also means you will find yourself going down narrative blind alleys which don't really lead to any place significant in your story.

A couple of tips for the pantser to stay on track. If at all possible, have your conclusion in mind. In fact, I suggest writing or at least summarizing the climatic scene first or right after writing your first scene. Set this aside and glance at it occasionally asking yourself how what you are writing is bringing you closer to that end.

Another tip, even if you don't have your ending planned out, is to simply stop and take stock about every 5000 words or so and ask yourself where is this leading? If it isn't leading anywhere profitable, then change direction.

Are You a Pantser?

Only you can answer that question, but here are a few ideas to consider. When you go on a road trip, do you tend to ignore the map and just head in the general direction of your destination and find your own way? Do you have a tendency to take spontaneous detours? When you cook, do you tend to make up your own recipes or just watch someone else and then do what they do? Would you have trouble finding the measuring spoons in your kitchen? Are you someone who gets a new program and installs it and doesn't bother to read the handbook or instructions at all, but prefers to figure it out on your own? If that is the case, you are probably a pantser.

Here's a good test. You probably have some sort of idea for a story, Sit down and set a timer for ten minutes and start writing on that story. If at the end of that time you find yourself generating more ideas for the story and wanting to continue, you are probably a pantser. If you run out of ideas and wish you had some sort of guide to follow, then you probably are not. You may well be a plotter. We'll talk about that Tomorrow.


  1. Terri, great information. I write both ways and actually like both. There is more structure though in the outline format, which can provide some comfort - you know where you're heading. But, with the pantser, you never know where you'll end up, which is exciting and a journey in itself!

  2. Karen. You might like what we will have in a day or two. It's called The Explorer. You don't have a detailed plot, just a sort of unfinished map with the destination points marked out. Your characters need to get to those points and you sort of follow along as they do.