Pantser: someone who creates using the seat of their pants, rather than developing a plan beforehand.
Sometimes the way we choose to do things is, pure and simple, fun.
Sometimes fun trumps everything else. For some, we choose easy rather than what doesn’t come naturally or is perceived as complex.
So choose wisely… not naively, not lazily.
Sadly, preference too often becomes process because the writer doesn’t know any better. Nobody has explained the consequences of, or the alternatives to, what they choose. Because at the end of the day, you may decide that fun wasn’t ever the highest reward available.
This isn’t a question of right or wrong. It’s a question of what works and what doesn’t. And that particular metric varies from writer to writer.
Writers send me questions all the time, which I welcome.
Some arrive by email, sometimes via other means, including posts on author websites. Today’s Storyfix post is a response to a reader concern that reached me from that avenue.
The writer with today’s question runs a cool blog called This Midlife Crisis Rocks, and her current post represents a pretty common and troubling aspect of the writing life for many. That author is, it seems, a pantser who loves to make it up as she goes along.
Sometimes (and I do pick my moments with this) I ask such writers this: so how’s that going for you?
You may relate to her question, and to my answer, which you can read by clicking over to her post. My response appears directly below it… and here, directly below this post (the one you’re reading now), as well.
I do not judge.
I have tried to clarify my position on pantsing, which I initially fumbled through my enthusiasm for craft, often misinterpreted as an indictment. The truth is – and I say this whenever I even mention pantsing as a writing process – it does work for some writers, and almost every writer uses it to some degree in the creation of a manuscript.
I pants scenes. I do know the mission and narrative context of the scene, but once that’s in place I use story instinct (honed by the principles of effective scene writing) to write the scene itself.
The trick then, for any writer who questions their process, is to understand if your chosen process is working for you. If your story sense makes you a functional pantser.
Pantsing is the most difficult of all writing process. Even if it seems like the most fun while you’re doing it. The the outcome makes you question your choice… then this is for you.
My response to the post (which you’ll see that author actually asks for… feel free to chip in your response, as well, either here or on her site), is shown below. Swap out your own non-writer hobby or lost dream (cooking, golf, painting, acting, whatever) for the one I use here as an analogy and you’ll still be in the mix with this.
May it help you understand your options, as well as how to stop the pain.
Thanks for the shout out. I think I can help.
Story planning – the antithesis of pantsing – is a matter of degree and scope, and a little is better than none. Most writers, even the most vocal of pantsers, engage in some form of planning, even if it manifests only within their head.
Let me offer an analogy. Do you like/watch D-1 or NBA basketball? They have diagrammed “plays,” certainly, but most of the time players are running a “pattern,” and within that pattern they are freelancing… reacting, seizing moments, moving on instinct. Making it up as they go along.
If they didn’t know the game intimately, and hadn’t practiced it at the level they actually play it, and more importantly if they didn’t know the pattern, then the freelancing wouldn’t work It would be chaos.
But they do know the game and the prescribed plays. That’s the key.
Same with writing a novel or screenplay.
Here’s the truth: most new writers don’t really “know the game.” They don’t understand how good stories are built in both a structural and expositional sense. They may have a “sensibility” of it after years of reading… but really, that’s like watching NBA basketball for years from your barcalounger and telling yourself that you are ready to step on the court and do what they do.
You can, actually. But on a playground, NOT at a professional level.
And that’s the most direct analogy of all here… if you are writing stories with the intention of publishing, then you ARE striving to be a professional. To play in the NBA (National Book-writers Association… sorry, couldn’t resist) in your game. Most writers just aren’t up to it, either relative to end product OR the process of getting to it.
By “not knowing the game (the structures and principles) of how to write an effective novel” at a professional level, I mean to say that writers don’t understand the lines within which they must play. And they don’t realize that to play outside of those lines is to lose.
As a story coach I see this all time… novels without a compelling concept… novels with thin and familiar premises… novels without a hero’s quest giving us something to root for… episodic novels that are entirely character-centric… novels without an antagonistic force in play (this is usually a “villain”)… slice of life novels that have zero dramatic tension… novels with no structural sensibility (for which there are expectations and principles – like lines on a court – that if you violate them, or ignore them, or are ignorant of them, your game tanks.)
Almost all of those stories have an interesting character in play. But for too many – and often, from pantsers – they fumble the other criteria.
So here’s the proposition.
Learn the principles. Learn the core competencies of writing a good story, and internalize the six realms of story physics (forces) that make them work. Apply that knowledge within the somewhat (but not completely) flexible shape of accepted story structure (pros know you absolutely cannot make up your own structure – also something struggling pantsers do, and successful pantsers don’t question – and professionals know there IS a structure you need to fit your story into, with certain things happening at certain points).
Successful pantsers write toward that structure. Frustrated pantsers try to find that structure – or any structure if they don’t understand the principles, which is the problem, because they can’t make one up by the seat of their pants and have it work.
This is something you can test. It is a principle that reinforces itself in nearly every published commercial novel written.
Even if the keynote speaker claims to have “just listened to my characters” (that’s B.S., by the way, but hey, it sounds great from behind a microphone), their story sense is vetting what they “hear” and applying it to the page WITHIN the parameters of story architecture.
So the question isn’t pants or plan. It’s this: what is the state of your story sensibility?
When you are in possession of the core knowledge, when you accept it and apply it as your vetting filter for ideas and the expositional roadmap for your narrative, then you are playing the game, the way the game works at a professional level.
Writing what you want, any way you want, without KNOWING all this stuff… it may be fun, but that’s for hobbyists, amateurs and people stuck in a limiting belief system. Or maybe they have no idea what writing an effective story really means.
So go ahead, make it up as you go along. And when it isn’t working, when it’s still fun but takes you nowhere… re-read this, and know that you choose your own fate in this regard. And that you can choose out of it.
If you write stories – pants them or plan them – with the principles of the game solidly in your head, it’ll work. and it’ll be oh-so-much more rewarding than how you’re pantsing it now.
Frustration with the principles isn’t the source of frustration. Not understanding and accepting them is… because that condemns you to chaos. Writers who get this love those principles, because they are precisely what makes successful pantsing possible.
When you revise a draft, what you’re really doing it moving it TOWARD what was there all along as a final requisite destination – the proven principles of storytelling via story architecture (which is, bottom line: structure plus character put in motion in context to a killer premise).
Become a professional. Learn the game.
Know what a First Plot Point is and where it goes (call it what you will, but even the most ardent “pantsers” who succeed ARE placing a textbook perfect FPP right where it is supposed to go… though sometimes it takes them multipel drafts to get it there). Know how and why dramatic tension drives everything, and how character emerges FROM it, rather than being the focus. Plot (a source of dramatic tension stemming from a motivated hero’s quest) is the KEY to character.
Once you really do know how a story is built – and believe me, pantsers who publish have indeed landed on those very same principles that you could apply to the first draft – you can plan or pants your way through a manuscript it, makes no difference. Just like Kobe can score off a diagrammed play, or he can isolate and go one-on-one against anyone. A score is a score. And it only works if it happens within the lines.
Just don’t try it if you’re not in his league.
Hope this helps. Larry