An Homage to Pantsing

Pansting — just another way to find your story.

Without headlights or a map. 

Hopefully with a clue, but even that’s one of the options — starting a story without the slightest notion where it’s heading, or why — for those who like to make it up as they go along.

That’s fingerpainting.  When was the last time you saw a fingerpainting in a gallery?  Or even a mall store?

A good story isn’t just about the journey.  A really good story — a publishable one — requires a destination that rewards the journey.  The best journey is a titillating, thrill-inducing, mechanically-justifiable and therefore effective means toward that end.

If you want to stop for a cup of coffee and ponder the view, that’s part of a pleasant journey.  Just make sure you get back on the road before you put your passenger to sleep.

Wrong turns, side-trips, running out of gas… they’re all avoidable before you begin yet another revision of a pantsed draft.  The very best route toward your destination — the best collective set of creative choices for your story — is available at the first draft…. if you know the inherent principles of story architecture.

Or if you get lucky.  It happens.  They’re called one hit wonders.

Let us hope the insistent pantser at least has a clue how to drive the vehicle.  Many do.  Many, especially newer drivers, don’t.

Or this can happen…

Time 

To see more from this incredible artist, humorist and ponderer of life (writer, illustrator and designer Susan Mrosek), go to www.ponderingpool.com.

Used by permission.

If you’d like to consider avoiding the time it takes to pluck, twist, fold and chop as you search for your story, click here.

13 Comments

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13 Responses to An Homage to Pantsing

  1. I envy pantsers. I’d love to be able to sit down with an idea and go with it. I can do it with flash fiction, but anything longer and I’m lucky if I even finish, let alone produce a story that will be anywhere near good, even with a ton o’ revision.

  2. I am a pantster! lol But I always have some idea of where it is going, a little knowledge of the characters. These days anyway. These days anyway; I have learned it is best not to go ahead without knowing those things.

  3. We’re on the same page here, Larry (thanks to you). An excerpt from a recently published blog post of mine:

    Story structure is [as] essential to writing a novel as a map is to getting to your destination. After you’ve travelled the route many times you may not need to plan the trip in advance, but that’s only because you already know the path.

    And thanks for introducing us to Susan Mrosek. Fantastic.

  4. Hi Larry,

    Where did the term “pantser” come from? I must admit, I don’t understand precisely what it means.

    But I think I get the gist. As a new novelist (not a new writer), I am doing exactly that — hopping out onto the road without a map. This is for various reasons. For one, I see it as an alternative to outlining. It is also an exercise t0 just force myself to starting writing that novel.

    As you may have predicted, there are serious problems with the plot and story architecture. Right now though, I don’t care. This is more of an exercise for me to flesh out the story and characters and (most importantly) my voice.

    Yes, there have been many wrong turns and instances of running out of gas. I’ve also kick-started some tension by throwing in a random meteorite crashing in the middle of the story (figuratively, not literally…)

    Pantsing may not be the path to a well-crafted book — not as a tool in itself, anyway. But I think I’ll have a much richer story for it though when I start writing the second draft than if I outlined it and started from there…

    ~Graham

  5. Larry, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. I’m doing Nano this year for the first time, in an attempt to get past my mental block against writing sci fi. I’ve generally written with a beginning, an end, and characters in mind, but this year, having discovered your website a few months back, I did a fair amount of outlining of my story, a YA sci fi. What I went in with included a good idea of the culture of the planet, the characters, and the bare bones of the story, which, of course, is surprising me anyway.

    I ordered your new book, Story Engineering, from Amazon. I’m looking forward to reading it, and to revising the draft of my Nano novel.

    Thanks for the tip about the bulleting. I used it to outline several chapters so far, and it’s been a huge help.

  6. @Graham — Pantsing… as in “seat of the pants writing.” In this context, it’s like seat of the pants flying, seat of the pants surgery, or seat of the pants legislating… doing anything that is complex and structured and has specific expectations by feel, rather than with a plan.

    Pantsing is just one way to search for your story. So is outlining. The story won’t work until you’ve found it, and in the case of pantsing, when you find it mid-manuscript you’ll have to start over (at least to make it work), because an effective story is written from page 1 in context to the chosen path and ending.

    Outlining is just a word. To avoid it is like a pilot saying they want to avoid filing a flight plan (think of that the next time you’re flying American Airlines), or a surgeon avoiding what they’ve learned in med school. The analogies are everywhere.

    There is no right or wrong way, unless the chosen way leaves the story less than optimal. That’s why successful pantsers always do several/many rewrites, and claim victory because they’ve avoided doing an outline. Trust me, if a writer spends weeks on an outline the story will be every bit as fresh and spontaneous and surprising as a writer who spends weeks writing a pantsed draft… that will need rewriting.

    Hope this helps. Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Just think ahead a bit, try to visualize the end and determine what you need to get there, then watch how things fall into place. I wish you the best on that journey, flight plan or not. L.

  7. Thanks for the explanation, Larry — got you now.

    I’ve never thought of outlining that way before. I think I was traumatized in high school with endless requests for essay outlines. I already knew what I wanted to say and how to say it, and submitting an official outline seemed like a waste of time.

    Not to say that’s the case in novel writing or any type of story building. But I guess I already have a pre-existing aversion to it. Can I use the word “plotting” instead? Or even “structuring”? That would make me feel better, I think.

    I am not doing NaNoWriMo, but I did start a novel 67 days ago. I’ve committed to writing one hour per day, every day, until the first draft is finished. I am very much pantsing, but as I mentioned above, that’s okay at this point as I flesh out the story, characters, and voice. (Let’s call it “pantsing with intent”…)

    I am realizing that I’ll have to develop some sort of story structure before I get into the second draft.

    I’m blogging about the whole process too, if you’re interested in checking it out: http://afewstrongwords.com

    ~Graham

  8. Elizabeth

    Larry, this is after all your blog, and you’re entitled to your ideas. I may even agree with some of them.

    But when it comes to *words* ….

    Tell me, just how is this entry an “homage”?

  9. @Elizabeth — another word, one that answers your question: ironic.

  10. Sammi

    I used to be a pantser. I also never used to finish anything I wrote. After finding Storyfix, I actually finished my first piece in years.

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