The Passionate Cry of a Delusional Pantser

Let me be clear on something before launching into this: I’m not anti-pantsing or anti-pansters.

It’s not how I develop stories, nor is it something I recommend. But it is something I absolutely understand – with the exception of today’s little rant – and I’m clear on how it can work, when it works.

That’s the problem, you see. Many passionate pantsers aren’t really clear on how it needs to work.  And they are the ones who are already composing a Comment here with a knee-jerk emotion… and thus, might just miss the point.

So please read the headline as intended.

I’m not saying pansters are delusional. Today I’m writing about one of the things some passionate pantsers say that is delusional. I’m certain story planners say delusional things, too – I’m probably among them – but look before you leap to a judgmental conclusion.

I have (looked, that is), and this is what I see.

Today I’m dissing one of the arguments – a single strand of rationale – that some pansters put forth as reasoning behind their pantsing preference. It’s like a kid saying he doesn’t like string beans because they are green.

They say that. And it’s ridiculous every time they do.

That single strand of pantsing rationale – not the other reasons that defend it – is exactly like that. Ridiculous. Which I’ll explain clearly in a moment.

I could – perhaps should – write a book about How To Pants Your Book Successfully.

Pansting is no different than any form or degree of story planning, relative to the criteria and elemental requisites for a story that is functionally and thematically sound. The bar is the same, and it is high with either process.

Too many writers pants for the wrong reasons. The more seasoned a writer is, the more likely they are to incorporate some form of story planning – if nothing else, then some alignment with the principles of story structure – into their process. Even if it all unfolds out of their head, without an outline.

That’s pantsing, too. The kind that works. Pantsing without a seasoned grounding in the principles of craft is the only option available to the new writer, or the stubborn resistant writer who denies the principles (and man, they’re everywhere out there), because in that case there is nothing to plan. It’s like trying to draw a house without ever really knowing how a house is built… you’ve simply been in a few houses in your life, so now you’re trying to build one without a blueprint.

Because hey, it’s fun to do it that way!

Pantsing is a process.

Nothing more. It’s not more artful or more mysterious than any other approach. It is neither qualitatively superior nor inferior.

It is, however, fraught with risk, in the same way that a pilot operating without a flight plan is inherently more risky than a pilot being guided by a regional air traffic controller from a flight plan filed in context to approaching weather, proximity to traffic and the length of the runway at the destination.

Both can land safely. The one without the flight plan – and here’s the important part, the part you should not miss – if bringing years of experience and training and understanding to the job, can probably weather an emergency (unexpected fog, low fuel, sudden wind sheer, an alien attack) as well as the pilot flying from a plan.  Because they do know how to fly an airplane.

So, within this analogy, here’s what doesn’t happen: the pilot without a plan rationalizes that choice because it’s more fun. Or worse, say, “I just can’t read any of that flight plan stuff, my mind fogs.”

Thing is, this isn’t flying for fun. It’s professional flying. Just as we are talking about professional writing, writing to sell in a competitive market.

Here’s what doesn’t make it into the famous author interviews:

The iconic successful author who proudly waves the pantser flag – Stephen King and Diana Galbadon, as examples – has the expected structural paradigm and aesthetic bones of a story firmly implanted in their head, as an instinct. They don’t need a written plan any more than LeBron James needs a buzzer-beater play written out for him.

They know.

So if you’re Stephen King or Diana Galbadon or LeBron James, go ahead and wing it. Make it up as you go along. Have fun. But don’t fool yourself, you’ll be doing the exact same work as the other successful author – if, in fact, you are a panster writing from a keen awareness and story instinct; this is where the pantsing proposition crumbles under scrutiny – who is writing from an outline created in context to principles she or he understands to be inviolate and universal.

The same understanding, by the way, as that of their successful pansting peers.

It is the unschooled, less instinctual pantser that really can’t get away with claims of “I just can’t do it any other way,” or, “Planning takes all the fun out of it.”

Those are the battle cries of the naïve.

You’re writing a book to sell, right? So the “fun” part falls way down the list of priorities.

And the “I just can’t do it part” is a preference, not a principle.

The genius in the white coat who put the stent in your heart probably didn’t like mucking around the room temperature innards of a poor homeless guy when she/he was in Human Anatomy Lab 101, either, but here she/he is, saving lives and driving a German car.

Because the very thing that you, as a pantser, claim you just can’t do, is in fact the essential elemental composition of the very story you are trying to create.

If you just can’t create a story in outline form, then you just can’t create one in a draft, either. Both will require continued evolution, and if your story sense is weak, it will be extensive in either case.

A true story, not an analogy.

I know a guy, a great guy, who has the eating preferences of a 12-year old. We had them over for dinner not long ago, and served up some terrific homemade, freshly mixed guacamole as an appetizer. My guest wouldn’t touch it. Here’s the exchange when I asked why.

“I don’t eat that stuff.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t.”

“You don’t like guacamole?”

He looked at with me a go F-yourself expression. I grinned back.

“No. I don’t,” he said.

“When was the last time you tried it?”

The look again. A cornered perp. No response.

“Do you like avocados?”

“Hell no.” His expression reminded me a little girl who had just stepped in her dog’s doody outside the backdoor.

“When was the last time you tried it?” I asked, stuffing an overloaded chip into my mouth.

He shook his head, the forehead of which was getting quite red.

“You’ve never tried it, have you.”

“Hell no.”

“You’ve never tasted an avocado, either, right?”

He shook his head. He was grinning at this point, realizing he was going down.

“So how do you know you don’t like it?”

No response.

“Go on, take a bite. Everybody likes guacamole. It’s delicious.”

He flashed me the palm of his hand when I moved a loaded chip his way.

My wife intervened. “Let him go,” she said.

“Sure. But you’re missing out on something really wonderful.”

“I don’t eat anything green,” was his final comment before my wife dug her fingernails into my shoulder.

Here’s my point for writers: My friend wasn’t trying to become a professional in the food business. He’s just being ludicrous because, other than embarrassment he pretends to not notice, there are no consequences to it.

But for you, the writer, the consequences can be significant.

Another True Story, Leading to Today’s Primary Point

Here is something I just read on another writing website, a pantsing rationale from an established writer that is repeated all the time, propagating like a sort of Zika virus of illogical crazy:

I’d say I’m a recovering pantser. Up until very recently, my mantra/excuse was, “If I figure out the plot ahead of time, I’ll have told myself the story and I’ll be bored and won’t want to write it.”

Yep. Because now that I know the story, I’m bored.

It’s not the process, folks. It’s the story.

Notice she said recovering pantser. And that she positioned her rationale as an excuse.

We’ll get back to her in a minute. But for now, know that…

The gold resides in those caveats.

For too many newer writers, that flip doesn’t register in their pantser brain. They cling to “I just can’t outline or plan,” and even, “It takes all the fun out of it.” I hear that battle cry constantly. It’s one of the reasons I don’t hang out on writing forums, because too many blustery novices put forth this nonsense within some faux context of artistic righteousness.

Which is ludicrous.

Other than the obvious, here’s why:

If you’re bored with a story plan, then how can you possibly be anything other than bored with a story you drafted organically, with no plan guiding you? Both are the expression of the exact same thing – a story unfolding from your instinct, from your inherent ability to sequence a story arc.

I’ll tell you how: because you evolved the story as you wrote it. It was better than it might have been at the outline stage. But that doesn’t legitimize the process, it simply states the writer was incapable of conjuring the best story at the outline stage.

That’s not something to brag about, that’s something to work on.

Planning or drafting are two different ways toward the same essential goal: the discovery of your best story.

Notice how this might translate to real life:

You work with an architect to draw a plan for, and a rendering of, your dream house. As you sit there, you grow bored. The house itself bores you. So instead, you back up a truck full of shovels and concrete and wood, and you build the house itself straight out of your head.

But you’ve never built a professional-level house before.

You’ll be too exhausted and frustrated to be bored. And, unless you have the talent and training of a professional, your house will look like something from a cartoon. A professional would never build a house without a blueprint, like you just did. Because it doesn’t work that way.

You’re not an artist in that case, you’re a beginner who doesn’t yet wield the requisite knowledge and skills. And the only way to find those things is by engaging at the principle-based story-bones level – as in, a story plan leading to an outline.

If you do that planning as a draft, then call it what it is: a story plan attempt, formatted as a draft.

Story is story. If you outline the bones of it and you’re bored by it, then the story isn’t good enough. Don’t blame the story… blame yourself. You have more work to do, and yeah, it may not be fun.

The same writer, sitting down to write the story that bored them as an outline, will experience one of two outcomes: the exact same story will manifest on the page (because it’s still you, doing this with the same level of story instinct), and you’ll be bored with it, too, for the same reason. Or, as you build, your instincts tell you to do something different, something better… and when you do that, you’re coming closer to a more functional story.

So have I just rationalized pantsing from the blank page forward? Yes… if and only if you have a story sense that is developed to the extent that you actually can recognize the moment and nature of something that isn’t working.

Which means, you could have recognized it at the outline level, as well. But didn’t.

Welcome to a paradoxical loop that leads to only one conclusion: no matter what your process, you need to evolve your story sensibilities and awareness of the principles of craft to a higher level, before you can render it to the page.

Then, write your story any damn way you choose. And you’ll choose some form of story planning when you get there, even if it remains in your head.

If you had that evolved level of story sense going for you, you would not be bored by the story at the outline level.

Because your story sensibility drives that, as well. In that case, your story would excite you, not bore you. And the draft you write from it would be the path toward elevating it, not just discovering it.

So when you hear a new writer claiming that outlining and planning takes the fun out of things, that it bores them, what you’re hearing is that the writer isn’t capable of conjuring up a story that works.

And as they draft, that same less-then-optimal story sense will realize a story that also doesn’t work, but they’ll be too immersed the forest of words and the fun of writing sentences and scenes to notice. They won’t even realize they are lost… precisely because their story sense can’t sniff out a lost dog of a story.

Ask any agent or editor. All day long they are reading stories that don’t work, precisely for this reason.

The interviewed writer above, the one who confessed that story planning bored her, went on to say this:

What I’ve learned—the hard way—is that there’s a lot of pleasure to be had in pondering plot and character before getting into the writing. And there’s much, much more to it than saying this needs to happen, then this, etc. The first inkling of each story nearly always comes to me as a vivid image—usually of a protagonist or a setting. But that’s not a heck of a lot to hang a novel on, and thus the plot often reveals itself with an agonizing slowness that undermines my production goals. I’ll get into this later, but for a long time I bought into the notion that the story was a sacred object, and if I manipulated it, it would become over determined and wouldn’t work.

She learned it the hard way.

Because the belief that planning a story will result in boredom is ludicrous. 

It is the story itself that is boring, not the process.

If you’re a pantser, listen to how you rationalize your choice of process. Other less-then-enlightened pantsers won’t hear it, but the people that count – agents, editors, other writers with some seasoning under their belts – will hear any omission of logic, and they’ll silently feel bad for you.

Or they will reject your pitch.

Process doesn’t matter, once you get to a certain point. A point where your story sense already knows how a story is built from a foundation of universal principles of dramatic theory, structure and thematic power through characterization.


A little Storyfix news: the September issue of Writers Digest Magazine has an article I wrote; actually, it is an excerpt from my latest writing book. “Revive Your Story with Dramatic Tension” appears on page 58.

Also, Story Engineering was named as one of the “nine essential books for writers,” on Jon Morrow’s site, Smart Blogger, which has 500,000 subscribers. There’s also some interesting new 5-star reviews for the book on Amazon, if you’re interested in understanding why the book is among those nine.



Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

26 Responses to The Passionate Cry of a Delusional Pantser

  1. My latest book got skewered by a two-star review and then flat-lined, so I am, at best, an “advanced student.” i.e. – I’m almost qualified to comment. But not really. But I’m gonna’

    First, I grew up in New Mexico and I freaking hate guacamole. Why doesn’t matter. I also hate bell peppers. But I like a good salsa and really miss authentic Mexican cuisine that properly clears the sinuses.

    This really isn’t an either/or proposition. Especially for the new writer, planning things out is extremely helpful because it helps get the plot in place. But, you know, there are five other core competencies.

    The *problem* with planning – and yes, there is a problem – is that it’s polarized many new writers towards one component of story building – structure. When you say “plan,” most think “structure.” We get caught up in plot points, hero’s journeys, killing cats and petting dogs. Which is all fine, but it’s just – one – part.

    You can make an incredibly detailed plan for a house, choose the finest materials, hire the best construction crew and when it’s all done, walk through the front door and immediately feel like it’s dead inside. The walls are in the right places. There are doors and windows. The stove works. And it just feels so – sterile. That’s the result of relying on structure as the yellow brick road to the exclusion of the rest. And when it doesn’t result in a finished product that works, it’s easy to think planning is not useful. No, it’s just one part of a bigger process.

    The difference is that with a story, you can very easily tear down the walls, move the windows, pitch the stove and even move the entire house to a different location. It’s called the delete key.

    And I think it’s important to be “allowed” to do that. Because, *most* of us don’t really know how the house actually *feels* inside until we walk through the door. But the structure is right. If I move a window to let in more light, the whole structure might come down like a house of cards. Maybe.

    I was typing along on my latest work (the 2 star flop) and my mind said to put in something about shifting magnetic poles. I had *no* idea why. It wasn’t in the plan. Magnetic poles, wtf is that all about?

    Let me say that again: It wasn’t in the plan. It never could have been in the plan. I never would have thought about it until I started writing that scene. The scene, however, was in the plan.

    This little off-the-cuff thought turned out to be immensely important to the plot towards the end of the book. It was simply a setup for something much much bigger. But I didn’t know that until I got to the part where I had to *change* the plan to accommodate the payoff.

    Pantsing? I dunno. Point is, we probably should give ourselves the room to go off plan when something better comes along during the actual writing. You could say the plan was incomplete if you’re still thinking up stuff along the way. Or you could say that some – perhaps many – of us can only get so far with a plan and the story needs the juice that comes from actually writing it. Looking at the blueprint and seeing how the light splashes on the tile are two different things.

    I think that’s what pantsers are talking about – creativity. While it may be risky for a writer to start building without a plan, it does not mean they shouldn’t indulge some spontaneous building along the way. This is, at the end of the day, a creative process. Creativity often refuses the bonds of organization. Sometimes it’s at the hot dog stand while everybody else is in the conference room white boarding things. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be along. Sometime. Eating a hot dog here, leave me alone.”

    I’m an advocate of planning. I also know that spontaneous creativity has its place.

    And the best plan in the world will not make a good story. That still comes down to craft, which is inviolate. (As you said.)

    • Why do pantsers seem to always think a plan is set in stone? I’ve never heard a single advocate of the value of planning say that. Only pantsers.

      • J.A. — I couldn’t agree more (if one can agree with a question posed). It’s like the political trash talking that is choking our media currently, talking a half-truth – or even just a topic, which is the case here – and then mashing it into a form that supports their own comfort level and agenda. Those who spin half-baked truisms demonstrate their ignorance. And in this case, stupidity… because if someone sets a story plan in stone, and then when a draft written from it doesn’t work blames that story plan… that’s just stupid on so many levels. Appreciate you chiming in on this, and thanks for reading Storyfix. Larry

        • Robert Jones

          That’s a very good point. I remember hearing that same argument from first year art students who feared that learning the rules would somehow limit them, ground them when they just want to fly.

          The catch 22 is they limit themselves by their own ignorance in craft. I think there’s also a laziness involved for some, but mostly it’s just good old fashioned fear. So many rules in life are meant to keep people from getting ahead, I think they feel that rules of craft are bound by the same polital, self serving attitudes of those spouting them. Not to mention the fast pace of the world can’t be slowed down long enough to learn. By the time I’m back on board, everyone else is ahead in the race. It doesn’t matter if their car won’t make it around the first turn, they would rather be driving than fixing their vehicle in order to finish the race. It’s that sort of thinking that will eventually build a future populated by idiots, I’m sorry to say.

          Most people who produce more quickly will tell you they aren’t any faster than the next person. What they are is persistant and put in very long hours. So if speed equals ignorance and fear equals death, how can anything lasting come from that–much less writing something a large audience will take to? I think you only need to read how the self publishing world is ever changing to understand the shifting ground most of these people are standing on. Only those with solid roots in craft won’t get tossed away. Because it takes a willingness to learn in order to adapt.

          • I’ve never known a profession in any craft to not learn the tools of their craft and just go with their gut. I got into a similar discussion with a pantser just recently who subscribed to the mystical approach to art and advocating getting by on talent alone. He accused me of arrogance for making similar comments. He didn’t seem to realize that his view implied that some are just born with talent for writing and others aren’t which I see as truly arrogant.

        • At the risk of veering into politics, I think this is the reason such heated arguments persist. Until you can demonstrate you understand the other side’s position accurately, they’re not going to listen to you. I think most planners understand pantsers because, in their enthusiastic ignorance, they started out as one. There are a few pantsers who understand why planners plan but feel it doesn’t work for them, though not many.

          I think a significant number of them are not writers so much as frustrated readers who more interested in experiencing their story than crafting it. Every time I hear a writer say they can’t plan because they lose interest once they know the ending of the story, I strongly suspect that is the case.

          By the way, thanks for the welcome. A friend shared your post in our facebook group and, having read the wisdom of this post, I had to subscribe. 🙂

  2. Mike – great response, very detailed and passionate. But my objective wasn’t to recruit writers to NOT plan… so I agree with you, leave room for spontaneity. At BOTH stages (planning and drafting). And for the record, planning is as rich a creative landscape and venue as a draft, there really is no difference, those unannounced magnetic poles can come to you just as easily within a planning phase as they do within the drafting process. That’s the mistake some writers make, they believe the planning process isn’t creative, but the draft is. But that couldn’t be more wrong, as a generalization. They are both modes of storytelling, both equally open to creative impulse. The deeper you go into the story via a plan, the more the experience emulates the drafting process itself.

    But I fear you missed the point (pantsers often do, they sense “hey, this guy doesn’t like pantsers,” and on come the blinders and off they go defending something that wasn’t the point of the article at all).

    I was talking about, directly and almost exclusively, writers who defend their avoidance of planning because, “if I plan it, then I’ll know the story, and I’ll get bored writing it.” Which is what I contend is ludicrous. Because if the story bores you at any level, then the story IS boring. If it bores you at the planning level, then you can fix it at the planning level just as easily, and orders of magnitude more quickly, than waiting to do it within a draft (where it may or may not be fixable…. probably not). If it bores you as a story plan, by all means, DON’T write the draft.

    Hope this clarifies. It must be me… every time I write about this, writers respond in a triangulated way, defending against something that wasn’t really the point of the post in the first place. This one is simple: if your plan bores you, then the story isn’t working. Period. And if you don’t have the chops to make the plan compelling, odds are you won’t be able elevate it as a draft, because the ability to craft the story arc and essences and magic is inherent to the plan, as much as it is within a draft.

  3. MikeR

    “@Larry, perhaps you’re trying too hard” … 😉

    If you have never, in your entire life (so far …) “been paid to build a house, or an addition to the same,” then your entire perspective on the actual(!) process(!!) is limited to: “This Old House.”

    Or: “the experienced general-contractor with 45 years’ experience called you up to say that your brand-new house was ready, and, BY GOD(!), it was!”

    “Pantsers,” having been presented, all their Gentle Reader lives, with what is actually “an EXTREMELY POLISHED commercial product,” frankly do not realize(!) that it is so.

    Because they never SEE(!) the visible effects of the countless decisions that were actually made, they are unaware that the decisions ever occurred.

    Let us never forget, then, that Michelangelo’s “David” started with … a block of marble. And then, let us learn to give ourselves a bit of slack …

  4. Mike — again, the point… just don’t get bored along the way, and don’t abandon the tough parts because they are boring. That’s what happens, and too often. It’s fun to “think up a new story,” and damn hard work to mold it into a story that works When that turns into labor, the new pantser – who thinks this should be fun – turns tail and just keeps doing the fun stuff. That’s my point… to recognize when you’ve fallen into that trap.

    You’re arguing big picture, I’m not. I’m arguing the inevitable crossroads that arrive at the point when the story idea — the one that was so much fun to consider — demands more of us than we understand. One can keep going with blinders on, or they can dive into craft and learn where the holes in the road are.

    • If we’re talking just about planning somehow leeching the creativity out of the story writing process, then I am with you 110%. “If I plan it, then I’ll be bored writing it” is a logic fail by inspection. My response to that is simple. Planning makes scene writing even *more* interesting. I can dig into the scene and make it as compelling as possible because I already know what it’s supposed to do and how it fits into the story. Translation: I can focus all my energy on craft. The notion that writing a scene is boring just because it’s been planned is myopic. Yeah, if you’re bored writing the scenes, then something isn’t right. Are you really going to be excited writing that third, fourth and fifth draft as a pantser?

      I went out of scope with my comments, which were meant as an addendum, not a contradiction. Sorry if I came out sounding contrary. I didn’t mean to. For the record, I am not a pantser. Too much work. I follow Story Engineering almost religiously and lean on snowflaking for process. Just so you know. 🙂

  5. Robert Jones

    When newbie writers Sum up the term “Creativity,” it usually means the high they out of those moments when writing in the creative zone, when ideas seem to come out of the ether. In those moments, it seems like they are in tune with a magical place where all ideas live and getting into the zone taps it. The physical body is occupied with hands moving and the mind roams the streets of the magical land, attracting ideas like nuggets from heaven.

    What fledgling writers don’t understand is that their mind can easily travel to the same place while taking a walk, driving, or even washing the dishes. First drafts are always rough sketches. The major difference between jotting down a few lines for each scene in an outline and writing an entire manuscript is that the outline sketch you can take in at a glance, make changes, delete scenes before you spend hour writing something you’ll have to cut later. Where an entire draft cannot be taken in at a glance. It’s too huge to fit into a single room, unless you wallpapered walls and ceiling with pages. But even then you can possibly take it all in and reshape it without a major undertaking.

    I’m not talking about the experienced novelist who has done it for years, but the new writer who suddenly looks at all the time and energy it took to get 80,000 words down and realizes they only have the tip of iceberg, a rough sketch that hardly defines their story–but it’s the size of Godzilla and needs major work from tooth to tail. That’s a sinking feeling when you realize how long you’ve spent on that story already and only liberated a vague shape hidden by the mist within the realm of possibility.

    I would like to point out that while pantsing, I discovered that some scenes are a struggle, while others come easily. The best scenes are like those fossils Stephen Kings mentions as coming out of the ground mostly intact. Meaning, I could see those scenes pretty whole in my mind. So writing them was easier, and I even fine tuned then to some degree along the way. Which usually made me feel great because on such days, the writing usually turned out better than I imagined.

    But isn’t that what planning does? Glues the pieces of the fossil together first before linking it to the rest of the skeleton? Some may say it kills spontaneity, but that isn’t true. All writing is rewriting. Which is a statement one must understand. Writing, like any other art form, needs to get something on the page before shaping it. Words are clay to the writer. Outlining is not an entire scene, but a notion on what a scen is about. Don’t worry that in jotting a few lines you aren’t getting everything down. In fact, when you come back to actually writing, shaping that scene, it will have had time to develop within your subconscious and will grow beyond those first thoughts that sparked it.

    That knowledge comes with experience. However, one could skip a lot of growing pains if they learned how to manipulate craft, how to shape the clay, before buying it in bulk. Michelangelo may have started with a huge block of granite, but even he said he had to see David within it and then chip away all the extraneous stuff that wasn’t David.

  6. Robert… bravo. This is a brilliantly framed follow-up to the post.

    I agree, scenes visualized in context to a whole (however that “whole” exists, be it an outline, a flowchart, yellow sticky notes or a sequential ditty in the brain of the writer), the entire scene-writing proposition is fueled with context. Which is critical. The floating, disconnected, rambling scene is the death of a novel.

    Those scenes can exist as very short notes at the outline/planning stage. Sometimes even one word. Like: They meet. Or, villain attacks. Or, backstory enters the picture. The writer doesn’t even need to see the whole scene at that point, the objective is to understand what the scene must contribute to the story arc, what it must do.

    Thanks for your valuable and insightful input on this, Robert. Always appreciate your keen observations.

  7. Kerry Boytzun

    Okay, so I am trying to not be sarcastic as of late. Larry will be counting the words until I break.

    Trying to convince a panster they should incorporate planning? Not sure that is possible.

    But you mentioned the word FUN. Not all of writing is fun. Fun is relative.

    For me, as in fun, I like to design the story. And I like to act as the characters. If I had a choice, I would be an actor in Hollywood or Broadway, not the director. BUT, I hate being a character stuck in a scene that is dumb, or makes no sense.

    But, I really, really enjoy fleshing out a scene that was previously, just a design statement. Many times, I don’t even write the scenes until I imagine them while listening to music that gets me going. Daydreaming with a purpose. Then I design the scene, then write the scene. HERE is where you can let your muse/imagination run wild…within the scene. Maybe you’ll get a better idea. BUT it must adhere to your main core story concept, or enhance it.

    A planner designs the scene points (plot points, whatever you wanna call them), which are the rails that keep my imagination in bounds. The rails are to keep the scenes RELEVANT to your core story and plot.

    You know, the start of the dramatic story, the FPP, First Plot Point, where the reader stops skimming the book…launched, say 25% or so into the book? Where the hero is put up against the wall (by the antagonistic force) of consequences for remaining steadfast, or changing. Either way, his old life is now over, as the grave where he buried his victim has just been unearthed, and now people are looking for the murderer. His current wife will be most interested in the body, being that our hero’s ex-wife supposedly died at sea, falling off a cruise ship, yet her crushed in skull says otherwise, and will change the current wife’s mind, not to mention end the wild sex, and have her looking for attorneys. Oh yeah, her psycho brother who already hates him, will now be unleashed for revenge.

    Yeah, that kind of start to the dramatic story, something FUN. Unlike the current new season of Ray Donovan where it’s the same old, same old, same old, now boring stuff. You just can’t keep repeating last season’s pattern and expect us to go, WOW.

    So I deleted what I had typed next, and it wasn’t even sarcastic. I have no good answer to someone who refuses to design something, and instead, wing it.

    People think they should write what they want to write, but I think they are HOPING someone will want to read it.

    ***The more vanila your story is, the harder you gotta market it. And just because you have chase scenes and sex in it, doesn’t make it compelling.

    And I just have to bring up Outlander. I have no interest in it. After the sick torture scene I was forced to endure last season, now I saw a glimpse into the present where nothing has changed. Our heroine knows this. Then she goes back in time for her and her lover to try to change the future…oh wait, nothing has changed.

    Why would I watch something doomed to failure? I was shown in the first episode of season 2 that nothing will change in the future. History stays the same. Fine. NEXT show. BIG mistake. I don’t care how many books it sold. I ain’t watching it. And if I got it wrong, that’s not on me, that’s on the presentation of the scene.

    But, if the show had our heroine in the future in a DIFFERENT present day, with maybe a different country than Scotland, whatever (Alternative History Genre), THEN I’d watch. Because I would be interested.

    Beware of doing things that were financially successful but ultimately were just…predictable. Kind of like the new Jason Borne movie where Jason Borne is saying for the 4th time, “it ENDS now”. Really? We’re still on this? Ending it? Wow, more chase scenes and it not ending then. What a story.

    Even Lord of the Rings ended.

  8. You have a new writing book out there that I haven’t read? How did I not know this? (I know, it’s rhetorical) Congratulations. Story Engineering is a must for every writer’s tool box. Like I said in my review, it’s 287 pages of awesomeness!!!

    Confession: I’ve never tried guacamole before, either. Or artichokes. But not because they’re green. I’m just a picky eater, but I’m slowly getting better.

  9. Rachel Newstead

    Hi, aspiring writer here.

    I made the mistake numerous times of “pantsing” without a definite plan in mind. Consequently, I’ve never finished anything but very short stories. I think I’d be more inclined to use an outline if I knew what one was supposed to look like. As it is, I find it confusing. Even after reading your book, I don’t think I fully understand what concept, premise, and theme truly mean.

    Another problem is that my interests are really narrow. The only fiction I’ve ever written is transgender fiction (I’m transgender myself). Most of the stories in that genre, however, are little more than wish-fulfillment fantasies, which would be boring to a general audience. I haven’t figured out yet how to turn a personal fantasy into a story in which the transgender element is only a minor part.

    • Hi Rachel,

      Start with the parts that do make sense. For me, it was scene writing. I got that pretty quick and it was my first “oh wow” moment reading Larry’s stuff. Theme I already understood. Concept came next. I *still* struggle with structure – the one thing that most people get right away. (My last reviewer said, “I spent the whole book trying to figure out what the story was about.” Yeah, that’s because I suck at structure. But I’m working on it.)

      My point is that some of us don’t get all of Larry’s teachings on the first pass. And that’s OK. If it all came into focus right away, there would be a glut of sizzling 5 star books on the market.

      And you have a lot more to work with than just your interests. Don’t limit your writing to your transgender self. You are a complete human being, with all the same stuff we all tap into for writing. What I mean is, your chosen genre does not limit the wealth of humanity that all good stories draw on. If your stories are “just wish-fulfillment fantasies” and you don’t think that’s enough, then make them more than that. Just because they’re about a transgender doesn’t mean they can’t be big, awesome stories. While being transgender will always be part of who your hero is and is important to their character, the story doesn’t have to just be about them being transgender. It can be much more than that. Capiche?

    • Kerry Boytzun

      Hi Rachel

      The TV series “Hit and Miss” is the best drama I’ve ever seen incorporating a transgender as the lead. What makes the story very interesting isn’t the transgender, but how that adds a wrinkle to an otherwise more common experience. In other words, the hero has kids to protect, people he/she wants to love and get to know, money to earn. The usual.

      The story concept is transgender hitman becomes hitwoman but still carries on being a hitman. Enter in the usual drama of work, killing (work) and relationships. The actress chloe sevigny is amazing in the role, but the writing makes the character someone you can root for, etc.

      The series works because the story is written well with stakes that matter for the characters, and it is really irrelevant that the character is a transgender. Skin hue, sexual desire/orientation/configuration–all that really doesn’t matter. What matters are if you are a kind person or mean, you are courageous or not. You long for connection with another, that’s meaningful, sexual or not.

      The above has so much you can write about. How does the person deal with rejection? Same way we all deal with rejection, we suppress it, we freak out, everything in-between.

      But you need a core concept and story to carry the above dynamics. A hitman who learns he has children of his own to deal with…that’s the story for this series. It’s kinda episodic, but it’s TV.

      The core story must have a beginning (for this TV series the hitman/woman learned he had kids of his own), and then how he adapts to the new way of life. Will he adapt and in this case, enjoy the new life, or forget about his kids and stuff his feeling forever? Throw in that he’s a hitman and not everyone wants to lay down and be shot, you have some excitement to surround your scenes.

      Larry’s Brooks will give the details on how to design a story’s structure to support the above. There is no way in hell a pure panster is gonna pull the above off. It’s too complicated. At some point you have all the notes, the 3×5 cards, etc. But if you are winging the whole thing, it becomes a snarl of yarn.

      Anyone who thinks Game of Thrones was pantsed, is in denial.

      Check this show out:

    • I think I’m going to have to get Larry’s book! Personally, I start with a 1-sentence logline that includes Character, Motivation, Obstacle, Conflict and Consequences. Once I have the beginning and end, I just start making a list of events that are necessary to connect the two. I try to come up with major turning points that correspond to the standard plot points but, even when I don’t, they tend to arise naturally. Then I just go back adding more detail in something like The Snowflake Method, but applied to the novel as a whole.

      Regarding your narrow focus, as long as your characters are fully realized and have interests apart from your primary focus, you shouldn’t have a problem. Be sure to include characters that have a contradictory or at least divergent view of your subject and (as long as they are not straw men) it will give your main point even more power.

  10. Hey Rachel – I agree with Mike, think big, think outside the box. Trans people exist in the real world, with more contextual challenges than many, because the rest of the world isn’t always open-minded and welcoming. There are sucky people out there of all kinds. So write about that, in a big way while keeping a focus on what you are passionate about. You could apply this to all genres, too.

    I’m sorry you haven’t landed on a comfort level with concept, premise and theme. They’re all actually very different things, easily differentiated. Let me know if/how I can help you get over that hump. Thanks for being here!

  11. You already know how I feel about the subject. In fact, I’ll be on an author panel this weekend and one of the questions is about our writing approach and methods. You can be sure I’ll mention your book. Congrats on making the nine-essential-writing-books list. Doesn’t surprise me at all! One of my online buds just read Story Engineering after hearing about it on my blog. She gave it 5 stars and said it opened up a whole new world to her.

  12. Robert Jones

    Hi Rachel,

    I would also agree with Mike L as far as enlarging your stories. I’ll take a page from what another writer said on a similar note and try to add a few of my own thoughts.

    Let’s say my passion was stamp collecting. And I have a valuable stamp collection that gets stolen, the number of people who care will be a limited audience. On the other hand, what if the stamp collection belonged to President Roosevelt–who was an avid stamp collector. Suddenly, it isn’t a niche crime in a niche market any longer. The world wants to know what happened. And for fiction, that might be billed as the greatest of untold crimes!

    Many successful stories are built on what the main character wants badly. However, a concept often encompasses something larger than the character’s internal wants. It involves something at stake that may not just effect the hero but others, loved ones, possibly an entire nation because of its consequences.

    If the hero is transgender, this may be related to a larger story. The hiring practices of the business community for example. Or conversely, what if a transgender character secretly pulls off the life of the opposite sex, is loved for all they’ve done for the community. Then someone finds out their secret and those same people in the community turn very petty indeed. Have you seen the movie “Albert Nobbs” with Glenn Close? It’s about a 19th century butler who is really a woman who lives her life as a man. As some women did in those days in order to make a living or pursue a career in a man’s world. Looking at this element in fiction, as well as that period in history, may give you many clues as to how your own stories could take something from one point in time and reverse engineer it to fit a modern theme.

    Hope this helps.

  13. MikeR

    One of the best books that I ever read about the (screen…) writing craft was David Gerrold’s “The Trouble With Tribbles.”

    In this book, David talks very matter-of-factly about the PROCESS(!) … “politics, a legal challenge, television-practicality and all” … of making what is certainly regarded (“heh, in retrospect …”) as being a truly iconic episode of the original Star Trek television series.

    More than anything else, David de-bunks anyone’s fond notions that “the episode ‘just happened’ that way.” He matter-of-factly describes the entire 1960’s process … which, by the way, is SOAKED with “planning!” … by which a televison episode was pitched, refined, and eventually sold.

    Another excellent, but long out-of-print book (in my treasured library …) is “The World of Star Trek.” (Again, written at a time when “Star Trek” referred only to the recently-cancelled 3-season television series.) In this book, you’ll learn exactly how Captain “Kirk” and “Mister Spock” came to pilot the Starship “Enterprise” on a “Five”-Year Mission, accompanied by “Bones” and “Scotty” and powered by “Dilithium Crystals.”

    Yeah, you guessed it: every one of those “quoted” things (along with the word, “tribbles” …) was picked from a list of random words hammered-out on a typewriter.

    (No matter how “inevitable” and “obvious” they might seem to be today, at the time(!) they weren’t.)

    When you “just pick up a book,” you actually Have NO IDEA(!) how many people … and, “how many OTHER people, besides The Writer” … had a hand in it. You have NO IDEA(!) “how the trick was actually done.” (And the professionals in question prefer to keep it that way.)

    • MikeR

      (Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention the “rainbow pages.”)

      No, it has nothing to do with gay people. It turns out that, when any page of a script is revised, the page is inserted using a different color. (All of this takes place, mind you, AFTER the script has been sold.)

      David Gerrold spent a little(!) bit of time on the set as his precious episode was being filmed, and he marveled at the “rainbow pages.” Changes sometimes happened while the cameras were rolling.

      So, maybe there’s a lesson for “pantsers” in those rainbow pages. The laborious process of first proposing the idea, then developing it into a treatment that allowed(!) you to submit a finished script, AND the back-and-forth that finally lead to “the script that was sold,” did NOT entirely stop what happened thereafter, when people continued to tweak the story to make it turn out on film “just right.” But the “pantsing” that went on was a REFINEMENT process, finding just the right way to finally express a story idea that had been planned(!), developed, and sold.

  14. Robert Jones


    Studying the work of any writer–whether it’s a TV series, movie, or even a single manuscript from start to publication–can be a real education. I once listened to the commentary on Marvel’s Avengers by Joss Wheden who pointed out the single scene in the entire movie that was actually the only scene that survived from his original manuscript. And how he was making changes that were issued while filming on set and writing it moments before a scene was shot.

    Likewise, Sol Stein a diehard craftsman, editor, and publisher said he wrote thirteen drafts of one of his novels just to get the words right. Stein also said the best writers always seek the help and counsel of other writers and have to have a willingness to make those changes even if they are tough. Because we’re always learning and we are also always to close to our own work to see the flaws.

    Whether changes are ordered, or self inflicted, writing is rewriting. There’s a constant molding and reshaping until it leave our hands to be printed. Could that extreme be taken too far, certainly. But few can fly by the seat of their pants and get it right in a draft or two without loads of experience unless they are a genius. Writing is work and you either love the craft or you will likely flop.

    I think too, people see writing portrayed on film as the writer who sits down at their computer, has a bit of trouble for a time, then suddenly that big idea hits and they crank out a manuscript overnight that everyone loves and rejoices over. The muse always delivers if you keep sitting in front of the blank page staring at it long enough.

  15. flibgibbet

    Larry you’ve successfully turned me from a total pantser to hybrid planner/pantser. It probably is more cathartic (not sure about fun) o write on a whim and a prayer, but that’s not going to realize a saleable book. The pantser in me still exists within guidelines – it’s how I get to know my character, but those characters now have a specific mission. Still learning, but I’m finding planning more “fun” than stumbling around in the dark and getting lost. Limited choices aren’t anti-creativiity; I think they’re the opposite.

  16. Rachel Newstead

    How do you avoid getting stuck during the outlining phase? (That happened the one time I tried to use an outline).

    This has proved both helpful and discouraging. It’s obvious none of the ideas I had are complete enough to be stories, and I’m beginning to question whether I have the imagination to make them such.