I didn’t know that I was a pantser when I wrote my first novel. That’s because I had never heard the term before. I started learning the jargon of writing only after I finished writing a book, and it was only then that I learned that there are two approaches to writing fiction: plotting and pantsing.
Most writers plot their books ahead of time with some form of outlining. Many such authors–plotters–follow their outlines closely, while others treat their outlines as mere suggestions, but, either way, plotters prefer to construct a complete outline before they set out to write their stories.
Pantsers, in contrast, write without a detailed plan, or, in extreme cases, without any plan at all. They probably have a setting and a character or two, and maybe they have some vague ideas about scenes, lines, or plot twists, but they start writing and proceed without a clear idea of how the story is going to unfold. Some pantsers like to have an endgame in mind and then write toward it. Other pantsers simply try out a few opening lines until they find one they like, and then take off from there, introducing characters as needed and letting the story write itself. I’ve heard that approach referred to as “flashlighting,” that is, shining a light off into the darkness to see what’s up ahead. That’s how I wrote A Troll Walks into a Bar. In fact, when I started my book, I didn’t even know what genre I was going to try! I wrote an opening sentence that I liked, and then I just kept going until I had a finished story. It turned out to be an urban fantasy with a hardboiled private detective, but I didn’t know that’s what it was going to be when I started. After I wrote the first line, the genre, setting, characters, and plot all came together as I kept writing.
“Pantser” comes from the old pilot’s term, “flying by the seat of one’s pants,” or flying without instruments. I like being a pantser because I enjoy the excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen next. I like not knowing who the murderer is until the end of the book–even when I’m the one writing the book! In Troll, I didn’t even know who was going to be murdered until I realized that the story had reached a point where a murder needed to happen. And then I reached the next to the last chapter before I realized who had committed the murder.
The trick to pantsing is being unafraid to go back into the story and retrofit it so that it leads to the point where you’ve taken it. That means editing as you go, adding details to previous passages, changing scenes, or even adding chapters to the middle of the story. My approach to my most recent book, A Hag Rises from the Abyss, was completely chaotic. The first scene I wrote doesn’t actually appear until Chapter Seventeen. What I thought was going to be Chapter Ten ended up spread over Chapters Twenty-One and Twenty-Two. I didn’t know what I was going to do with the Huay Chivo until I did it, and then I had to go back and rewrite most of his earlier appearances. I discarded the golfing scene that I’d planned for the middle of the story, and then I revived it and made it the climactic scene at the end of the book.
It sounds like work–but it’s one-hundred percent fun!
A dedicated plotter who was pantsing for the first time once found himself stuck. He had the characters in a setting, and his flashlight wasn’t showing him anywhere for the characters to go. He asked for help. I told him to do what Raymond Chandler (a noted pantser) once advised: “In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns.” I like to put it another way: If you’re stuck, poke at your characters with a stick and see how they react. In other words, put your characters in danger, or at least apply some pressure. I like to remind myself that the writer is God, and it’s okay for God to be a bit of a prankster, or even downright abusive.
I can already hear some people saying, “That’s all well and good for your little 120,000-word gumshoe melodramas, but what about my million-word epic fantasy trilogy?” Granted, you will probably need to plan out an elaborate setting and develop some characters in advance, but once you’ve reached that point you can pants away. J.R.R. Tolkien, a fantasy writer of some little note, built a detailed world in advance, but he was unquestionably a pantser. He famously described getting his hobbits to Bree, where Frodo ran into a brown-faced hobbit named “Trotter.” At that point he left his story behind for a bit, but also left behind a hand-written note in the margin of his manuscript that read, “Too many hobbits.” “Trotter” became “Strider,” and eventually the brand new character became the actual focal point of the larger story played out in The Lord of the Rings, something Tolkien had no idea was going to happen when he began his classic epic.
Plotters like to say that pantsing leads to a lot of wasted time. I respect their opinion, but I don’t care whether or not it’s true. I mean, what’s the hurry? Of course, I’m retired and self-published, so I don’t have any deadlines except the ones I place on myself. But it took me about three months to write the first drafts of each of my three books, and I rarely spend more than four hours a day writing. That seems like a pretty good pace to me. And because I edit as I go, I have very little editing left to do when my first draft is finished.
As a self-proclaimed pantser, I actually end up with a rough outline of sorts. That’s because after I write a scene, I summarize it in my notes. That’s how I keep track of everything I’ve written and keep it all connected in a coherent storyline. When I’m done with the book, I’ve got an outline, but the outline is actually a detailed recap and isn’t complete until the book is finished. Plotters would say that I’m doing it backwards, I suppose, but it works for me.
And that’s the point. The bottom line is that there is no one right approach to writing. Plotters gotta plot and pantsers gotta pants. But neither is there any reason to adopt one approach and stick with it through thick and thin. You want to plot out a partial outline and then pants the rest? Go for it. You want to freestyle the first five chapters and then outline the rest of the story? Sounds good to me. You want to plot one book and pants another? Why not? The idea is to write a good book. How you do it is up to you.
Except for one thing: to my way of thinking, pantsing is a lot more fun than plotting. Not knowing where you are going or what’s coming up next can be a real adrenaline rush. If you’ve never worked without a net, I suggest that you at least give it a try at least once. If you don’t like it, make yourself an outline. But, you never know: you might find the exhilaration of pantsing to be just what you needed to stimulate those dormant creative juices.
My parents raised me right. Any mistakes I made were my own. Hopefully, I learned from them.
I earned a doctorate in medieval European history at the University of California Santa Barbara. Go Gauchos! I taught world history at a couple of colleges before settling into a private college prep high school in Monterey. After I retired, I began to write an urban fantasy series featuring hardboiled private eye Alexander Southerland as he cruises through the mean streets of Yerba City and interacts with trolls, femme fatales, shape-shifters, witches, and corrupt city officials.
I am happily married to my wife, Rita. The two of us can be found most days pounding the pavement in our running shoes. Rita listens to all of my ideas and reads all of my work. Her advice is beyond value. In return, I make her coffee. It’s a pretty sweet deal. We have a cat named Cinderella who is happy to stay indoors. She demands that we tell her how pretty she is.
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About A Troll Walks into a Bar: A Noir Urban Fantasy Novel (Alexander Southerland, P.I. #1)
When a troll speaks–listen up! Hardboiled P.I. Alexander Southerland just wants to enjoy a quiet drink when a 500-pound troll walks into the bar. Next thing he knows, Southerland is navigating his way through rogue cops, a gang war, beautiful nymphs from the ocean depths, a were-rat, the mayor’s corrupt fixer, the sleaziest (and cleverest) gnome in Yerba City, and creatures right out of legend. At the center of it all is a mysterious locked box. Can Southerland discover its explosive secret–and survive long enough to pay his rent on time?