Loon Pants
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I am a pantser.

I wish I could say that isn’t as bad as it sounds, but I can’t.

Pantser is one of the words I’ve learned since starting work on my novel. It means someone who writes by the seat of his pants, without an outline or other planning tools.

It’s the opposite of plotter. The plotter thinks things out before beginning. He may have a detailed outline, a timeline, character sketches, spreadsheets, charts, who knows what.

I certainly don’t know what. I’m a pantser. I start with a character, a setting, and a sentence, often a line of dialogue.

When I described my method, or lack of it, to a published writer, she was not amused.

Well, actually, she was. She laughed and told me I’d better get to outlining.

I tried. Outlining, as I’ve said before, gives me the fantods.

If I know what I’m going to write before I write it, outlining is no problem.

Some things must be planned. If I’d tried to write my master’s thesis without an outline, I’d still be sitting in front of that baby blue Smith-Corona electric typewriter, wondering where to start.

But I’d already gone through an entire year of reading, recording, scribbling, mulling over, talking to myself, boring my office mates, and engaging in various other obsessive-compulsive behaviors commonly known as pre-writing, before I typed the outline onto that official form and presented it for my adviser’s signature.

I have to approach fiction in a similar fashion. Until I know my characters–their names, their relationships, their backstories, their personalities, their likes and dislikes, their secrets, dreams, desires–I can’t outline the plot.

The only way I can know all those things is to let the characters tell me. And before they can talk to me, I have to write.

So. Knowing I’m a pantser (though the term yet), and being told I had to be a plotter, I gave plotting one more try. Then I slid into the Slough of Despond.

But for three things, I would be wallowing there still. First was an article in which mystery writer Tony Hillerman identified himself as a pantser and described how the process worked for him. It was slow, he said, but he eventually got there. If someone of Hillerman’s caliber could pants his way through novel after novel, perhaps there was hope that I could turn out one.

Second was a panelist at a meeting of the Writers’ League of Texas who said–and I quote–“I start with a character and a setting and a line of dialogue.” I was sitting in the front row that night, and when she came out with that confession, I wanted to run up and hug her.

(She also said she doesn’t plow through her first draft to the end, but periodically stops, goes back, and revises. “Sometimes,” she said, “when I get the language just right, that sparks a new idea, and I suddenly have a new path to explore.” Well, bless her heart. I do the same thing, and I’d thought that was wrong, too.)

The third thing that helped pull me from the mire was the fact that I do, in some circumstances, have the sense God promised a monkey. I knew there had to be more than one way to write a novel.

Still, the process–going where no woman has gone before without map or compass, making it up as you go along–is backward and contradictory and just plain scary. For control freaks, it can be paralyzing.

I’m a control freak. An impatient control freak. I want to do it right the first time, and I want to do it right now.

When I recently confessed to another writer that I’d been stalled for a while, she said, “Why?”

At least a half-dozen things have contributed to my inertia, but for the most part it comes down to the desire to control. And poor memory. And impatience. And lack of faith.

I forget that the surest way to get unstuck is to relax and let the story tell itself.

When I find myself so tangled up in words that all I can do is talk about how tangled up I am, I head for the bookstore. This time I came out with Jane Vandenburgh’s The Architecture of the Novel.

It’s a good book. It says, as I knew it would, to relax and let the story tell itself.

But Vandenburgh goes further. The story knows how to tell itself and it will find its own plot. First, write scenes–no backstory, no memory, no flashbacks, no thinking, no summary, no cause and effect, no consequences, no chapters, no sequencing, no beginning or ending. All those things belong to plot. Structure belongs to plot. No whywhy belongs to plot.

Just tell what happens, be a witness, a noticer, a sensate camera.

I spent over an hour today reading Chapter 2, slowly, taking notes. I wanted to rush–Confession: I’ve had the book for nearly a month, and I’ve rushed through it several times and come out with nothing. It’s not a book to be hurried. I made myself read, think, record. I made myself sit in a coffee shop for over an hour, reading,thinking, recording.

It was like being in school again.

Tomorrow I’ll type up my notes, read the chapter again, push away the compulsion to move on to Chapter 3.

Chapter 3 is about plot. I’m not ready for that yet.

First I have to go back to pantsing, this time bare bones, telling the story in scenes stripped of backstory and digression and what Vandenburgh calls beautiful language. I have to relax and let the story tell itself.

How will that work with my need to get the language just right in order to spark new ideas?

I have no idea. The question makes me, quite frankly, a little queasy.

Image by BBODO at en.wikipedia [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

10 thoughts on “Pantsing

  1. Are you sure we’re not blood-related? I am not writing. My mind and my pen are frozen in a state of inertia. I am, however, doing some editing for someone else. I get to be her control freak. she writes, I edit & correct & suggest. I’m so comfortable with that. But, I do it to myself too–and thus my inertia. I cannot seem to relax into my writing, even casual writing like my blog. I’m completely stuck. Keep us posted on your new & more confident foray into “pantsing”. (Would the new book help someone who is not a novelist but a memoirist?)


    1. Separated at birth, I think.

      Do you have an artist’s date now and then? I realized that one reason I’m inert is that I’m staying in too much and thinking about writing when I need to be out getting my mind off it.

      I applaud your editing. If you must control, making someone else the target is a good plan.

      And yes, I think the book would help a memoirist to think in terms of scenes and leave other material for the “plotting” stage. That way you don’t have to know the beginning, ending, anything about organization. You get the basic story down first. (I sound as if I know what I’m talking about, huh?)


    1. I’ll find the article and let you know. It’s in a book I believe is lent out right now. It was interesting to see how Hillerman started writing one of his novels and how many details he added without knowing the significance they would have later in the story. Or whether they would be significant at all.


  2. Thank you for clarifying what I obviously am as well. I never knew there was a term for an over controlling, impatient, write when the story shouts at you, writer. Huh…Panster. Now I know. Whew. I thought it just me. Thanks for the share 🙂


    1. Laney,

      I thought I was the only one, too. I was just glad to find there’s a name for the malady. And a possible treatment.

      Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. I hope you’ll come again.



  3. Kathy, I am an evangelist for the subconscious. I am convinced that some of us have it all worked out already there, and for us all that remains is to chip away with the chisel until the story appears whole.

    I have no evidence for this, but I have a fair idea it’s how Handel wrote the Messiah and Mozart wrote the vast majority of his stuff.

    Long live pantsing!!


    1. I agree. It’s loosening up on the chisel that’s the trick.

      I believe Puccini sort of reached up and grabbed some of his melodies out of the air. They seem inevitable, as if they were there waiting for someone to discover them.


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