A Modest Proposal to Pantsers: Don’t!

photo by Erica Zamboski via Flickr
photo by Erica Zabowski via Flickr

Let’s talk about New Years resolutions — sheesh, everyone else is. So, what’s the big idea here? It’s simple: the goal is to find things you’re doing that aren’t working, and swap ‘em out for things that will work.

For instance, eating fast food has made us (pleasingly, I hope, I hope) plump; watching TV every night has (let’s be honest) kinda numbed our intellect; promising to start exercising tomorrow (aka a week from never) is probably why walking up a flight of stairs has suddenly gotten so tough (no, they didn’t add more steps while we were guiltily watching Duck Dynasty and absently scarfing down Tatter Tots).

So why do we do those things day in and day out? Because they’ve become habit. And because they’re super easy – and we live in a society that has long promoted ease as a major selling point. It’s way easier to watch TV than to do, well, just about anything else. It’s easier to eat fast food than to cook a meal. It’s easier to sit than exercise.

And so watching TV, eating fast food and sitting became habit. And as we know all too well from personal experience, habits are maddeningly hard to break. Especially because it doesn’t take long for them to stop feeling like a habit at all, and instead feel like “the way things are.”

But, as Charles Duhigg says in his insightful bestselling book, The Power of Habit, “Habit isn’t destiny.” We can – and should – break habits that are not serving us well.

But first you have to recognize that what we’re doing is a habit, rather than “the way things are.”

Habits are maddeningly hard to break. Especially because it doesn’t take long for them to stop feeling like a habit at all, and instead feel like “the way things are.”

Which brings us to the real subject at hand: pantsing. Many writers embrace the notion of being a pantser – writing by the seat of their pants – as the most authentic way to write.  That is, letting it all pour out as a way of “discovering” the story they’re fated to tell. Hey, as Robert Frost said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”  It’s a dodgy sentiment at best, and often taken to extremes that would no doubt make Mr. Frost cringe, until it sounds a bit like Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams hokum: “Build it and they will come.” Translation: write blindly and the story will magically appear.

Instead, the surprise in both the writer and the reader is most often: “Well, I thought this would be engaging, but instead it’s a big fat mess.”

My goal here isn’t to bash pantsing per se. It’s to suggest that maybe it isn’t your inherent, hardwired process. Maybe it’s a bad habit you picked up along the way.

Pantsing is often promoted by successful writers who happen to be among the .1% of innate storytellers, or by writing teachers who have been instructing students in the pansters approach for decades because they were, in turn, taught that way.

I had a friend once, a writing coach. She ran a long running writers group, and her students often worked for upwards of a decade (and counting) on the same book.

They were pantsers. Every week she’d talk about how their writing didn’t improve, and how they kept going in the same circles, despite her gentle guidance.

So I suggested that maybe, just maybe, they might consider taking a different approach to their writing, and do a bit of focused digging into the story they were telling (including figuring out, exactly, what their point actually was) before they wrote. She was incensed, and the force of her anger surprised me. “This is their process!” she told me in no uncertain terms. “Everyone has their own process, and it’s a sacred thing. You don’t mess with it.”

Hey, if the “process” is successful, sure. Not because it’s sacred, but because it’s working.

Pantsing is often promoted by successful writers who happen to be among the .1% of innate storytellers, or by writing teachers who have been instructing students in the pansters approach for decades because they were, in turn, taught that way.

But in my experience – and hers — pantsing very rarely leads to success. Instead, it derails novels and memoirs that are otherwise well-written. In the rare case when pansting does work,  it’s still not a great process: it adds years and years of rewriting, and even then yields stories that aren’t quite as compelling, as focused, as effective, as they could be if the writer knew where she was heading, and why, before she began writing. Which, to be very clear, isn’t to say that end-result of a story must be set in stone before the writer starts. A story can — and often does — shift, change and reform during the writing process. But the key word here is “story.” If you don’t know what your story is, what’s the point? Which is why writers often focus more on beautiful writing instead, but that’s another post, another, um, story.

In my experience – which includes decades of working with writers of all kinds, from eager newbies to well-published novelists — pantsing rarely works.  When it does, it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. You have an innate sense of story the same way some people have perfect pitch. No matter what you write, it comes out a riveting page-turner without you ever having to pause to figure out why, or what, exactly, you’re doing to make it happen.  (Even this is not always enough: sometimes a writer’s debut novel is fabulous — but since they have no idea what it really was that captivated readers, their second, third and fourth mark them as a flash in the pan. A painful and unnecessary reality.)
  1. You have some of the above writer’s innate storytelling skill, and are willing to spend many, many years working on each manuscript until you are finally happy with the result. You feel that every moment you spent on it was utterly necessary, even if it took a decade, and you’re positive there’s no way you could have gotten there sooner, and that your novel is as deep, rich and compelling as it could possibly be.

If you fall into either camp, and have the well-received novels to prove it  – never mind.  Carry on!

But if you’ve written several manuscripts that have never sold (to a publisher, or to readers if you self-published); if you’ve been working on your manuscript for years and you’re still not sure where it’s going, or how to fix it; or if you’ve got a folder full of half-written manuscripts, then you might want to stick around for a minute and consider this: maybe it’s not your fault. Perhaps it’s not your “process” after all. Perhaps you’ve fallen prey to a habit that is not serving you well. Perhaps there might be another way to get to where the lucky few have gotten – and much more quickly than those in the second group.

Although digging down before you begin writing in earnest takes time, effort and directed concentration, once done, writing forward is, in fact, easier, surer, and even in first-draft form, more compelling.

The reason “pantsing” is so easy to embrace might be because it’s kind of like eating Tater Tots and watching Duck Dynasty. It’s much easier to “let ‘er rip” in the hope that a story “will magically appear” than it is to dig down into what you’re trying to say, and create the clay from which the story itself will be built.

Although digging down before you begin writing in earnest takes time, effort and directed concentration, once done, writing forward is, in fact, easier, surer, and even in first-draft form, more compelling. And, as so many writers have told me: way more fun. It gives them a well-earned confidence you can hear in their voice. And, even better, read in their work.

I’ve written extensively on what that digging is all about and how to do it in other posts; right now, all I want to do is make one modest proposal that might just change your entire writing life in 2014:

Add one more resolution to this year’s batch: I will not write another word until I’ve dug down deep, and have a firm grasp on the story I’m telling. 

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About Lisa Cron

Lisa Cron is an experienced story consultant, working in the past with such entities as Bravo, Miramax, Showtime, Warner Brothers, and several literary agencies. She has been an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program for the past seven years, and is the author of Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She can be seen in Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story, a video tutorial that is available now at Lynda.com.

Comments

  1. says

    I must agree, Lisa. My first novel was written with an end result in mind. I knew where I was going and I think it turned into a worthwhile story. The second, maybe because I got lazy and struggled to find a concept, became a panster project. Now finished it languishes on my hard drive too big a mess to even consider a query letter. Lesson learned. Story comes first.

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    • says

      Thanks Jack! You’ve captured the exact essence of what I’m talking about — here’s to finding the story in your third novel (and maybe even unearthing it in your second ;-)!

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  2. says

    Oh, Lisa, you speak verisimilitude. Love your cold shower/cold turkey direction of ‘not one more word’ until a story is identified and course set. Brilliant. As you said, without a story at least half way molded, ‘what’s the point’? Pantsing is so seductive and enabled by 1500-words-by-lunch and other silly directives that do nothing but obscure the central question. You got a story? Tell it. But writing just to be writing in hopes the story will emerge is just literary masterbation.
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..White Space

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    • Denise Willson says

      Just had to comment, Alex…
      “But writing just to be writing in hopes the story will emerge is just literary masterbation.”
      Love it! Haha!

      Denise Willson
      Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  3. says

    As a pantser-turned-plotter, your post resonates with me, Lisa! The manuscript I just finished worked out after carefully following a plan, and I found, quite contrary to the “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader” principle, that having a well-thought-out plan beforehand only led to richer, more surprising discoveries (probably because they were all connected due to knowing the story’s nuts and bolts ahead of time).

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    • says

      Yes, Yes, Yes! I love what you say here: having a well-thought-out plan beforehand only led to richer, more surprising discoveries (probably because they were all connected due to knowing the story’s nuts and bolts ahead of time). Nice irony, isn’t it?

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      • says

        It’s a beautiful process! I recently came across a quote from T. S. Elliot which I think says it perfectly:

        “When forced to work within a strict framework, the imagination is taxed to its utmost – and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

        :)

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        • says

          Again, the notion of “total freedom” is something thought up by people who don’t know how the process of “pantsing” works. It is actually a discipline in itself, if it is to work. “Total freedom” doesn’t not come into it at all.

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          • says

            Sharon, I totally agree with you! At the end of the day, plan or no plan, a writer cannot avoid the need to invent story. I find, in using outlining techniques to help with development, that the inventions are richer and the many surprise twists my storytelling takes on multiplies. However, that’s my process, and everyone’s process is different. I think writers divide themselves into “plotter” and “pantsers”, when in actual fact these are just polarities. Everyone is unique, and our main goal is a story that engages, unrelenting paragraph after unrelenting paragraph.

            In truth, there is no plug-and-chug formula for writing a story, unless one wants to turn in something dull and contrived. Storytelling is a subtle art, one that requires rumination, lots of thought and care. If you use outlines, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to spend time developing scenes and the many layers of your story. Likewise, if you are a pantser, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to, through the process of re-drafting, discover the innate structural map of your story. Plotting and pantsing are really just two big tools for a writer’s tool-bag, and one that every writer must learn to use well.

            :)

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  4. says

    I like your post, Lisa, because it brings up such important elements of process. If I may … it doesn’t seem fair to say that pantsing very rarely leads to success or is easy to embrace. It is just as much hard work as direct plotting and heavy outlining. But I think either way, panster or plotter/outliner, can be successful. What is unsuccessful is using the process that doesn’t suit your creative flow or brain patterns.

    And if I may take this one step further, why does it have to be either or? If the creative flow of the story or how the characters drive the story comes forward in early drafts and then the writer has the vision of the story, outlining or plotting at that point can be very efficient. I guess I’m a hybrid because I do enjoy the creative flow of a story/characters as it is revealed to me and I do trust the natural elements to emerge. Then I work with plotting and redeveloping action so it becomes tight with clarity and suspense. (I guess digging down and a firm grasp too early on is too controlling for me.) I agree with Frost that the surprise is important, part of the fun for the writer (and the reader) and I wouldn’t want to lose that exciting discovery.
    paula cappa´s last blog post ..Undreamable Abysses

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    • says

      Oh Paula, I totally agree! And here’s the thing: I wasn’t advocating outlining or plotting either. It didn’t occur to me that people would take it that way (boy was I wrong! ;-). What I meant was that unless a writer has some idea what their story is (which is very different than what their “plot” will be), simply “writing forward to see what happens” doesn’t tend to work, almost always yielding not the first draft of a story, but the first draft of “a bunch of things that happen.”

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      • says

        Very well said.

        I think of myself as being somewhere between a panster and an outliner. The truth of the matter is, I usually tend to build the story “shape” before writing it. I may not know every detail, but I know where the story is going.

        The longer the story is, the more details I need to iron out before starting. Otherwise, my story derails.

        If I don’t have a good story shape, I struggle to find a good ending. In fact, as soon as I click “submit” I’m going to go fix a short story that fizzled out at the end. Guess what part I didn’t have planned out?

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  5. says

    You’re talking my kind of language, Lisa. I sometimes read about writers who have declared a sort of “war” against craft….but you almost never see their books grab readers. When they do, lo and behold, it’s because there is indeed some kind of structure present.

    I wrote about this in The Perils of Pure Pantsing. There is an art, of course, to all this. A time to play and risk and explore. It should be done strategically, though, for the greatest benefit.

    Nice post.

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    • says

      Thanks, James — you’re so right, there is an art to it. I believe that the biggest stumbling block out there is that it’s so easy to mistake plot and structure for story, and pantsing as a way to get there. Story itself is a very specific thing, and mastering it is what matters most. Everything else is gravy.

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    • Beth says

      But just because a writer uses the “pantsing” method doesn’t mean he’s declared war on craft or that he writes without any idea of structure.

      Pantsing, for me (and others have mentioned this here as well) is very deliberate, delicate process.

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  6. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Oh man do I resemble those remarks. And I am an adept at making excuses for why I have spent years on the same manuscript (other, more pressing projects; I’m a novice writer; I love editing; fear of finishing).
    As a pantser who sees the inefficiency of the process and has tried to improve, however, I am befuddled by one problem. For me, clarity of thought is a shy writing mate. I tried plotting. I tried digging to the core of the work to find the story. And I tried rewriting the work based on what I came up with. It wasn’t right.
    Then I had a revelation about my own personal situation on this earth, and looked at the manuscript with new eyes. I know what the real story is now. But until I found that personal clarity (and I think pantsing served as a means of self-discovery to get me to it), then it just wasn’t working.
    For writers who are using their writing as a means of self-revelation (any other pantsers out there who fit this description?) as well as an occupation, what do you suggest?

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    • says

      I think you nailed it, Jeanne. Self-discovery, story-discovery, character-discovery for some of us is not out in front at the get-go. Maybe it’s a left-brain/right-brain issue, I don’t know. But the process of discovery for me happens through the early drafts as characters speak and act on the page. Outlines and preplotting are just cold and stiff in the first stage for me: I can’t feel the story; I can’t see it. Once things develop and I know who is who and where they’ve come from and where they need to go, I work up a solid structure and plot from the foundation built.
      paula cappa´s last blog post ..Undreamable Abysses

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      • says

        Paula, I have to leap in here and say, this is exactly what I’m talking about — not outlining or “plotting” right off the bat at all. But, exactly this — knowing your protagonist, how she sees the world you’re going to plunk her into, what matters to her and why. It’s only then can you see the world through her eyes (not the “objective” world, but her subjective world, based on what her specific past experience has taught her things mean). That’s when both the story itself begins to come clear, because you can create a plot that forces her to learn what she needs to learn to solve the problem the story revolves around. Thanks for this!

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  7. says

    Hi Lisa,

    I like your article, but I think the reasoning is skewed. There are two issues I’d like to address:

    – pantsing and outlining are opposite ends of the spectrum with a lot of middle ground. If I’d write without knowing the direction the story would take, I’d be going in circles. If I’d outline the manuscript in rigorous chapters and scenes, my writing would probably end up formulaic and stale. Plus I wouldn’t want to write it, which would seep through in my prose. So my own writing method is somewhere in-between.

    – one of the main issues that causes writer’s block is the temptation to edit while writing, two activities with different mindsets: a creative mindset to put the story down on paper, and a mercenary mindset killing your darlings and polishing the draft into a coherent story. When the writer is writing, the editor should be on vacation.

    I lean towards the ‘pantser’ attitude. I know the direction my story is going to take, but I don’t measure out the chapters and make a bullet list what will happen in each chapter. I finish the draft before I put on my editor cap and start cutting words/paragraphs/scenes.

    My books are praised for their complex story lines, but also for being unpredictable, which is quite difficult to achieve in the suspense fiction genre. This unpredictability happens mainly because even at three-quarters into the book, I still only have a sense of direction, not a foregone conclusion. So I know my protagonist will (probably) survive her ordeals, but not whether she will survive unscathed.

    What I see with a lot of beginning writers is editing questions masked as writing questions, like “My first chapter isn’t strong enough”. When you disregard that issue until after you finished the draft, you will get a better sense of the story in its entirety and you’ll be able to either rewrite the first chapter to foreshadow the events that will shape the book, or you’ll find that the second or ninth chapter would make a better first chapter. No use fretting over that when you haven’t even finished the draft.

    So, if you’re too much of a pantser and you want to work in a more structured fashion, don’t go overboard embracing rigorous outlining. You can also just keep a separate document on ‘ideas’ for story lines, so you just get a better sense of the direction you want to take your novel.
    Martyn V. Halm´s last blog post ..Review: Sark, a sci-fi novella by Steve Price.

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    • says

      Brilliantly put. In addition, this “either/or” kind of thinking sets off emotional responses that could make some feel inferior (or superior, depending on the camp they fall into) about their writing process. There are as many combinations of plotter/pantser within each writer as there are writers. No one of us is exactly like the other. Why should our processes be any different?

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  8. says

    Thank you so much for writing this post! I am not a panster at all, and believe that is the reason I can write prolifically. I do know successful pansters, but in general it doesn’t work as easily or as well as planning, at least somewhat.
    Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..Wild Fertility

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  9. says

    There’s a middle ground. I have a sense of the story and do a broad overview, but write where ever on that story the day takes me. It does leave a few holes to fill later, but it keeps me interested, too. That’s a victory.
    Zan Marie´s last blog post ..Happy New Year and…

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    • says

      I work much the same way, and came here to ponder if I was a pantser, and if all pantsing is bad.

      I have an overall idea of the direction I’m going with my stories. I sit down to write a chapter with a specific goal in mind. I may have a few pre-determined plot points, but for the most part, I let the characters do what they will when I write. I feel that it’s more authentic, and sometimes it takes me to turns that I didn’t expect, even broadening the story in new ways.

      That’s part of the fun for me, too!
      Aywren´s last blog post ..Seems Like I’ve Done It Again

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  10. Justine says

    I get frustrated by the constant undertone that pantsing is somehow the less evolved way to write. Sure, if it isn’t working you have to try something new, the obvious alternative being plotting. Plotting works for a heck of a lot of writers, there is no denying that.

    When was the last time you heard a pantser say I am a pantser, so DON’T plot?

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  11. says

    Enjoyed your post, Lisa, but I’m with Paula and Jeanne. I couldn’t imagine setting out to write with NO idea where it was going to go (and I’d be interested to know if anyone actually writes that way other than for an exercise) but if I try to plan too much it loses its vitality. I think I tend to develop my plan/outline as I write the first draft and then firm up the plot for rewrites. On the other hand, you could be right and I’m doing it wrong as, although I’ve published lots of short stories, I’m still waiting for someone to snap up my novel!

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    • says

      Well, count me in as not having known a single thing about the story or the character when I wrote my first sentence… all I knew was the place; I knew it would be in India. I wrote the first sentence, and the story took over from there. No outline, nothing written down. The first draft needed a lot of restructuring, but the end result was well received. So yes, it does and can happen, without resulting in a mess or a failed project.

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  12. says

    I think there is a strong middle ground here, and I also think that it is a question of every writer coming to find what works for them best – this is, I think, one of the most important lessons of the ‘million words of rubbish’, working out the working practice that suits you best as a writer and allows you to tell the stories you want to tell. As an example, I tend to launch right into a story in a ‘pantser’ style for the first few chapters, because usually the characters form in my head first, and then I pause and outline the remainder of the book once I am maybe eight or nine thousand words in. Often it means going back and starting again – it has with the book I am working on now, largely – but it gets the creative juices flowing.

    It would probably also be useful to talk about what exactly is meant by an outline, and again, every writer – I suspect – has a different style there as well. Personally I usually end up with a few pages of bullet points and lists of characters, settings, and the like – a very rough series of notes that would be pretty meaningless to anyone other than me! Often when people talk of ‘outlines’ it inspires thoughts of dozens of pages of detailed notes, when it doesn’t have to be that way at all.

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  13. Terry White says

    Thanks for this: “…dig down into what you’re trying to say, and create the clay from which the story itself will be built.”

    No doubt this will nudge my words and scenes to flow in the right direction.

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  14. says

    My first novel (the one under the bed) was written SOTP because I didn’t know how to write a novel. It was episodic and had no plot. Just like you describe. :)

    Then I went to a writers conference and Jim Bell taught me a lot about story structure. Thanks Jim!

    I heard the perfect “label” for what I’ve become: Planster. I outline, interview my characters, and plan. Then when I begin writing, I allow the characters to surprise me. And they do, usually to great results.

    But is I don’t have that outline in place, I can’t move forward. It’s like having a map and plan for a trip. You may deicide to take a side road for a while, but you know you have to be in Schenectady by noon.
    Ane Mulligan´s last blog post ..Believability in Fiction

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  15. says

    You make me feel better about being and extreme plotter – but without a solid underpinning my brain isn’t capable of being comfortable with working hard on a scene.

    I have to know going in how it connects to the rest of the novel, where it’s going, and its purpose in the final scheme.

    THEN I can let the rest of the creativity have free rein.

    I liken it to decorating a Christmas tree: first the trunk and branches, solid and supported, then the glittery stuff.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 9, Scene 4

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  16. Carmel says

    “Dig down into what you’re trying to say, and create the clay from which the story itself will be built.”

    I wish I’d read those words before I started my too-many-years-long novel. I’m still not a comprehensive outliner, but at least now I know where I’m going and what I’m trying to say.

    And I still have the fun of a pantser. I know the point of my scene, but I let it unfold on its own and enjoy fun surprises along the way.

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  17. says

    Lisa-

    Provocative post. Outline writers and plot-driven authors across the world are cheering. (Or sneering, “I told you so!”)

    Those non-pantsers shouldn’t be so smug. While the pantsers’ “process” may be slow and less fruitful than they believe, the speedy efficiency of outline writers and plot masters doesn’t always result in great fiction either.

    What the fiction of plot-driven writers can lack is precisely what the pantsers’ “process” over-values: surprise. There are a lot of page turners out there that keep us up at night but at the same time don’t cause us to lose any sleep. They don’t challenge, make us think or even get us to feel anything new.

    Beautifully written literary fiction a decade in the making can fall flat, as you so rightly point out. Pantsers should try something new. But how are you gonna get them to break that habit when the fallacy of “innate genius” is deeply rooted in the very culture of the literary world? A alternate way is needed, and not the “do it my way” formulas offered at conference workshops by the plot masters.

    I’m not at all against writing that get us to “see” things and “apprehend” moments with arresting clarity. That’s beautiful writing. But neither can I elevate plot over process. Both approaches create something fiction needs to be great. Greatness, though, comes from a synthesis of strong story events and deft use of the vast pallet of literary technique.

    Great post, Lisa. Next month, how about pushing plot-driven authors off their high hill too, as you do so effectively this month for authors trapped in the loop of their “process”.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..B&N Book Blog Top Books of 2013

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  18. says

    Even in a short story, I don’t start writing until I know the ending. Otherwise, how will I know what is needed to get there, vs what is self-indulgent prose?

    I’ve taught fiction writing since 1992. Every award I’ve won (9) has been on a work that was tautly written, with a march toward zero hour at the end. All my students who have published novels did so by planning their work. Maybe they didn’t outline every chapter (I don’t) but they certainly knew what the story was before they wrote it.
    Great post!

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  19. says

    As a recovering pantster I can say from experience that having a direction and a plan makes makes everything easier. Having a plan doesn’t curb creativity. For me, it enhances it. Once I knew where I was going with my story, the characters started contributing all kinds of new twists and turns. When I was winging it, all I got was agita. Thanks for a wonderful post.
    Susan Setteducato´s last blog post ..Susan’s Blog

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  20. says

    Lisa, Had to chime in as a representative of the minority (although I don’t think it’s as low as 0.1%) who successfully write what Don Westlake calls “push fiction” rather than plotting. I’ve had six–soon to be seven–novels published by traditional publishers, and in each one I’ve started with a beginning, an ending, and a few characters. I never know who the “bad guy” is until I start writing the last few chapters.
    You do make a valid point–plotting is helpful for lots of people. But for others…well, as you say, if it ain’t broke, let’s not try to fix it.
    Thanks for sharing your advice.

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  21. says

    Did I buy into the myth of pantsing? Yep. Did it take me… ahem, many years to finish a draft of my lengthy trilogy? Yep, six. Have I spent many years of revision sorting out the mess I made? Oh yeah–four and a half (and counting!). Have I seen the light? Mostly. This former pantser parishioner has knelt at the Plotting altar, I wrote (much more quickly and concisely) a fourth manuscript after extensive plotting. Could I have finished (and perhaps published) my trilogy manuscript faster if I’d more carefully planned/plotted when I started (over ten years ago)? I don’t doubt it.

    Now, would I do it differently if I could go back and start over? Hold the phone–not so sure. As Jeanne and others have pointed out, those first six years were a journey of self-discovery. I had a blast seeing my story unfold on the page during those first six years. I was amazed and grateful as it flowed out, seemingly from nowhere. I’m not so sure I could’ve planned where the story went or what it ended up meaning to me. Sort of like lengthy literary free-association therapy. Expensive and timely, but oh-so-valuable to me.

    And during the lengthy revision process, sorting out what it meant has been like sorting through what ‘really’ matters to me. I not only found my way to “The End” of my manuscripts, I’ve found a way to figure out who I am (that’s a work-in-progress as well). I consider my lengthy and sometimes convoluted journey to be a pretty priceless gift, even if the trilogy never finds its way to the fantasy section of a bookstore. Today. Tomorrow I’ll probably whine and complain about how long it’s taking, but that’s tomorrow.

    As I say, I am reformed. I have seen the plotting light–hallelujah, amen. But I still value where the seat-of-my-pants has brought me (oh dear, that sounds a bit like a butt-head joke, but so be it ;-). Thanks, Lisa, for continuing to shine your light!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Spartans, What is Your Profession?

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    • Beth says

      “Pantsing” is not a myth. It just doesn’t happen to work for everyone. Glad you found what does work for you.

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  22. Skye Blaine says

    Hello Lisa,
    I’m returning to fiction after writing memoir, and I’m new to Writer Unboxed. Could you please tell me how to find your earlier posts about this preparation prior to writing, and your suggestions?
    Thanks,
    Skye

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  23. says

    Great post! Pantsing usually works for me when writing short stories, especially flash fiction, but for novels, I just burn out after a few thousand words because I didn’t know where I was going. I’ve learned my lesson after about three or four manuscripts and really enjoy doing research and planning and figuring out an ending. I think you’re quite right, its just a bad habit, at least, when taken to an extreme….
    Katharine Marie´s last blog post ..Reading: The List Goes On and On

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  24. says

    Interesting post, but I’m not sure I agree entirely with it. I think writing and seeing what works and doesn’t work is useful, and you certainly get that by being a panster.

    I think being a panster can be an effective way to test the waters in writing. It gives you a sense of what works and what doesn’t work. Eventually, I think everyone who starts out as a panster, if they write long enough, realizes the effectiveness of doing some plot outlining for a story (though a person who prefers pansting is never going to be as detailed in their outline as a person who is naturally an outliner).

    I read this great article about success after failure, and it talked about an experiment where a pottery classes was divided into two sections. One half was told they’d be graded on quality, the other quantity. The quality group was told they’d get an A if they made 50 pounds of pottery and the quality group was told they’d get an A if they made an awesome project. The quantity group produced the best work. They made a lot, and in that process had a lot of failure, but also saw what worked best.

    I would contend that if a person’s writing style is that of a panster, then letting them do that is going to get them the quantity that will eventually lead them to discover quality.

    So, for that reason, I can’t tell someone to stop writing the way they’re most comfortable, if it keeps them writing, because it’s that quantity–that process of writing and failing– that’s going to help them improve. This is the article I referenced, by the way: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/01/05/fail-fast-fail-often-how-losing-can-help-you-win.html
    RJ Crayton´s last blog post ..Year in Review: What I’ve Learned

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  25. says

    I’m a die hard, compulsive plotter. Believe me, I know the value of plotting. I think that plotting helps writers produce more quickly, more effectively, and ultimately I do think it helps if you’re planning on having a genre writing career.

    That said, I work with a lot of clients. If they’re not comfortable with my level of scene outlining (which, admittedly, is pretty extreme) I suggest that they get the major points, and write from there. Then, when we get to the revision stage, they reverse engineer — they outline the scenes they have and are able to apply that level of “plotting logic” in order to smooth out the bumps and corral in the filler and pointless “rabbit holes.” It’s the best of both worlds for people who need the freedom of a “discovery draft” but still want a level of rigor in producing a story that works.

    If it’s a new author, I suggest trying plotting. Like making my son eat vegetables, he’s not allowed to say he hates something if he hasn’t at least tried it twice. But if it’s someone who knows that plotting creates too much stress and locks their creative process, I respect the process, and we come up with solutions from there.

    Basically, I agree with Don. I don’t think that “pants-shaming” is necessarily going to help. If a pantser is frustrated enough, if she hits rock bottom, perhaps she’ll go over and try plotting. But there are a lot of different paths to success.
    Cathy Yardley´s last blog post ..How to Figure Out Which Project to Work On.

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  26. says

    Waving about credentials first: 30 commercially published novels, 2 self-published, and over 40 books as an editor/book-doctor, plus mumble as a ghost.

    I think it’s not a case of there being a middle ground as much as there being a set of orthogonal paths, with probably more dimensions than I’ve seen. Problems with winging it and with precise outlining are exactly as outlined by Lisa and the commenters, and so are the strengths; I’ve engineered and I’ve wung and so have writers I’ve worked with. “Push” (thanks for the term, Richard Mabry) has worked very well for me too. Some hills you ski one way, some you ski another, and you just have to figure that it won’t always be the same way.

    One additional criterion to think about: writer growth. If your last three books were the same book with changealls on the names and the plot devices, definitely time to sit down and wing it. If you’ve been on one book for three years and you’re at Chapter 2, outline that rascal down to the dewdrops on the grass and get’er done. I find “push” outlines are good for putting fun and action back in, and what I call jigsaws (write a bunch of scenes about a group of characters and then figure out what order they happen in) tend to result in deeper, more complex characters, but that may well be me or those particular books.

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  27. Densie says

    Lisa,
    I didn’t have my New Year’s resolution—until now. Thank you for that. I spent 4 1/2 years “pantsing” a novel and I like the result, but I’m not getting any younger and I need to get a move on. I’m convinced that a bit of forethought and advance plotting will do the trick. I know I’ll never be a color-coded-index-card-carrying plotter, but a list of bulleted plot points that follow a logical order and create character and plot arcs are definitely in my future.

    New Years’ Resolution for 2014:”I will not write another word until I’ve dug down deep, and have a firm grasp on the story I’m telling.”

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  28. says

    Interesting observations, Lisa. I’m in both camps. My best work comes from going with the flow and then massaging the work into shape later. As a NF writer who sells books and articles on proposal, I have found outlines extremely useful, but until I learned to write one properly, I’d write a draft first and then organize my thoughts.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Anansi and Company: Retold Jamaican Tales

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  29. says

    Oh Lisa, you may need an armed bodyguard after this post. I’ll take the risk with you, though, and say Amen! I have many a pantsting friend, and they will fight for their creative freedom all the way to the slush pile. I wrote my first few books by the seat o’ my pants. They were a mess. I knew they were a mess and I submitted them anyway. Once I started saturating myself in learning story structure, however, my world changed. Story isn’t just a random tale. There’s a visible, solid reason why some books and movies work and some don’t. Knowing what has worked before and how to employ it is a free gift to the new writer. Why re-invent the story of the wheel? I am now working on a novel that I painstakingly plotted out before writing “Chapter 1.” Once I began filling in the scenes with prose, it was as if I knew what to write without even thinking about it. Yes, I’ve tweaked a few things along the way, but tweaking is ever so much easier than re-writing six drafts of the same mess. Thanks for a great post. I’m going to share it with my panster friends. I may need to borrow your bodyguard.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..The 6 Month Novel

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  30. Jess says

    ***Raises hand**** “This is me! This is me! This is me!!!!”

    Now, what do I do about it??? How do I change??? Can you link your other posts? I’m desperate. I have unfinished drafts, a slew of unfinished short stories. I’m to the point where when I sit down to write, I do everything but write then declare for the 100th time that I’m quitting for good. And I love James Scott Bell…. but I just can’t get it… help!

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  31. says

    Such an interesting discussion – I’ve enjoyed reading all of the comments!

    I signed a contract to write four middle grade novels in one year. And although they are short (around 32,000 words), each one needed its own story arc and all of that. I was mostly a pantser prior to this, though not completely. I’d write some, then stop and do some plotting, write some more, and do more plotting. “Plot as you go” you might say.

    But with these four books, I knew the only way to meet my deadlines was to have a solid road map of where I was headed with each book. And so, I spent a couple of weeks before each book plotting out the book, chapter by chapter. What I learned is it is much, much easier to sit down and write when you know WHAT you are going to write. I met every deadline – in fact, with three of the four books, I was early.

    More details about my process is here, if anyone is interested: http://www.lisaschroederbooks.com/2013/12/the-year-i-wrote-four-novels-lived-to.html

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  32. says

    Interesting. But I’m in the faction that doesn’t completely agree with you.

    There are many ways to be a pantser. I’m a pantser. Having anything more than a back cover type blurb paralyzes me. So I’ve stopped giving myself more than a back cover blurb. But the thought of having no plan at all is just as abhorrent as having too much of a plan.

    For me everything starts with characters. I dig into them, find their lies, their GMC, discover their backstory. Who they are tells me who they will become as the story progresses. Characters always come to me first, then the plot begins to arrive.

    I spent the summer of 2012 learning so much about my process. A 97,000 word novel poured out of me in less than three months. I knew how it started. I knew how it ended. I had a vague idea of what needed to happen in the middle to get to the end I was seeing. But as for what came in between? I had no clue until I got there. If I could plan out three scenes in advance I was doing good.

    And you know what? It’s the novel getting attention. The making it to requests for the full from editors and agents. The one everyone I send it to tells me is the best thing I’ve ever written. And I’ve sent it to freelance editors and published authors who are brutally honest with me.

    Too much planning doesn’t work for me. I have to make sure I stay balanced between “just enough” and “too much”. Plotting methods like Jim Bell’s index cards or Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake act like a fire extinguisher to my creativity. Just thinking about doing something like that is enough to paralyze me, never mind actually attempting it.

    The reason my crazy method works is because I study craft. I read everything I can get my hands on, and I pick out the pieces that work for me and ignore what doesn’t. THAT is the key thing beginning writers should be taught. Telling a writer you have to do it “this way” is no better than the example you describe. Beginning writers need to be encouraged to experiment with different methods, to use what speaks to them, and find their magic formula.

    My method makes no sense to most other writers. But that’s okay, because it works for me. It may not be the most direct route to a complete novel, but I’ve got four 95K+ novels to show for it, another one sitting at 42K, and the next phase of one of my series falling into place. All in two years. Something I’m doing is working for me, and I have no desire to try and force myself into a method that I know will stifle me.

    And I write romance. My current thing, I have no clue how they’re going to end up together. The issues between them are huge. And that’s half the fun for me.
    Rachel Leigh Smith´s last blog post ..I Have A Theory

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    • Gretchen Stone says

      Rache,l I find that studying craft is my favorite way of making progress. Methods paralyze me, my eyes glaze over and my fingers fall off when teachers start talking about the heros journey or character arcs, or tell me I have to outline my snowflake. Give me a good old fashioned article on craft and I am inspired to write the next great American novel. Thanks for telling me I am not the only one.

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  33. Kate Kimball says

    Kudos to Lisa for leaping into the somewhat-prestructured vs. let-it-flow debate, especially since it produced some of the most illuminating comments I’ve read here. I see Lisa’s article as a mercury vapor light aimed at the less structured among us to see if our meandering tendencies in fact serve us well.

    Mine don’t yet, and the comments lead me to believe that each successful writer (= finished, polished novel completed) here has invented, and probably reinvented, a writing process that works.

    I want that but haven’t invented it yet, so I expect to wander, create plot charts that I enjoy drawing but later ignore, and sit with WU articles like Lisa’s.

    For me, writing is about telling a good story while exploring what I don’t yet know. I am on the hunt for the process that does both and would not object if it came into focus very, very soon.

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  34. says

    I Got it.

    It doesn’t matter if you CALL yourself a panster or an outliner. If you’re like Brian, you’re a “POUTLINER” *sob*

    Plan. Stop making fantastical excuses; you know you’re not a real panster.

    Plod. Stop being lazy.

    Play. Stop the blood-clot-crying.

    Persevere. Stop reaching for the get rich quick scheme.

    Dig for the abyss, and when you’re done, dig some more.

    Do you wanna be a writer or do you want to write?

    Work that story like it was dirty gossip, better yet, make it your baby (not the dirty gossip). Nurture that baby to maturity.

    I’m gone get right on that, Lisa.
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..It’s a journey best traveled with your mind open and your preconceived notions shut.

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  35. says

    I am a pantser and proud of it. I KNOW that the way I write is not plausible for everyone and I don’t recommend it. However, I put out 5 short stories per month, every month, and there is little–if any–time to do an outline.
    I use the first chapter to get a grip on the characters and from there I direct them toward my imagined ending.
    I have written 3 novels and for each one, i did a rough outline that didn’t resemble the end product at all.
    For my 200+ short stories, they all evolved as they were written, incorporating news events, personal experiences, and daily frustrations.
    I have spoken at a few conferences with people who have decided to revise each chapter and outline in such detail that they lose sight of the complete project. By dividing it into small chunks, the whole fell apart. They over-thought it. For some folks outlining is a comforting safety net…for others. they tangle.
    you have to know your process and make the right choice for you.

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  36. says

    I was a pantser for my first five novels, all published. Then I found myself floundering about on my sixth novel, writing draft after draft and never being able to fix it.

    That’s when I turned to screenwriting books because are so structure oriented. I studied and tried out their techniques for another couple of years. There was definitely a learning curve, and I faltered a bit, but it was worth it. After five novels I still felt like an amateur, but now, having learned story mechanics, I know that I will never again find myself writing and re-writing a novel for years on end. Now I actually feel like I know what I’m doing. (I had to trash my sixth novel completely. I could now very easily see that it was structurally unsound.)

    T. S. Elliot said, “When forced to work within a strict framework the imagination is taxed to its upmost—and will produce its richest ideas. Given total freedom the work is likely to sprawl.”

    Nothing could be truer for me. If I have an idea where I’m going (and very often it will change and shock the heck out of me) my brain is freed up for more inventive surprises within the scenes
    I have a collection of books on structure: John Truby, Christopher Vogel, Blake Snyder, and Robert McKee. (Also Lisa’s book, which was great.)

    I recently completed an MFA in creative writing and while it helped me add more nuance to my work, nothing was as helpful as immersing myself in the world of story technique.

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  37. says

    The energy and passion of the responses to this very thoughtful post are quite humorous. Especially since, as you noted in the comments, you never mention the words ‘outline’ or ‘plot.’ I won’t define myself regarding pantsiness, but I do thank you for reminding us that digging deep into the story’s heart is an excellent and essential exercise.
    Marialena´s last blog post ..An epiphany (or two) in a Medieval cloister

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  38. says

    We are SO on the same page. It took me almost 10 years to write my first one partly because I was learning, and partly because I was a pantser searching for the Holy Grail of Structure. At this point I think Larry Brooks’ Story Structure is the way for me. I’m presently spending the month of January thinking and planning for a sequel to my first novel, said sequel which will actually be a series of 3 books. You can bet I am laying out the structure, planting tips, clues, and story threads from the first novel into the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. I will never again be a pantser. Life is too short. PS thanks again for Wired for Story, and I will see you in Palm Springs for your talk!
    Lynne Spreen´s last blog post ..No More Sleepwalking

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  39. Tina says

    Lisa, great post. I’m a logic person. I work better if I know the first premise, the rules, and the conclusion.

    I have a request: Please consider writing an post on your Third Rail with various examples, and why they are (or are not) successful.

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  40. says

    I think the important message to take away from this piece is to not try to write the way that anyone else says that one is supposed to write.

    Personally, I hate the wordoid “pantser”, it invokes images of sneaking up behind someone and pulling his pants down.

    I don’t use a written outline when I write, I have my story in mind and I sit down and type it out. Essentially I do all my plotting in my head.

    I don’t do drafts or rewrites, I have my books proofed for spelling and grammar, but that’s it. It took me about a year to write each of my first two books, and it looks like my third will take me about that long.

    My sales are not phenomenal, but my reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, so I figure that what I’m doing works for me. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else.
    Misha Burnett´s last blog post ..My Top 13 Posts Of 2013

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  41. Alisha Rohde says

    I spent the better part of last year identifying myself as a pantser, and I think it was helpful for me to step away from the more type A/planning/perfectionist work muscles I had developed so much in my day jobs. Realizing I prefer to work more organically, “pantser” became my permission to explore.

    That said, I have been discovering the need to develop a stronger sense of direction, character arc, and conflict for my current novel *before* I draft it. (OK, I’ll admit: I did a bunch of drafting and then realized my story was going nowhere…but it was a valuable exercise all the same. No regrets.) So this piece had the ring of the familiar for me!

    I’m not renouncing “pantser” as a term or a concept, but clearly there are happy mediums to be found in the writing process. The most helpful approaches for me are the ones that leave lots of room for intuitive process and discovery…and I’m hopefully discovering how to make sure there’s a spine in the body of the story (and the character) before I try and add the clothing! ;-)

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  42. says

    Pantsing is a great way to slap down a first draft. It gets us past that exacting editor in our brain, who can stop us cold the moment what we’re writing doesn’t quite measure up to what we intended to write. In that sense, just “going for it” may be the only way some writers get to a completed first draft. This first draft is essential to editing and re-writing. And it makes it a lot easier to go deep, because the initial anxiety is over.

    I do agree that it’s important for writers to get past the idea that if they’ve edited and re-written something, it isn’t art anymore. Strip away the images on some of the world’s greatest paintings, and you’ll likely find the penciled remains of the artist’s initial attempts.

    This is the 21st century. We can save every draft of every idea we work on and pull out all the best parts. It’s sort of crazy not to!
    Carrie Ann Lahain´s last blog post ..What Is a Classic?

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  43. says

    There’s a method and even a skill to pantsing, and the writer who pants has to dig just as deep, if not deeper, than a plotter; problems arise when s/he believes that all it takes is writing off the top of the head, whatever comes, whatever the characters say or do, just write it down. That’s when the chaos occurs.

    In my case, for many decades I believed the only way to write a novel was by plotting, and that was why I couldn’t even begin. This was before the Internet age, and I was quite isolated from the writing community. Then I came across Dorothea Brande’s brilliant book, Becoming a Writer, and I had my Eureka moment. After that is was fairly plain sailing.

    Brande’s theory is that it’s your subconscious mind that creates stories out of all the experiences and emotions you have stored down there; and that it is capable of creating stories out of that reservoir; and that the writer needs to dig deep and connect with that reservoir, to trust it, and to follow its lead. The stories are there, waiting to be “dis”covered. That was my way.

    I have to add, it helps if you have learned to meditate, which I had. After a practice run (a novel that found an enthusiastic agent at the first try, but no publisher) I produced Of Marriageable Age, which went to auction and sold for five figures (in GBP) to a Big 6.
    Later, my publisher wanted outlines for my next two novels; I tried hard but I hated it, and those novels weren’t nearly as good as the first, and no joy to write.

    The writer who feels that his/her natural way of writing is pantsing should not be discouraged, but taught how to do it; or teach himself, herself. It’s easy to say that pantsing is for beginners or genius storytellers, and to dismiss it as not a viable writing for serious writers; but don’t you risk destroying all the mystery, the magic, the delight, the surprise of writing fiction?

    I’ve written several more novels that way, still unpublished, mostly due to the fact that they are in a niche category for which publishers think there is no market (I disagree) than. But they are good stories and will find their way in due course — the digital age will help.

    Of course as others have said, pantsing is only the first, creative step; for the next rounds of editing the editor’s hat needs to be firmly in place, restructuring, killing darlings, and all that left-brained stuff. But please, never believe that pantsing is just a chaotic rush of the imagination: there’s method to the madness, and it can be learned!

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    • Beth says

      Oh, very well said. Especially this:

      “There’s a method and even a skill to pantsing, and the writer who pants has to dig just as deep, if not deeper, than a plotter; problems arise when s/he believes that all it takes is writing off the top of the head, whatever comes, whatever the characters say or do, just write it down. That’s when the chaos occurs.”

      In my experience, the writers who get into trouble with pantsing (I really do loathe that term) are the ones who charge ahead in some kind of free-association, stream-of-consciousness free-for-all. That’s not to say something good might not come of that, juts as an exercise, but it’s not how most pantsers I know write novels.

      For me, if I try to charge ahead, I’d drive the story off a cliff. So I take it slow and give my brain (particularly my sub-conscious) time to excavate the story. I also revise and edit as I go. Creating and rewriting are not separate processes for me. And it’s during the constant revisions that I often uncover new layers and surprises.

      I don’t know how to plan a story. But I know how to write one, one word at a time.

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  44. says

    I am a quilter. I write scenes and then figure out where they go, what the trajectory is, etc. But while this is fun, it isn’t very efficient, and now I have an agent with a line up of projects she is interested in, I need to be efficient.

    I just finished Blake Snyder’s screen writing book Save The Cat! and I’m following his structure (“Beat Sheet”) model from conception of the next novel project. I started today. I have a few days of planning ahead, but once I start writing, it will be with clear purpose.

    I think this technique will make my editor happy. She’s been grumbling about character goals in the last project for a while… As I fix the quilted mess, let’s see how the organized approach works. It can’t hurt to have worked out ahead of time what the character wants in each scene, what opposes him, and where all the important twists are!

    Wish me luck!

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  45. P.S. Joshi says

    I think you’re exactly right. I started a memoir and just wrote, then started reading blogs about writing. The more I learned, the more I began to see that I needed structure. I started writing an outline using a file card method to work on my outline. I’m still working on it and it makes a big difference. I still need to do a lot of work to pull the piece together, but even as a beginning writer I can see a big improvement already. I recently began blogging and make it a practice to do a rough draft for it even though it’s much shorter. I was taught outlining and feel more comfortable with structure.

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  46. says

    Thought provoking post. I find that I am a panster who uses some plotting tools to get me through the rough draft. I love Alexandra Sokoloff’s Story Elements Checklist.
    http://www.screenwritingtricks.com/2009/04/story-elements-checklist.html
    Then I write out backstories for my main characters. It helps me stay on track with the rough draft. Afterwards I can make an outline what I’ve written and work in a logical way to layer and tighten my book. I feel that regardless of what method is used find one that helps you move forward as a writer.
    Thanks for bring up this discussion.
    Page Pennington´s last blog post ..Consolidation, Nooble & Agents Who CARE—What’s Ahead for 2014 in Publishing

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  47. says

    My New Years Resolutions for writing included getting back to reading Writer Unboxed. Glad I did! I wish I could have this new years resolution feel more often. I’ve tried both methods and basically now do ‘panstering’ followed by outlining, followed by another ‘panstering’ period. I haven’t yet figured out how to get rid of that initial punster but I’ll check out the links above. Thanks!

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  48. says

    Having an outline for narrative and character beats gives me direction, but doesn’t hem me in a writer. If anything it gives me more freedom to ‘pants’ around with ideas that grow from those rough notes.
    Doug´s last blog post ..Hello world!

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  49. says

    My personal approach is: “Macro planner, micro pantser.”

    I actually hate the labels of “planner” and “pantser” because nobody ever fits neatly into one category or the other. “Planners” outline story elements beforehand, but they don’t follow them rigidly. And even the wildest “pantsers” must have some idea of the story they want to write or the idea they want to convey, unless they’re just spitting random words onto the page like they’re 1920s modernists.

    Sure, everyone has a “process,” but there’s no reason to take violent offense when someone questions the efficacy of one or the other. I also have a process for the way I get dressed. I put on my socks, then my pants, etc. My SO thinks I’m insane. Why would you put on your socks before you even have pants on? (He is, I suppose, the most literal of “pantsers.”) But, surprisingly, we have never had a vicious knock-down-drag-out over the correct process for the donning of hosiery.

    One of the reasons the “pantser” camp defends their position so vehemently, I think, is that they feel when you attack their process, you’re attacking “art.” They think you want to smoosh them into a template, squeeze out their creative juices, squash their freedom of expression etc. etc.

    But the thing about art is, it’s 99.9% planned and practiced. Artists don’t just start flinging paint at the canvas. Even the ones who just start flinging paint at the canvas don’t just start flinging paint at the canvas. They outline. They fill in the details. They compare different approaches and refine techniques. They take weeks to finish that one piece that looks like they just started flinging paint at the canvas–and years before they can fling paint at the canvas with pleasing results. Jackson Pollock studied art for ten-plus years before he even started experimenting with his famous “drip” technique.

    So fear not, bright-eyed young writing students of the world. Your art will be in no way compromised if you stop to think about it a little before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keys). Michaelangelo didn’t carve David with a few lucky random taps into a block of marble, or scribble some cherubs into the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as the spirit moved him.

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    • says

      Tamara, I too dislike the word pantser but it seems to be established now so, so be it. I’ll use it. However, at least in my case you’ve got it wrong. I don’t take offense at the criticism, and I certainly don’t see it as an attack on my “art”.

      It’s just the way I write, what works for me, and at best I roll my eyes at plotters who suggest it can’t be done, or assume it is just like “flinging paint at a canvas”. It’s not, at least, certainly not in my case. Writing this way is a very deliberate, very disciplined act for me, and actually hard work. It involves first silencing my mind, and digging deep within to find the true story there, the story I believe my subconscious mind has created better than I ever could with planning.

      My first drafts are almost always a surprise for me, as I don’t know much about the story at all! It really is a method, and I wish people wouldn’t make assumptions. We all work differently, in synch with how we are as non-writing human beings, and what works for one may not work for another. I tend to LIVE by the seat of the pants, and guess what, it works! So no wonder I write that way as well.

      I feel the author of the original article was getting a bit above herself by claiming that only 1% (or was it .01%?) of writers can write good stories be the seat of their pants. She teaches planning, so obviously she supports that way of doing things, but she has no right to tell others to “stop”. If it’s not working, if your stories are no good, not selling, not loved by readers, then OK, stop and reconsider. But are there really any stats on how many good (sold, published, bought, loved by readers) novels were written by pantsers? I don’t think we know.

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      • says

        Hi Sharon, just want to leap in here to say that my whole point was — at least I thought — very simple: If you’re a pantser and it’s not working for you, it might be a habit rather than your process. That was it. I never said pantsing inherently doesn’t work, just that — in my experience — 99% of the time it doesn’t. (That said, I’ll never write it like that again; and you’re right, it did say .1%, which is a typo. I meant 1% ;-).

        I do believe that very, very few writers can simply pants and come up with an effective story, and yet so many writers believe that it’s the only authentic way to write. That said, I don’t advocate planning in the way that it’s been taken — i.e. plotting. Plotting can be as deadly as pantsing. It’s something I’ve written about extensively in past posts, and will be writing more about in an upcoming post. In fact, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, I never used the words Plot, Plotting, Plotter or Outline — because that’s not what I’m advocating, either.

        So, hope I don’t sound harsh, and I love the conversation that’s been started here in the comments. But, I admit, it’s kinda hard to see what I said (or tried to ;-), be so misinterpreted. Not anyone’s fault but mine, it’s good lesson learned!

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    • Beth says

      “One of the reasons the “pantser” camp defends their position so vehemently, I think, is that they feel when you attack their process, you’re attacking “art.” “”

      No. We just don’t like being told that our way doesn’t work/is inefficient/leads to disorganization and chaos, etc. For the writer for whom the method works, it works beautifully. But there do seem to be a lot of misconceptions about it.

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  50. says

    I have to disagree that pantsing is inefficient. What works for some authors doesn’t work for others. If outlining and plotting work for you, that’s wonderful, but it doesn’t work for me. Yes, my earlier novels required rewriting, but I learned from those mistakes and now my first draft is very strong and usually requires very little tweaking to make it publishable. Those folks who require massive rewrites aren’t editing as they go. It’s very difficult to catch every mistake later.

    My method is to re-read what I wrote in the prior session, fix errors as I find them and move on. I don’t leave a mess expecting to go back and fix it later. That’s a pain in the butt.

    Do I outline? No. Do I know where my story is going when I start? Rarely. Do I get a lot of surprises as I write? Yes. That’s fun to me. It’s a voyage of discovery. It works for me.

    I like to add this little statistic to back up my claim that pantsing isn’t inefficient. I have done NaNoWriMo novels for the last 6 years – I finish every year. I always finish early. In 2008, I finished my novel in 2 1/2 weeks, despite some wrong turns & rewrites. It was 74,748 words long. Just before Thanksgiving, I got another idea for a novel. I sat down and wrote it in FOUR DAYS. It was an additional 54,129 words. Giving me a grand total of 128,877 words written in less than 30 days. I think the numbers speak for themselves.

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  51. Beth says

    Pantsing is not as rare as you think. A fair number of successfully published novelists write by the seat of the pants. There are also many variations on how to approach it. Some write in drafts, some revise as they go, and some write the whole book out of order. Some start with a firm idea of the story arc and the ending, while others begin with nothing more than a line of dialogue or something they can see or sense, and the story develops from there.

    It comes naturally to me; in fact, if I try to outline or pre-plan, I lose interest in writing the story. I write the way I read: to find out what happens next.

    It’s one of those things that can’t really be taught; it either works for you or it doesn’t. If a learning writer tries it out and ends up lost in a thicket, chances are pantsing is not the right approach for that writer.

    It’s also is just one method for writing a novel. There are many, and none is superior to another. All that matters is finding one that produces good work.

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  52. says

    Why must we label those who are different?

    I’ve read plenty of poorly written novels, but they were poor because the author chose to do an end around to learning craft by self-publishing, not because they “pantsed” their way through their novel.

    I never work from an outline. I sometimes start with the vaguest of premises, other times with a beginning and an ending. My last novel, which is under consideration by a publisher, the story didn’t make itself clear to me until I was four chapters along. Yes, it required some rewriting of those early chapters, maybe more that what normally is required in my work; but it didn’t derail me completely.

    I edit as I go because I need to be relatively happy with what I’ve written before I can go on, so my first drafts are more akin to a third or even a fourth draft. Certainly they are cleaner than a first draft written by someone who plots and outlines their story ahead of time and rushes to get the story down with no care to structure, grammar, or punctuation.

    There are many ways to write a novel. Elmore Leonard cut anything from his manuscripts that he envisioned the reader skimming over. It worked for him, but frankly, I was underwhelmed by his work; they often read like screenplays.

    Part of the reason why I’ve never taken a creative writing course is because I don’t want someone telling me that I’ve been doing it wrong for the last twenty years. I’ve learned a process that works for me.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to put on a pair of pants for my morning write.

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  53. Rachel Thompson says

    Of course there are many levels and a number of ways to approach story construction. I say lean them all. The ones that helped me most is James Fray’s step method and Kurt Vonnegut’s funny little chart. You can find Vonnegut’s 5 minuet lesson on U-tube. BTW, not the James Fray of Oprah fame but the guy who wrote the ‘Damn good’ series on writing.

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  54. says

    I’ll admit I’m a pantser right off, but when I work with writers just starting out, I tell them to learn all methods, check all techniques, and then use the ones that work for them.

    Though I pants, I do a lot of pre-write so I understand the story, and use a bullet-point outline. So far, it’s successful for me, but that doesn’t mean it works for everyone, and you’re right. If it isn’t working, play with techniques until you find the ones that do work. One little anecdote that might enlighten a bit…my most recent novel (now resting) grew to 57k words before the character made a major revelation that changed everything. So, pantser or planner, be prepared to follow the story. If structure isn’t natural in the draft, well, that’s what revision is for. :)

    For someone who wants to play around with pantsing, writing prompts work well for that. For someone who wants to plan better, there are wonderful methods out there. Some are mentioned in the comments and I would add the Snowflake Method to them.
    Robyn LaRue´s last blog post ..Updated About Me

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  55. says

    Sigh. You do know that Stephen King, Tess Gerritsen, and Dean Wesley Smith are all pantsers?

    I’m an pantser, too. I’ve always been treated as if I were broken somehow because I don’t outline, and it really gets annoying. I have tried outlines, and frankly, it’s the fastest way for me to completely wreck a story before I hit chapter 3. It also doesn’t always result in a mess of a story. It depends on the writer.

    In fact, I think that’s where it gets the bad rap. The pantsers struggling to figure out their process sometimes end up with writing coaches, who only see the mess — and then the coach assumes that all pantsers have stories that are a mess. Because pantsing a story, especially early in the learning of what works, is very messy and chaotic. Plus, if the writer doesn’t understand the concept of story — which is very difficult to get in the first place — it’ll look worse in a story that’s been pantsed. But an outliner can screw that up just the same. It’s an equal opportunity problem.

    I find that I have to really make sure I trust the process and the story. Over the years I was deluged with so much writing advice that assumed I was outlining that it actually caused problems with my writing. Things like plot points were very destructive because I wrote to fit a plot point in instead of finding the natural flow of the story. Once I tossed out all the writing advice and trusted the process and story, my story quality instantly leaped forward. I know outliners don’t understand the way I write and are even horrified that it could ever work, but it’s what works for me.
    Linda Maye Adams´s last blog post ..Do writing classes and workshops help pantsers?

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  56. Amanda says

    All I’m gonna say is that I understand that Peter S. Beagle pantsed “The Last Unicorn,” which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. So when it works, it works quite well.

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  57. says

    I am of the mind that no one truly 100% plans or 100% pants. Many pantsers I know do plan, but it’s just done casually while thinking throughout the day, it’s not stringent outlines and notes. On the flip-side, most people who write outlines or detailed notes don’t always stick to them stringently. They tend to be road maps. But like with most journeys, if you see something interesting along the way you might take a small sidetrip or detour, or change your route all together. Your destination more or less stays the same, or at least close to where you were shooting.

    That said, I understood the point of your article. Probably because I work with a lot of writers who really have no clue where to start. They sit down at the computer and stare at the screen and are frustrated when beautiful prose doesn’t flow from their fingers. They see other pantsers doing it and can’t understand why they can’t do it the same way. Suggesting that they think things out and do some planning either is an epiphany for them or it is a dreaded thing they discount without trying…and then the go back to staring at that monitor with frustration.

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  58. Roger Verbatim says

    Lisa I think you are spot on with this article. Letting it all flow out doesn’t work for most people. I get what you said Lisa, so there is no need for successful pantsers – eg you Connie – to write a whole spiel saying it works for you. We get it works for some people, what we want to know is what to do if it doesn’t work for us.
    Just a thought about why creative writing teachers tell us that ‘pantsing’ is an okay way to go, teachers these days are expected to encourage people no matter what they pour out, and any actual critiquing is discouraged because it might hurt egos (or stop people paying for courses). Pantsing – letting your own unique ability just flow out, is an easy way for writing teachers to stay clear of telling students they have a whole lot more work to do before their writing is any good. Its the same in art classes. Obviously some people have natural talent, some can learn technique, and some will never get it. Just don’t tell them.

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  59. says

    You’re totally free to disagree! Not a problem at all, I love a good debate. But just to set the record straight, I did not say that the same writing process works for all authors, in fact I said the exact opposite. Nor did I say that writers had to outline. In fact, I didn’t use the words Plot, Plot-Drive, Plotter or Outline, because that’s not what I’m advocating. It sounds as if you’re doing fine by pantsing (I’m assuming that’s your method, fine if it’s not), and as I said in the post — if it’s working for you, by all means carry on! The post was for the writers out there for whom pantsing is not working. And finally, as for 1% of writers being innate nails-it-right-out-of-the-starting-gate storytellers, in my experience, that’s true. Again, you’re totally free to disagree — and if you do I won’t think you’re evil. ; – )

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  60. says

    I am a disagreeable old broad on occasion and this is one of those occasions.
    I really am not a ‘certifed’ critic although I admit that, at times, I can be certifiable.

    I am a ‘panster’.
    When I was a news reporter, I gathered the information I needed and the story just flowed. The key was having decided on the lead, not the direction. I rarely revised. I won two prestigious national awards in one year so it worked for me in those years.
    As a columnist, I think up a topic and start out with my take on it, and then just write why I think so. I rarely change anything, but I do review the facts. I wish all authors would do that. It’s annoying if they don’t. I read a book recently and the author didn’t know what a garderobe was. She consistently had her hero store his clothes in one. A garderobe is a toilet room in a Medieval castle.
    When I wrote a creative non-fiction book, I jotted down all the important areas I wanted to write about on a blank sheet of newspaper and then let them arrange themselves.
    I have not yet had to spend a great deal of time rewriting. I had the facts and let them fall in line. Pierre Berton and June Callwood judged it to be the best non-fiction book of 1995 for the Saskatchewan Writers Guild annual awards competition.
    Modest aren’t I?
    My comment is not to criticize your thought provoking and excellent blog but to give an example of how ‘panstering’ works for me.
    Mary Balogh, whose romance novels consistently appear on the New York Times Best Seller list said she is a ‘panster’.
    Wow. Would that my ‘panstering’ worked out even a tiny bit as
    well as her’s.

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  61. says

    Oh Connie, I’m a disagreeable old broad on occasion too, it’s kinda thrilling to meet one of the tribe. My goal here was not to criticize pantsing if it’s working for you — and clearly it is. My sole goal was to question it’s use when it’s NOT working. Simple as that! Thanks for your comment, you made me smile!

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  62. says

    Slight derail: Connie, in British English a “garderobe” is the very normal term for what you in the US call a closet … a synonym for “wardrobe”… for real, look it up! Though it is a bit old-fashioned now. When I was growing up people used it all the time with that meaning.

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  63. sevigne says

    Having been born and raised in England (I’m not sure if you also were), I’ve never heard anyone in my family, nor any of my friends, call a wardrobe a “garderobe.” I know the word from reading, and generally in its early meaning of a primitive water closet, but it was definitely not common in London when I was growing up. I wonder if C.S. Lewis would have sold less books in the Narnia series if he had called the first one the Lion, the Witch and the Garderobe?

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  64. says

    house because it has been 42.6 below zero C this week.

    A reply and a half. Guess this is what happens to pansters who panster when they shouldn’t.

    Sharon – I am now going to my garderobe to sulk

    connie

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  65. says

    Well, as I said, it’s pretty old-fashioned and I am in my 60’s! But the word does mean “keep dress” and it’s used the French word for wardrobe. Here in Germany, a Garderobe is the place you hand over your coat when you go to the theatre or opera or concert.

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  66. says

    Hello Sharon

    I looked it up and found that we are both right. In Medieval times it was a castle toilet room as I said.

    It is also a more recent term for a wardrobe or a closet.

    Medieval folks sometimes kept their clothes in the garderobe because the smell drove away fleas and moths and various others I should think.

    These days, I think guests should be told to put their clothes in the castle garderobe and not in the castle garderobe.

    Please note that I did not make a weak joke about ‘stink’. I am proud of myself. I think such a joke would stink anyway.

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  67. sevigne says

    It does translate to that but no one in England actually used it in everyday speech during the 50s, 60s, 70s, and up to the 200s, as far as I know. Maybe it’s something you use in Germany but it’s a bit misleading to say it’s normal in Britain.

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  68. says

    OK … maybe not. I grew up in Guyana and I was familiar with the word so I assumed it was so in the UK… we were after all a British colony! Well done for not making stinky jokes!

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