It’s the holiday season! And I know what you’re thinking. “So he’s bringing us yet another article about pantsing?” Well, in a way, yes. But one of my fondest Christmas wishes is that—whether you lean to plotting or pantsing—this essay will seem like a present, from me to you.
I recently had an epiphany, you see. And it feels like a gift. Which made me think that this is the perfect time of the year to share it.
Allow me to start at the beginning. The very beginning.
My Pantsing Puppyhood
From the first page of fiction I wrote, I was a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants, sans outline). This was long before I’d heard the term, or knew any different. It was my natural inclination. And looking back, I can see that pantsing was part of what kept me going. Or, more specifically, the surprising revelations that came early via my intuitive storytelling attempts left me wanting more. The surprises didn’t come just in the form of plot. New characters would pop up, as well as new connections between them. Visualizations of settings that expanded my story world came to mind all but fully formed.
It left me astonished. I wondered where it all came from, and still do. Whether you believe the arrival of story epiphany is at all mystical (the muse), or simply the conjuring of the subconscious becoming conscious, the phenomenon is worthy of our astonishment. Regardless of how the revelations came, the hankering I had for more is what kept me forging on to “The End” for the first time.
As writers, we all change and grow with experience, of course. And one of the changes I underwent—which I think is fairly common—is that I stopped relying on pantsing alone, and added many elements of what is commonly called plotting, but could perhaps be better described as advanced planning. This came about as a result of hard-won experience. Turns out it saves a TON of work if you have some things worked out in advance. I have experimented with, and adopted, many forms of advance work, including (but not limited to): character profiles and interviews, story-structure breakdowns, and short stories and scenes that explore backstory (that aren’t intended for the manuscript). I’ve even done a complete scene chart. On a spreadsheet! (Once.)
On a micro level, to this day, before each scene, I jot down the goals, motivations, and conflicts for the POV character, as well as a forecast for the crisis or segue that will end the scene. The practice has often helped keep me on course.
All of my prewriting rituals have made me more concise, focused, and aware, which has strengthened my writing. I firmly believe I am a better writer than the pantsing pup I describe above, in no small part due to the advance work I’ve adopted.
And yet… (You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)
Here’s My But (Or, Return to the Seat of the Pants)
In spite of my usual advance work, I recently found myself a little lost. My WIP is the center section of a story I developed several years ago (book two of an eventual trilogy). There is a completed manuscript of the first third of the story (book one), and I know where the story is going (the crux if not all of the details of book three). And yet, as I galloped toward the resolution, it felt like something wasn’t quite right. Which left me feeling cranky and adrift. After all, this was a manuscript I’d started almost a year ago—one I thought I had already figured out, and would finish by this past autumn. But here I was, in the midst of the holiday bustle, with no end in sight.
Thankfully, I recently made a breakthrough. I stumbled across an old note I’d written while reading one of Don’s essays here on WU  regarding layering the forces of antagonism. I wrote, “Personify the Empire sooner.” The military might of the Roman Empire is a looming force of antagonism throughout the trilogy, but it’s sort of a nebulous one in book two. Eventually a Roman general becomes an archenemy to my protagonist, but this general wasn’t scheduled to appear until part three of the story. I wracked my brain for ways to get him involved sooner, but to no avail.
In the meantime, I started rereading what I had, hoping a solution would occur to me in the process. And then it hit me. I came across an unnamed character (known only as “the sister of character X”) who is a source of contention for her brother. The siblings’ conflict isn’t deeply explored, and ends up resolved by her death during a raid on their city.
Thinking about her, my old pantser instincts kicked in. What if, years prior, my Roman general had been stationed in the siblings’ city? What if he and the sister had been an item, and their tryst had been part of the source of contention with the brother? What if, rather than dying, the unnamed sister lives through the raid and is held captive? What if the Roman general, now stationed far away, hears of it? What if part of the general’s motivation to so doggedly pursue my protagonist is that his long-lost love is being held against her will?
Bound By… Me?
Do you know that I actually scolded myself? “Nah,” I told my inner pantser pup. “It’s too complicated. It’d be yet another named character. And to do the idea justice, I’d need to have scenes from her POV. And I already have another love interest for the general.” What troubled me most was that I couldn’t (easily) work through the details as to where she’d be held, how her brother would react to all of this, how it would affect things in book three, and on and on.
But damn it, I was excited. For the first time in a long time. And I wanted to explore it.
It occurred to me how ridiculous it was to want to write something, and to not do it. I told myself I’d just try a scene. I’d give her a name, and imagine what had happened to her during the raid (how she’d be captured rather than killed).
The Gift of Pantsing
You can probably guess what happened. Yep, the sister character sprang to life. She is vibrant. She has spunk. Plus, she seems to make my gruff Roman general more dynamic. Seems like their fling back in Pontea was what made them each feel truly alive, and provided a shared scar. Best of all, my now-named sister gives my Roman general a plausible reason to appear in book two! I’ve since written four scenes from the pair’s POVs, and incorporated them into the manuscript.
I still haven’t worked out the details. I have no idea when, or even whether, she’ll die. I haven’t informed her brother that she’s survived the raid yet, but I’m sure that’ll be messy, too.
I’ve complicated my life, but so be it. I’ve restored my enthusiasm! I’d forgotten how freeing and exhilarating pantsing can be.
And so my gift to you is a simple reminder. Whether you’re a pantser at heart, or an extreme plotter, or something in between (as most of us are), take a look back at what brought you to the page. Remember not just the spark that started your journey, but what fueled your early attempts, filled your heart and kept you going.
I want to remind you that you don’t always have to have it all worked out.
I want to remind you that it’s okay to explore—to wander off of the beaten (pre-planned) path.
I want to remind you that the muse rewards the work, the butt-in-chair effort, not the talking about it or the agonizing over it.
I want to remind you to not be so hard on yourself, that steady effort will yield results.
I want to remind you that it’s okay to enjoy this, that it’s good to be astonished sometimes, and that enjoyment and astonishment will likely make your work stronger.
I want to remind you of all that you’ve already accomplished, and of how far you’ve come.
I want to remind you how lucky we are to live all of these separate lives, in these various worlds; how much fuller our lives are because of our characters, our storytelling, and our community.
I want to remind you to find—or more likely to relocate—the joy in this gig, and to hold it in your heart, and to cherish it, and to find ways to share that joy with those who are dear to you.
That’s my pantsing-inspired gift to you, WU. Wishing you and yours the best of the season.
I’d love to hear from you. It’s great if you want to tell me how you feel about pantsing (or how silly I am for allowing myself to wander down that pantsing path again). But I’d also love to hear about that spark, and that early fuel, and how you reconnect with the joy.
[Image is Snowy Path, by Kylle_Jaxxon on flickr ]