Admonitions for Pantsers

Writers are defined by their approach to the task.  On one end of the spectrum, you have Plotters (thanks to James Scott Bell for introducing me this distinction), who range from people who write a simple, hand-drawn idea webs, to obsessive-compulsive people like me, who have quasi-romantic feelings for charts, spreadsheets and bullet lists.

On the other hand, you have the Pantsers, who sit down to a blank page and just go.  They let the ideas flow, and worry about arranging them into a coherent order later.  Sounds like the easy alternative, right?

Not if you ask me.

If you've ever talked to someone who wrote a novel, and they told you "It's a mess..." chances are you were talking to a Pantser.  If you ever wrote something, then looked at it after the heat of creation had cooled, and thought "God this is awful," then chances are you Pantsed your way through it without a plan.

In case it's not apparent, I'm not a big fan of this strategy.  I think refusing to plan ahead is disrespectful to the task of writing a novel.

But the aggravating fact is, a lot of good writers are Pantsers.  Stephen King, whom I all but worship, is a Pantser (though he doesn't use the term when he discusses his methods in On Writing).  And to me, that's maddening.  How Pantsers manage to wrangle bloated, festering novels filled with irrelevant scenes into readable books is beyond me.  But people do it.

Most of the Pantsers I've encountered, however, are what they are because they don't know anything else.  And I can't blame them for that.  They're simply stuck in the first of the Four Stages of Competence. And there's no shame in that.

The thing is, you don't apply to Novelist Incorporated when you decide to become a novelist.  There's no predetermined course of training (alright, there are creative writing degrees, but you know what I mean).  There's nobody to tell you you must learn story structure before you attempt a novel.  I'd be willing to bet that most novelists start as Pantsers.  Even I, loudest herald of the Plotters, started as a Pantser.

But if you're aware of the distinction, and you choose to remain a Pantser, there are some things I think you should come to terms with, or you'll find your writing life an unhappy one.

Above all, you MUST accept the reality that you will delete 4-5 times as much as you you keep. It's the price of "letting ideas flow".

In this world, most ideas are bad. If you don't accept that early, you're in for a world of heartache.

This is the job. This is what you signed up for. When writers talk about killing your darlings, this is what they mean.

Another thing to realize now is that the burden of editing lies on you first.  Unless you have an ongoing relationship with a professional editor, you can't just write any old drivel and expect someone else to "fix it".  Even with a professional editor, it's rarely that simple.  Writing is hard work, but editing is what makes writing readable. If you're not participating in the editing process, you don't deserve the credit for the final draft.

The last thing to realize is that the defining emotion of your writer's journey is going to be frustration.  You are going to hit road blocks, and you're not going to have a map around them.  You're going to write scenes that go nowhere.  You're going to put characters in situations where they don't belong.  You're going to foreshadow some turn of events and then forget about it by the time it should come to fruition.  You are going to make massive story revisions and practically rewrite your books from the ground up.  In short, your rough drafts are going to be really...
...bad.  And 90% of the work you do as a writer will not be "letting ideas flow", it will be fixing the jumble of ideas that spilled out of you.

If you're willing to spend 90% of your time fixing what you wrote, then my hat is off to you.  As negative as I sound about Pantsing, I applaud the hardy souls who are able to work this way.  I don't have the emotional fortitude for it.  But if you do, then go forth with my blessing.

If this post scared you away from Pantsing, check out my Plotter's Manifesto and my series on Story Structure