In Defense of Pantsing

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about methods of getting a book written. This is expected writerly talk. Put writers together and eventually we’re talking craft. At the RWA National conference there’s loads of great workshops about these subjects. Quite sometime ago I had to stop listening to presentations about craft. That’s because they freak me out. Ack!!! I’m doing it wrong!!!! And then I dissolve into this gelatinous mass of self-doubt. Earlier in my career, I needed those workshops. I needed to learn about what other writers did and how they approached problems of story and craft.

I need less of that now because I’ve been at it a while.  I’ve spent hours and hours and hours and hours learning myself as a writer.

Some writers are “seat of the pants” writers and some are “plotters.” (Pantser vs. Plotter) This tends to be a polarizing issue and one that, for some reason, often sounds like ‘pantsing is wrong/immature/inefficient.’

No. It’s not.

I think it’s more accurate to talk about writers and their requirements for structure in their process. Some require a lot and some require less. It’s not a This or That situation. It’s a continuum, and what matters, ultimately, is whether your process results in a finished book where “finished” means it’s great story and you’ve fixed all your bonehead errors and typos.

Did you FINISH that puppy?

I love podcasts. I listen to lots of writing podcasts– most about the business because craft discussions — see above. Just about all my favorites have recently featured guests who said, in some form or another, some obliquely and some overtly, that pantsers are doing it wrong.

No. They are not. I have been writing long enough that actually, I know I’m not doing it wrong. I am coming up on 30 published novels, novellas, and short stories. Most of those 30 are 100,000 word novels. I have been traditionally published and now I self publish. There was a period, during which, by the way, I did not sell a single novel, in which I tried structured approaches.

I once wrote a 70 page outline. I’ve done character bios, charts, you name it, if it involved pre-planning so you know what you’re going to write, I tried it and I failed miserably. I FAILED MISERABLY AT PLOTTING. I lost an embarrassing number of years out of my writing career because all the writing books insisted on structure and pre-planning, and that had to mean I was doing it wrong. Right?

Charts, Bios, GMC, Outlines: GO AWAY!

I’m one of the few authors around who sold her first book. Two weeks after I queried it. By pantsing it, by the way. I had no idea what I was doing so I did what I felt like doing and it turned out I’d managed to hit on the process that worked for me pretty much right off the bat.

When I hear a new author talk about how they they were a pantser but boy, that first book was such a mess, it’s still under the bed, so OBVIOUSLY pantsing is wrong — Folks, no, Just NO. What it means is that author had not yet discovered her writing process. Few people writing their first novel know what process works for them. But it doesn’t mean that messy process is wrong for everyone. It’s a newbie effort, so all you new writers, your job is to find out what works for you. You have to keep writing to find out. You do have to pay attention to craft discussions and try out techniques so you know if it works for you.

All those plotter sort of things that are supposed to be a better, faster way to write are likely to completely fail some authors. All those pantser “just let it flow” things are going to fail some authors.

Carolyn the pantser (with a full time job) has written novels in 90 days while in graduate school, with a young son. I have written 30K word novellas in 30 days. Without a single outline. With very little planning.

The kind of significant planning that so many plotters do is a waste of time for me. Not for them. For me. I know this because my traditional publishers used to make me write synopses and it was awful horrible, dreadful and not one single synopsis I ever wrote (unless it was after the book was done) had the slightest resemblance to the book I turned in. None. Zero.


In the time it would take me to write a synopsis that didn’t make my agent cry— actually, I never wrote a synopsis that didn’t make my agent cry (Sorry, Kristin!)— I could have been 20 pages into the actual book.

Here is how it works for me: I spend 3-4 days bouncing around ideas in a notebook for an hour or so a day. Handwritten. I now have fountain pens so this is fairly awesome. I describe various things the book might be about, things that might happen etc. And from that comes this sense of the emotional heft of the characters who will be on the page. And then, I start writing. I pick a scene that represents that emotional heft and I start writing at what I figure is the middle of their story. My notebooking focuses me and gives me a place to start. I think about those characters and their story and I KNOW FOR SURE my story will be about some series of events.

{Folks, Ima setting you up. About now, you’re saying “BUT THAT’S PLOTTING!!!!}

I sit down to write and

Not one single thing I notebooked happens. The characters say and do stuff I didn’t expect and in response to that more stuff happens that I didn’t expect. But it’s magic. If I pay attention to what’s happening on the page my characters show me the interesting complicated fascinating relationship they will have. My job is to let that happen no matter what I wrote in my notebook.

My writing is constant focusing, brainstorming, following the threads that appear, deciding that X will happen and being totally prepared and willing to go with Y if that’s what’s happening. I brainstorm in my notebooks as needed — because I do need that. But I’m never more than a few scenes ahead. There’s no point.

Nobody Knows You’re a Pantser

After nearly 30 novels, I know that’s what it will be like. Not one single outline, no charts, no beats. No nothing. Sometimes I’ll go in and chop things up or out or rejigger. Every story is a little different, a different shape and heft on the page. I’ve had books that I rewrote in 3 weeks because I knew the traditional editorial process had failed me. I’ve had books where editors said “Don’t change a word.” I’ve had books I heavily revised because my editor was right about a weakness.

Some people write faster than I do. But loads of people write slower. And nobody can tell I’m a pantser from the finished product. Just like readers can’t tell if a book was plotted in advance.

I have one doorstop/under the bed book. It’s the one I tried to plot. Every other book I’ve written has been published. So, you know, pantsing works. If you’re a pantser.


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