Friday, May 3, 2013

Pantsers of the World, Unite!

A Facebook friend asked me to post on the topic of writing without a plan.  Ever eager to oblige, here goes....

Conventional wisdom holds that when it comes to drafting, there are two kinds of writers: Planners and Pantsers.

The former plan everything out.  The latter fly by the seat of their pants.

Now, like most dichotomies, this one falls apart in actual practice.  There's no writer so organized that s/he doesn't wing it sometimes, nor is there any writer so carefree that s/he doesn't plan sometimes.

However, if we're thinking not in terms of absolutes but in terms of tendencies and dispositions, it's certainly true that some writers lean more toward the Planner side, while others incline more toward the Pantser side.

I'm more of a Pantser.  I like to discover what I'm writing while I'm writing it.  Part of this comes from my history as a teacher, where I've had plenty of opportunity to watch emergent writers discover their skills, their ideas, their point of view over the course of a semester or a paper or a paragraph.

But my Pantser-ish tendencies are also a matter of disposition: I find it boring and tedious to plan everything out.  I find that it limits my creativity rather than liberating it.  I know I'm going to change everything anyway, so why bother?

Case in point: my forthcoming YA novel, Survival Colony Nine, started only with a setting (post-apocalyptic desert world), a name (Querry), and a relationship (father-son).  After a few pages an antagonist emerged: the creatures I call the Skaldi.  After 150 pages or so, I decided I needed to be a bit clearer in my own mind about where the story was headed, so I wrote a series of 2-sentence summaries for the remaining chapters.  Shortly thereafter, I also decided I needed to be clear about the physical layout of an important plot space, so I drew a map.  Finally, as the character list grew, I typed up a running roster of their names.

But that was the extent of my planning.  The rest emerged through the writing and revision.

And oh, did it ever emerge through the writing and revision!  The narrator's voice settled into a rhythm, new characters popped up, relationships among existing characters morphed and solidified, the nature of the Skaldi became clear, the history of the world came into focus, and so on and so forth.  The stuff I'd planned out changed radically while I was writing it (I ended up scribbling changes on the original print-out), and even more radically through five complete revisions: one chapter vanished entirely, two others fused, scenes from still others were created anew or modified or deleted or moved.

In short, I found out what I was trying to say in the act of trying to say it.  The book ended up in a place I never anticipated when I started it, but I'm very happy with where it ended up.

Another case in point: the sequel to Survival Colony Nine, the working title of which is Scavenger of Souls.  When I started, I had only that title, which sounded kind of cool to me.  I also knew I had to take my narrator to a new place, both physically and emotionally; I had to open up his world to new vistas, new possibilities, new threats and challenges.  But what any of those things was going to be, I had very little idea.

I'm now two-thirds of the way through the manuscript-in-progress, and I have a pretty good idea of it all.  But there's still room for surprise and discovery.

The bottom line is this: there is no "right" way to write a novel.  (Or a poem, or a play, or an essay, or an anything.)  In a previous post, "Wake Up and Smell the Novels," I harped at overly restrictive advice about how to structure one's novel; here, I would emphasize that the same applies to how one writes one's novel.

If you're a Planner, you must have a good reason to be so.  If you're a Pantser, same deal.  Don't try to be a Planner when you're a Pantser at heart just because somebody in publishing told you you have to be.  And don't try to write by the seat of your pants if, deep down, you thrive on the planning process.

Be grateful that in writing, as in life, there are many roads to the realization of your dreams.


  1. Pantsers Unite indeed! The more books I write (WIP is the 4th) the less pre-planning I do. And I'm okay with that because of all the reasons you mentioned. The only time it's become a problem is when my agent asked me to write a synopsis for the book I'd at that point only thought of in terms of opening scene. (Just in case book options became part of a discussion with editors). So, I wrote it and told her it was likely to bear almost no resemblance to the completed book :)

    1. Rhiann,

      Awesome comment! I wrote a synopsis for "Scavenger of Souls" and the yet-to-be-written third book in my trilogy-in-progress, and I've already changed so much in the actual writing that the synopsis is like ancient history. So I guess the art here is to write a synopsis that sounds great, even if it's less than a vestige of what the book is actually going to be.