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A User’s Guide to Pantsing

I am a pantser. And before anyone starts getting ideas that I’m one of those people…

I am a pantser.

And before anyone starts getting ideas that I’m one of those people who think it’s the height of humour to pull someone’s trousers down against their will, I’m talking about writing.

Although I realise that, to a certain portion of the writing community, pantsing a story is almost as horrifying as pantsing a person, and I would recommend looking away now if that’s the case for you.

Because, while I freely admit that my writing process is at times (often) chaotic, and that rewriting sprawling rough drafts is my life, I also love pantsing. I love it. It’s amazing. It delights and entertains and excites me, and while I have in the past tried to reform my pantsing ways (because there does seem to be a general consensus that pantsing is Not The Way To Do Things), I have now accepted that it’s just how my brain works.

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I have never known anything to be so accurate.

Also, resistance is futile, because my creativity whistles up its cats and hides in the hedges if I get too plotty.

So, because there are so many articles out there telling you how to plot, I am here to tell you … well, how I pants. Because if there’s one thing I’m sure of after nine published books and a rather uncomfortable amount of WIPs, it’s that I can’t tell you how to write. No one can. Your writing process is yours, as individual as the beautiful quirks of your strange little heart, and while we can all learn from each other, pick up tips and tricks and handy shortcuts, none of us will ever write the same way. And that is just how it should be.

And if you have a sneaking feeling that you, also, are a pantser, maybe this will give you a few ideas. Or at least show you that very messy processes can still get the job done.

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Yeeeah.

The beginning.

I have an idea. Usually it’s the first line, or a chaotic end scene, and I just leave it in my head percolating while I go on with other things. Every now and then I check on the idea, and throw a few questions or observations at it, and it generally ignores me, but all these thoughts settle around it like mulch (or other forms of, well, fertiliser) and help it grow. At some point, something sparks – this might be days or weeks later. Really new ideas, with new characters and new worlds, can take even longer. I’ve always got a few hanging around in dark corners, taking up space.

But eventually, I check in and find the new shoots of an idea that’s grown strong enough for me to take hold of.

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Which is lucky, really.

The rough draft.

A.k.a, pinning the idea to the page. I’ve always loved that Ray Bradbury quote at the top of the post regarding creativity being like a cat. There’s no point chasing it. It’s got to come to you.

So this is the point at which the story has uncoiled from that first delicate shoot and come padding over to you on soft little feet. And I pick it up and I start to write. I’m a linear writer, simply because I have no idea what happens next until I write it down. I have a starting point, and an end point, but all the bits inbetween? Well, your guess is as good as mine.

Which means that I just write, and the characters get on and do their things, and sometimes they go where I expect them to, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes other characters appear out of nowhere and take over. I’ve learned to let them. The rough draft is just me and the page, and there’s no point trying to make it go where I think it should. I’ll only scare the cats away.

I should point out that if you came here thinking this was going to be a decent how-to column, I’m sorry. You may be a panster who starts at the end and writes backwards, or writes scenes as they occur to you, in a completely non-linear manner, in which case I’m not being very helpful. But all these options are good, okay? You can write the whole thing in a secret code known only to you and your cat, while sitting on the roof of your treehouse in a pirate’s costume. That’s your style, and it’s as valid as anyone else’s. Just write.

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Fairly accurate, really.

The what … what IS this? moment.

Very rarely – very rarely – I have a book that unrolls all the way to the end, with me chasing after it in a joyous sprint. Rather more often, I get confused in the middle somewhere, lose track of my characters, and have to climb up out of the mess of the rough draft and find a vantage point. Sometimes I can see pretty quickly where I lost the path, and get back on it. Sometimes I realise that I’ve written 20,000 words that don’t go where I want them to, and I start again, write another 20,000, then realise that the first version actually was better, and go back to that. Ahem. Pantsing has its risks.

For most books I do have to have a bit of a regrouping at some point. It’s often that soggy middle stage, when I’m splashing around wondering how I get out. Here’s where I like to pull out Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet or Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, or a four-act plan (it depends on the story as to what works best), and shove a few things onto it. That’s usually enough to get me moving again. And I don’t worry too much about the fiddly details – muddled days and geographic shifts are for later drafts. As are getting names right, although, admittedly, it’s really hard to rename characters after you’ve spent 60,000 words with them …

Oh, and a note on that – my rough drafts are short. Usually only 50-60,000 words. My rewrites are when the word counts climb, and I tend to end up around the 80,000 mark, which works for my genre. You may write more to start, and cut back in rewrites. As ever, do what works for you, and what your story calls for.

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This is also a problem. And they all try to climb into the same story.

After The End.

Having found my way out of the mess in the middle, I usually find that the book takes on its own momentum, and getting to the end is just a matter of hanging on and going with it. Which isn’t to say it makes sense. Just that I don’t worry about sense-making. That’s for later.

But, having hit the end, I now have to wait. Impatient me wants to jump straight in and sort the story out (so much to do!). Sensible me knows I’m way too close to the story, and need to give it a good month before I look at it again. I usually compromise and give it a couple of weeks, by which time I’ve cycled several times through this story is the best thing I’ve ever written I love it so much/this story is the worst thing written in the history of the world and I should destroy it unread before it goes feral and bites someone.

You know how it goes.

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IT’S FINE.

The rewrite begins.

I always start a rewrite with a mix of horror and hope, which is fun. Also with a lot of tea, and preferably a full packet of chocolate biscuits. I read through the whole mess once, in one sitting if I can, and scribble a sentence or two on each chapter, just so I can see the shape of the plot. This is usually the point at which I realise I’ve tried to include about three plot lines too many, and also possibly the plot of an entire other book. Which is cool, as I can use those later. And also not cool, as now I have to untangle them from the rest and pull them out.

Once I have all my notes, and have decided what plot lines are staying and what will be kept back for here’s one I prepared earlier moments, I go back to my beat sheet, story circle, or four-act plan, and stick my plot points in. Sometimes they (somewhat astonishingly) just fit straight in, other times I’ll cycle through all three types of plan a few times, getting the shape of the story more to where I want it every time. I’m not strict about it – they’re guidelines, not a rigid structure, as far as I’m concerned. But I want the plot points to hit in roughly the right places, so there may be a bit of tweaking involved. And this also gives me a good idea about what’s missing – do I need more clues, more foreshadowing, more conflict earlier? Here’s where I find out what missing pieces and ill-fitting joins I sprinted past without seeing on my way to the end.

This review takes a couple of days, sometimes longer. Often I end up taking long walks while muttering to myself, “But just how did the otter end up in the pantry?” or something similar, and alarming unsuspecting passersby. But I try not to take too long about it, because I don’t want the story to fade in my mind. Sometimes I don’t quite have all the changes completely set in my head before I start into the next draft. But as long as I know the first third of the book, I’ll start anyway. The rest will come once I’m in the story.

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How I feel trying to make my story fit into a plan.

The first draft.

Armed with my story plan, I can now re-fortify myself with a fresh supply of tea and more biscuits, and jump into the rewrite proper. I know a lot of people hate rewriting, because they’ve already been there, done that with the story, and maybe if you’re a good plotter you don’t even need to rewrite all that much. But, here’s the thing – if you’re going to pants, you’re going to rewrite. Probably a lot. Embrace it. Learn to love it. I actually find it really exciting, because I’m about to take this sloppy, tentacled mess of a story, pare away all the detours and rambles and dead-ends, and turn it into something that actually looks like a book. It’s very cool.

So in I go. And somewhere along the way I’ll probably have to go back to my plan, tweak it a bit to accommodate new information I’ve uncovered, and check everything is still roughly holding shape, but it won’t be a big change. Well, not usually. Not that usually, anyway. Look, the key to pantsing is flexibility, alright?

Sometimes these rewrites are huge and take ages, and I’ll end up rewriting so much that I’m basically writing a whole new book, and other times they’ll be done and dusted by the end of the week, because the characters just knew what they were doing in the rough draft, and I let them get on with it. I mean, the major problems in my stories are usually caused by me getting in the way, so. I should stop doing that.

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YES I AM.

And onwards.

After the first draft’s done it’s on to the things that are the same for all writers. Another pass to tweak language and catch the worst of the misplaced words, then off to the beta readers, who will point out where I’ve lost a cat, mysteriously acquired a ferret, and broken the laws of time/space/physics in general. Beta readers are vital. If you don’t know some, I highly recommend finding lovely people who are willing to read your stories and tell you honestly what they think. Don’t get your mum or significant other to do it. Either they won’t be honest, which is unhelpful, or they will, and … Well, Sunday dinner’s going to be awkward.

Then it’s back to me to fix my mistakes, and then off to my wonderful editor to catch all my grammar errors and the weird things that I never, ever see. This often involves multiple characters with the same name, and more missing cats.

Look, my books have a lot of cats in them.

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And that’s it. It’s a messy, instinctive process that I can’t even call a system, but it works. For me, anyway. And that’s the key, lovely people. We all want to be told we’re doing things the right way, that there’s some system we can follow step by step which will mean our stories will work and our books will be amazing. I spent ages trying to make myself plot, and ended up with more rewrites than ever before, and stolid stories that never got going until I threw out all my painstakingly designed plans and gave in to my innately pantsing nature.

No one thing works for everyone.

Creativity is not the same for everyone.

Own your creativity. Own your stories.

Learn, experiment (we’re still talking stories here. If you’re experimenting elsewhere, get consent), and find out what works for you. It won’t look the same as my process. It won’t look the same as anyone’s. But it’ll work for you.

And that’s the bit that matters.

Now over to you, lovely people – what’s your creative endeavour of choice? How have you developed it? Is it something you plan, or something you wing? Let me know below!

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  1. Carolyn says:

    I think I’m a Ray Bradbury type but I know I can make up a tale on my feet when asked for one from children. Sadly I can never remember them afterwards to write them down and they don’t seem to be so great when I review them I’m deeply suspicious that some cat takes them and passes them on to authors more worthy of composing a tale

    1. Kim Watt says:

      Storytelling is such an amazing talent to have! I’m not at all sure I’d have the ability to come up with something on the fly like that. My dad’s always been really good at that sort of thing, but I have a feeling my stories would get very weird…

      1. Carolyn says:

        Ankle-biters love weird.

        1. Kim Watt says:

          They have good taste 🙂

  2. Tammie says:

    As if to erase any doubt about the “cloned twin” hypothesis we’ve got going…my second-to-last blog post/video was about pantsing. Seriously, I’m getting freaked out at this point. : ) Great post, by the way!!

    1. Kim Watt says:

      I saw you mention it in your newsletter! I need to go and watch it. This is FAR too weird now. And are you doing okay there? The heat sounds pretty horrifying 🙁

Comment away! (Points awarded for comments involving cats, tea, or baked goods)

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