By the seat of my pants


You’ve heard the discussion before, I’m sure. Is pantsing better or plotting? And I’m here to tell you, I have no idea. I can tell you my experience with both and what I wish for and what I’m doing now.pants-around-ankles-de-84355262

I used to plot my novels. Don’t get me wrong. I was no John Pitts*. I did not outline a very detailed way at all. It amounted to mostly this happens and then this and then this and so on and so forth. It was easy. Looking back, I think that may be because either I jumped into the story before it was fully formed and did a lot of pantsing on the way, the stories were a lot smaller than the ones I tell now, or, and this one is the most likely, I didn’t have a fully formed sense of the world and characters and so I filled in a lot of that as I wrote. Which basically comes down to this: my approach to writing with my first books was to knock out a quick outline that I then mostly ignored, and follow up with a lot of angsty dithering and wallowing and daydreaming until a book arrived out of my fingers. After that, a hell of a lot of revision. That last step has not changed.

Every novel wants a different approach, it seems to me, and so all of a sudden my approach changed. I Could. Not. Plot. Oh I tried. But my brain kept veering away. It wouldn’t allow me to see into the story. I had to physically process it through my fingers before I could know it. That’s a long way of saying I full-out pantsed those books. And let me tell you, I hated it. I hated not having some sense of where I was going. I hated feeling terrified that I was going to break the story or screw up so bad that I’d have to throw everything out. I live in mortal fear of wasting words, which is totally stupid because I KNOW that I will write a lot more words for a book than its actual final word count. I hated being scared that I’d sit down at my computer and have no idea what to write.

That kept up for awhile, with me sometimes able to jump ahead and outline scenes or look forward a few chapters and know where I was going to go. I’d inch ahead that way, like bumbling through a dark tunnel with only a tiny flashlight that barely illuminates my shoes.

This also resulted in slowing down my word production by quite a lot. I spent a lot of time thinking through a scene and then writing it, and thinking whether that was right or this was right and going back over the writing and revising as I went. That was painful, because I’d lose track of pacing. I’d spend days and days on one scene and it would start to feel like it was dragging, but only because I’d spent so much time working on it. In other words, reality distorted.

Through all of this, I kept trying to outline. Or rather, I started keeping notebooks of world building information, character information, questions, what ifs, and you name it. Lots of bits I didn’t want to forget. I hand wrote some of those, and some I used Scapple for, which is a kind of a flow-chart outlining program. All of that was useful. But it didn’t speed up the process, and it didn’t make it any less painful.

This last February, I went to a writing retreat and I roomed with Devon Monk. She talked me into trying zero drafts. These are drafts that you write fast without correcting yourself and just race with the story. The idea is that you have fun and let the story just pour out of you. My problem with that is that if I have a description I need or a word that’s not what I want, I have a deep and weirdly compelling need to go find it in order to continue. Need. I can’t not do it. Devon’s recommendation was to just stick an asterisk in with a little note and keep moving, then search for asterisks later and do those corrections, along with revisions.

I agreed to make myself do this, even though I was pretty sure I’d end up in traction and needing a frontal lobotomy. But I did and I ended up stunning myself by writing over 32K words in about 3.5 days. I’ve never written that fast before. I had the barest idea of what I wanted to happen in the story, and I just decided to let the lizard brain take the driver’s seat and run with it. Which was terrifying. There’s always the fear and doubt that your creative mind will come up with good stuff, that you’re actually just blathering idiocy onto the page.

I was pleasantly surprised that I quite liked a lot of what I’d written. Sure, it’s rough, but the story itself is really good. So now I’m working on TheBlackShip200the fourth in my Diamond City Magic books. I have a lot to work with, since I’ve established threads in the previous novels that I need to tie up and then too, I need to work on a complete story and good resolution to the plots in this book, plus have satisfying character development. So I had a lot of puzzle pieces, but I had no plot. I knew where I was starting from, but that was about it.

I started it before the retreat and then set it aside for other projects. I’m now back to working on it and using the zero-draft brain-barf method. It’s working. I’m getting unexpected twists, entertaining dialog, and fun action. For me. All that entertains the crap out of me, which is really my goal. I’d hate to spend this much time writing if I was going to be bored. I like instant gratification.

Even though I’ve successfully done this, I still find this pantsing process incredibly scary. What if I don’t ever arrive at a destination? What if it all makes gobbledygook sorts of sense? What if my story is as flat as a board and bland as rice cakes? What if I can’t think my way out of the box I’ve trapped my story in? (In my book, The Black Ship, my main character kept coming within a hair’s-breadth from death. His was the only point of view. If he died, the book was done. One time I wrote him into such a corner I didn’t think I could get him out. But I liked the story line. Eventually I sorted a good plot line out and was able to keep going. But I was chewing my nails hard). What if I can’t figure out what comes next?

See, people who aren’t writers think we are in control of the story and characters. And that’s technically true. But what they don’t know is that the ‘we’ in that statement refers less to the rational part of us than the speed freak demon imp living in the basement of our brains, eating mold and stale Cheetos, drinking flat beer with a whiskey chaser, smoking bird seed and peanut butter, and having orgies with all the other basement imps in the world. So yeah. That’s who’s really in control. And I love that little freak-show critter. It’s the reason my books have flair and flavor and fun. Because the me I’m entertaining is mostly all the friends and family of that imp who live up in the attic I call a brain.

So that’s it. That’s me and pantsing and plotting.


*John Pitts, author of the Sarah Jane Beauhall books, will sometimes write 60,000 word outlines for a 90k book. He’s a machine. An insane machine as far as I can tell.


author pic francisDiana Pharaoh Francis writes books of a fantastical, adventurous, and often romantic nature. Her award-nominated books include The Path series, the Horngate Witches series, the Crosspointe Chronicles, and Diamond City Magic books, and the Mission:Magic series. She’s owned by two corgis, spends much of her time herding children, and likes rocks, geocaching, knotting up yarn, and has a thing for 1800s England, especially the Victorians. For more about her writing, visit She can also be found on twitter as @dianapfrancis.





2 comments to By the seat of my pants

  • Razziecat

    That….is pretty much the way I write. Detailed outlines kill my stories dead. When I put my brain into “let’s see where this goes” mode, the words fly out of me. A lot of revising happens afterward, and I do have to take a break now and then to fix major plot holes that would otherwise derail the story, but for the most part, if I keep going just to get the bare bones down, I write better and I get stuck less.

    I do have to have an idea of where I’m going, and I need one other essential thing: I have to KNOW my characters, pretty intimately. They still manage to surprise me, which is why I keep writing; but if they’re too new, the story dries up. I write short scenes, chunks of dialog, and quickie descriptions of whatever grabs my attention, all of which builds up into an understanding of the characters’ psyches and motivations. A lot of that may not go into the story, but it’s in the back of my mind, informing everything I write 😉

  • Razziecat: The hardest thing for me has been to trust that the story will pull together, and get over the fact that I’m likely to have to throw away more words. It feels like wasted effort. It’s not, but convincing my mind of that is tough.