We all know what plotting is, right? Just search Magical Words for “plot”, and you have all the keys to greatness. But perhaps you don’t know the other half of the writer coin: PANTSING. It means that when you start writing, you don’t always know where you’re going to end up. For me, pantsing is a lot like a college road trip: you know where you’re starting out, you have a general idea of where you want to end up, and lots of really weird stuff that you couldn’t possibly anticipate will happen in between.
In some ways, pantsing is the equivalent of starting too early. You have an idea. You have characters. You have an instigating factor. And instead of really chewing on the story until you can draw out a timeline or plot out the action, you just… go.
Now, notice that this method won’t work if you want to drive from Atlanta to San Diego and see every Guinness World Record and eat at every Waffle House from here to there, nor will it suffice if you’re on a tight timetable. If you’re writing something historical, something with dueling POVs, or something with GRR Martin-level plot intricacies and timing– well, you’re stuck with outlining. But if you read a lot and haven an internal understanding of story and character arcs, it might work. I wrote my first three books entirely by pantsing, and I still work only from the shortest synopsis my editor will allow. And even then, the end result sometimes varies wildly.
There’s a lot of room for failure when you start without a complete plot, I’ll admit, especially if you’re relatively new to novel writing. The biggest trap is a deep, dark hole I call Making Things Real. That’s when a novel begins with the writer attempting to bludgeon the reader into believing that things exist. Instead of a story moving forward, you get a prologue, a few meaningful quotes, a detailed map of a place that has never existed, a long list of character names and descriptions, and then four pages detailing the setting and clothing in the opening scene without more action than lots of glancing. “These things are real,” you say, to yourself and the reader. “I will force you to see them.” But the reader wants movement and energy, and that’s why so many first chapters get cut, I think. You have to know where you are to know where you’re going.
The thing is, if you’re going to pants your novel, you have to be constantly writing in your head. You know where to start, you know the moment everything changes, you know the climax, you know the ending. But everything else is sort of a surprise, and you leave yourself space to have fun. Dorothy gets caught in a tornado, lands in Oz and kills the witch, goes to see the Wizard, gets back home. But the interesting bits are the little cul-de-sacs where she meets friends along the way. If you’re lucky, your characters will walk onstage and be real, just like the Cowardly Lion. And if your characters walk on and lack that “pop”, check out my post last week on Character Retrofitting. Revisions are your friend.
So while you’re writing your first draft, be sure to finish your writing for the day knowing what will happen tomorrow, or at least leave a juicy sentence or cliffhanger and spend the rest of your day and night figuring it out. Like so:
As Christina curled up in the Earl’s bed for the first time, she couldn’t help wondering what kept her new husband out so late on their first night as husband and wife. Perhaps one of his prized horses was foaling, or maybe he had received a letter from Parliament? Surely he would join her soon, as much as the idea frightened her. Rolling onto her back, she bolted up when she heard the door open in the hall. Finally, he was here!
But why were the footsteps those of a running woman, rather than the muscular earl’s sure tread?
WHO IS THAT WOMAN? WHY IS SHE RUNNING DOWN THE HALL?
I don’t know yet, but you can bet I’ll figure it out tomorrow in the shower or while driving my kid to school and listening to my playlist. Your subconscious is brilliant, and if you give it the space and encouragement it needs to solve problems, it totally will. Many a time I’ve ended my writing on a conundrum or twist, not knowing how to get myself out of a bind. And then, when I was waking up or swimming, the answer just came to me.
In my third Blud book, WICKED AFTER MIDNIGHT, I knew that Demi would land in a cabaret in Paris and need help from the cabaret girls to find her kidnapped friend. The first girl who gave her a hand up was a green daimon named Mel. Although I didn’t know much about Mel, I knew she was the kind-hearted type to take in strays. But then I realized that she was half of a whole, and she gave a blue daimon named Bea a certain look, and suddenly I had a beautiful relationship between Mel and the mute girl she’d found hiding in the cabaret one night. Mel and Bea’s loving partnership became an integral part of the book, and something that happens to them at the end always brings tears to my eyes. Because I didn’t plot out from the start who would help Demi navigate the cabarets, I ended up letting Mel and Bea surprise me, and I’m so glad I did.
And don’t worry– the Pants Club won’t kick you out if you keep little notes at the bottom of your document about things you’d like to happen later. I’m a firm believer in everyone having their own process, and sometimes each book having its own process. The thing about pantsing is that while you can teach plotting, you can’t teach pantsing. You need optimism, obsession, time on task, and the willingness to trust your subconscious and your gut. And you also need the ability to sense when you’ve gone off course and need to backtrack. Even Batgirl fleece pants can’t make writing easy.
Wanna see a pantsed e-novella in motion? My third Blud e-novella, THE DAMSEL AND THE DAGGERMAN, is out now. And I only knew four plot points when I wrote the first sentence. The attack lobsters were a gift from my subconscious.
Thanks again for having me at Magical Words!