The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: One – You Are Not Insane
by Kate Paulk
Today I’m starting a blog series of indeterminate length: this one about writing techniques and tips from the perspective on an extreme pantser. It will get weird: life does, when you write by the seat of your pants and assorted other parts of your anatomy (some of them without physical existence). So, without further preambling, enjoy part 1 of the extreme pantser’s guide.
The fiction writing world splits between plotters and pantsers – that is, those who plan it out before they start, and those who write by the seat of their pants as it were. Since just about every piece of advice on plotting, character building and the like assumes it’s talking to a plotter, that leaves the pantsers wondering what’s wrong with them when they simply can’t do this.
Worse, when a pantser tries to work with the detailed outlines and so forth, the result is ‘dead’ – there’s no life there.
Of course, there’s a pretty broad spectrum from the detailed spreadsheet and hundreds of pages of notes of the extreme plotter to the neat idea of the extreme pantser, and everything in between. The thing is, as an extreme pantser myself, I get almost no value out of the usual advice. The most it does is help me to fix things on occasions when I’ve written myself into a corner – and when that happens what I’m actually doing is reverse engineering the plot/characters/etc to work out what I missed and where I went wrong.
So, if that’s the way you work, take comfort. You aren’t alone. If it’s not, feel free to read and snicker at the apparently needless suffering we extreme pantsers endure.
Here’s the important bit: if you write well enough, no-one will know how you did it, and no-one will care.
Well, agents and editors do if you have to deal with proposal hell, since you’ve got to be someone like Terry Pratchett or Stephen King to be able to write what hits you and know your publisher will take it and push it (and even then it’s not a guarantee). Unfortunately, “I’m an extreme pantser. Can’t I just tell you my great idea?” doesn’t go terribly well in the mainstream publishing world.
This is why the opening of online publishing and the indie presses is such a wonderful thing for extreme pantsers. We can write it and publish it, and not have to try to get it past gatekeepers who don’t understand that not everyone can turn in a nice summary of their book before they’ve written it. Heck, I have trouble putting together a nice summary of it after I’ve written it – because I’m not necessarily aware of what the book is about.
Anyone who’s looking for the snuggly hug-me coats can stop right now: what a book is about is not the same as the plot. Anyone who doubts that should read Thud!, Unseen Academicals, and Snuff and then reflect on the plot and what those books are about. Only then can you come and bitch at me for not knowing what my own books are about.
This, ladies, gentlemen, and beings of indeterminate gender or species, is the difference between plotting and pantsing. The plotter is working with the conscious mind. The pantser is being worked by the subconscious – which is usually smarter and faster than the conscious, but doesn’t make nearly as much sense until you’ve got enough of the pieces in place to see the larger picture. Sometimes it takes longer than that, if your subconscious does the Pratchett trick of layering multiple levels of story and “about” in there.
The other big drawback to having your subconscious run the show is that it doesn’t pay attention to things like deadlines, real life, the need to have an income, or pretty much anything else mundane. It meanders on doing its own thing, then pipes up and tells you “Write this. Now” and doesn’t give you any peace until you do it.
Now, it’s not magic. It’s not anything exotic, really. What it is, is the part of you that dreams taking in all sorts of things from everything you experience, making notes somewhere inaccessible to the rest of you, and presenting you with the results. It’s not that different from looking at a situation and feeling like there’s something badly wrong: your subconscious has taken in all the cues and made the call to get out.
We do most things through this method – all those thousands of snap judgments you make when you’re driving, whether you stay well back from that vehicle or start braking shortly before the traffic blockage ahead registers consciously, they’re all handled at a subconscious level once you’ve done enough driving to be able to make the snap judgments. I don’t know what the actual numbers are, but a large part of the average person’s day isn’t lived in the conscious mind.
It’s not surprising that writing would happen that way too.
So, you, the extreme pantser, are not crazy. At least, not because you’re an extreme pantser. I’m not making guarantees about any other kind of crazy.