The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

So, you’ve got the typical pantser problem of a neat scenario that’s grabbed you and won’t let go. How do you know when to start writing it and commit to a story?

I’m going to get really authoritative here and say “it depends”. Really, it does. I’ve started stories with nothing more than the scenario and had them build to a finish. I’ve had others I couldn’t start until I’d worked out how it ended. I’ve also had – not so often – cases where the starting scenario isn’t where the book actually starts, but I’ve got to write the bloody thing to work this out. On occasion, I have to know exactly where it starts before I can write it. This is one of those things that you learn by judgment, and by trial and error.

Yes, that does mean that the more extreme the pantser the more likely there’ll be a large collection of false starts, whether story ideas that didn’t have the pull they needed or weren’t quite right in some other, hard to define way, or ideas that simply weren’t big enough to sustain a book. Don’t throw them out. If your subconscious works anything like mine, unresolved story ideas will hang around like last week’s chili until you figure out where they belong and resolve them. That or they were never really “alive” in the first place.

Most of the pantsers I know operate on a principle of “Start story. Continue until the end.” It’s pretty typical for a pantser not to be able to write out of sequence, simply because if you can’t do the detailed outlining (or the detailed outlining ends up bearing no resemblance to your finished story) there’s no way the ‘good bit’ halfway through is going to end up being the same as what you thought it would be at the beginning – if you even know what that good bit is.

Given all of this, my advice to all you pantsers out there is to get something down as soon as you think there’s enough to carry it. It doesn’t have to be right, it just has to be there. What nailing something down early does is give you a feel for how the piece is going to evolve on you, and this being a primarily subconscious exercise that’s rather important.

While you’re playing with the idea, listen to a lot of different music. I’ve found that certain music acts to ‘set’ my subconscious for writing a piece. I’d also recommend prayer, if you’re the praying sort. I haven’t had this happen to me – yet – but I know people who’ve found themselves stuck with endlessly looping Abba’s Greatest Hits to write something. I gather this gives the conscious mind a pretty powerful incentive to get the thing finished, too. At any rate, the broader your listening, the more likely you’ll find something that works for your story.

For most pantsers I know (and if you’re an exception to this, feel free to ignore it), I’ve found the best way to start is to park butt in chair and start where you think it starts. Sometimes it will take off and you’ve written several chapters without realizing the passage of time. Other times you’ll need more before you can get moving. In either case, you’ve started. No amount of playing with an idea can reify it the way writing it down does.


18 thoughts on “The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

  1. I’ll add that, at least at the beginning, even the most extreme pantser should be aware of plotter techniques and at least somewhat able to use them.

    There will be moments of writer’s block, when butt’s in chair, fingers are on keyboard, but nothing comes. It can then be useful to drop back to an analytic form — what is the current chapter/scene/blob o’text supposed to accomplish? From there it’s often possible to grind past the bad spot and reach the point where the way forward is reasonably clear and the words flow again.

    I think that, as you get more and more into it, this becomes both more or less instinctive and less and less necessary. Practice helps develop most any technique, and outlining/plotting/planning ahead is no different. Also, if you have several things in work at the moment, abandoning the current project on a temporary basis and working on something else can break the log jam.


    1. Actually, Ric, I found that beginnings aren’t a good place to try to use the plotter techniques. Middles are usually where I need that – the thing is that knowing them is important, and getting them to the level where they’re more or less internalized is probably the single best technical thing a pantser can do.

      1. By “in the beginning” I meant the start of a writer’s career. Newbies have a strong tendency to be pantsers. Trouble is, the pure pantser is unlikely to make a living at it, especially in what we are now calling the “legacy publishing” world. There really isn’t anything there, for a pure pantser, between Dickens and a drawerfull of guff.

        To survive, a midlist writer needs plotter techniques. Publishers want, demand, predictability and productivity, and a pure pantser can’t guarantee either one — if the muse wanders off down the pub for a pint and a game of darts, deadlines don’t get met and checks don’t get written. And yes, that happens most often in the middle of the story. Trust me, I know the feeling of grinding it out word by word, while Thalia and Melpomene party it up just barely within earshot.


      2. Ric,

        That’s what I get for replying when I’m exhausted – this has been hell-week at work with a massive release and loads of overtime: not good for the resident narcoleptic.

        Speaking as a pure pantser, that and the simple fact that the legacy publishing world has no clue what to do with me are why I’m publishing through Naked Reader Press – I get the advantage of a certain amount of editing and someone else sorting out cover art (at which I stink), but they’re not hung up on having to slot things into this or that sub-sub-genre.

        My muse takes off for tropical islands and the drinks with umbrellas in them. Most unfair, really. She doesn’t even send post cards.

  2. I need to write down ideas immediately, memory like a shiny steel sieve.

    What I write is rarely just the raw idea. Once I sit down, all of a sudden there’s a character doing things. My first draft, first chapter is typically larded with worldbuilding. The first editing I do eliminates all but the essential, sometimes the entire first chapter. Or three.

    I’ve gotten used to this pattern, and kept it. And learned to stop letting people read that draft.

    1. O yes. In my experience, this is how in media res openings are born.

      The fit passes, and you look back to discover 5K words on the anatomy, physiology, aerodynamics, and financial status of dragons. That all goes in the outtakes file, to be mined later for background and continuity, and is replaced by

      “Oh, shit!” George said, and dived behind the biggest nearby boulder with a clang! of plate. “That wasn’t supposed to be here.”

      “You were expecting maybe the welcome wagon?” the dragon said as it clambered over the still-smoking rockpile…


      1. Ric,

        As an opposing data point, I’d probably have started with George behind the boulder, with his armor starting to sizzle, and realized later that the dragon he’s trying to slay is part of something much, much more complicated and his in it up past his neck. In armor that’s going to set fire to his clothes if he doesn’t get it off right now.

        I don’t think I’ve ever started anywhere but in media res. Sometimes the wrong media res, but still.

    2. Pam,

      I know the stainless steel lint-trap effect way too well. I’m usually presented with an opening. It may not be the real opening, but it’s an opening. Then a bunch of world-building stuff, then the story ends up emerging.

      As always, it’s a matter of figuring out what works for you, and knowing enough to know when to do what.

  3. I don’t consider myself a writer but I’ve have a story in my mind where I know roughly how the story goes *but* I couldn’t believe in *how* I got my character into the situation.

    1. Paul,

      Actually, the question is how your character got himself into that situation. Which sometimes needs creative editing so someone else will believe it.

      Heinlein had it right. Life is not only stranger than we believe, it’s stranger than we can believe.

      1. Well Kate, I have no problem with my character doing something stupid (later on he’ll admit at how stupid he was). It’s how the “good guys” get him out of the first stupid situation without them being stupid and without making my character a passive by-stander in his own story. [Grin]

        Basicly this is a story about how my character gets involved with a hidden group of “good guys”.

  4. Yeah, and if you hate to read “No one could be stupid enough to go there” books, you certainly don’t want to read one.

    On the other hand, people loose their tempers, or follow someone else, trying to dissuade them, or are busy doing something else and not noticing the cross dimensional portal that has just opened up behind them . . .

    1. Pam,

      You don’t want me to get started on the “no-one could possibly be that stupid”. You really don’t. If I absolutely have to have someone be that stupid, I make sure I close off every other possible option.

  5. With the advent of smart-phones/tablets/et al with dictaphone and/or talk-to-text apps, there is now a pantser alternative to butt-in-chair. I often start new stories — or new chapters — by pacing in the back yard while spitballing with my Characters or trying a couple different ways for them to express the emotion that gets the scene off the ground. Then I have to rush back into the house and try to re-capture all of that on the computer. Now, that first step can BE the next step, all at the same time.

    1. Well, since I don’t actually own one of them, and iOS has only just patched itself to handle Australian accents, it may be a while before I take that particular path.

      When the venerable PDA dies, I’ll probably go smartphone. Most likely something Android.

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