Doctor Strange Writer, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Pantsing*

*Pantsing is short hand for “flying by the seat of the pants” as you write.  I.e. the opposite of plotting in advance.


Last week I got a mayday from a friend who is a new writer.  You see, she had outlined her book, and it died in the outlining.  She now knows what is happening, and doesn’t want to write it anymore.

I killed at least three books that way when I was a newby, so I was all sympathy.  (Shuddup.  I can too be all sympathy.)

We gave her some strategies for resurrecting a book you’ve killed that way, including but not limited to “go sideways”; “do something you haven’t plotted”; “introduce a new villain.”

She was very confused though because, as she put it “I’m an organized person.  I wanted to outline it all up front.”

And I realized that like her and for the longest time, I had this idea that plotters are more organized/adult/professional than those writers who fly by the seat of the pants.  I know a lot of my colleagues have the same idea, including those who told me I really needed to become a plotter when I already was (actually I was an extreme plotter) and those who say it’s the only way to write fast.

Like many things about writing, it’s a myth.  The problem is that, like other myths, it can hurt you, if you’re not the sort of writer who SHOULD be plotting in advance.

If you’re someone who gets your characters for free: i.e. they just show up in your head uninvited; or for whom stories start with this situation that just shows up in your head and demands to be written, or even someone who gets snatches of scenes from a story and tries to figure out where they fit – more importantly, if you’re someone who might not realize what your story “means” or is trying to say till you finish it, you might be a natural pantser.

I have all these symptoms, notwithstanding which, because I thought that I HAD to to be a grown up writer, I spent most of my writing life, until very recent years, writing from strict plot.

Then a few years ago I “broke.”  Ie I burned out.  I don’t know if it was as a result of that that my subconscious finally got the upper hand and got to control things.  All I know is that when you’re blocked so tight that you can’t even write a note to your family, you’ll take writing in any form it comes.  And if the novels and stories insist on not letting you see ahead more than a paragraph or a chapter, but the stuff still keeps pouring out, then you just write it.  And then you shock yourself by finding out your pantser stuff is better and more tight than your carefully plotted stuff.

I suspect, btw, Agatha Christie underwent a similar process, simply because in her bio she talks about plotting whole books carefully before writing, but later on in life she said her writing was like driving a car down a winding road at night, never able to see more than what was shown in the headlights.

Having done it both ways now, I will talk to you about he advantages and disadvantages of giving up on plot and flying by the seat of the pants.

The only disadvantage I can think of is that you might have to discard a lot of the story/writing when you get to the end and are editing for coherency and flow.  Mind you, I did that a lot as a newby, even when I was plotting tightly.  (One of the skills you learn as a writer is what to put in and what to leave out.) And right now I don’t do that a lot (a paragraph here and there) even when the book is totally pansted.

I suppose there might be another disadvantage to not outlining if you’re a relatively new published or unpublished writer and going traditional publishing.  Publishers LIKE outlines.  They want you to tell them exactly what you’re going to deliver so they know what in heck to put on the schedule.  This of course becomes less important if you are more published and it completely goes out the window if you’re either going indie, or if your stuff is so uniformly publishable that you can just write on spec, then send it in.

But for me at least the disadvantages of plotting greatly outweigh those of pantsing disadvantages.  So, here is – what is wrong with outlining:


1-      I find, particularly if you’re new to the game, that if you’re outlining – that is, trying to lay down the whole plot before you know these characters very intimately – that you tend to reach for the trite plot turn or the clichéd denouement.  You feel under pressure to come up with something, and of course you’re not very immersed in the world yet.  It’s natural.

2-      It’s very hard to include subplots in the outlining, so that it will tend to strip these away in either importance or in actual fact of existence.

3-      You’re more likely to make your characters into little puppets with no personalities of their own if you try to stick too tightly to the plot.

4-      You remove yourself from the experience the reader will have reading the book.  In the worst case, like my friend, you’ll find that your subconscious thinks you’ve already written the book.  In the milder case, it just makes you bored.  You know what is going to happen and writing becomes “just work.”  It is impossible for some of that not to bleed through to the page, unless you have WAY more discipline than I do.

5-      It’s easy for you to convince yourself that you have a tight plot, because “look, tons of things happens.”  The problem is that many times what happens has no relevance to the central problem/emotional impact, which is, after all, what a book is about.  (No, really, trust me.)


But Sarah, you say, isn’t plotting more professional/cleaner/more grownup?

I don’t know about that.  I finally gave myself permission to pantse when I heard Terry Pratchett talk about how, until the climax scene in Tiffany Aching, he had no clue how (or if) she should prevail.

If Terry Pratchett is a pantser, how much more professional would I want to be?

But Sarah, you say, wouldn’t pantsying take more time?

Well, it doesn’t to me, and yesterday I came across an interview with Rex Stout in an old magazine.  Rex Stout, famously, wrote his books in about a week (and usually in Winter.  Is John Ringo his reincarnation?  Curious minds want to know – runs.)  He was also an extreme pantser.  The interview included such gems as “until the character said that, I didn’t know Nero Wolfe had  a son” and his explaining that the fun of writing was to discover the book the same way the reader would.  And he wrote a novel in a week, and required almost no editing.


Now, understand me, I’m not saying this means you shouldn’t work at your plotting or learn your writing.  Even the most gifted among us paint with a very limited palet and will start to sound boring if we don’t learn the craft enough to know how to diversify.


Just because you’re pulling from the subconscious, doesn’t mean your subconscious doesn’t have to be trained.  Read the good how to books (and the bad ones, till they go against the wall when they tell you anyone who writes genre is sub-normal.) Read books in the genre you’re trying to write in.  In your off time diagram the novels that you really enjoy.


All of this goes into the subconscious, as well as the conscious, and if you do that, you’ll find that your plotting will improve, even if you are a pure pantser.


This doesn’t mean you should absolutely never plot.  I have friends who are plotters and excellent writers, and heck, I might yet come across a novel that demands I plot it tightly in advance.


What I mean is: Learn your craft.  And then trust yourself.

36 thoughts on “Doctor Strange Writer, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Pantsing*

  1. I err… used to write academic papers without outlining. I feel shackled when I use one. Actually, I feel your friends pain, because that’s exactly the feeling I get when I try to write with an outline. It’s also why I don’t use one. And when you’ve been praised by a college professor with multiple articles published and his brand new book out…

    Ok, maybe I’m not the “perfect” author, but I’ll settle for “good enough to sell” if I can get that far. And I _KNOW_ that there are some pantsers that sell. Hopefully I can be the next one.

    1. You work as you HAVE to work. You don’t try to twist your process into something that doesn’t work because someone tells you that’s how it’s done. Honestly, writing is so personal that in the end you HAVE to trust yourself.

  2. Outliner here. Pantsing outliner. I head into the Valley Full Of Clouds with maybe one or two landmarks visible through the mists — only I’m writing a really, really, really rough first draft. Sometimes they die on the page as outlines. Sometimes I have to wrestle with the cliches and the death of inspiration, and end up doing the extra opposite of what I thought would happen to kickstart the story. Sometimes I have to junk them and start over.

    Still easier for an outline than a draft, so it may be worth experimenting. But does not work for all authors.

    (I’ve always wondered: if your story dies if you outline it, however do you manage to revise? Why doesn’t writing the first draft kill it?)

    1. Oh, it does. But revision is a different head space of “how good can I make it now?” Of course, I don’t have that issue anymore and I can outline — er… sometimes. The space operas REFUSED to be outlined. So did the last shifters.

  3. My outlines are usually minimal. I often outline that after I write the first chapter, and not infrequently after I write the wrap up. That seems to help me realize how the characters and their relationships change.

    What _I_ have to work at is a _problem_ for the characters to overcome. So I need to organize the “this is the disaster, this is the response, this is what goes wrong with it, so they try, and then . . . and then the hero . . . so they win. And my “outlines” are nearly that brief. A minimalist stick figure of a skeleton to turn the Inner Pantser loose with. Which it often ignores, wholly or in parts.

    But every once in a while I have a scene that just has to be plotted out, almost second by second, to make it coherent, when I finally write it. Fights are often like that.

    1. I’ve been known to include blow-by-blow accounts of conversations in my outline. Leaving aside their importance, I don’t want to lose that witty thing I thought of while writing the outline.

      1. Sometimes even when I don’t outline, I’ll write a scene or two that I know comes “somewhere ahead” — these sometimes require cleaning up timing, but the rest is fairly solid.

  4. I hate using an outline. The one time I ever tried, I got bored about half-way through making the outline. So, I wrote a different story and then reverse engineered everything so I could turn it in. Of course, this was all for a college class so I had almost no homework for the rest of the semester.

    Dean Wesley Smith is doing a thing on his blog where he talks about writing a book in 10 days. It’s been interesting following his progress and reading some of the questions people are asking. Most of them boil down to “But, shouldn’t you have an outline?”

  5. I think I would consider outlines the same as military plans. Remember, they say no plan survives contact with the enemy. If you don’t want to think of your project as the enemy, try considering it a toddler. No plans for the day survive contact with the toddler, either. So, if you want, write your plot, but be prepared to modify it at need.

  6. I think I know where your friend is coming from. I started off trying to create a large all encompassing outline for a novel, including every little detail, but the problem I found was that the outline became its own huge unwieldy quagmire of a time sink project. It’s my experience that if you discover something wrong or you get a great idea, your intricate 20-page outline can end up needing a total rewrite. This is especially disheartening if you haven’t even started writing the story yet, because you’re too busy working on the outline. I pretty much decided that I would rather devote the energy I’d use to create a detailed outline to creating a rough draft.

    After some trial and error, I’m now one of the people who takes the middle-of-the-road strategy by making an outline that is pretty much just a list of chapters with a short two or three line description. It gives me enough structure to feel like I’m not aimless and I’ve discovered a few problems that I don’t think I would have seen if I didn’t have an outline. I do add some additional details as time goes by and I do have some extra notes, but the outline is still rather lean.

    Now that I’ve completed several chapters of the rough draft, and see the characters and events differently compared to when I was first writing the outline, I’ve gone back and changed the outline a number of times. Since it’s so small, it’s not a major ordeal to alter it when I have to.

  7. Semi-pantser. The first novel I did a rough outline for, so I’d at least have an idea of how to get where I needed to go. And then the characters said, “oh yeah?” And off they went, their own way, even though they did end up at my destination.

    Second-fourth novels? Pantsing, although I know where it will end, and I’m getting ideas about how to get there as I do research. Fifth novel has an outline but I’m going to scrap the outline and pants it.

    My non-fiction has to be outlined. I’ve tried pantsing and the results were grim. *shrug*

      1. Yeah, I know the beginning and the ending for everything, but of course, it’s subject to change according to what actually happens. All the middle stuff I tend to figure out in a very brief outline staying a few scenes ahead of what I’m currently writing.

        Generally speaking, most of my outlined also consists of an idea summary, or snippets of conversation, or whatever I don’t want to forget to include or have to think up all over again.

        Sometimes a subplot forces it’s way in and I have to make room for it before the scenes I thought were next, but it seems to work fairly well for me in terms of process.

        I also find that I can’t really write a book well until I’ve let my subconscious and “shower self” run through the basic overall a few times to kick start twists and ideas. Those get written down so that I don’t forget them, but generally in the order-I-thought-of-it rather than a real plot outline. Things contradict each other, but I like to be able to go look and remember my previous ideas when I get to actually writing a particular scene.

        1. You know, your “shower self” — sigh — I’m imagining you running naked through your plot, shedding droplets of water – like my kids when they were toddlers. Interesting image. 😉

          1. You’re close, but you have it reversed. I actually run naked through the water and shed falling droplets of plot which I then have to clean up later when it’s time to get serious. It’s the impact with my bare skin that converts the water into bit of plot.

            As there can be an entire world inside each plot droplet, things occasionally become very messy. Once a group of men in dark suits with large weapons from one of the plot droplets managed to escape and took to living in my soap, but that’s literally a whole ‘nother story.

            I’ve considered hiring a maid specifically for the shower, but the one that cleans up the devoured book remains around the toilet isn’t very reliable and I don’t particularly want to go through the whole process again with today’s minimum wage laws and Obamacare regulations to deal with. 🙂

  8. So I’m not crazy to love Rex Stout?! Also, I was boondoggled to discover that he was a pantser. Full disclosure: I was not aware of his stature as a speed writer– being as how I found all of his books in the “Club Room” (A turn of the19th/20th century attic/library conveniently located on the first floor) at my grandmothers, or in the narrow overstuffed shelves of the very best used bookstores. They were rare little jewels so I assumed he wasn’t that prolific! *facepalm* ) His writing is so tight and beautiful, and intricately but elegantly plotted. I marveled at how all the pieces fit, no matter how bizarre or far afield. (From the few I’ve read, mind.) I always wondered how he did that, and mystically thought he wasn’t human. But I was in that magical thinking age still when I was reading him regularly.

    Amusingly, I also found an outline– of sorts– for my “gargantuan” novel. I have to wonder how traumatic it was to write considering I’d forgotten about it’s existence!

    It was more of a string of phrases describing what I’d already written. It was helpful in ways I hadn’t realized before. It’s a trippy concept to think that I might already know how to write the novel and I just have to let it happen. I predict it will still be a lot of work, just not something I have to frame in advance. (I’m not saying that this is true. But I haven’t tried it before– it’s so crazy it just might work! 🙂 ) Though the skeptic in me says that this is just wishful leftovers from a former age. But if this is some kind of gift from my subconscious, I should at least follow it until it dies out. You can’t fix a process you don’t understand, can you?

    1. I love Rex Stout too. Mind you, I am an acknowledged vulgarian who eschews her training in languages and world literature to run around with science fiction, fantasy and mystery.

      1. Oh, please. The worst novels I have ever read were “literary.” Indeed if Shakespeare did indeed launch the genre, why do these books have so little resemblance? I argue that in his day, The Bard had more in common with the ‘ghetto writers’ (that is, the SF, Fantasy, Romance and Mystery writers) and would avoid literary ilk like the plague. “Cause I preach best to the choir. 🙂

  9. I’m glad that you explained what you meant by “pantsing” – around here it means that you sneak up on someone from behind and yank their pants to the ground. Gives that title very different overtones.

  10. Most of my writing isn’t fiction. I’ve worked to outlines, that is part of the way I was required to learn, and it helps when I’m doing a new type of thing that I don’t understand well.

    I seem to get better flow rate while pantsing. Or maybe it is mental outlining, letting my intuition break down the argument into the vital points.

    When the thing is too complicated to keep track of, or if my mind is functioning particularly poorly, I like to write notes to help me do it right the first time.

    My current big unfinished writing project that I will finish when I have the right few hours is something I outlined. I have a longer than usual outline, hundred or so lines, rather then the more common dozen-half dozen, or the usual none. I’m not sure if the hold up is my frame of mind*, other fires, that I’ve screwed something up, or some of the other things of varying priority that I’ve been sharing headspace with.

    *I’ve found that I’ve been sloppy and lazy in some of my other writing.

  11. If you outline everything, you end up writing like Piers Anthony, where any reader can practically see where you erased the roman numerals.

    Now a question I’d like to see WRT to Pantsing. Do you write it all in order, or do you skip around in the story and then later write the connecting scenes?

  12. I killed a novel once with an outline; I’ve never again tried to deny my inner pantser.

    Rex Stout was a pantser?? That is completely awesome! I read somewhere that Isaac Asimov prided himself on not rewriting anything…

    1. Re Asimov: Not exactly. Take a look at his chapter in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy with the title “Revisions.” He explains his routine as two stages — write a first draft as fast as he can. Correct errors in spelling, grammar, and word order. Prepare a second draft, which is the final draft.

      Now, he does admit to not using an outline. Largely for two reasons. “One, an outline constricted me so that I could not breathe. Two, there was no way I could force my characters to adhere to the outline: even if I wanted to do so, they refused.” So he fixes the ending firmly in mind, decides on a beginning, and “charge toward the ending, making up the details as I go along.”

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