Return to the Past: Extreme Pantser’s Guide

Yes, I’m still on internet hiatus and minimal interaction with the rest of the universe. Since I’m also on limited brainpower while some hidden part of my mind (which I’m sure is off in the tropics somewhere with the drinks with the umbrellas and the attractive scenery) recuperates from whatever the heck is bothering it, I figured this would be a good time to start reposting a series I did rather more years back than I’d realized (seriously, 2011? I’d have sworn I haven’t been doing this for that long). So, herewith is the first part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide, complete with link to the original (at least, presuming WordPress doesn’t do its usual job of messing things up).

Oh, and apologies for being slack on responding to comments. Those are also falling into the “social media vacation” as far as what passes for my mind is concerned.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: One – You Are Not Insane


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.

33 thoughts on “Return to the Past: Extreme Pantser’s Guide

  1. As I get older, I see more wisdom in having at least some plotting to guide me and save time that might be wasted going down blind pants alleys.

    1. Eh, I can’t seem to work that way, at least not for the initial draft. For my initial draft I’m an extreme pantser. For subsequent drafts the pantsed draft becomes my outline, essentially. I’m not sure if I’m an extreme pantser, or the world’s wordiest plotter.

      1. There were supposed to be pants??

        “Worse, when a pantser tries to work with the detailed outlines and so forth, the result is ‘dead’ – there’s no life there.”

        This, exactly. If it’s fully outlined, the brain assumes it’s done and there’s no reason to do it again. Besides, any advance “outline” (plan, plot, attempt at a fitted lower garment) invariably goes in what, once the story is written, proves the wrong direction.

        I actually write in almost-final draft despite that it arrives completely out of order, but once there’s enough structure that the story is set in stone, then notes appear and temporarily fill in the remaining gaps. But that’s sheetrock, not frame. You can’t build a house entirely from sheetrock!

        Okay, you could, but it would suck.

        1. One of my weird strengths is writing procedural manuals. So if I write an outline, that’s where my writing goes. Mind you, if I have the structure in my head, this doesn’t happen—so I’m sort of a hybrid when it comes to plotting vs. pants. I’ll try to get the major things down in my mind before writing, but sometimes I’ll come up with weird directions along the way.

  2. Today there’s a huge werewolf/demon slayer woman, an accidental post-human and his 100% normal Human girlfriend sitting in a boring hipster cafe, confessing undying love for each other. Which all seems perfectly normal.

    Man, I need to get these pants looked at.

      1. It’s funny you should mention. I’ve been trying to figure out how to prod them into motion, to go find out who left this shoe lying in the alley in Amsterdam. (Extremely well memoried people will recall the discarded shoe from about June sometime, here at this very blog. And yes, memoried is totally a word.)

        It started as a short story, the detective and his robot girlfriend were going to kick the bad guy’s asses and save the girl. Well here we are, ten chapters in, they already saved the girl, but there’s no bad guys in sight. They’re hiding from the all-seeing Valkyries.
        The all-seeing Valkyries are busy making out with each other and anybody else they can talk into it. As usual.

        So I finally found this guy, sitting in the back of the cafe. He’s the only guy in the place not looking at the werewolf having moo moo face with two humans at the front of the shop. He’s looking at his phone.

        Thanks to that guy’s phone, there’s a way for the humans to finally have to step up and protect the all-seeing, all-powerful Valkyries. Just thought of it in the bathtub. No more protecting the cute girlfriend, now cute girlfriend protects you.

        But first the wolf is going to mess that guy up. She’s a bit… excitable.

        PANTS FOR THE WIN!!!! I love my pants. 😀

  3. I think I’m still a plotter. I’m experimenting with using a database to plot a story. (I’ve just now wondered about the utility of Microsoft Project.)

  4. I wish I were a plotter. I really do. Sometimes I think I could be. The one time I had a full outline of where I wanted to go with each chapter, it worked out reasonably well. The writing was, if not brilliant, at least no worse than I usually do.

    No, my problem with plotting is the same as my problem with pantsing: I inevitably get to a point where I’m stuck and just have no idea what happens next. In an outline, this means that I’ve written a paragraph for 10-15 chapters, and then I just stop. If I’m pantsing, that means that I end up with several thousand words before I get stuck, and the hope is that something somewhere in those words can inspire what happens next (I remember one NaNo exercise in particular where a joke the gardener made about lesbian Nazi vampires turned out to be just the clue the characters needed). With just the outline, there’s just nothing there for inspiration.

    1. Characters should be yelling at you. “No, not that way, THIS way! Jeez!”

      Right now the wolf is telling me I better not hurt her boyfriend.

    2. Find an improv group and work with them. I swear that years of improv training did more for my writing (and art, and life in general) than a lot of things. Alternately, have someone on hand you can ask for ridiculous suggestions—then try to incorporate them. Or just go for “how can I break this the most?”

      1. I have a friend who was my gamemaster for tabletop RPG’s. Going to be using him for fleshing out better bad guys. He’s given me some awesome pointers for one WIP. As well he’s very knowledgeable about different historical eras when it comes to “colour”.

  5. Hmm, I must have missed these first time around . . . Can I be an extreme skirter or dresser instead? Pants are for shoveling things like chicken coops and gardens.

    Thanks for reposting, Kate. The one about habits, linked as related at the bottom, I’m finding some food for thought in there.

    1. Doing something “by the seat of your pants” is an old expression for working without much planning ahead. It’s typically more suited for activities done while wearing pants than for those done while wearing skirts or dresses, unless you’re being spontaneous at a party.

  6. I consider myself a tent pole writer. I have a beginning, then something happening, then a twist, a middle bit, another twist and a conflict that leads to a resolution. Five Acts that are fixed points on the journey, but everything else is made up to fit.

  7. I’m a skort writer, sort of. I have a basic idea. I research to get details for basic idea and world. Then I write whatever shows up, BUT have the rough “I think it will end up this way” noted out at the end of the draft. And each chapter gets a few notes about “this, then this, and the bad guy needs to appear” so I don’t have to go back too often and add foreshadowing or plug in characters.

    Twice I have outlined novels. Each time the outline “broke” and the characters didn’t do what i wanted, and I had to wing most of it. I gave up after that. I outline non-fiction because I have to have the framework to hang the supporting data on. Fiction gets pantsed.

    1. And I pants non-fiction, but that may be due to mostly writing that in short form.

      1. Mine is either long form, or academic articles and papers with footnotes out the gazoo, so I need a skeleton to work from.

  8. I don’t successfully outline, but I have to have a definite beginning, middle, and end scenarios in mind before writing. From there come mental scenes getting to those points. I’ve outlined two, one a dream that was a full length movie and I thought it would make a good book, and another based on the beginning, middle, and end scenario I saw for that. Neither advanced far.

    For two recent examples, I was musing about changes in society, and had a strong mental image of the protagonist and villain squaring off. From that came a story that’s been in a slush pile for almost seven months. For the one written in an evening, I had a clear beginning, middle, and end in mind, particularly the end, but it would not gel. When I thought about changing the POV, it all fell into place. But there were two false starts that didn’t work at all.

    I actually wish I could plot these things out first. My big WIP had a definite beginning, middle, and end, and I’ve written most of the key scenes, including the climax and conclusion. But one of the characters decided to be a berserker. Where in blazes did that come from? It’s in the original sense of the word and he has to learn how to deal with it. That means I have to go back and make some changes. Sigh.

    The eerie thing is that in an unfinished short work set decades from the events in the story, one of his daughters said not many people knew it, but her father had a worse temper than her mother. And the berserker angle fits both that and another aspect of that tale.

    I started work on that one several years ago, and at that point I didn’t see him as a literal berserker at all. But now that he is, it all works better.

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