Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

The long-running social media hiatus continues with another repost – the second part of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide – and yes, I do read the comments, I just don’t stay online long enough to answer them all. Or any of them, some weeks. Y’all do a lovely job of carrying on the conversation without me, though, so I’m not fussing.

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.

19 thoughts on “Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: Getting Started

  1. Okay, I am a pantser. I will scribble ideas down until I can work on them, fiddle with works in progress. I sometimes try to outline when I get stumped. Working more or less. Depending on how much time my little gives me. 😝

  2. I get a vague idea and a setting. Which means doing research until I have enough additional information to get 1) details that will make the book work and 2) a plot. Then I can set rump into chair and start work. I think I’m a mildly OCD-Pantser. No detail, no facts for world building, no story.

  3. As a dedicated pantser. I agree with everything in your blog post. I’ve tried outlining, but it doesn’t work for me. It kills the story and never gets written. If I had to follow an outline I’d quit writing. Finding out what happens next is one of my main motivators.

    1. This. Thisity-thisity-THIS!

      Same with most of the structured techniques — if I had to write that way — I wouldn’t write. At all. I don’t need ’em, and they just carve out and throw away chunks of my brain.

  4. Music tends to follow my mood instead of setting it. If I don’t have music going, I often end up with hearing a song in my head while writing. Just what that song is depends on the scene. Sometimes it’s not a song that I’ve heard. I don’t write music, but sometimes it just pops out of nowhere.

    I lean toward instrumentals.Vocals tend to throw me off track. I don’t know how many term papers I wrote while listening to sound tracks. I’d stack the albums on the record player and type to the music.

  5. The writing last year was relatively easy.
    I’m still revising it now, and I’m having a terrible time getting to it. I procrastinate for hours, then, just before my husband is due home, start working and make incredible progress.
    I don’t get it – I actually have little trouble with the writing part, but – just avoid sitting down to it.
    Could it have something to do with the fact that I’m so near the end, and I’m, frankly, terrified of the next steps?
    I alternate between thinking “this is pretty good” and “everyone will just laugh at me for thinking I could get this published”.
    Mostly, the second frame of mind is winning.

    1. I assume people will laugh at mine. Many will sneer. (My great hope is the the Perpetually Offended will react with outrage and make me Super Famous. That would be sweet!)

      Situation normal, going ahead anyway. This is not courage, this is me being old and just not giving a !@#% any more. Anyone coarse enough to laugh at an author’s first attempt isn’t worth the powder to blow him to hell.

  6. Pantsing furiously today. The dragon can’t get his head through the doorway, they’re all standing around talking by the front door because his horns hit the lintel and his cheeks touch the sides.

    Music to pants by:

    Uplifting dance music by Silk, live streaming radio. Oh yes. Best part, hardly any singing. I like singing, but if it is in English it derails me.

    1. I did pretty well today, but erk, I don’t really like writing a character without a backbone who does not really want to grow one. She’s about to have one forced upon her.

  7. Semi-panser here . I always know about where I am going … with the basic plot and concept … but where I get to, when a session of writing on the latest project is done … eh, your guess is as good as mine.

  8. I’m pretty much a pantser, although I do some (rough) outlining, and taking a lot of notes when I’m first developing an idea. But I’m not sure how much of that is natural to me, and how much may be leftover from when I was in the Workshop From Hell, who believed that one could not be both a pantser and a professional and set forth to break me into a planner of a very top-down form.

    I can write scenes out of order, but usually they’re ones that are so vivid in my mind that I have to get them down on paper to get them out of my head so I have room for other things. And sometimes novels just have to be written in sequential order, at least until I get a better feel for the course of the novel. I remember when I was first writing The Steel Breeds True, with minimal reference to the long-abandoned earlier telling of the story from the 80’s, I had to write each chapter in order until I was about to Chapter 9. Then I was able to start working on random scenes on my Palm Viix while standing in line (I really need to get something that will let me do that with the iPhone, since both my Palm OS devices are pretty well at the end of their lives).

  9. I don’t write first drafts. I write zero drafts. (I didn’t invent this idea, but I forget who I stole it from.) I do have a rough plan for the story, but the initial writing is an experiment. I can turn that into a first draft.

  10. I am working on my doctorate and have lots of papers to write on topics I don’t always care much about. Then some of the professors make a related assignment be a PowerPoint to post for the class to critique as well. I have found that I cannot do the PowerPoint first; I have to do the paper and then pull the PowerPoint out of it. My best work is the first thing I do, and that means the paper first. I find pantzering the paper inspired the creative work and the PowerPoint or outline just kills it but they usually have the PowerPoint due first in the schedule as if forcing us to outline will get us to do the paper. It does help to be done ahead of schedule though for my anxiety over major paper assignments. I just had Fall break and got all 3 projects written for one class to clear the decks for the other (totally disorganized professor’s) class.

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