Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

I’m in the last couple of weeks before my first time as a professional presenter in a testing conference (TestBash Philadelphia for those who are wondering) so what passes for my ability to focus is split between that and – as ever – the day job. Which is suitably Lovecraftian, or at least the code is.

So, without further ado, another instalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide and yes, I’ll probably be on mostly-hiatus until after the conference. I may not fully surface until Thanksgiving, just because it usually takes me a bit to let go after I’ve been wound tight for a while.

The Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

As an extreme pantser, I work in fits and starts. There’ll be a lot of words going down fast, followed by dry spells while I try to figure out what’s supposed to happen next, then another splat. Often, I’ll take notes that end up at the bottom of the story file, as reminders of things that need to happen at some stage. Depending on the story, I’ll have a lot of these, or next to nothing.

Impaler had very few notes, mostly on things like the date of Easter that year, the date of Passover, and various other major dates and festivals that would impact the plot. Easter also presented a challenge – Vlad had to conquer Constantinople before Easter because otherwise the pivotal scene that I knew happened in the Hagia Sophia couldn’t happen. Mostly, though, Impaler’s outline was “what is in Vlad’s campaign”. The actual events around that happened as I wrote them, quite literally in more than a few cases.

In that book, my dry spells happened because I needed to do more research – I’d know what needed to happen next, but not have enough information to describe it properly. So there’d be a flurry of web searches, reading assorted odd snippets, looking at reproductions of very old maps, and so forth, until the next set of scenes had its ‘clothes’.

ConVent went slightly differently because it started as pure piss-take and acquired a loose mystery plot as I went on. For it, I had a murderer, and a list of corpses that had to happen. Some people volunteered to be corpses, for which I’m grateful, and the ones who gave me bizarrely detailed death scene wish-lists really made life interesting (Hello, Basset, anyone?). ConVent also acquired a list of characters, mostly pastiche of observed behavior from several sources with a healthy dose of warped imagination, a few special request tuckerizations (Hello the Hoyts), and of course the main characters. The list was written more as a way of keeping the requests in check, including who to cast as corpses and how they wanted to die, but got added to so I didn’t lose track of the details.

The piece I’m working on at the moment, which may or may not finish, has no notes, no planning, and I’ve only recently worked out how it ends. What it’s got is a character with a strong voice and a determination to be heard. This is extreme pantsing at the pointy end. There are already (at a smidge over 10k words), several subplots making their presence known, and I’ve got a fair idea where the main stages of the plot fall. Beyond that? Nada. This character operates on a “need to know” basis, and I don’t need to know. Like everything I write, it’s advancing in intermittent spurts as I work out what the next bit needs to be.

Essentially, the extreme pantser is on a journey. The next part of the path might be clear, and maybe the distant goal, but the rest of the journey is still something of a mystery and only the subconscious has the map.

14 thoughts on “Return of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide: What Happens Next

  1. Pantsing sucks at times I do have to agree. Started a short story, currently at novella length, and there’s hints of a “sequel” poking it’s head up.
    I agree with notes a the bottom. Have a few pieces that I did that with. Feelings of where the story needed (or wanted to go), things I need to look up (that stuff sometimes ended up embedded in the story somewhere square brackets to the rescue!)

  2. I too do notes at the bottom. “Big bad shows up. MC screws up and has to recover from same. Meets empress and mess results. Battle?”

    [No battle. Boss fight]

  3. I have just went back through the WIP, which is seat of the pants, to make it square with imaginary geography (for consistency), days of the week, and lunar phases (the better to write night scenes). I had the idea of a Sunday scene to increase tension between the buddies (one a pagan, the other an occasional church goer), and that got moved up in making everything consistent. Writing it, though, it’s going in an unexpected direction, one I hadn’t intended and raises serious questions about the conclusion (already written).

    The kicker is, it’s the second book in an intended series, but I haven’t finished the first. Couldn’t finish the first. After I complete the second book, then I’ll go back and write the first. And that’s a drawback of pantsing.

  4. I’ve ended up with several categories of sticky notes on a closet door, most written when I’m doing other things or when I can’t sleep. Of course, with this system I have to check their stickiness before I turn the fan on.

  5. I find that if a book has two major plots, or even two major point of view characters, pantsing gets more difficult. Exponentially.

    1. I’ve found the best way to deal with that is a good timeline — either an app or just a big hand-done chart, but something that lays out the relationships in story-realtime. Who’s where doing what when. Usually there’s more overlap than you thought.

      Cuz yeah, I seem to do a lot of “Meanwhile, back at the planet…”

      1. Then you’re no longer pantsing. Or at least extreme pantsing. . . but it may get the story done!

  6. Kate, you have just described my process. I write to find out what happens. On good days I can see about two scenes ahead. I do, however, have to know how it ends at least somewhat or I shouldn’t start. I know that much.

    I always have two documents open: one is the WIP, of course. The other is the “outline/notes” It contains research, lists of things to add, lots of whining about how if this happens then that happens or messes up those other things, etc. I’ve been going back through something I drafted a couple of years ago where I used footnotes to identify issues. Those have proven really helpful, because unlike the lists in the other document, they are at least located where half the problem is, and they don’t mess up the margins like comment bubbles do.

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