Winging It

If you’ve been reading my little scribbles for any length of time, you probably already know that I’m a pantser. What you might not realize is that pantsing is my normal state of being in most aspects of life, not just writing.

Now that I think about it, that’s not precisely accurate. Before I start writing a book, I usually have about a thousand words of plot outline and characters and their traits. I add notes to this ‘outline’ as I go, since the plot often changes dramatically and the characters reveal themselves to me over time. The Garia Cycle has almost a million words, and less than half of those are publishable, because the story changed as I went along.

The same thing happens in real life. I start out with a vague plan, then alter as I go. This drives my DH insane, poor man. Especially since I’m used to working on my own, and not needing to communicate changes to anyone else.

If you’ve ever seen me in the kitchen, you’ll know what I’m talking about. My usual method of making any sort of complex food is to look up two or three recipes, vaguely remember the ingredients and method they have in common, and add things as I go. Or substitute ingredients- forex, cilantro tastes funny to me, so I have a few things I add in its place, depending on what I’m cooking.

A few days ago, I made refrigerator pickles, because as I said a couple of weeks ago, my garden has a massive surfeit of cucumbers. True to form, pickle-making consisted of hunting up whatever jars I had handy, chopping up cucumbers, an onion, and a red pepper that I knocked off the plant by accident as I came in from the garden, and cobbling together a brine from whatever spices I had handy. The only proportion I got right was the vinegar-to-salt-to-water ratio, because that’s what makes it safe to eat. Everything else, I pantsed.

And the pickles taste great. Mom would be proud of me- she taught me the basics of preserving food, and her favorite phrase was, “Figure it out.” So I did.

I’m capable of following directions from start to finish. Honest; I really am. But I’ve gotten used to not having directions to follow. A few months ago, I wanted to start a sewing project- a skirt. It didn’t occur to me to buy a proper pattern from one of the companies that make them. No, I bought a book on pattern drafting, learned how to take my own measurements, and made my own pattern. Then I started cutting out the fabric and figuring out how the pieces fit together. I made every mistake in the book, but it came out okay- so far; I haven’t yet attached the hook-and-eye closure, so it’s technically not finished. The inspiration for that project is here.

My tendency to wing it makes me a nightmare to work with. At least my DH probably thinks so. We’ve done a few projects together, where he finds out halfway through the job that I’ve never laid flooring or built raised beds. Usually when we bump up against some difficulty and I can’t immediately pull an answer out of the hat, because I’ve been pretending I know what I’m doing the entire time. By now, he just looks at me bug-eyed, shrugs it off, and goes on with the work.

But it makes perfect sense to me- if I gathered all of my data before starting a project, I’d never start anything. Better to grab some basic data, start the project, and integrate new findings into my work as I go. That probably explains a lot about my writing, and why I’m having trouble finishing any particular series. It’s easy to write oneself into a corner without an outline, and I’m still figuring out how to make my style and my writing work together.

This is not intended as a brag about how I’m oh-so-adaptable. I’m not. Winging it is a coping mechanism I’ve developed over the years, after spending my childhood in a perpetual state of anxiety because I wanted the world to be boring and predictable, and it’s not. I’ve learned to roll with it, in most areas of life. I suspect a lot of people are the same.

Plotter or pantser? Do you take the same approach to writing as you do for other activities? Has your approach changed over time? Do tell!

20 comments

  1. I tried pantsing. After a few chapters i have spent hours and hours working on backstory notes for consistency. I’m a semi-plotter, i guess.

  2. I started out as a pure pantser. I knew how the story started and ended and that was it. I did a lot of re-writing.

    I’m still a pantser, but I’ve started doing a little bit of daily pre-writing where I jot down how the next scene is going to work. This turns out to be super helpful and speeds up the writing process quite a bit. Now I can outline in very small increments and only right before I start drafting, but it’s better than nothing.

  3. I’m kind of a hybrid. I create a basic framework before I start a book. I know how it’s going to flow from Point A to Point B, but I don’t work out the exact specifics for each chapter. I determine I’m going to have PoV from XYZ characters and then I rotate scenes between them, moving the plot toward the predetermined ending. I don’t start writing until I know the characters well enough to be able to determine how each of them will react in a given situation, what they’d say and how they’d say it. Mostly it works, but occasionally I have go back and add a scene, or move one around to a different spot.

  4. Now that is a kind of pantsing I can understand– figure out enough to be able to deal with the problems you run into. And “I know where to research, I think” is knowing. 😀

  5. I am almost all pantser, with some plotting learned along the way. That is, I completely randomly write the scenes that my brain gives me – and from that, I figure out who the characters are, where they are (worldbuilding), and what they want. This often requires pantsing more scenes. Once I have that, I go back and plot in reverse – that is, I write down what they’ve done in plot outline. And from that, I squint at it, and go “Where are they going next? What are their goals? Who are the opposition? What conflicts will happen?”

    Some stories, I can even figure out what the end will be, and come up with 5-6 plot points that I’ll hit along the way. And I do mean points – they’re a small list of bullet points. And then I pants from here to there.

    Other stories, the characters won’t talk to me, and I have to stop and plot in reverse after every chapter – sometimes after every scene. This is where having a good working knowledge of how to plot comes in handy; I can check my pacing, and viewpoint, and how things are coming together to figure out the shape of the hole that I have to fill in next – but filling it in is pure pantsing. (For example, “Okay, so next up is his viewpoint, and he needs to get information to Other Person, so… how would he do that? And, as the last scene was fairly slow (in Jim Butcher’s parlance, it was a sequel to an action scene), in this one something’s going to go Very Wrong and require action. What complication could happen?”)

    And then in particularly annoying stories, I come up with my bullet point list, start pantsing toward the first one, and the story takes a hard left turn at Albequirky, leaving me to plot in reverse to figure out where it’s going now… and rewrite the bullet points. And then wash, rinse, repeat. Sometimes I manage to hit those original bullet points anyway, sometimes not.

  6. I’ve tried pantsing. I get lost and lose interest, because I have no idea of the structure, and sit there confused about what to do next.

    My successful fiction projects are all simple enough that I could outline in my head, and hence short.

    The ideas for projects thing is not under my control. I work on ideas, some of them remain attractive, and I can choose to try to write those or not.

    Non-fiction is a mixture of 1 pantsing, 2 writing out the half dozen important parts of the idea, outlining, then writing 3 taking forever working things over in my head 4 writing something, getting confused, then sitting down and figuring out that I need an outline, writing an outline, then writing the thing correctly.

    My MO in RL? I invoke the fifth. 😛

    There’s an awful lot of drifting around. I’ve been in circumstances that helped me develop some truly terrible skills at time management and organization. I’ve spent time so locked down by stress and environment that I had no ability to think about the future, only endure. I’ve gotten some long term things done by making a few choices for the future at a time, and spending the intervals between choices living moment to moment carried by someone else’s schedule. Other times, lots of musing about the strategic picture provided myself answers about what I really wanted to do long term, as soon as I thought to ask the correct question.

  7. Stories I mostly pants – start scene, end scene, a few Shinies in between when I start. I end up breaking down scenes into “and here’s what should come next” about halfway through.

    My life, I tried to carefully plot.

    So far my books have done better than my life. I’m not sure if that’s a lesson or just a comment on how horribly Murphy likes to toy with me.

  8. I take notes. Then I pants through an outline.

    Except that doesn’t work when there’s a mystery in the story, I can’t pants the clues in, so I am trying some skeletons.

  9. Pantser, but only after I’ve done similar things enough (which usually involved a lot of erratic “plotting”) first. I pants’t a Ford Anglia today.

    Now what I really want to know: What was that pattern book.

      1. I don’t write a lot of sci-fi; the Hartington Series is my only foray into the subject, and it’s regency in space.
        Now, fantasy with horses? That I can do. I’m not convinced WP will let me put a link to The Garia Cycle here, but the books are on Amazon.

        1. I like SF better than fantasy, but I’ve been jonesing for some good pony-mad adventure. My favorites: Grey Mane of Morning, The Broken Citadel, Inda (though it goes to pirates and what-not after book one. and of course, The Blue Sword. I’ll have to give the Garia cycle another look-see.

    1. The book on pattern drafting is the one in the post image. Keystone. It probably works better for people who know what they’re doing; the instructions are a little weird. So I ended up winging it. As usual.

  10. Are you sure you’re from this country/century? Or have you just accidentally given yourself away as an import from early twentieth-century Britain? Because pantsing as an approach to life reminds me of the English gentry’s attitude of that period. Basically they seemed to feel that planning and research were for lesser beings; the mark of a true Englishman was his ability to muddle through anything on the spur of the moment.

    This worked out really badly for, say, Antarctic explorers. Or second lieutenants in World War I.
    (Not to criticize your application to modern life. This is a much more forgiving environment than Verdun or the Ross Ice Shelf, and you probably save a lot of time not wading through the plethora of conflicting advice on how to do things.)

  11. I guess pantser. I start with a vague idea of where it’s going to end, and then go from there. A holdover from my academic writing is that I far prefer to just finish the whole damn thing and then go back and fix holes, repeats, and continuity editing. So, on that note…I’m off to write…

  12. “Plotter or pantser?”

    Full pants. No clue where the thing is going until its over. Don’t even know who is going to be in it, usually.

    “Do you take the same approach to writing as you do for other activities?”

    Hell no. I work hard to find the Right Way to do the job in Real Life. Read the manual and everything. In writing I completely wing it. The characters make it up as they go along, I just write down what they say.

    “Has your approach changed over time?”

    Yes, it’s gotten worse. ~:D At the beginning I used to try to at least -generally- know where things were going, but the last couple of years I’ve been starting with “Kali goes to visit the cafe” and a fricking book comes out of it.

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