Flying by the seat of my pants

Or, how much do I trust what I can’t control?

I’m watching a writer-friend losing her mind because the story she’s writing, after years away from a series, is not going the way they thought it would, or to the length they thought it would, and the characters are getting into situations that she didn’t plan for them to be in.

I know, from experience, that when she’s done, it’ll look like she planned it out ahead of time, and all the story beats will be there. But that doesn’t mean she trusts the process, or the story, or her muse… which in the end, means she doesn’t trust herself.

I know this not just because I know her, and I’ve seen this play out before more than 5 times over the years, but because I’m in the middle of that myself with my current WIP. Heck, CV Walter has giggled at me and told me she puts up with my moaning about having no idea what I’m doing or where the story is going, because she can see the structure unfolding in snippets even though I can’t while I’m writing it.

“Pantsing” comes from the expression “flying by the seat of your pants.” Which for most authors sounds like a metaphor for launching blindly into the great unknown, writing by the feel of what seems right as the story comes.

But flying by the seat of your pants in good weather isn’t anything like that. Flying by the seat of your pants involves knowing where you’ve been, where you want to go, what you’re looking for, and how your airplane will respond. It’s using your entire body: eyes, ears, inner ears, smell, tactile feedback from the sound and feel of the engine, the prop, and the wind over the plane, feel of the lightness or heaviness of the controls in your hand, feel of g’s and directional pull in your gut and how your derriere and the accompanying seat of your pants shifts against the cabin, and knowing your plane so well that you can respond to all sensed changes faster than waiting for a change to register with the instruments, and then to read and process that information. It’s the difference between driving an exact speed in the car by constantly looking at the speedometer to correct with more or less throttle and sinking your foot to just the right spot, then flexing a little as you go uphill or downhill to adjust the gas you’re feeding the engine.

Flying by the seat of your pants in bad weather is… contraindicated if you have any other choice, because your inner ear will lie to you, and flying by what it tells you when you get disoriented or get the leans will kill you. But if you have no other choice, it’s taking all that experience, all that ability to listen to the plane, and using your body and your muscle memory as a sensitive instrument with known problems to get you through safely back on the ground.

Yes, flying by the seat of your pants in bad weather is where the term spread out of aviation into the wider world. Because when all else fails, fly by the seat of your pants, and it’ll either kill you or get you home safe. (It often kills pilots.)

I love flying by the seat of my pants in good weather. When I know the airplane well enough to just pull out the throttle or push it in by feel, and then cross-check by eye on the tach. When I’m coming in and dancing on the rudders to keep the nose absolutely straight, feeling the plane get heavy and start the sink through the flare to kiss the runway, whether rolling it on the mains or settling into a 3-point landing.

Flying by the seat of my pants in bad weather is a terrifying idea. It’s right up there with looking out and seeing clear icing on the wings running back and freezing. Or that choking cough the iced carb makes right before the plane suddenly gets very, very quiet as the engine dies.

And maybe that explains my love-hate relationship with pantsing: I love when I know my world, my story, can see what my characters are doing, and it’s ticking along and pouring out my fingers. I utterly hate it when I can’t see where it’s going or why.

This thought brought to you by a friend’s suggestion that I take the WIP and turn it into Kindle Vella… I was ruminating on why I reflexively, almost violently rejected the idea. (Not that I’m changing my mind, but I want to double-check my decision making process. Man is a rationalizing creature, not a rational one.) Because I don’t know where it’s going, and I don’t trust my own process enough to know when it’ll get there. I am not able to be utterly confident in predicting my ability to keep up the pace of creation and publication. It’s not that I’m incapable of doing it, it’s that I can’t control it and therefore don’t trust it.

Do you trust your process?

13 comments

  1. Maybe? Some days, when the writing weather is stormy, no. “Where are you going? That’s not supposed to happen? You [character] wouldn’t do that! Why are you doing that? Stoooooopppppp!”

    Right now, I’m seeing a macro pattern in several series and starting to second-guess myself about something. It’s time to take a long, deep mental breath and say, “No, let the story flow, and don’t worry about why your Muse does that.”

    (Somewhere, a hundred years down the road, a Creative Writing instructor is going to read way the heck too much into that pattern, and my ghost might have to arise and smite him/her/it/whatever).

  2. No. Because I still have too far to go, and I get … lazy? Stuck? So… I make myself do new ones from time to time. And, sure enough, sometimes it is better. Sometimes worse, but never useless.

  3. The reason flying by the seat ignite pants does not work in zero visibility is our inner ear isn’t accurate enough. I want to say we’ve got a few degrees of error on any given reading.

    When we’ve got vision in the horizon, we will automatically correct it, but that doesn’t work right in zero visibility conditions.

    What’s interesting, in flight sims, when I’m playing standard screen mode, spatial disoriention never happened to me. But in VR? Oh yes. Such yes. And it doesn’t require the sim be high fidelity at all.

    Project Wingman was an Ace Combat type game I played in VR. There was one mission with a low level over case layer, that you were striking sea targets. I think spatial disorientation in that one mission killed me more time that all other causes combined in the rest of the game.

      1. I had the “pleasure” of having the Leans during a Part 135 checkride, in the clouds. The check airman made me wear a hood (view-limiting gadget) even in the clouds, and oh, it was miserable. I tilted my body over at about a 35 degree angle because that’s what my ears said was the proper up and down. So I flew the last half hour of the [redacted] checkride leaning to the left. It was educational. Too educational for my personal tastes. (Yes, I passed the checkride.)

        1. I totally get ya. You know really messed with me? Getting the leans, and getting above the clouds… To find the cloud bank had an angle that *almost but not quite* matched the leans I had. Being vestibularly 5 degrees off visual horizon which is 25 degrees off actual horizon… *shudders*
          2/10 Do Not Recommend.

  4. I trust my Muse . . . and plan to edit later. Sometimes huge structural edits. Sometimes just tossing a little foreshadowing into early chapters.

  5. I read, back when newspapers were paper, that they did an experiment with some pilots. They numbed their hineys. And even with instruments and all, the pilots reported and demonstrated a reduction in flying skill. There’s a metaphor there. Or just a trivia.

    1. Well, think of trying to drive with a cast on your right arm, or (for non-sinister people), trying to write or type with your left hand. You know exactly what you need to do, but when you take away the benefit of muscle memory… not so easy.

      Huh. Might be a good metaphor for writing in a new genre.

  6. No, I do not trust my writing process when writing fiction. I don’t have the instincts for “seat of the pants” writing My characters behave inconsistently and their motives and problems are formless. Nonfiction I can do: I can compose and follow an outline on the fly and in my head and insert delete and move things around to where they fit. Stories with invented people….I only get snippets.

  7. I am going to be the odd one out here, it looks like. I do trust the process. The entire process. For me, pantsing is less like flying by the seat of my pants and more like sightreading music on the piano. My relative pitch is good I can hear when I get a finger wrong. I go back through and take another run at the passage until I get it right then continue on (that’s me jumping around in the draft like I usually do). Then once I’ve done, I run through the piece again to make sure I’ve got things right. (this is me looking for typos.)

    I’m not pantsing. I’m playing it by ear.

  8. I trust my process. But part of my process is throwing away the first four scenes I wrote for that book and writing a new opening when I’m working on the last act.

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