Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Kicking Off a New Series

FlyingWe are reliably informed that there is a spectrum of writers. Over here on the far side are the dedicated plotters and planners. These are the JRR Tolkiens of the art. They begin by getting a PhD in linguistics, the better to create a series of Elven languages. Maps, the history of Middle Earth from the creation to the present day, three or four ages worth. Bone up on water color and drawing, because you’re going to need to paint pictures of all this. Other races, some dwarves, the Ents.  A pantheon of deities, and the theology, songs, and scriptures to back them up. Genealogies! Weapons systems! Combat rules! It goes on and on. Google on ‘worldbuilding’ and find the tools, the map generators, the charts for the phases of the moon, the discussions about how tall Elves are.

But over here, on the other end of the spectrum, are the writers who don’t do any of that. Nothing, not a list or a spreadsheet or a family tree. They just sit down and write. I am over here at this end, and I know it well. I have never planned a book. I step up to the cliff of story, and jump. It’s miles high, a long steep drop to the ground, but I never hit the rocks. Before the impact, the wings sprout, big feathery plot wings fifteen feet across. And I’m flying along the narrative, a wide free country open from horizon to horizon under a sunny sky. I can go anywhere, and I do! It is the most fun you can have in the creative arts! Shall we have an earthquake? Could there be domesticated hippopotami? How about an underground river, infested with crocodiles? Yes!

And if you dig down only a little, you will find that we’re not that different. Worldbuilding is not writing. Having three Elven dialects in hand doesn’t help with the story. For that you need plot and character. Tolkien amassed the lore of Middle Earth for years, but he didn’t begin the story until he found Bilbo Baggins. Likewise, even the diehard pantser needs some pretty stern support. I have calendars, I do my research. You can’t just gush onto the page.

Oh for Pete’s sake, you say. It cannot be that easy. You gotta do something to be a pantser. Well, I guess. The process is necessarily looser than a nice spreadsheet that tells you the combat stats for the Battle of Five Armies. But there are definitely things that a pantser has to do. We shall take a little tour through the Pants Side of the Force, and see if we can explain how it’s done!





Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: Kicking Off a New Series — 8 Comments

  1. World building is not writing or plotting even — that is true.

    Which is why world building becomes part of pantsing. And the Big Thing never gets finished, because there was no story or plot planning, i.e. we all can name at least a couple of Really Big Successful Names for whom this is true, and who have left a world of disappointed readers bobbing not so gently any longer in the wake of their stalled pantsing. Because when pantsing no longer works, when inspiration dries up, the professional keeps going because she knew where she was going and has a map to get there, even when the gas runs out.

    That’s my take on it, that’s for sure. This is equally true for non-fiction.

    • I’ve got 5 novels that were completely pantsed, and a large number of short stories as well. One novel was so off the cuff that I didn’t have a plot, theme, or genre, just characters who pulled me along. All are published, although the last two novels were self-published mainly because i couldn’t figure out a way to describe them for a query letter. They were too complex. I am currently pantsing my way through the fourth book of my fantasy series.

  2. I’m a hard-core pantser by nature. Most of my ideas come in the form of an image or a sentence and the only way I can figure out what the story is about is to start writing. Once I get a grasp on it, I generally discover things I need to know to make it all fit together, so then I do research and create structure. But I have to find the story first and that I do by writing until I get it.

    I usually say I’d never finish anything if I knew how it ended, but right now I’m working on something where I do know the ending. But I still have to write around and about it until the voice and the way to tell it become clear.

  3. I prefer night driver, as Joe Haldeman called it, to pantster. It sounds less like we expose ourselves in public. Although we do expose our minds in public. 🙂

  4. I do like a notional ending to write towards, but I am totally comfortable with never getting there. It can be so vestigial that I can recycle the same ending for every book. If you want to know what it is, it’s “…and then the all died. The End.” The book always ends before then.

    • I like that one. I usually have a notion of where the story is going, but it twists as it goes and the end is usually upside-down by the time I get there, and it doesn’t mean what i thought it did.