We 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!