Flying by the Seat of Your Pants: With a Past

For years, when people described pantsing vs plotting, I listened carefully to everyone. I was trying to work out what I was doing wrong. I was doing nothing wrong. I was flying by the seat of my pants… my way.

Most of my novels are flying by the seat of my pants and I have a lovely time doing this. It brings together years of thought and research every time. When I wrote my time travel novel, I’d been a Medieval historian for decades. My pantsing is more linked to my life than to jumping gloriously straight into story.

I blame my research. I started off as an historiographer, where I analysed the way historians wrote history. Then I moved into using stories as historical sources. I still do that. Every novel I read and every TV show I watch feeds my historical habit. My comfort viewing is often something that’s self-aware and sees some of the same things I do. I needed time out tonight, for it’s been a difficult few weeks and so I was watching El Ministerio del Tiempo… for the second time round. The first time round I announced to all my friends that I wanted to buy the writers of Season One a drink. Then I wanted to buy the writers of Cleverman a drink. There was one episode in particular that made me want to turn my current novel upside down and twist it in on itself. Heart-tugging brain-stretching reflexive writing is not confined to novels. Whenever I encounter it, I want to play with the ideas and tools it gives me.

My scholarly self analyses every narrative in sight or hearing. I analyse phishing phone conversations, which means I’m someone that phishers often wish they’d never rung. Last time I wanted to see how wedded this stranger was to the “Mrs” they’d asked for. “I’m not Mrs, I’m Dr.” After a few iterations of this, they tried “Miss.” I’m not Miss, I’m Dr. If you want a Miss Polack, this is the wrong phone number.” They hung up on me. Phishers usually hang up on me when I find something that needs exploring.

This type of analysis is going to turn dull. Let me start again.

Once upon a time there was a Gillian who spent all her days and nights dreaming of story. She would tell stories and she would explain stories and sometimes she would write things down. Even when she dreamed, she would dream stories and think about them the next day.

In her teens, she discovered that being a lucid dreamer meant that she could correct her dreams when things went too far wrong. Someone pushed her off a cliff and she flew to safety. She was drowning in another dream and she teleported herself to land. She discovered that the moment she reached safety, the story stopped and she woke up.

This made her wonder how other people told stories. For the rest of her life, Gillian read one type of book after another, just to find out what writers did with different kinds of stories.

There, that was better.

It’s all in the telling.


My research feeds into my fiction. Always. When I can predict what’s going to happen and what the characters are going to say in the current best standard writers in a genre or sub-genre, then I move on. I have questions I want to answer and whole sets of stories are what answer them for me.

This time last year I began re-reading fifty novels that were all adventures on set on distant planets. I’m writing just one set of the books into non-fiction this summer. The Marion Zimmer Bradley novels in particular made me question just how we observe culturally central and gender dominant people in speculative fiction, so right now I’m watching Chinese fantasy TV series and Korean dramas of four specific varieties because there are culturally central and gender dominant people in all kinds of cultures and I wanted to know more. I always ask questions and I always answer them.

How does this relate to planning or pantsing novels? It means I know a lot about how different kinds of novels are planned. This means that the plans are deep within me. Engraved onto my soul, I suspect. Even if I don’t think I’m planning, I am, to a certain degree. Or maybe I’m not planning at all: maybe my pantsing rests on my research.

I create my world and my characters and I set up questions I want to answer and the plot (mostly) seems to invent itself.

The first thing I do within this level of creation is to argue against what I’ve been researching. I was studying privileged heroes – handsome, young, male, hetero, Western – and what I did with the novel I wrote while studying was make the hero everything the standard hero couldn’t be. Well, not everything, but I changed some things. In The Year of the Fruit Cake my hero wasn’t young, wasn’t male, wasn’t well, and wasn’t human. Gender was harder to describe. Once I knew what this person was like, I could write their adventures.

I suspected I knew the ending early on, but I didn’t know it for certain til I wrote it. I knew what type of novel I was writing, but I didn’t know if I was going to stick to all the rules.

I’ve written one novel that stuck by the rules, and it was planned the whole way through. It’ll be out soon, and I can’t wait for people to read it and to find out what they think. Poison and Light may be mostly planned, but it comes from my work as an historian the same way Langue[dot]doc 1305 does. Historical research, cultural research, research into narrative: I fly by the seat of my pants, but these things are my airplane.


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