The Journal: Enough with “Pantser” — A Rant

In today’s Journal

* Enough with “Pantser” — A Rant
* Of Interest

Enough with “Pantser” — A Rant

Over at the Kill Zone blog today, James Scott Bell wrote that he’s often asked, “What do I do if I’m in the middle of my novel and there are so many things happening, so many characters running around, that I’m losing my way? [What do I do to get back on track?]”

Well, if you’re asking me (and many have), shrug, I suggest you trust the characters enough to just write the next sentence. Then write the next sentence and the next and the next.

Yeah, I know. It sounds far too simple to be effective, but it really does work.

Unfortunately, though, some writers don’t want you to let go and just write the next sentence. After all, if enough of us believed in ourselves and our characters, it would harm the nonfiction book sales of those writers who keep regurgitating the same tired old myths and misinformation that hasn’t worked down through the ages.

Goodness, we might begin to believe we can write a story WITHOUT creating character sketches and outlines beforehand and without inviting input from others on where and when and how the story should go after we start writing.

We might begin to believe our characters can live the story just fine without us controlling them, and to write a story we only have to write down what happens and what the characters say and do. The next thing you know, we might even see the value of following Heinlein’s Rules. Oh, the sheer audacity!

So I’ll say it again: When you get confused or stuck partway through a story, trust yourself and your characters. Just write the next sentence, and the next and the next, and soon you won’t be lost anymore and the story will untangle itself.

Besides, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury, “Plot is only the footprints left by the characters as they run through the story.”

Story is what matters, folks. Not plot. Story.

Then Mr. Bell wrote, “You would think this question would come primarily from ‘pantsers,’ the If-I-knew-what-my-story-was-about-before-I-wrote-it-I’d-be-bored school of writing.”

This is a misrepresentation. And for what purpose? I can only hope it wasn’t an intentional slight meant to further marginalize those of us who do not toe the line and behave exactly the way plotters want us to behave. But I strongly suspect it was.

Why does it matter to other writers, specifically plotters, how we write? We don’t care that they do character sketches and timelines and world-building and outlining before they commit to actually writing the story. So why does it bother them so much that we DON’T do all those things?

The simple fact is, there are only two types of fiction writers on Earth: 1) those who trust themselves and their characters, and 2) those who have bought into NOT trusting themselves and their characters. And frankly, it’s as if the latter are placing the blame for their plight on the former.

For the record, I don’t really care either way into which camp another writer falls. As a converted former slave to outlining, I preach Writing Into the Dark because I know how very freeing it is. And if you try WITD and it doesn’t work out you can always go back to plotting, outlining etc.

But if you don’t even want to try, that’s fine with me too. Because seriously, what do I care? Write however you want. I ask only that you grant me and others like me the same release from external control.

Back to Mr. Bell’s misrepresentation, I also consider “pantser” a derogatory term. In its primary definition, a “pantser” is a schoolyard bully who tugs down the pants of other children in public so they will be humiliated.

Of course, writers who plot and plan and squeeze the spontaneity and fun out of everything would have us believe they use the term “innocently” to indicate a writer who “flies by the seat of his or her pants.”

In reality, the term is a slur wielded by those who are unable, in their insecurity, to trust in their own ability to Just Write the Story.

Again, these folks have bought into the notion that their creative subconscious is incapable of creating a good story. They are taught to rely on their critical, conscious mind, and in so doing they convey to their creative subconscious that they do not trust it.

They outline and plan and plot before writing, and in the aftermath they are compelled to invite criticism and input from others who have absolutely nothing to do with their story. They revise and rewrite and polish, and to what end? Individual readers still either love, like, dislike or hate the end result. Because what is perfection for one is garbage for another.

So when they occasionally encounter those of us who DO believe in our own ability, who are not wallowing in the same self-doubt and who believe so strongly that we dare to turn control of the story over to the characters who are actually living it, they refer to us as “pantsers.” Not because they believe for a second it will cause us to take up outlining, but only to belittle and deride us in the eyes of those who might buy their silly nonfiction regurgitations. Go figure.

Over the past several years, I’ve taught dozens of writers to let go of their unreasoning fears and trust themselves and their characters enough to write into the dark. In other words, I’ve taught them it’s all right to let go of control and simply convey the story that their characters (not the writers themselves) are living.

And just so you know, in all that time I have never heard even one of those so-called “pantsers” say (as Mr. Bell stated) ‘If I knew what my story was about before I wrote it I’d be bored.’

In fact, I personally almost always know what and whom the story is about before I’ve written the first word. I just don’t know where the character’s going, how s/he’s going to get there, or what will happen along the way. The characters reveal all of that as they’re living the story.

On the other hand, I’ve heard MANY writers say, and I have said myself, if I plotted and planned and outlined a novel in advance so that I knew every major twist and turn, I’d be so bored that I would see no reason to write the story a second time. Compare this with what Mr. Bell wrote. Not the same thing.

With very few exceptions, I won’t even read a book or watch a film when I already know the ending. So why in the world would I write one for which I not only know the ending but every major twist and turn? Even the thought of it almost puts me to sleep.

Then again, if other writers aren’t bored by knowing everything in advance or don’t mind being bored, hey, more power to them. Again, I don’t care. But if I had to either write fiction by those insane rules or not write at all, well, I’d rather not write at all.

But perhaps I can be forgiven for not toeing the line established by the plodders. After all, I’m one of those old odd dinosaur dogs who loads a wheelbarrow only once, then transports the load to its final destination before I offload it, which I also do only once.

By which I mean, I don’t dump it three or four times along the way so I can come back to load it and move it a little farther along in a “separate pass.”

I’m a novelist and short story writer (and a poet and essayist and blogger and writer of nonfiction books on craft). As such, THAT I write is all-important to me because writing is what I do.

But WHAT I write, the individual story or novel (or poem or essay or article or nonfiction book), isn’t important at all. Or rather, the importance of what I write is not for me to judge. Because WHAT I write is important (or not) only to the reader.

And my friends, readers are not stupid. They can tell the difference between a story that’s been contrived by a writer and one that’s been lived by a cast of characters.

So think about it: If the plot or story gets away from you now and again and you get stuck, so what? It isn’t your story. You’re only conveying a story that someone else is living. And that’s the whole point: The plot or story never gets away from the characters who are living it. Your job is to record their story, so just write the next sentence.

Just sayin’.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “The Terrible Truth About Adolf Hitler’s Remains” at

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.


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