How to Write a Novel – The Strict Pantser

How to write a Novel Strict PantserWelcome to the first lesson in our How To Write Your Novel series. If you missed the previous post, you can read the course introduction here.

In the introduction, I defined pantsers as writers who do no pre-planning before beginning to write. This week, let’s take a closer look at what it means to be a writer who writes strictly by the seat of your pants.

A Pantser Is….

The term seat-of-the-pants comes from the world of machines. People who drive or fly or sail or routinely operate heavy equipment learn the feel of their vehicle. They may have dials, gauges, tachometers, and all sorts of fancy stuff but they know by the feel to the seat of their pants whether or not their machine is operating properly.

In fact, if you happen to be a NASCAR fan (as I am) and have listened to the chatter between drivers and crew chiefs, you’ve no doubt heard a driver say, “the car doesn’t feel right.” He’s talking about the way it feels to the seat of his pants.

The really good drivers know by the vibrations they feel through the seat whether the tires are going bad, the engine is starting to fail, or there’s some other problem.

The same is true of the writer who writes by the seat-of-the-pants. Write enough stories and he or she learns to feel intuitively whether or not a scene is working or if a plot is starting to fail. That “vibration” in the story world alerts them to possible problems.

Sometimes, the vibration may be the approach of a cool, new plot twist, too.

Types of Pantser

Beginning to End

This writer begins at the beginning and writes straight through to the end of the story. There are very few deviations from forward progress.

I’ve written at least one novel this way and often found myself at a complete stop when I couldn’t figure out what the next chapter should be.

The first draft is finished when the last chapter is finished. It’s not a bad way to write; it just didn’t work for me.

Breach Birth

With this form of intuitive writing, writing begins with the first scene idea. A pivotal event, maybe. Or a conflict between two or more characters. The writer may write individual scenes and piece them together later or may write the pivotal scene, then continue writing that plot line until he or she runs out of ideas. Sometimes, they may go back and write the follow up scenes.

The first draft is finished when all the transitions and gaps have been filled.

This is how most of my unplanned novels came to be. It’s a fun way to write so long as you know what happens next.

One benefit to this type of writing is that the scenes or plot threads give rise to related or new ideas. I had this experience quite often. That’s about the most thrilling thing that can happen for a pantser.

Another advantage is that the writer doesn’t have to worry about writing the perfect opening line at the beginning. You can do that after everything else is finished if you want to.

Whatever Works

For other pantsers, every story is different. Some unfold in a linear manner, from beginning to end.

Other stories follow a more winding path.

My observation of writing by the seat of my pants is that it’s more about getting words on paper than how the words are put on paper. For many of the novels I wrote intuitively, I often wrote linearly—one chapter after another—until a related idea presented itself. At that point, I opened a new document and wrote out as much of that idea or plot thread as possible, then figured out how it fit into the story.

Or if it fit!

My first NaNoWriMo novel, Saving Grace happened this way.

The Biggest Disadvantage

The biggest disadvantage to writing by the seat of the pants is that the first draft is often so messed up, major rewrites are needed to straighten it out. That can be a time-consuming proposition. It can also be very frustrating.

Two of my favorite manuscripts have suffered through multiple rewrites. I’m up to Draft 17 on one of them and approaching 20 years since the first words were written. Granted, writing on those stories has been sporadic. They’ve been hobbies more than anything.

But I can’t help but wonder how much more quickly I’d have been able to get a marketable manuscript had I spent some of those years deliberately planning instead of writing multiple drafts.

That, alas, is something I may never know for sure.

If you want a thrill ride of a writing experience, try pantsing with your next novel. When it’s going well, there’s nothing like it.

But beware! Every thrill ride has both ups and downs!

Next week, we’ll take a look at the Strict Pre-Planning way of writing a novel. I hope you’ll join me.

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