Monday, May 3, 2010

By the Seat of My Pants

I write by the seat of my pants.  There.  I admit it.  And boy does it feel good to get that off of my chest.

I've never been able to write outlines.  When I was in college, I did an honors project for my first English Comp class.  It was a short story that my professor and I spent hours working on.  She had me do outlines and character sketches and proposals.  Then, a couple of days before the story was due, I was listening to a song called "Benjamin" by Veruca Salt.  A story popped into my head.  I put that song on repeat and stayed up all night writing a story.  It had zip to do with the outlining and character sketching I did with my professor.  She was understandably peeved that all our hard work had gone out the window, but I couldn't help myself.  And in the end, my professor loved the story and gave me the honor credit.

When I picked my writing back up, I pantsed my way through one really bad story.  Then, for my next story, I tried to do character charts and outlines.  I hit some major road blocks (my three main characters had absolutely NO chemistry).  My next book, a 140k word YA Norse epic, was pantsed.  And finally there was Deathday Letter.  I wrote the first chapter, and I knew what the last chapter would look like, but all the middle stuff was a mystery to me.

Since then, I've been struggling with being the kind of person who outlines.  People in publishing like outlines.  They like to see where you're going before you go there.  Usually so they can help you get there better.  But I've always forged my own paths, often to disastrous consequences.  I like to know what my destination is, but I hate being told how to get there. Just ask my parents.  It's not that I hate advice or think people are wrong, it's just that I have this pathological need to do things for myself.  Because for me it's about the journey.  If I'm driving from Florida to Colorado, and you give me a map with a route, and pictures of what I'll see on the route, then what's the fun of driving?  That's how I feel about outlines.

It makes for a pretty inefficient writing process.  If the story is flawed, I may not find out until I'm 3/4 of the way in.  Without GPS to guide me, I may hit a roadblock and have to backtrack a long, long way.  But then again, without the mystery, the adventure of discovery, I may not want to go at all.

That mystery is how I sustain my enthusiasm for a book for the weeks or months it takes to write.  I know that it means I'll have a lot of work to do when that messy first draft is done, but it's what works.

So what works for you all?  Are you pantsers?  Or outliners?  If you're an outliner, what is it that drives you?  How do you keep the enthusiasm for writing a project when you already know what's going to happen?

I'm Shaun Hutchinson, and I'm a pantser.


  1. I'm Jody Sparks and I'm also a Pantser!

  2. Ok. Right. Confession time. I'm a pantser and I fear the day I get an agent and they ask for an outline. That is all.

  3. Generally I know some of the stuff that happens in the story (how it's gonna end, some of the cool stuff that's going to happen in the story) but I have a tendency to make up the journey in between those points. I have outlined before though. Whether or not I follow these alleged outlines I prepare is another story entirely.

    I've always thought this was a silly question though. Who doesn't plot along the way? Sometimes I have absolutely no clue what's going to happen in a scene, but generally if I bring two characters into a scene I have some sort of motive for writing about them. As in I start writing page 27 because I know where it will all have gone by page 35, but I don't necessarily know exactly what's going to happen after that until I get there, even if I know what's supposed to happen by page 50...

    if that makes any sense :P And I don't mean pages literally.

  4. Welcome to the club, Shaun. I am sure that I'm the president.

    I completely agree with you about this though. Every time I've tried to be a hardline outliner, my creativity is completely stifled. And all the lines that I've written that were really cool, that gave me goosebumps came when I was just letting the words flow. Great post.

  5. Yay, Jody!

    Yay, Chantal! That's my fear too. It's actually easier to do the outline after the first draft (for me anyway). The problem I run into is when I do the outline BEFORE writing the draft.

    Joe: I loved that you said "alleged outlines." That cracked me up. It totally makes sense. What gets me is that when I start a scene, I know what I WANT to happen, yet often that's not what happens. I discover something as I write that changes everything. My problem is that when I outline, I feel like I lose that ability to explore. Which is stupid, I know...but no one ever accused writers of being logical, right? :)

    All hail President Eric! Isn't it silly though? I wonder what it is about outlines that kills it. It's not like they're written in blood. We're free to change them. We're free to crumple them up and use them to practice our free throws. But once I've outlined, I feel like I can't deviate. It's odd.

  6. I've only ever pantsed short stories. The thought of pantsing a novel gives me the same squidgy feeling that walking into a karaoke bar does: please don't make me do it!

    That said, enough cool, serendipitous things have happened pantsing the short stories that it just might work for me with a longer one. Dave just said tonight he thinks I should start fresh with one of my WIPs -- with the known characters and premise -- and pants the novel. Eep!

    As for using outlines and what keeps it fresh...not sure, but I think filling in the details is rewarding. One WIP's sections are divided by seasons, so I outlined the chapters to line up with seasonal events. The one on submission is an extended hero journey, so I outlined it to make sure I had all the recognizable stages of that journey.

    Pantsers are brave!

  7. Hahaha, I'm pretty much guaranteed to come up with a new outline every few chapters as other things I'd like to happen in the story occur to me (some of which never may). I only really outline when I'm trying to come up with ideas.

    Generally it's a working backwards sort of thing, isn't it? Especially if you have a complicated plot. All your characters have certain motivations and you should probably have some idea of how those will be revealed, but the journey can be surprising. Sometimes you might end up coming up with something even better than what you planned originally.

    But you do have to Dumbledore it sometimes. It would be pretty tragic if you wrote a character with some huge secret or you had some big twist and got to the end and realized you hadn't built up to this the way you wanted to.

  8. Shan: How detailed are your outlines? Is it like "CH 1 - Something happens" or more like you write pages and pages? My last attempt at outlining created an outline that was nearly 10k words at one point.

    Joe: I like your way of doing it! Just re-outline after every chapter :)

  9. Love this! I'm Margie Gelbwasser and I'm a Pantser too. :-) And I'm like you knowing beginning and end and a catalyst, basic plot, but all those middle scenes? Nah. My hubby likes to say, "Procrastination is a good thing. It builds suspense." I'm with him on that!


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