I like to write a synopsis. Sometimes I create a spreadsheet, but only if I have a large cast of characters like I’ve created in my For the Love of Gods series. Occasionally, I write a short story first, that sets up the background for my protagonist and use that as an outline. Maybe I’m weird with that one. I don’t know. Usually, I write a couple of pages summarizing my idea to keep me on track. I’m easily distracted, as you’ve all probably realized after reading my thoughts here during Miller Time, so I need something that will drag me back to the story I want to tell.
Outlining sounds boring. It is. It is tedious and excruciating; we want to write the damn book already. But it’s smart writing. It ensures that once you’ve started, you don’t hit a wall and abandon the project entirely. I like having that safety net, but I like to have fun now and then too. When I want to do that, I take a deep breath and I pants it. Writing by the seat of your pants is terrifying and exhilarating. It’s giving into inspiration and saying who gives a shit about logic and practicality. I am an artist! I am not afraid of failure! (gulp) I am going to let my imagination roam freely.
I wrote most of “Sex, Peanuts, Fangs and Fur: A Practical Guide to Invading Canada” by the seat of my pants. I only outlined during the editing phase, when I realized I’d gone off the rails in a few places (let’s be honest, it went off the rails in many places). And I loved every minute of the pantsing experience, even if I wanted to shoot myself when it came time to make it readable.
There’s an art to pantsing, though, because too often it ends in an unfinished draft. If you want to reach the end, you have to abandon the need for control, and embrace the unknown. You also have to know when it’s time to admit defeat.
Let’s dive in together.
Don’t pants for the first time with a novel. Try something smaller. A piece of short fiction, for example. Once you’ve done that, and it didn’t give you a nervous breakdown, you can think bigger. One fact we have to accept about pantsing is that it’s the longer route to finishing a novel. Surprising, I know, but plotting helps you write faster, because you’ve got your ducks in a row before you begin. Pantsing often involves daydreaming, and deleting scenes and pausing to allow a new character or twist to immerse itself into the story. Sometimes you go on a tangent for three or four chapters before you rein the story back in. This requires time a plotted novel doesn’t need.
That’s okay. It’s still a shit ton of fun. So proceed with the pantsing.
Now, before you type the first sentence in your attempt at utter abandonment of all things organized, it helps to know your genre. Let yourself be organized enough to know what audience you’re writing for. This way, you know what elements you must include, and what might steer you off course. It’s not vital to success, but it gives you a bit of an edge, and that’s always useful.
While you’ve discarded the idea of writing an outline, you should have a general idea of the plot as well. A single idea or a sentence is enough. It’s not an outline. Stop looking at me like that. If you don’t have a general picture of the story you’re about to tell, you’re going to have an interesting web to untangle when you’re done. You can simplify the plot in a single sentence. For example, I pantsed “The Legend of Jackson Murphy,” but I knew the main idea of my plot: “An ordinary man becomes a serial killer.” Then I decided who would die. From there, I let the story evolve on its own. I didn’t outline, but I did pause long enough to know what I wanted to write.
Know your setting too. If you don’t know where the story takes place, setting is kind of hard to show. Some might advise you to know your characters as well. I say know one character intimately, and the rest will appear as they’re needed. I know that sounds irresponsible and insane, but I can be wild and crazy like that.
Finally, just write.
Do it. Now. What are you waiting for?
And keep writing. Doubts will pop up. You might even feel despair and anxiety. You’ll freak out. You could cry. I’ve cried. One time I cried for an entire day. Don’t tell anyone, but I sobbed like snotty, pathetic baby, and it’s okay to panic a little. You’re writing without a net, for crying out loud. Breathe. Write through it. Pantsing won’t work if you go back and edit what you’ve written. Editing half way through only reinforces your doubts, and you need confidence to pants a novel. Chin up. Carry on.
Oh, and give yourself permission to overwrite. I know this is not the usual advice writers give, but if you overwrite, add more scenes than you need, more dialogue, more description, you are less likely to allow self-doubt to stop your progress. And hey, you can always remove it later. Let whatever is in your head pour onto the page. This way, you won’t lose that inspiration. The point of pantsing is to let the creative juices flow. Let them gush. Every novel I’ve pantsed (though I’ve only pantsed a few) is at least 5,000 to 10,000 words shorter than the first draft, because I let it all out, even the awful stuff. Some of my best writing is hidden in the fluff I vomited in the first draft.
You must let go of your inner critic, because worrying about word usage and overwriting kills the spontaneity of pantsing, and this kills your ability to write. Stop it. Just keep going.
And don’t be afraid to skip ahead. If you get stuck, and you’re all “This scene isn’t working.” or “How do I get from point A to point B? It’s not making sense.” simply skip that part and go on to what you know needs to happen. Jumping ahead to a scene you know fits into the story often helps you resolve issues with a scene that doesn’t seem to fit. You can go back later and smooth out the kinks or delete the scene entirely. Trust me, no one but you will know it even happened.
Now, if you’ve pants half or two thirds of the book and find you’ve truly hit a wall and can’t write anymore, your pantsing adventure might be over. That’s okay. Simply pause to outline where you’ve been and where you need to go in order to finish. The exhilarating part has already happened, so if you must revert to your stodgy old organized self to finish the book, then do it.
And remember, plotting and pantsing aren’t exclusive. You can do both while working on the same project. There is no one method that works for everyone so write in whatever manner gets the book finished and let yourself have a little fun now and then.
Read more Miller Time articles here!
Renee Miller lives in Tweed, Ontario, a small town she vowed to run away from, only to realize there is no escaping. She's been a waitress, a bartender, a gas station attendant, a social worker, a daycare provider, coffee-slinging drive-thru professional, an office administrator, and a freelance writer, but always had her heart set on writing fiction.
When she's not burning dinner or waiting tables in a pizza joint, she dwells in a glamorous office/garage cuddled up with her laptop. She's what folks like to call a "hybrid" author, having self-published three novels in the crime/suspense and romance genres, and recently signed with Crescent Moon Press to publish a series of paranormal novels featuring Greek gods.