How To Pants A Novel

After missing the first week of April, and being somewhat busy, I told myself I was just going to skip all of April and return to the blog in May. It was a bad excuse, and I find myself waxing philosophical today and ranting to myself, so I thought I would share.

I’m a pantser. I make absolutely no secret of this. I’ve been pantsing my writing for roughly seven years now. I want to share some of what I’ve learned.

Why Pants?

Because it’s not planning. Duh.

No, seriously. I started off trying to plan my writing. For thirty years, I presumed that the way to write a novel was to invent a plot, decide what happens, and then write it.

And that’s boring.

It also stifles creativity. I’m the sort of person who watches a movie precisely one time. After I’ve seen it, why watch it again? There are a gazillion other movies that I haven’t watched and I only have a finite amount of time with which to watch movies. The same goes for books, although a little less so since there are more subtleties and nuances you’re prone to missing in a book (IMO). And the same is true for my books.

When you pants, you aren’t the writer. You’re the first reader.

You are the first person who gets to experience your work, and how exciting is that? You even have some control over what happens! You can write a scene, walk away, think about the story on your break (which might be an hour or might be a week) and then sit down with some notion of what might happen, press play, and let it all unfold.

But it’s only fresh the first time. After that, you know what happens, and then it’s editing. Editing sucks. (Well, it does at first.)

Now, anyone who knows me will think this is the strangest sentiment to hear coming from me. I am the most left-brained logical mathematical person in the world. My father was the textbook engineer. I grew up in his mold. So how in the world would I end up using such a free-spirited, almost whimsical approach to writing?

Because discovery writing is not open-ended.

Planning is. All things are mutable as a planner, up until the point where you decide to start writing. You might decide that some things make up the essence of your novel, but who your characters are can change, what they do will vary, what complications they face can differ, and their motivations and reactions absolutely vacillate until you find something that works.

Maybe you’re more decisive than me. Maybe that’s not a problem. But I find that open-endedness paralyzing. If I don’t have any sort of guidance, how do I know what’s right? If I close one door so I can open another, how will I know I’ve chosen correctly? If the whole point of planning is to have it all figured out ahead of time, how can you ever know?

That doesn’t happen with pantsing. You make up a starting point, and you go. Everything you write is informed but what you just wrote. It’s natural, organic, and should stay connected throughout. And if you ever get agitated with what you wrote, make up a solution, add a note to fix it in the second draft, and keep going. Or maybe that’s a sign that you should back up just a little and try again, but don’t do that too often or you’ll develop a perfectionism complex — which is precisely why you aren’t planning in the first place.

Plot Structure While Pantsing

So when you’re “plotting” a novel, you have certain molds most stories adhere to. Three-act, seven-point, monomyth, etc. I don’t write to any of those. I don’t adhere to anything other than my own intuition.

And on your first pantsed novel, your intuition will suck. You’ll get mired in making up backstory and waxing on about unnecessary garbage, and then you’ll finally get on with the plot and write yourself into so many corners that the train completely jumps the tracks. Your second will only be a little better, but if you’re lucky, you’ll get to type “The End” when you’re through and still have a conclusion of some sort. It takes a third novel to finally get it right — or at least, it did for me.

But what happened at that point was kind of magical. I went into my third novel with a character. Not a setting, or some vague magic system, or some abstract concept of what I think might be cool. I had an MC, and I had a situation she was responding to because I had just written a short story about this person and decided I wanted to continue. And although I made some strange choices that had to be repaired later, it all just flowed. I was running downhill to the ending, the whole way.

Now, let’s be clear, novel #3 was not a masterpiece. I picked up other tools afterwards, like braiding different narratives, complex plots and motivations for my characters, actually developing the rest of the cast, etc. But the central tenet of writing, which continues to be true now, is that a pantsed novel is writted in cycles of waxing and waning action.

The sequence goes like this:

  1. The tension starts to grow stale, and you build to something significant happening.
  2. A scene of important action takes places, the consequences of which alter the course of the novel.
  3. The characters take a moment to debrief and recognize what has just happened.
  4. The story continues with them living in a new world that includes the consequences of #2.

I don’t believe in always starting in medias res, so let’s assume you have a non-actiony start. You’ll set the stage with that opening. That’s your tableau. You’ll go about that, introducing new stuff that’s hopefully either important or exciting, because of course you don’t want your beginning to be boring, and then Something Happens.

What, specifically, is going to depend heavily on genre. I write paranormal thrillers, so my action sequences are actual action sequences. Like, fistfights, car chases, etc. But they don’t have to be. As long as you take a loose interpretation of what constitutes “action,” this holds true for all genres, except maybe literary.

So something big happens during that action. Your characters might win. They might lose. They might simply learn something that wasn’t known before or one of the characters might be seen in a completely new light. The only thing you know is that it won’t be total victory or absolute defeat, or else the novel would be over.

Naturally, that means you’ll be asking the question, “WTF just happened?” And because you’re the first reader, all the readers after you are also going to ask that. So take a second and figure that out. And, of course, I don’t mean that literally. The reader was there. They saw it. You don’t need to repeat what happened. You need the “okay, so what?” I call this the debriefing. Sometimes in my writing, it’s literally a debriefing, and the characters chart their new course after the fact.

And then the world continues for a while. You need some catharsis. You need some adjustment. You write for however long it takes until you get acclimated to the new normal — and once it is indeed “normal,” you need to upset the balance, which means you start over again.

How long each of these cycles is will depend, obviously. In my novels, the first two go by relatively quickly, and the last two are also brisk because the action is where the conclusion is. By comparison, the central portion of the novel is where I have the chance to explore — my action is frequently not explicit biff-pow! action, and we get to learn a great deal more about the characters and what they’re made of in the center of the book. Of course, this is what leads to “sagging middles,” so this has to be done artfully, but in general you probably only need one tentpole throughout the entirety of act 2 to serve as your midpoint.

But that midpoint’s important, darnit. Everything in the front of the novel is building to that point, and everything after that point is resolving from it. Yeah, yeah, I know, today is the first day of the rest of your life, and so’s tomorrow and the day after that. But hear me out.

At the start of your novel, you’re complicating the plot. You’re making shit up out of left field that just makes things worse. You’re inventing new monsters, you’re establishing new characters that either get in the way or simply thicken the plot threads you’ve got. Sometimes you’ll make up some noodle incidents along the way and leave them dangling. But your action, while it may not seem like it’s progressing toward anything in particular, is at least progressing.

The midpoint is where that changes. The midpoint is where your disorganized chaos turns into organized chaos. After the midpoint, you stop worrying about adding new complications to the story, and progress toward resolving the ones you’ve got. New things will come up, sure, but you have to start funneling all the plot threads you’ve conjured up out of nowhere and start finding a way to bring them back together.

In your second novel, you won’t have a prayer of achieving this. The different ideas are simply too disparate and your attempts to incorporate them will be clumsy and unsatisfying. In your third novel, though, you’ll do a passable job, and that will teach you how far to stretch and also how creative you can be in bringing things back in again. And, of course, you’ve got like 40,000 words to do so. So you don’t rush, but you start funneling them together, molding them toward something. You don’t have to know what, yet. But the way that a bunch of little things start to merge into one big thing is exciting. And when you finally kick your character in the balls with the side effects of your midpoint, that’s when you start careening toward your conclusion.

The conclusion’s my favorite part to write. I don’t like being told what to write, specifically, but I love knowing generally what to do. Not only do you probably know at this point, but you still have the freedom to make some annoying crap get in the way so your characters don’t just press the Big Red Button that solves everything. This is the point where it’s great to play “yes but, no and,” until you finally filter towards the end.

The debriefing after the final action scene is your ending. This is often very hard to write, because it requires you to look back on not just the action scene itself, but everything else that took place and wrap it all together. You might actually do this in two scenes, a debriefing and then a follow-up that shows the (happy?) ending that results.

But in general, your novel will be a repeating cycle of putting your characters through the wringer, and then relaxing a bit, and then squeezing them again, as frequently as the reader can handle.

After Pantsing

…comes the edit.

Editing is a completely different skillset from writing, and I strongly recommend you wait until after the novel to start changing things. Your first draft is called “discovery” writing for a reason. It is, in essence, your outline. While the planners decipher what happens ahead of time, you create it sequentially by experiencing it. This is probably a little slower — assuming you’re comparing to an efficient pantser and not someone who worldbuilds for ten years — but it’s a lot more effective.

Pantsing does come with certain limitations that have to be stamped out at this point, though. First, you need to consider if the story makes any sense at all. If it doesn’t, well, shit. But if it does, then you need to isolate the parts that blatantly aren’t, and come up with an idea for how to smooth them down. That might involve completely changing a sequence, or just adjusting one detail. Elegant solutions don’t always present themselves, but they’re usually there somewhere if your ideas weren’t horribly misguided to begin with.

Second, you need to work out pacing in terms of the overall plot and also within each chapter. There are probably entire sections you’ll cut. Don’t be afraid to remove things. Your baby is not precious — not yet! This is where “kill your darlings” comes in.

But more than anything, you simply need to rewrite each scene so that it feels more natural. In your first pass, unless you’re an amazingly natural talent, you’ll have really flubbed a few sections of dialogue, missed some important description, and otherwise botched a scene. Plus, those early scenes, now that you know what’s happening, will need enrichment and foreshadowing. Just be very careful to keep track of which details you’ve included and which you haven’t.

And then it’s off to the beta readers. Congratulations, you’re exactly where the planners would be, and hopefully you’ve got a much more exciting and unpredictable story than they do. (Albeit they likely have the stronger ending, but we can’t have everything.)

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