why one pantser quit pantsing

What's going on in your writing world? Connect with the writing community here and talk about whatever's on your mind.
mike m.
Master Sergeant
Posts: 348
Joined: Mon Aug 07, 2017 10:11 pm

why one pantser quit pantsing

Postby mike m. » Thu Aug 17, 2017 10:03 pm


When it comes to writing a novel, there are two schools of thought: you can plot it out first with an outline, or you can just wing it, writing by the seat of your pants. I’ve always been a pantser.

But after years of endless revisions to a novel I started in 2003, I decided to give outlining a try. And I’ll never pants a novel again.

I used to pants everything

Some background: I’ve been writing short stories since I learned how to write, and seriously writing with an eye to publication since high school. I took part in the 3-Day Novel-Writing Contest in 1999, and that broke a huge psychological barrier for me: I could write a novel-length story in a long weekend.

I took the same approach — just sit down and write — to revising that novel for three years, only to conclude that it was no longer a story I wanted to tell.

So when it came time to start Bark At the Moon in 2003, I did the same thing. I just sat down and wrote it. The entire saga of this is recounted in another blog post, and there’s a good reason I started calling the feeling of successive drafts “rewriting-revising-it’s-all-going-to-be-crap.”

By the end of each draft, I’d have found tons of great new material that was fresh and exciting and deepened the story — and didn’t fit with anything else in the manuscript. (By the way, the opening chapter for each draft was usually revised from scratch several times on its own, which should come as no surprise to other writers.)

Keen eyes will have already detected I’m talking all about process, and not about the actual story structure. For a long time I confused the two. That is, since it became clear I was getting better material after revising, all I had to do was keep revising and it would be perfect, no?


You can write some things on instinct (if you’re Stephen King or Roger Zelazny, that includes basic plotting, characterization and/or world building), but for me, writing a novel is not one of them. Short fiction, sure — I had internalized enough about it to write publishable stories I liked.

Roger Zelazny
Roger Zelazny. Steven Brust says he’s God. I’m not going to argue. (Photo: Wikipedia)
But I was drowning in my novels (I wrote at least one other since 2003 that remains I first draft). By the time I got to the end of draft seven of Bark At the Moon, it had ballooned to 135,000 words. (For those keeping score, the typical word count for a debut novel in my genre is 70,000 – 80,000 words; 100,000 tends to be the maximum.) That draft took me a year to write.

And when I looked at it, proud of how some things were working, confused why most of it was not, I started looking for another solution. I couldn’t face another year of pantsing it and hoping for the best. I needed to know why it wasn’t working, or there would be no point revising yet again.

And yes, I have had some great help in this – beta readers who read entire drafts; an editor who has seen different versions of the whole thing and still offered hours of tireless feedback.

But I needed to figure out how to do the heavy lifting myself.

Getting help with plotting

One of my favourite phrases is “macro before micro” – you have to work on the big things first. Sadly, I was getting bogged down in scenes and dialogue and tweaking things when the whole thing needed an overhaul. I should have taken my own advice sooner.

see the link for the full essay

this is the ending

As a bonus, just to see what would happen, I also outlined a short story before writing it, aiming to come in at a certain word count. Not only did I write the story in one pass and end up with something I was happy with, it took only a fraction of the time it usually does to write a story. If you count the outline as a draft (which I do), the short story took three drafts, total: outline, draft, and polish.

Bottom line

So, I’m sold. Pantsing is for suckers (or virtuosos like Stephen King). I’m outlining from here on in, until such time as I can do it in my sleep.

I may not be a virtuoso, but I’m no sucker either.

Return to Writers' Block Party

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 7 guests