Perils of the Pantster.

My desk during editing.

If you write by the seat of your pants, you’re a pantster, as opposed to those who write a story from a structured plan; they’re plotters. Both methods have upsides and downsides, and both have devotees, some of whom can be unnecessarily scathing of those in the opposite camp.

I’ve been a pantster all my writing life. One attempt at plotting was enough. 78,000 words, written by hand on lined foolscap paper (before the PC arrived), went in the bin on the first read through. Literally. That thriller was rubbish, and this was before the days of recycling. Oddly, the story remains in my head. One day, I might tackle it again but as a pantster.

My current WIP (work in progress) began as a short story. Taking a break from novels, having written one each year for the last six, I decided to concentrate on the short form for a change. But my characters had different ideas and, after the first 10,000 words, it was clear this would be at least a novelette. The players had more to say, wanted to do more, than I’d envisaged. As always, I allowed the players to take control of the direction of their story, though I did remain quite strict about destination and the themes to be addressed.

I began writing the story on 6th January 20, having created my characters in the weeks before Xmas, and completed the necessary research. Initially, the tale was to be fewer than 5,000 words, maybe a story suitable for entry into this year’s Bridport Prize. By March 14th, the characters had forced 58,769 words onto the pages and the story was told. (And I entered a different story into the Bridport – wish me luck!)

The pantster must face the realities of this method of storytelling; the tale is inevitably altered in the creation and much editing may be needed to get it into shape. Not all pantsters allow their characters to alter the route, introduce new events, wander off in unexpected directions. Some are more controlling. But I love character-led fiction, with all its subsequent rewriting. It makes the creation of a story as exciting for me as I hope the finished piece will be for the reader.

All novelists know a first draft is never presentable. Editing refines the MS into something publishable. In plotted writing, the word count significantly reduces during editing. For the pantster, rewriting can often increase word count.

My first edit grew the story to 67,266 words and ended on 2nd April. My story is set during a short period around 10 years in the future. That timescale means current events impact on the story. At the start, the Covid 19 pandemic was, for us in UK, something happening in distant lands and of small concern. However, as the weeks passed, it became clear the illness would have a major effect on the future world. By the end of the first draft, we were already in lockdown here.

Although Covid 19 wasn’t a feature of the story, its effects on the wider world inevitably impacted on what happened. This alone made a significant rewrite essential if the story were to maintain plausibility.

During editing, other ideas about the future, environmental, political, social, philosophical, occurred to me. These had to be incorporated, and adjustments made to the circumstances under which my characters lived the brief spell of their lives covered by the story.

I began the second edit a couple of days after finishing the first. This one took the wordage to 71,329 and ended on 2nd May. I’d written the story from the third person pov (point of view) of a focus character, which means events, attitudes, emotions, were filtered through her experience and views.

I sent my writing group a couple of samples of the beginning of the story for their opinions, as we’ve been holding virtual meetings for obvious reasons. One was in the original pov, the other in first-person pov by the same character. Without exception my colleagues voted for the first-person version.

Oh, good! That meant considerable rewriting, but it also made the story more alive, personal, and focused, and therefore better. I finished this edit on 8th June and the word count had climbed to 76,195. Because I’d written the original in third person, some events had to be approached in an entirely different way, other aspects could be dealt with by internal monologue, and some scenes could no longer be used, even though those events happened.

I’d expected that edit to be the penultimate before the final one, which I do reading aloud from a printed copy. This highlights awkward sentence structure and makes purple prose excruciating to the ear, and it brings to light typos easily missed when reading from the screen.

I’ve now completed a more targeted edit where I looked at the occurrence of certain words, types of events, topics of discussion, and identified theme treatments to ensure consistency. That brought the total wordage to 79,079, which is quite short for my novels. My epic fantasy trilogy presented the story in 3 volumes, each of which exceeded 200,000 words. And my science fiction trilogy totalled 273,000 words.

Because of this edit, I’m now doing a final onscreen check of consistency and structure. I will then run the whole book through an online grammar checking program (Prowritingaid) to find those odd errors, duplications, and other undesirable features. (A word of warning on editing software: use your common sense and experience when employing it, otherwise there’s a danger your writing will become bland and banal).

Then I’ll print off the whole MS and read it aloud, mark any items I find that don’t come up to scratch, amend the doc accordingly, and then print it off for my beta reader to read. She has an excellent grasp of English grammar, idiom, and structure, and will undoubtedly discover items I’ve missed by being too close to the text during its creation. She also has a superb memory and will point out events that are implausible/impossible. When she did this for my epic adult fantasy, she was checking book 2 for me and let me know I couldn’t have a particular character perform a specific function. I asked her why. She reminded me I’d killed him off in book 1! Such is the value of good beta readers.

So, this is the place I’m at with my WIP. Would there have been less work if I wrote as a plotter? I can’t say. But I know with absolute certainty I wouldn’t have turned out the book I have if I’d chosen that method. Writing as a pantster has its perils, but, for me, it’s the only way. I’ll keep you informed of progress, now I’ve introduced the topic.

13 thoughts on “Perils of the Pantster.

  1. I’m totally with you on the pantsing thing. I usually end up sitting in the middle of the floor, surrounded by 300 or so pages, trying to figure out what order they should be in. Add to that I pants minor characters too – so most of mine are called Thingy or XXXX for at least two drafts. In the past I’ve tried to learn to plot, but it just made me hate what I was doing. Never again – I embrace the chaos and live to pants. Thanks for sharing this inside look at your process!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I empathise, Caron. However, I always start by creating my core characters, which means giving them names (I do sometimes change those later). I have a file of first names I use to select the names (It’s available to download on my Resources’ page, if you’re interested). I need to know my characters really well before I start writing the story, as I allow them to direct the route. If I need to introduce a minor character, I generally grab one from a file of such beings I’ve created over the years for the many stories I’ve written (most of which have never been sent out to the wide world – I must do something about that!)
      But, like you, I dwell in chaos for a while during the initial editing sessions.

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  2. Your desk is so tidy! Mine is terrible with piles of paper, post-its, and hard cover notebooks. My laptop is almost invisible (although it’s red so I can find it ;)).

    Hearing about your process is interesting. I played around with writing (but I don’t consider myself to be a writer) years ago (and had to do lots of it in uni) but am only now finding myself more settled in it. These days, other than my blog, I write reports and lots of other technical things.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Ah, the secret is all in what you can’t see, Lynette! As with the finished novel, it’s what’s not revealed that is often at the heart of the piece. To the right of the desk is another, home-made, surface and storage area that carries numerous items awaiting attention. Behind me are bookshelves stacked with books, some read. others waiting to be opened. And above the monitor is a small set of shelves packed with so many odds and sods even I don’t know what’s up there!
      When you’re writing technical stuff, as I know from experience, a type of personal organisation is essential, and I suspect you have your own ‘filing’ system and can usually lay your hands on whatever’s needed to finish the job.
      Anyway, you’re supposed to be on holiday. Enjoy!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, I’m impressed, Stuart! I love your work space and all the books, it looks inspiring! I have always loved writing but haven’t done anything beyond my short travel blog posts, maybe one day 😀 Aiva

    Liked by 1 person

    1. But your travel posts inspire others to appreciate different places and help promote human interaction, ourcrossings. Each to their own. My love is for storytelling, yours is for travel. And you share it so well.

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  4. I’m a dedicated pantser and all my books have been written that way – except for The Last Pilgrim, which was dictated by history. I love to see where my little gray cells will wander off to, while I am writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds like you have certainly put your work in Stuart. It sounds exciting my friend. Congratulations 🍾🎊 are in order as you are coming around the stretch or coming in for the home run. Your desk sure looks neat. What a go my friend, please keep us updated. Love and hugs to you both. ❤️💕🤗 Joni

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Joni. Neat desk? It’s usually a bit clearer, but I use the pile of books in the process, and like to have them at hand. I’ll keep you up to date as the book progresses.

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