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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | In Defense of Pantstering

In Defense of Pantstering

While researching outlining and pantstering for an upcoming workshop, I discovered there are countless websites and blogs about outlining your novel. When it comes to pantstering, however, all I could find were bloggers explaining what it was – and why they never use it. There were even a few sites describing “How I Saw the Light and Switched to Outlining.” (You’d think writing your novel by the seat of your pants was the devil-worship of the writing world!)

I understand why you can’t tell someone “How to Pantster.” By definition, you make it up as you go along. I can also understand why a writer might get discouraged writing a first draft this way – if the writer expects the first draft to be worthy of sharing. It won’t be. However, I maintain that most first drafts written from an outline aren’t “ready” yet, either, even if you think they are.

To fill the void out there, I thought I’d share my method for pantstering my novel, THE CAGED GRAVES.

1) First there was an idea – inspired by the real graves. After researching the sparse historical facts, I conjured a fictional explanation for their existence.

2) Next, I wondered: Who cared? That’s when I identified my main character – the daughter of one of the dead women – and began to fill up the cast of the story. I made notes – character traits and names, ideas for scenes, random plot points. Most of these would never be used.

3) I researched the history of the region and unearthed some historical events that tied in nicely.

4) One day, I went on a field trip with my class to a swamp. (Yes, a field trip to a swamp. Don’t ask.) I went home and wrote my first scene, set in a swamp.

5) From that point, I fumbled forward. My characters developed their own traits, thumbing their noses at my plans for them. Occasionally, I’d write myself into a corner – but if I took a few days to mull it over, I’d realize it wasn’t a corner after all. It was a chute, sending me exactly where I needed to go.

6) Sometimes, I’d write a list of what needed to happen next. As soon as I was sure where to start the next chapter, I’d go on writing. About 50% of the time, I completely ignored my list.

7) Two thirds of the way through, I realized I’d made a really big mistake. Shortly afterwards, I thought of a fantastic way to fix it, but knew it would have to wait for Draft #2. I started planning the second draft while finishing the first.

8) I invented my climactic scene only two chapters ahead of when I needed it. Until then, I’d been planning a different ending. The new one rocked.

9) I barely had the last period on the first draft before I hit Save As and started the second draft. I didn’t share the manuscript with my agent until Draft 4.

While this isn’t the only way to pantster a novel, this tends to be the method I use most of the time. Before you ask if outlining would save me a draft or two, I’ll tell you that I outlined my last wip, VOLTAGE. I only got three chapters into the writing before I realized my outline sucked. It was no more useful than the brainstorming notes I usually write and then ignore. So, I trashed the draft and the outline, started over with a new motivation for the main character, and pantstered my way from there.

Pantstering isn’t evil. It’s just the way I do it!

12 Responses to In Defense of Pantstering

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either method, and both will still require some revision. Besides, let’s face it, even the novel I outlined every scene of, I still had to pants my way through the actual scenes. You can’t know everything ahead of time.

  2. i’ve only pantstered. much like your method, but usually starting with a character (or setting).
    this is most timely, because i was up late last night researching outlining for nano. i found a notecard idea that looks like it might work for me (i have a crazy obsession with notecards). i’m not really expecting much from my outlining attempt, but it can’t hurt to try!
    there is something amazingly fun about the discovery aspect of pansting. it seems like my favorite bits of my stories are the bits that come out of nowhere. but sometimes i suspect that’s so because of the surprise element…

    anyway, i’m over from the bloffee watchamacallit. i’ve meant to check out your blog before! (even thought i followed during a blogfest once) but i never made the time to do it.

    anyone ever tell you, you resemble shiri appleby? (sp?)

  3. The only time I tried to outline was for NaNo last year. I found it very useful when it came to actually writing the book. Unfortunately, I got a better idea about 35,000 words into the project that completely ruined all the rest of the my outline. Stopped me dead in my tracks. Haven’t written anymore words on it. I’ve decided to redo it as a YA for this year’s NaNo. I’m going to try and do a lose synopsis this time. So, kind of outlining.

  4. I like some short outlining ahead of time, but I also like the experience of listening to my characters. That being said, however, I usually then outline where the characters need to go or they become very flat.

    Thanks for the insight – glad I found your blog.

  5. Kate Scott says:

    I’m a pantser too. I’ve gotten better about trying to at least have a vague idea of the end before I dive in full force, but 90% of the time, the end changes anyway.

    I can’t outline. It doesn’t work for me. My story goes where it goes and I fall in love with it and my characters as I’m writing. I say horray for pantsers!

  6. Yeah, me too!!!!!! Love reading your list–made me feel SANE!!

  7. mshatch says:

    I’ve only ever pantstered but I’m trying the outline thing. I think either method can work; it’s just a matter of what works for you.

  8. I still prefer outlining. It’s the only time in my life that I’m organized. 😀

    The main thing is do whatever works for you. Even my technique won’t work for all outliners. And that’s okay.

  9. Laura Barnes says:

    I’m all about pantsing. Except that I’m a plotser so I don’t know why I said that. Anyway, glad to meet you! I’m over here from Katie Mills blog.

  10. Linda G. says:

    I’m totally with you. I WISH I could plot, but somehow it never works out for me. Kind of sucks the life out of a WIP for me.

  11. I know–I wish Panster wasn’t a BAD WORD in the writing world. I’m generally a pantser–but maybe my subconscious is at work outlining away, because I seriously don’t know how it all works out in the end!

  12. Robin says:

    Yes! Pantsering is not a bad word, but after reading a zillion craft books I determined that it was and tried to mend my ways. Alas, it wasn’t to be. We pantsers need to admit it’s the way we write and be proud of it:)

    I’m planning an upcoming post (In defense of panting) and am going to refer them here.