dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

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!