A Pantser By Any Other Name
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
As a fledging writer I wrote by the seat of my pants. A pantser. Every night before bed, I would handwrite a few pages in a notebook, a love story set in the far future where we’d messed up Earth so badly it had become a conservation zone. From what I’ve found, the term pantser came from National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It’s appropriate then, that the first time I sat down and decided to write a manuscript from start to finish was during NaNoWriMo one November years ago.
I’ve heard there are those who are “true” pantsers, those who write without any idea of what they want to write about. That wasn’t me, no. I definitely had the shape of a story in my head before I set out to write it (usually the beginning and the end), I just never put pen to paper outlining which event would lead to the next, in any chronological fashion beforehand.
That first story will always have a place in my heart. Not only because I loved the romance between two people of warring cultures, but because the story grabbed me so tight I wasn’t happy until I wrote what came next—even if I had no clue what that event would be.
Fast forward several years and several manuscripts later. My writing had become technically stronger. But I’d also learned that without a plan, I often had to rewrite whole sections of a book, not realizing I needed to include something in the beginning until I reached the end. That amount of rewriting became frustrating. Besides that, there was something fundamentally missing from the stories I wrote. I could acknowledge the lack, but I had no idea how to fix it.
Cue the writing groups.
One of the best resources for writers is to connect with other writers. I joined as many local writing groups as I could, and in doing so exposed myself to many different writing styles and techniques. There were those who wrote over a hundred thousand words of outline spanning three books without writing a single word of the actual manuscript. There were those who handwrote in notebooks like how I had started. There were those who only wrote short stories and those who wrote epic fantasies. By mingling with such a cross-section, I discovered there was no right or wrong way to approach a story. Even then, I continued to feel like I lacked something in my own writing.
In seeing how others worked, I thought perhaps I should take a crack at this mystical thing I’d heard of called “plotting.”
I began to write pages of what I knew would happen in the story and then I’d go back over those pages to fill in the blanks. I kept up with this process until the shape of an entire manuscript took the form of an outline. The plot existed. When I sat down to write the actual story itself, I did so knowing what would happen next and found I enjoyed it. It allowed me enough wiggle room to discover new and interesting things about the work while moving on to the next plot point. I’d feared some magic would be lost in the process. Luckily, in understanding what came next and leaving wiggle room to be imaginative, this new method became fundamentally freeing.
It still wasn’t enough.
So the pantser thing hadn’t worked, and the plotter thing didn’t fill all the gaps I could still see in my narrative. I wanted to create the kind of stories I enjoyed, the addictive ones so many of my favorite authors seemed to create effortlessly. (I know now none of it is effortless.) I continued to write, to try to make my work better, but could never find that elusive thing I searched for. No matter how many critique partners and beta readers I hoped would shed light on the issue, it never appeared.
It all came down to character.
My “Ah ha!” moment came in the form of a three-hour workshop at a Romance Writers of America conference. It felt like the whole workshop had been created specifically for the problem I could see in my work. I sat there dumbfounded (and a little embarrassed to be honest) that I hadn’t seen it before. I’m still usure if it was what presenter said or if it happened to be the best possible time for me to listen. Maybe if I’d heard the same words two years earlier, I wouldn’t have understood them in the same way.
The plot must be driven by the characters. The story must come from the characters. Every choice they make, every action they perform, needs to come from somewhere, some point of origin that makes them behave the way they do. Just as we, in real life, are victims of repeating the same patterns for reasons that have been ingrained in us since childhood, so are our characters.
Ironically, the pantser in me began to flourish once more. In backstory. This is where I let my imagination run wild. This is where I don’t worry about what comes next, instead immersing myself in the scene, using as much vivid detail as I can muster. I write scene after scene for my main characters (and even secondary ones where it’s called for), depicting past events, pivotal moments in their lives, searching for those things called “emotional wounds” or “misbeliefs.” And when I find them, I can understand what pushes them onward, where the plot comes from.
Not only do I allow myself this pantser freedom in backstory, but I allow myself to fall down the rabbit holes of research during this planning stage. What I once thought of as constraining becomes freeing. My research takes me to places I never fathomed, enriching my stories in more ways than I can count.
And all of this happens before I’ve ever written a word of the actual manuscript.
There are times I pause in writing to research something I hadn’t thought of. There are times when I need to add a couple more scenes I hadn’t considered because of timeline issues. And that’s ok! The best thing I can do for myself at that point is to not get frustrated with doing something “wrong.” None of it is wrong. It’s all part of the process. The lovely people in my writing groups taught me that.
I no longer call myself a pantser. But I’m not a plotter either. I think the term “planster” is just about right—the pantser who plans. I don’t know who coined the phrase, but for a person who likes to know where they fit in, it feels just about perfect.
J.E. McDonald was born and raised in Saskatchewan, Canada, The Land of the Living Skies. As a child, she was either searching the clouds for identifiable shapes, or star-gazing way past her bedtime. She cut her teeth watching Star Trek, James Bond movies, and reading the Harlequin novels her mother left in the bathroom—which resulted in an extremely skewed sense of sex education by age eleven. All of these factors contribute to her love of writing paranormal romance, romantic suspense, and far-future romance. J.E. resides in Saskatchewan with her husband and three daughters and drinks way too much coffee.