June 26, 2017

6 Tips from a Confessed Pantser


Doodles of a Pantser

I recently interviewed a writer who told me in no uncertain terms that she was not a pantser. I asked, “What is that?”

She explained that a pantser was a writer who wrote by the seat of his/her pants. She explained that pantsers do not use outlines or other tools to organize their plots or characters. I listened patiently as she spoke and with some trepidation because the more she said the more I realized that I might very well be a “pantser.”

For years I’ve described myself as an evolutionary writer. I learned this fact about myself the very first time I began a fiction piece. I’d start with a germ of an idea and then things started happening all around me that I didn’t expect. New characters walked on stage and a shocking, important event happened that shot my original plan out of the water. As a new writer I fought these things. I wasn’t sure how to cope with the evolution of my work.

No one told me there was such a thing as a pantser writer. When I wrote my first genre mystery I had attended a workshop where a well-know mystery writer told us how she constructed her books—with a plot outline and a chapter-by-chapter plan. I decided to give it a go.

I had written one chapter, and suddenly a very interesting character popped on the scene. He was not one of the characters I had planned to introduce. But, there he was. I realized at that moment, I could not write with an outline.

So, you may wonder if I don’t use an outline how in the world do I plan my books? In many interviews I’ve dealt with questions like: 1) Where do your ideas come from 2) Where do your characters come from 3) How do you create the plot or twists?

Here’s an example of what I mean.

Let me take you back in time in the early days of The Clock Strikes Midnight. I began the novel with Marlene in mind. It was supposed to be a story about a woman going through a mid-life crisis. Marlene, however, had other ideas. She took me down an entirely different path.  Wow! It was amazing.

As I worked with Marlene, other characters emerged. The first being her husband, Peter. But, it wasn’t long before Peter took a backseat to Marlene’s sister, Janie. I had no idea that Janie would turn out to be a bad little teen. She was the polar opposite to Marlene. Where Marlene was the good little girl growing up, Janie rebelled. The contrast was fun to write, but again not what I had planned. Mid-life crisis? No way. It didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t plan. My characters had their own ideas.

You’ll find many writers sharing tips on how to construct a novel using outlines. 

 When a character tells you they want to do something, let them do it. See where it takes you and the storyline. Allow yourself to be surprised.

Okay, you’ll have to do some major editing, but let that character in. He or she had probably been asking to come in for a long time and you ignored the request. Now see the mess you’ve gotten yourself into!

Allow your brain to flow like a stream as your fingers dance across the keyboard. It will read like crap the next day. But, then again, maybe it won’t.

 Wait to edit. I say this unless your story does a complete about face. In that case, just start over from that place. Usually what happens is the story moves forward and you can go back and make the necessary changes once you have it all down.

I’d venture to say that creativity is messy. Many an artist begins a canvass with one idea in mind and suddenly everything changes. Sometimes, they have to paint over what they’ve painted or they destroy the original canvass. I can imagine Van Gogh painting in this way. Others, like Vermeer probably have a clear vision from the get-go. Two different styles. Is one better than the other?

The one advantage the outliner has over the pantser is in the editing process. For me (as a confessed pantser), editing is a nightmare. Imagine for a moment that you thought you were writing a book about one thing and it takes off in a different direction. That means the early scenes you created become meaningless. Pantsers must be ruthless editors. We cannot get too attached to our scenes. It if doesn’t move the story along, it must go.

Here’s the rub. Writers who outline think us pantsers are lazy. We simply don’t have what it takes to map out a big long piece like a novel. Writers who are pantsers think outliners aren’t creative. They write like robots.

In truth wonderful works of fiction are produced by both outliners and pantsers. Just like Van Gogh and Vermeer are two of my favorite artists. The styles are different.

 What about you?



  1. I do both outlining and panstering (this cannot be a real word). I get started with an idea and then when I get stuck with what to do next I sometimes write a bio for the character, or list possible action to be taken next and outline the heck out of what I ‘don’t know’. I think even an outliner does some by the seat of their pants writing and that pansters outline, even if it’s in their heads what is to come next. I totally agree how a writers gets to the end of a piece of work is irrelevant. It’s the end product that matters. Nice post.

  2. Joan Curtis says:

    Hi Margaret. Thanks for stopping by. I agree we all diverge a little to the dark side (whichever side that is). And, I also agree that pantser couldn’t be a real word!! Thanks for thinking about your creative process and sharing it with us.

  3. Bravo! Thoroughly enjoyed you post. I have to say I do the same. A Pantser all the way. It’s fun and interesting to see what occurs.

    In the beginning I really tried to follow the outlines like the experienced writers swore by. Before I had gotten anywhere good I’d completely lost interest in the idea and stopped working on it. Learned real quick, I was not a planner or plotter. Synopsis are always written after I’ve finished! LOL

    I’m not a planner even in daily life. In my opinion, plans mess up the interesting things you find along the way. I love just seeing what happens and where they’re going. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll grumble, but I end up with multiple ideas after its finished. Which is just flat out awesome!

    Listen to your characters. They know what they’re talking about. They know themselves. Funny there…are we the creators or are the characters and we’re just the tools they use to get their story out?

    I’m sharing this! Have a great day. 🙂

    • Joan Curtis says:

      So glad you enjoyed the post. I was recently answering some questions about my creative process, and it occurred to me that we start out as the creators of our characters and then we become spectators. Don’t you think? Thanks for sharing!

      • I have to agree. We’re a little of both. Which is fascinating and fun. Because, for me, I still have an opportunity to be surprised and thrilled. It’s interesting to see how we (as writers/creators) have it thought out while our characters turn around and take it in a different direction. One that we hadn’t noticed or considered. LOVE IT! 🙂

  4. Aloha Joan!!

    Thanks for a great blog. :-). I’m a pantser and get sick of apologizing for it. I don’t suffer from writers block because my characters know what they’re doing. The only time I get stuck is when I don’t listen to them.

    I nearly had up on being a writer because if the plotters. And sorry but I find them pious and pompous at times. They remind me of morning people. Their way or the wrong way.

    Here’s the things I hear people say:

    You’ll finish anything if you just flit from MS to MS. You can have several on the go at once.

    Really? Isaac Asimov did and he was one in as one of the most prolific writers. In a year and a half. I have written 3 full novels. 110k and 75k. Two short stories of 10k. Half a 110k waiting for the Muses to arrive back from their vacation. :-). And I have two others on my computer half an three quarters finished.

    I had no idea people wrote a synopsis BEFORE they wrote the actual book. Exhausting. Lol

    I don’t need to make up a chart on all the characteristics etc of my characters. I know them inside and out. And what I don’t know. I can simply ask them. They are living breathing entities to me.

    My job as a writer is to get out of my own way.

    Thanks Joan. Great stuff. 🙂

    Aloha Meg. 🙂

    • Joan Curtis says:

      Aloha Meg! How good to see you. What a great response. I think I see a blog post in this for you. Indeed, you are a pantser’s inspiration. We, pantsers, just need to make more noise. I love what you said about your job is to get out of your own way. Yeah! So true.

  5. And sorry. Must stop sending things on my phone. It deletes words an I miss out things. Lol.

    And yes. Ruthless editor in a MS. Lol

    Aloha Meg. 🙂

    • Joan Curtis says:

      What could you have possibly deleted? Thanks for your very thoughtful comments and helping us to learn more about Meg, the writer.

  6. Excellent blog….I’ve fought being a pantser but don’t get very far. Your article encouraged me to think I’m not crazy after all!

    • Joan Curtis says:

      Hi Jean. Thanks for your comment. It’s really hard to force ourselves into a square when we’re not squares. Let your creative juices flow as they may. You’ll be surprised by what happens. BTW, I’m pretty organized in everything else. That suggests that whether we create linearly or in more diverse ways has little to do with how we respond to other tasks. Just my observation.

    • Hi Jean,

      Nope. You’re not crazy. 🙂

  7. I’m a pantser — I don’t know anything about the story beyond the scene I’m writing. However, the process doesn’t have to be messy or require a nightmare of editing or revision. As I write the first draft, I move around in the story — not revision, but still part of the creative process, connecting different parts of the story to each other. I’ll add setting, or even an entire scene that I’ve realized I need. It’s not about tweaking words and making them perfect, but more about shaping the story in the direction it’s going. I’ve even tossed a scene that didn’t work and redrafted it.

    Things I found helpful:

    1. Trust the process. Just about every piece of advice out there assumes a pantser story is going to be screwed up, and it’s easy to think that and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    2. Keep scenes to 1,500 words. It puts a frame around the scene so that there is a stopping place.
    Before I started doing this, I would keep adding and adding to a scene until it turned into a mess at nearly twice the size.

    3. Write scenes, not novels. It takes a lot of the pressure off by focusing on the smaller task of writing the scene and not worrying about how the book will end or what happens next.

    • Joan Curtis says:

      Hi Linda. Thanks for stopping by and for adding more pantser tips. I’m going to add them to my Tips tweets. Indeed the creative process doesn’t have to be messy but if it is, so be it. I like the parameters you give yourself to keep your creative mind within boundaries.

  8. Joan:

    What a great post. I guess I’m a hybrid. I do a little plotting so I know the beginning and the end, but that leaves the middle wide open to listen to where the characters want to take me (and many times it changes my end, or beginning, and I’m OK with that.)

    Thanks so much for the tips!

    • Joan Curtis says:

      Hi Mary, My guess is many of us are hybrids. I tend to lean toward the pantser side, but I do have a direction in my head. When I was writing The Clock Strikes Midnight, I had no idea where it was going to end up. But, with my mystery series, I know more about it–usually who gets killed and who the killer is. Geez, sometimes I wonder how it all works out. It’s amazing.

  9. Wonderful post! I’ve used both methods, and find that winging it suits me better. Pantsers unite!

  10. Hi Everyone,

    I’m Pearl and I’m a . . .

    An Intuitive Plotter. 🙂 I’ve started using that instead of “pantser.” Perhaps it is because of the tone used in the many blogs and other posts I’ve read written by “planners” (outliners). I don’t know, but the word “pantser,” the word the “planners” assigned to us, has a demeaning, negative sound to it. (See tip #5 above.)

    So, awhile ago, I developed the name Intuitive Plotter. To me it sounds more like what we really do. We don’t just rush in with no ideas about our stories. Most of us have read and read and read enough that we have developed an innate sense of how a story flows. We really don’t just wing it. Nor are we ignorant, poor quality writers as is so often insinuated by the blogs and articles written by “planners.”

    Nope. We’re Intuitive Plotters and turn out books that are just as well written as those by the “planners.” 🙂

    Maybe the t-shirt could read “I’m not a pantser – I’m an Intuitive Plotter.” 😉

  11. I’m sorry you keep saying Van Meer. Do you mean Vermeer?


  1. […] Here are a few tips for my pantsers out there pulled from a panster and writer, Joan C. Curtis: […]

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